You may have noticed we've been frothing uncontrollably about Valve games for the last couple of weeks (actually, we're in complete control of our froth, thank you very much. What's that? Yes, I know there's drool on my chin. I just like the look, alright?). You may also have noticed that there's one component of The Orange Box that we haven't yet talked about much (we shall soon, don't worry). For a lot of people, Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is the vanguard of Valve's latest box of delights. To help them cope with the sweating and shivering and crying caused by having to wait another eight agonising days yet for more singleplayer Half-Life action, I can confidently prescribe Minerva: Metastasis.
If you're already familiar with it, then all you need to know is that the third (well, third and fourth, sorta) part's out, it's comfortably the best yet, and you should go play it right away. If you've never heard of it, then pray follow me into my word parlour.
Much like the game of which it is a mod, Metastasis is an episodic singleplayer game, set in the Half-Life 2 universe and approximate timeline, and even uses Gordon Freeman's familiar arsenal (though sensibly removes the quasi-albatross that is the Gravity Gun) and rogue's gallery. If you want more Half-Life 2 right now, this is probably the best way to get your fix. If you don't think you can stomach any more on-rails Combine-shooting, don't run off yet. This does things differently.
Metastasis is an intruiging endeavour, and one that's in some ways more ingenious than Valve's own game, for two reasons. The first is level design. Anyone who's played Half-Life 2 will have seethed a few dozen times at the jarring loading points, the ribbon structure of its levels meaning the game has to go fetch more data after every few minutes of forward motion. Metastasis takes an onionskin approach - rather than simply travelling along, you go up, down, in, out, around, area piled over area in careful layers. It's about economy, about trying to make every possible scrap of space inside that level chunk something that the player can visit. When you do hit a loading point - there are just a handful across Metastasis' four chapters - it's oddly startling, simply because you haven't seen one for so long by that point.
Secondly, there's its plot - or at least its narrator, because what plot there is dervies solely from what meagre morsels of information she chooses to share with you. The unseen, unheard Minerva (she communicates only in text) is a sneering hybrid of SHODAN and the G-Man - the icy conceit of the former, the quiet omnipotence of the latter.
Who/what is she? We don't know, yet. She speaks in riddles and quotations, with hints of something inhuman behind it. I could make a few guesses as to what she is, but I'd probably be wrong. What's far more important is that you do what she tells you, because she's the only entity in Metastasis who isn't overtly trying to kill you and because, well, she's kind of fun. After so many videogames with forgettable what-you-see-is-what-you-get guiding voices (yes, there's a game I'm deliberately not mentioning here for fear of spoiler-anger, before you start with your pesky 'What about..."), one that repeatedly tells you you're a useless cretin is a breath of fresh, if bitter and sarcastic, air.
Who are you? Only Minerva knows. Why have you been dumped on an island full of Combine? Only Minerva knows. Where does that bloody great hole in the ground go? Only Minerva knows.
I wrote a semi-review of the first two chapters of Metastasis (which is itself just the first arc of a much longer sequence, apparently) for Eurogamer a while back, and, while I was very impressed, I had a few complaints, especially with the excessive Find The Door challenges in the second episode. Politely thanking me for the constructive criticism, the one-man-band behind Minerva, Adam Foster, suggested I'd be happier with the upcoming third instalment, with which Valve themselves had lent a hand.
He wasn't wrong. It was released yesterday (and actually turned out to be two chapters in one release), and I eagerly played through as soon as I could. It's hugely superior to the first two episodes, to the point where it often feels as though it was picked straight from the Valve tree rather than being a mod. Especially a mod by just one guy (albeit with some impressive third-party musical assistance). There are smart puzzles. There is exhilarating action. There is high tension. There is character development. There are revelations, of a sort.
It's really slick. To such an extent, in fact, that I feel a bit bad about the swipes I took at the earlier chapters, as it's entirely evident from this that Foster knows exactly what he's doing with Minerva now. I'd go into more details, but I don't want to spoil some of the setpiece moments for you. Yeah, I could also list a few faults, but that would be pretty futile for a post that's trying to convince you to go play it.
Downloady here (or here if you're a clever Bittorrent-type). Its slim 150Mb includes all four chapters, and several happy hours (well, you may struggle with bits of the second chapter, but honestly, stay with it) of zero-cost entertainment. You will need to have bought and installed Half-Life 2: Episode 1 already, however, as its fancy-pants HDR lighting and a few graphical elements not present in HL2 vanilla are smartly incorporated into Metastasis.