Have You Played… MINERVA: Metastasis?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

As we all know, Half-Life 3 will be released without fanfare tomorrow, but if you just can’t wait any longer for more dabbling with the Freeman arsenal, there’s always MINERVA. Originally a mod but subsequently granted Valve-endorsed standalone status, this was the Half-Life 2 campaign that did a number of things better than Half-Life 2 itself did. So much so that Valve wound up hiring the guy who made it.

By far the greatest trick up MINERVA’s sleeve is smart and efficient level design. Where Half-Life 2 was divided into a steady stream of loading points, MINERVA is far more economical about its use of space. You don’t simply go over and along, but under, through, downwards, twisting, turning, circling, kept within a world dense with encounters and occasional puzzles, without it ever feeling cluttered. This is how watchmakers would design FPS maps.

Meanwhile, an unseen narrator of opaque intent leads/orders you through this Combine-patrolled maze, doling out snatches of secrets and hinting at darker purpose. Though more sinister and stranger than Gordon Freeman’s melodramatic adventures, MINERVA is probably as close as it gets to a bona fide extra slice of Half-Life 2.

46 Comments

  1. Big Murray says:

    Pretty much the most impressive single-player FPS mod I’ve ever played.

    • DXN says:

      Seconded! Absolutely brilliant stuff.

      • hotmaildidntwork says:

        Thirded. The music deserves a special mention too, I was very pleased when I managed to find the tracks the dev had uploaded to the internet.

  2. kwyjibo says:

    I have played Minerva, it’s inspired at points but the design philosophy means that it doesn’t have the pacing of Valve games. It’s more of an open design like Halo versus the tightly packed corridors or Half-Life 2, and this lack of gating means there are several instances where you can just use cheese strategies and spam grenades because you can still go back to the grenade box 15 seconds behind you.

    Compared to Half-Life 1, modding’s kind of died (who’s building a mod nowadays when you can grab Unity?), I can name plenty of Half-Life 1 single player mods, but other than Black Mesa, with Half-Life 2 I’m kind of stumped. Any recommendations?

    • David Bliff says:

      It stinks that you can’t get the same number and variety of free games in the form of mods as you could before, but really it’s great that the indie scene is strong enough that people who want to make a game with interesting ideas can actually make some money from it now. There were a lot of cool mods for HL1, but how many either took years and years to make, or fell apart because development was only ever part time?

      • kwyjibo says:

        The biggest Half-Life 1 single player mod that I was hotly anticipating was Night Watch. Adam Foster was part of it. It fell apart.

    • Anthile says:

      Uhh, the last HL2 mod I played must have been Nightmare House 2 which was solid if a bit cheesy here and there. I also uncovered an old forum thread regarding quality mods: here.
      Besides from that, there is the usual suspects: Research & Development, Stanley Parable, Dear Esther, Missing Information, etc.

      • monkehhh says:

        + many 1’s for Research and Development.

      • ResonanceCascade says:

        I loved Nightmare House 2. It must be approached with the understanding that it’s not supposed to be taken seriously (which isn’t to say it’s ineffective as a horror game) but I had a really great time with it.

    • hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

      I haven’t played this in many years, but I remember loving Riot Act. link to uoz.multiplayer.it

      Not sure why you’re limiting modding to single player games either. I’ve spent probably over a thousand hours combined in Dystopia, Insugency, Neotokyo, Firearms: Source, and HL2CTF.

    • Jdopus says:

      No More Room in Hell’s good as a multiplayer shooter, as is Zombie Master if there are still servers active for either of them.

      The only big single player half life 2 mod I played was Underhell, which is worth a play. The first Chapter/Prologue is a little dull in my opinion, but I really enjoyed the second. It’s a zombie/survival style shooter where you’re trying to escape a huge underground facility with some other characters. There’s also a haunted house style sideplot, but it felt very out of place in my opinion.

    • vatara says:

      I remember loving Research and Development, recommended to me by some guy named ‘Alec Meer’: link to rockpapershotgun.com

    • Arma says:

      There are way more HL2 singleplayer masterpieces than there ever was for HL1. Black Mesa is extremely recent too, much better stuff has come before. You can find a large amount of them here. But I’ll list off a few of my favourites.

