You Should Improbably Play This: Mission Improbable

There are a few Half-Life 2 mods that basically constitute The Further Adventures of Gordon Freeman. Sometimes these isolated chapters make me want to dive headfirst back into the unfinished trilogy, and sometimes they’re just a reminder of what Source did well. Other times, though, they manage to articulate More Half-Life 2 while at the same time having a strong whiff of first-order originality, served with their own own flourishes of design brilliance. Minerva was one such outing, and Mission Improbable is another.

The Mission, then, is a couple of hours of Half-Life 2, beautifully imagined, and expertly delivered. There’s a bit with a car. There’s a bit with a headcrab launcher. There’s a breathtaking bit with Combine architecture. It’s all there. The mod been made by a couple of chaps at DICE, one of whom we’ve talked to before, and posted about his creation, Whoopservatory. This particularly creation, released last month, is packed with custom assets, and has a palette and pace of its own. The exterior autumn scenes are quite beautiful, and it once again shows how well free mods of scripted shooters work when experts are at the controls.

As well as looking good, it contains some beautifully orchestrated set-pieces, and several good jokes. Yep, it’s got a sense of humour as well as a meticulous eye for detail. I feel, somehow, cynically, ashamedly, and perhaps inexplicably, like I shouldn’t be impressed by a HL2 mod. But I am, because it’s clear just how much time and attention has been put into it. And, like the game it originates from, I didn’t want to leave it until I was finished. It’s a fine, beautiful piece of work. You should almost certainly play it.

Thanks for Mr Yang for pointing this out to us.


  1. dE says:

    For some reason, I really like the look of the HL2 Engine. I know people rage all day about how old it is and how it needs to die and fade away, but whenever I compare works like Dear Esther or now this mod with games like the oh so beautiful Crysis 2… well in my eyes and my head, it’s not the shader overloaded CryEngine that’s winning.
    From a technical point of view, it should win – no doubt. But somehow people pull off far more consistent and well designed things with the Source Engine. It’s like the newer engines have no soul of their own. They got all those shiny toys and special effects but never really look interesting to me. Like they’ve got no consistency to them. Or rather the consistency is based on a colour filter washing over everything.

    Guess I’m a bit weird in that regard.

    • Ateius says:

      As the Hivemind has banged on about before, it’s not how many bling shaders you can pile on; it’s how you use them. Art direction is king, and the Half-Life 2 assets were created with that in mind. That’s why such an old engine still looks so good compared to the modern offerings.

    • Smashbox says:

      I like the look of Source, too. The more shader-heavy modern engines are good at things like gravel and stones on the ground, that’s where the shaders shine, but I feel like the artists get bogged down in that ability, too. Something about Source’s depiction of architecture feels really good to me, wall textures, etc.

      Also, I really like their misty fog – I know it’s not unique to Source – but it feels volumetric to me.

      Also TF2 is still one of the most unbelievable-looking games I’ve ever seen.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Well, a few things I think contribute to that (in my case, at least):
      * Valve have really good texture artists working for them, and lots of those stock textures get quietly re-used.
      * It’s a crisp, clean look, because it predates the fetish of using shaders to burn lots of GPU power making it look like you’re viewing the game through a crap camera with shoddy autofocus, light leaks into the case, and filth all over the lens (hello, BF3!). It looks more like the world through a human being’s eyes, where stuff like DoF doesn’t actually happen because when you shift to look at something in your field of view you subconciously focus on it, and the brain stiches all these focused bits together.
      * Probably not what you’re talking about, but Valve’s facial animation is still unsurpassed.

      • Brun says:

        The dirt on the lens (or technically, goggles) in BF3 was clearly an artistic choice. A bad one, maybe, but they didn’t do that to flex their technical muscles. BF3 is supposed to be a more “realistic” shooter, and the real world is dirty.

        • LionsPhil says:

          I’m sure it is, but an artistic choice to look bad still looks bad; see also Kane & Lynch 2, for example.

          The huge amounts of lens flare and the like aren’t really consistent with goggles (at least, not spectacles—and the dirt just makes me want to reach for a cleaning cloth all the time), but they are with an overcooked “cinematic” look.

          • DXN says:

            I thought Kane and Lynch 2 was ace. I’ve always got time to link to the Action Button review that pretty much sums up why.

          • Eukatheude says:

            In my opinion K&L2 looked great. I don’t get why so many people here on rps, including the writers, hate the series so much.

          • gulag says:

            Seconded on K&L2. I really liked what the art team were trying to do, emulating the tone of a Michael Mann film/found footage.

