RPS Advent Game-o-Calendar: December 8th

By John Walker on December 8th, 2007 at 12:11 pm.

Quicksmart children. To your rooms, tickitysplit. It’s jolly well time to open another page of our RPS-approved fairtrade advent calendar. In all your wildest dreams, what could be there?

Spit spot.

A real life, actual, genuine, bone fide piece of chocolate! Thanks, Fairtrade. Om nom nom nom.

And for you?

It’s Minerva: Metastasis!

minerva1

Two Half-Life mods have stood out for me this year, City 7: Toronto Conflict and Minerva: Metastasis. It’s the latter that makes our advent list by its scale, ambition, and most of all, accomplishment.

Playing through the three episodes that make up the first chapter of the eventual three-part Minerva series, what stands out most is a sense of progression. Lone creator Adam Foster clearly learned a hell of a lot as he developed the series, with each part learning from the last. This is never more evident than in the final third, which displays a fantastic knowledge of level design, and a high sense of instinct for the players’ reactions. Alec wrote about it in October, here.

The mod has you playing a semi-anonymous character, unaware why you’ve been dumped on a small, heavily guarded island, with an incredibly deep mine shaft through its middle. Your guide is the eponymous Minerva – existing as nothing other than occaional messages in text on the screen. She’s cruel, confusing, and disgusted with your existence, but clearly needs you on some level. It’s an entertaining narration, and one that doesn’t hold your hand (but in later sections will pop up with vague hints if you’ve stood still in confusion for too long). I do wonder if there could have been more continuity to her comments, if not any more coherence. In the third part her changes of mind don’t really make sense.

minerva2

What’s mostly written about Minerva, but still deserves repeating, is the intelligence of architecture. The majority of the game takes place in small, confined spaces, but never, ever feels restrictive or claustrophobic. By building vertically as well as horizontally, Foster creates interesting, hyper-explorable spaces, and brilliantly, ones that don’t require many load points. In fact, by keeping things tight, the sense of progress is often more tangible than when charging down long winding passages in regular FPS gaming. Being able to see where you just were, and where you’re about to be, is a satisying and rewarding experience.

Foster spent some time with Valve, and took creative input on the final third, and the difference is apparent. While very enjoyable, an interesting feature of the first two episodes is their ability to highlight the difference between someone with a good grasp of design, and Valve’s grasp of design. Puzzles often lack pointers, or the next direction to go in can be poorly flagged. Compare this to Valve games, with their endless playtesting, and the differences are stark. Which is why it’s such a pleasure in part three to see those influences appearing. Very simple, almost unconscious hints appear. A glowing healthpack out of reach to indicate you need to be solving a route there. Falling objects and wobbling platforms to suggest that you might be able to break some more in order to progress. These are gentle, unobvious clues that you pick up on without thinking about them.

omg spoilerzzz

Minerva, as is often the case with mods, is much more of a shooter than Valve’s Half-Life games. A temptation of modding appears to be to fill levels with dozens and dozens of fun baddies to kill, and this is often no bad thing. But it does perhaps betray a lack of confidence in the levels themselves, that without constant gunplay the situations and challenges might not be interesting alone. Refreshingly, the gravity gun is not present, but this does of course shift focus onto bullets over object manipulation, and emphasise the run and gunning. I’m not sure if this is a criticism, or just an observation. I’m sure I’ll make my mind up soon.

That Minerva is free is really rather brilliant. This is a remarkably professional game, with some stunning set-pieces, and put together, as long as a Valve episode. It’s the sort of thing you certainly wouldn’t have objected paying for, and yet, you don’t need to. Get the whole bundle here (all sewn together so the episodes are seamless (er, can you have no seam if it’s sewn?)), and read our interview with Adam Foster here.

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25 Comments »

  1. Ash says:

    RPS has, single-handed, made me love my PC as a gaming machine for the first time in a decade.
    My 360 gave it’s final sigh this week with the dreaded RRoD.
    I didn’t care.

    Thanks.

  2. phuzz says:

    For all that I’m a fan of mr fosters work, I’d still say that a certain portal sequence in Minerva was probably the highlight of my gaming year. But then I had some idea of what to expect from Portal and Ep2 etc.
    DefCon was good too.

  3. Janek says:

    (That’s the wrong advent window doohickey)

  4. terry says:

    Thanks for pointing this out, I am terrible at Half Life games and still haven’t finished 2, so this might encourage me to do so. Is it harder than vanilla?

  5. BaronWR says:

    Is that a Mitchell and Webb reference in the first paragraph?

    Definitely the best HL2 mod around, though.

  6. Monkfish says:

    I’d still say that a certain portal sequence in Minerva was probably the highlight of my gaming year.

    Totally agree. My jaw is still sitting on the floor from when I first witnessed that.

    The thing that makes MINERVA for me is the mysterious Minerva herself. Post Portal, I now think of her in a similar manner to GLaDOS – there’s some interesting similarities. This all a happy coincidence, of course, but that makes it all the more intriguing.

    A fantastic mod, and I’m really looking forward to the next installment, as I just know it’ll be great (no pressure, Adam!)

  7. drunkymonkey says:

    Minerva is my favourite mod ever.

    It’s jam-packed with action, intrigue, has brilliant standards of quality, and is short enough to enjoy without it being over all too quickly.

    It’s not bad for a level that’s a bit based off the Silent Cartographer. The first part on the beach is a highlight, but the frantic dash to the end is excellent too.

    Like MonkFish, I can’t wait for the next chapter.

  8. Andrew says:

    Aye, this is hands-down the best HL2 mod and it goes further than that, as well, standing alone pretty nicely.