      G-String: It’s a total conversion and it’s longer than HL2. And one person made it, that’s quite an achievement.
      Flesh: A great third person horror game, oozing with atmosphere. Gameplay can be a little clunky at times.
      Estranged: A zombie mod with a very unique twist on the average Resident Evil/Umbrella story.
      Day Hard: It’s a pretty hilarious mod.
      Radiator: Very artistic and has a very interesting story.
      Keys: Full disclosure, I made this one.
      Random Quest: A lot like Myst, very fun story.
      The Citizen Series: A really good mod set in the HL2 universe.
      Get a Life: This mod is also longer than HL2. Every year I boot it up and try to finish it, I don’t think there’s an ending. It’s quite a fun mod though, adds lots of weapons and an inventory system.
      1187: Didn’t personally like it but it is a technical achievement and fun to mess around with.
      Mistake Of Pythagoras: My personal favourite mod of all time.
      Titan: XCIX: A cool sci-fi adventure game.
      Dissolution: A sort of homage to System Shock 2 gameplay. Interesting story.

      I could go on…. Sorry I didn’t have time to link them, but you can search ModDB easily to find them. Also if you’re talking about singleplayer map packs, like HL1 had, Planet Phillip has hundreds of them for HL2.

  3. OliverM says:

    I loved this but it did take Foster *years* to make; if that’s the kind of dedication needed to make a freeware offering of this calibre I’m not surprised that most indy efforts go towards paid work. It’s a shame in a lot of ways though. HL2 as a base for your own work gets you far, far farther than starting from scratch. Though I suppose you could sell HL2 mods?

    • Big Murray says:

      He did get hired by Valve afterwards, so didn’t work out too badly for him.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    I remember playing the first episode of this yeaaaaaars ago, but I never went back for the further episodes.

    Definitely going to give the full mod a shot now.

  5. subedii says:

    An awesome thing about this mod is that it really, REALLY shows off Half-Life 2’s AI when you crank it up. The AI is given room to maneuver and flank (and IIRC, some features unlocked, like waiting for a reload), and they will give you a seriously hard time when they get the chance.

    This and a recent re-play of FEAR just make me wonder why the heck AI in modern FPS’s seems to have gotten worse since those days.

    Fighting through those guys was awesome fun. Modern FPS design rarely seems to equip the enemy to do more than shoot, charge and play prairie dog. And the level design is so linear there’s not much option for the AI otherwise anyway (I feel a lot of modern games could take lessons from FEAR’s level design. Even with the intent of being linear, the combat space allowed the AI room to navigate and flank).

    • Pockets says:

      AI hasn’t got worse – there’s way more to modern AI systems than stuff back in the day and the de-facto standard structure is based on FEAR’s and often more sophisticated.

      It’s the old thing of people working around the limitations well back in the day (through things like clever level design tricks, simple fixed cases, etc.), now that the capability is far greater, less effort seems to go into disguising the limitations. So the illusion falls apart more often.

      • Turkey says:

        Yeah. I could be wrong, but I think I heard on one of the Tone Control podcasts that they used a bunch of tricks to make the AI seem more intelligent.

        One of the key tricks they figured out was that if they made the AI bark out what they were about to do or say stuff you were doing, they seemed like they were working as a tactical team to the player.

  6. nrvsNRG says:

    I thought it was called Minerva: Metastasis.

  7. Wret says:

    “As we all know, Half-Life 3 will be released without fanfare tomorrow” That was cruel and you know it.

    I think my heart skipped ;-;

  8. MadTinkerer says:

    Minerva: Metastasis is a fantastic example of a Half Life 2 mod that likes to take the existing game and assets and stick close to the source material. For my favorite mod that takes the existing assets and source material of Half Life 2 and creates a bizarro world where the Combine are humanity’s friends and suddenly the Twilight Zone starts happening and WATCH OUT OR THE NUMBERS WILL KILL YOU, check out Mistake of Pythagoras.

    EDIT: And I just realized MoP is nine years old now. Holy cow.

    • Rich says:

      Ah yes, I remember this one. The enemies were weird blocky machines.
      …actually, now I think about it they were kind of like the alien machines from what became The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, back when it was going to be an FPS.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        Not enough people seem to have played Mistake of Pythagoras. It was one of the best, most disturbing, and most intellectually satisfying games (let alone mods) I remember playing at the time. It freaked you out, amazed you and infuriated you in equal measure, but the payoffs were always more than worth it. The music was insanely well done too, a style completely its own. Highly recommended if you can get it to run now. IMO it outclasses Minerva, but it is quite a departure from the HL universe.

        • hotmaildidntwork says:

          I liked Minerva better than MoP, but I will give MoP credit for one of the most awesome superpowers segments I’ve ever seen.