            I think it’s important to make the distinction between attempts to emulate another visual style (BF3 aims squarely for Blackhawk Down) and producing a distinctive style native to the computer game format. This is where HL2 and TF2 excel, by creating effects that communicate through the medium, rather than emulate another mediums tropes.

        • Safewood says:

          But the real world isn’t that blue.

          • NeuralNet says:

            It is if you close your eyes in strong sunlight for 10 minutes then open them and look around… which kind of makes sense given the absurd lens flare in the game.

      • NeuralNet says:

        Crysis mods look fantastic but Crysis 2 mods less so, because CE2 is technically superior to C2’s version of CE3, despite a lack of DX11 implementation (changes made for consoles etc). I also reckon part of it has to do with the fact that you can crank up the AA and AF in HL2 without having to worry about performance, but you still need a very powerful PC to do the same with Crysis. Of course turning off the motion blur also helps to produce a crisper looking game.

        Now I think about it, it could be that most of it is due to the temperature difference in the images they produce more than anything else, Source seems to produce softer images, which makes it more pleasant to look at in some regards.

      • scatterbrainless says:

        Curious Lions, what would you say about Metro 2033? It certainly bangs on the bells and whistles, and “clarity” is a foreign concept to its visual design, but I think it’s probably one of the prettiest and most painterly-styled games around.

    • Grovy says:

      Source is a fantastic engine, it doesn’t deserve all the bad press it gets for not reinventing the wheel every few years and slapping a bigger number on the name. That’s good software design, designed for modularity from the beginning so they could continue adding to it and making it look great for years to come.

      It still has fantastic animation tools, great netcode, great networked physics and scales better than any other modern engine on older hardware.

      Long may it continue.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      To be fair, this is running on the HL2 Ep 2 engine, which has received significant updates compared to the original Half-Life 2 engine, such as HDR lighting.

      You can easily notice important visual changes between HL2 and Ep 2 if you play them one after the other.

    • woodsey says:

      I can’t say I understand the hankering for a new Source engine either. The only thing in Portal 2 that made me think “this is getting out of date” was the frequency of the load screens. So if that can’t be rectified without building another engine, then fine, but aesthetically it’s managed to keep up just fine in my eyes.

      • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

        It would be very nice to have more than one light source that can cast real-time projected shadows. In Portal 2 they cleverly disguised this limitation by turning the different light sources on and off as you moved about the map, but Source still only supports one such light.

    • LXM says:

      I’ve also always liked the clean, crisp look of source games. The modern iteration of the engine still has enough bells and whistles to look comparable to higher tech games without looking overly long in the tooth.

      I’ve actually been playing a lot of DOTA2 recently which just looks utterly fantastic, and shows not only how nicely adaptable source is, but also what excellent artists Valve has.

    • Contrafibularity says:

      Although perhaps slightly ironic that it is Source which makes it exceedingly easy for designers and modders to use and apply the proper shaders on different surfaces and materials, which is one the reasons why for example most Source mods have better skin shaders than most 2012 “AAA-games” (which all, or most, still haven’t learned HOW TO NOT MAKE PLASTICFACE!). But yeah, Valve understands that you have to build the tech around the content, and not vice versa.

      • Xardas Kane says:

        PLASTICFACE!!! Sorry, had to get it out of my system.

        I am currently replaying Portal 2 and I couldn’t agree more with the genera; consensus here. Yes, if I take a closer look some low-res textures do pop up, but that hardly makes a difference. It’s honestly astounding how much they can do with an engine that’s this old. It’s even more astounding that, like you said, NOBODY (except LA Noire, but that tech will never be used in the indudstry again) has managed to make facial animations as good as those in HL 2, a game from 8 years ago. Valve truly are gaming deities.

        • woodsey says:

          I think LA Noire’s faces were kind of defeated by the game being piss-ugly anyway. All that time on the mo-cap and they still look like they’re made of self-aware Play-Doh.

    • Skabooga says:

      Suffice to say, dE, I agree with all that you mentioned.

  2. says:

    I’m a sucker for quality single-player Source mods, so I will definitely play this.

    Thanks for the heads up!

  3. aliksy says:

    Source gets bonus points because it looks decent without needing a beast of a machine.

  4. Lev Astov says:

    A Whoospervatory? I get the Whoos, but a pervatory sounds… nasty, I’ll go with nasty.

  5. roryok says:

    I downloaded this last week and I was sure I’d heard about it on RPS… did one of you guys tweet about it?

  6. SvDvorak says:

    That mod looks great, I’m going to have to put this on the top of my “to play pile”.

    While we’re on Half-Life 2 mods, I must be shameless and plug the singleplayer mod I was a part of making called Precursor (link to It runs in parallel with the Half-Life storyline and I think it’s pretty nifty (though I am partial of course), so why not give it a try if you’re craving more after Mission Improbable.