    An excellent piece of work from Mr Foster (and yes, that particular set-piece was wondrous).

  9. Theory says:

    A temptation of modding appears to be to fill levels with dozens and dozens of fun baddies to kill, and this is often no bad thing. But it does perhaps betray a lack of confidence in the levels themselves, that without constant gunplay the situations and challenges might not be interesting alone.

    From my experience, they wouldn’t be interesting alone. I would make the mod (or any mod) about as engaging as an adventure game without characters.

  10. Garth says:

    Minerva was the first Mod I ever played that I liked more than the game it was Modifying. So yes, I like it too ;)

  11. Kieron Gillen says:

    Theory: John’s point is that HL2 gets away with it.

    KG

  12. Cargo Cult says:

    Oi! Don’t forget I have one longish section almost completely devoid of both enemies and combat (which still manages to scare me own pants off, thanks mainly to Mr. Toscano’s awesome score – and another, even longer section where the player has no weapons at all. Bwuahahaha, etc.

    However, I do think I’m finally getting the hang of this puzzles malarkey, so I shouldn’t have to rely too much on otherwise non-stop combat in future. The first MINERVA map was my first map for both Half-Life 2 and the Source engine overall, so I think I’m doing okay. I’m still learning…

    (I have had ideas for huge long sections without any fighting at all – which could really annoy some gamers. But I quite like the visceral charge I’ve managed to give Half-Life 2′s otherwise sedate, forgiving combat – for the true experience, play MINERVA on the Hard skill level…)

    Oh, and subtly blatant plug – my new, currently-devoid-of-content ModMatic blog, which should eventually revel in and review the release of single-player maps and mods created by other people. MINERVA still hasn’t convinced modders that you don’t need a gigantic team of character artists, voice actors, programmers, animators, public relations personnel and webmasters to make a mod. Which makes me decidedly annoyed – I want to play more maps!

  13. Nesretep says:

    Since this mod is so awesome don’t forget to vote for MINERVA on Mod DB so Adam can win a well deserved mod of the year!

  14. Cargo Cult says:

    To make it even easier, here’s the ModDB profile!

    (Also, don’t forget this is just the nomination round – the voting proper starts around the 20th. Or something. Distorting democracy for fun and profit?)

  15. Kast says:

    Woohoo! Yeah! Minerva got a mention! Now to actually read the article…

  16. Ace says:

    Compare this to Valve games, with their endless playtesting, and the differences are stark.

    I think this ‘endless playtesting’ method has some drawbacks. It does result in a product that is acceptable to the largest number of people, but isn’t necessarily always ‘best’, for whatever that means. Compare, say, Justin Timberlake to -insert your favorite obscure musician here-. It’s not a perfect analogy I know, but I think there’s something to it. I thought episode 1 and 2 were a bit too polished, too slick, and end up being a bit bland as a result. (in fact if I had one suggestion for Adam, it would be to know when to ignore criticism, you seem to know best anyway!)

    In the third part her changes of mind don’t really make sense.

    They make perfect sense if you’re paying attention!

  17. Andrew Doull says:

    Cargo Cult: It’s good to see you’re continuing the great lesson learned from the first total conversion ever written: Aliens Mod for Doom. A lack of enemies can just be as scary as having hundreds of them. IIRC Aliens TC doesn’t have any on the first level.

  18. dhex says:

    minerva is really excellent; i hope someone is smart enough to reward mr. foster with some dev money.

    the other sp mod that really sticks out in my mind is mistake of pythagoras, but that’s because it’s completely crazy.

  19. Andrew Doull says:

    Heh. Just realised what comes up number 1 hit when you google ‘review minerva’ ;)

  20. Theory says:

    thought episode 1 and 2 were a bit too polished, too slick, and end up being a bit bland as a result.

    Yes! Constant playtesting removes something I can’t quite put my finger on that makes most other games more interesting. I thought I was the only one who had that feeling. :)

  21. Ace says:

    Yeah, and it doesn’t do much for the ‘games are art’ argument when you’re constantly running your ideas by a bunch of people off the street to see if they approve. (We can’t let Ebert know about this!)

  22. Mman says:

    thought episode 1 and 2 were a bit too polished, too slick, and end up being a bit bland as a result

    For some reason I got that feeling with Half-Life 2 the first time I played it (although replaying recently the game has grown on me a lot), but not with the Episodes, it’s like, for me, HL2′s gameplay seemed to sit in some awkward place between “designers vision” and “designed by committee”, whereas the Episodes seemed to have a more “refined” polish that felt more subtle despite being more present than ever.

    I have had ideas for huge long sections without any fighting at all – which could really annoy some gamers

    And captivate plenty of others ;) . While some designers can make gameplay so good they avoid this issue the “lets throw in a bunch of enemies because we need action whether it’s good or not” syndrome is a big problem with a lot of the HL2 SP maps right now (and many retail games, for that matter), as it seems most designers can’t consistently maintain action of that quality. On the other hand I don’t think Minerva suffers from this (though I think the “quiet moments” are some of the best parts of Minerva, which is another reason I’d be interested in a more extreme version of it in a future installment).

    If you’re more cagey with encounters and build up atmosphere and tension before letting loose even a mediocre encounter can be very exciting (or terrifying).

    Actually an amusing thing about the “maybe too much action” quote here is that a PC Gamer article on Minerva (that was posted on Adam’s blog) said that there was “too little” action in the first areas. Then again, that same review implied that Minerva was by a team and that it was released in “frequent installments” so… Meh.

    Minerva is definitely one of the better SP mods I’ve played, and easily the best HL2 SP mod right now.

  23. Chis says:

    Still ruined by the weaponless section.

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