          That and the puzzle at the end that I never managed to solve. Found all the codes and such, couldn’t figure out what to do with them.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      I just realised that I haven’t tried playing either of these two through the Oculus Rift. My afternoon now has a plan!

  9. jpm224 says:

    Call me a pessimist….but won’t we be scraping the bottom of the barrel within a few months time (if that) with this as a daily article? I’m all for the idea, but wouldn’t it work better as a weekly feature?

    • Premium User Badge

      tigerfort says:

      If you think only one good/interesting game is released per week, you haven’t been paying attention to the indie scene over the last few years.

  10. Rich says:

    I played the first episode, then forgot about it while waiting for the next one.

    Turns out it’s in my Steam list and installed, but I just have too many games that I actually paid money for.
    What an age we live in.

  11. RagingLion says:

    I may still have my save somewhere for this which has me without a gun being hunted by Combine. That’s why I gave up, I just couldn’t find a weapon and ended up getting trapped. I think I inadvisably saved over an earlier level save too to compount the issue.

    • Medo says:

      *** Spoiler Alert ***

      I got stuck for a short frustrating time at that spot as well. It’s probably badly signposted, and the game dangles a complete armory in front of your face that you can’t get at, which makes it feel like you *should* be able to get at a gun.

      The solution is that you’re not intended to get a weapon again just yet. Keep running and evade the combine, and you should make progress again.

      *** Spoiler Alert ***

  12. Antistar says:

    All the praise heaped upon Minerva is one of those things that make me feel like I’m crazy. I remember playing it when it was new, and I really didn’t like it – at all. I’m pretty sure I even came back to a later version years later to give it another go, thinking that maybe it just needed some polish… but nope.

    I remember disliking the writing and finding the level design bland and yet confusing; I spent most of my time with it going back and forth (sometimes through the whole level), trying to work out how to progress. It just seemed mediocre at best.

    And yet everyone loved it and he was hired by Valve and I feel like I must be a crazy person.

    • Kollega says:

      You’re definitely not crazy. I played it too, and also got stuck and confused very often. And didn’t particularly like it.

      • Xantonze says:

        I’m with you as well. Big bland levels, lots of running around looking for the exits… duh.

  13. varangian says:

    I remember playing this and the memory that stuck was that I wished the dev had emulated how well Valve led you through their own levels and puzzles with clever lighting cues or breadcrumb trails of loot so you wouldn’t get stuck for long, in a Valve designed level you’d figure out what you needed to do fairly quickly, the tricky bit was the execution. The architecture of the Minerva levels was great but occasionally you’d get to a point where it wasn’t clear what you’re next move was, whether to backtrack because this was a dead end excursion or find a way to go forward. Eventually gave up when I hit some kind of puzzle room where umpteen quick loads and variations on button pressing didn’t get me anywhere and I decided this was either a bug or really stupid and it was time to move on to other things.

  14. Annieone23 says:

    Made an account just to post this, although of course I’m a long time lurker.

    Minerva is the bee’s knees, no doubt. Any fan of Minerva, HL2, and HL1, should also do themselves a favor and play Someplace Else, the first chapter of the Minerva story, and an equally impressive HL1 mod. Just like MM adds and in someways improves upon HL2, SE adds and improves upon HL1. A very very good mod. Totally free and has a stand alone Steam version. Not sure if I can post links in comments here, but a quick google finds it very handily.

    • dethtoll says:

      Seconding Someplace Else. I caution that it can be brutally hard until you’re properly armed, but once you’ve got that sorted it’s a breeze.

      Honestly, it’s the Minerva series that keeps me thinking maybe I should give Marathon another go.

  15. Jim Rossignol says:

    I’d completely forgotten about this. It really is a great mod. Amazing work.

  16. iyokus says:

    Did it ever get finished? Well, not finished exactly, but episodes were released semi-regularly and then stopped. Foster was hired by Valve and said development would continue very slowly and in his spare time, then I heard nothing for years. I can’t tell from this article if he went back and finished it up or if the existing chapters (which I played and loved) were just released on Steam.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      He did finish it, in three parts, but he was planning a follow-up/sequel which didn’t go anywhere after he was hired by Valve.

  17. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    Yeah I’ve played it, there’s just… nothing much to it? Maybe it’s me, but generic Half-Life 2 shootin’ had gotten pretty old pretty fast, and M:M didn’t offer anything beyond that.
    HL2 bombarded you constantly with various gimmicks to keep you entertained, but this was a low-budget mod, and all it could do was just throw more and more of the same enemies at you.