  7. Ross Angus says:

    I think I must have played an earlier version of this. I was catching up with Yang’s work, and he pointed me at it a month or so ago. It is fine.

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      phuzz says:

      The first version of this map was released back in 2009, which explains why I thought it was really old. The authors have massively expanded on that though, and if it’s anywhere as good as the first version (should be better really), it’s well worth a play through.

  8. The Hammer says:

    Oh wow, that ending’s a right old crowd-pleaser, eh?

    Loved it all the way through! Man, more Half-Life…

  9. Jesse L says:

    Something I like about not just Half-Life but many Valve games is that, when I replay them, I’m always saying, “Oh no, THIS part…” A lot of games don’t have distinct, memorable, separate parts, but Valve games almost always do.

    Judging by the trailer, this mod has that quality as well.

    • Zelius says:

      Funny that you mention that. I was just thinking about how every part of the HL2 games that featured poison headcrabs had me taking a break from said game. Whenever I replay any of them, I just stop right before those parts. I really hated those things.

      • benjamin says:

        Oh good! I’m not the only one… for some reason Half Life games I find really tense (at least on first playthrough) because I don’t know the threats coming at me. But really, after most sections I feel the need of a breather to calm down.

        Just before writing this I got to the sniper section and had to stop. Too much pressure!

      • kuddles says:

        I have played every horror game out there, from Resident Evil 4 to Dead Space to Amnesia. But nothing continues to freak me out more than the look and sound of those goddamn poison headcrabs. They always make me flail around helpless as if I’ve never played an FPS before.

  10. RagingLion says:

    If I remember correctly, the last time I played this it ended at the bottom of a bridge after a hectic battle with some hunters. How much more has been added after that? And has the section I’ve already played been cahnged, does anyone know?

    • Manburger says:

      Oh yes, art/environments are massively revamped and new sections have been added that take place before the hunter battle, so you should play it from the beginning. And there’s a whole new mission that follows. A thoroughly excellent mod all around!

  11. Post-Internet Syndrome says:

    The graphics looks strangely washed out or something, and the zombies and headcrabs seem to have different lighting than the environment, hard to describe.

    I’m also getting a hud bug where some of the stuff below a certain point on the hud doesn’t render. The flashlight icon among other things. When I get pickups sometimes only half the pickup icon shows. I seem to remember having this in vanilla ep2 though, so maybe it’s something unique to me.

    • sparna says:

      Mine looks washed out too. Strange, because other Source engine games look fine. AMD card by any chance? Running Powerstrip and writing to palette DAC? Just thinking of things that I’ve recently changed that could cause something like this.

      • baby snot says:

        No it’s not your settings, card or drivers. It’s the dev’s artistic decision to use that ‘washed-out’ look.

  12. MadTinkerer says:

    Ooooh! I played the one-level and two-level development versions of this and they were good but it looks like the finished thing will be pretty special.

  13. Jahkaivah says:

    …but I always wanted to be a botanist.

  14. The13thRonin says:

    I’m glad the SOURCE engine is getting some love from RPS… I’ve always felt that it’s one of the better engines out there. Everything after SOURCE focused too much on HDR/bloom and ridiculously over-texturing everything. I remember thinking when SOURCE came out that finally graphics pretty much couldn’t get any better and they’d start focusing on game-play now. But I guess the slew of modern shooters haven’t expended every possible shade of brown on the face of the Earth just yet. Give me SOURCE any day of the week.

  15. PoLLeNSKi says:

    Yay, just after I was getting antsy at whether to replay HL1 before the remake is released, two mods I never heard about before appear on the radar…that’s the next week of waiting sorted.

  16. Ham Solo says:

    One of my favorite mods, along with Research and Development

  17. paddymaxson says:

    Just got through this. The sound design was pretty nicely done. Graphically it was good for Source, with some really stunning bits but some bits that were betrayed by stock HL2 textures which are looking very muddy in this day and age.

    Gameplay wise I loved it, excellent pacing and surprisingly believable enemy positioning (I love the bit where you get back to the house just after the lighthouse and they’re stood ion separate doorways, demanding you think fast) and it was nice to see some puzzles that weren’t the slightly overused seesaw puzzles from HL2 + episodes.

    Good game, good enough to have been done by VALVe.

  18. LaundroMat says:

    Just finished it too, and it’s great at recapturing those typical HL moments of panic.

    The humour was a welcome touch as well.

    I’m a bit daft, so forgive me for asking, but why did the scientist say “Oh, shoot” at the end? Was what was found there his fault (the RPG)?