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Modder Superior: A fresh lease of Half-Life 2

The mods are waiting for you, in the test chamber...

Half-Life 2 is nearly fifteen years old now, and despite Valve's sequel plans seemingly fizzling out, it doesn't look a day over ten thanks to the efforts of modders. Chances are that Half-Life 2 and its expansions have been gathering dust on your Steam account for years now, so here's a quick refresher -- mostly focused on the past five years -- on what's available, single player-wise. Want to turbo-charge the original game, or send Gordon Freeman on a whole new adventure? We've got you covered both ways, plus a trio of Silent Hill-inspired spookfests. Below, a hand-picked basket of goodies, and a crowbar to open it.

Gordon Forgets How To Mod Half-Life 2

Plain old vanilla Half-Life 2. Who'd want that?

While Half-Life 2 modding has been a constant almost since the day the game launched, the game's code base has not been. Valve have updated, tweaked, tuned and repacked it a half-dozen times, breaking some older releases. Most of the mods below from the past five years require the Source SDK Base 2013 Singleplayer package, which you can find under the 'Tools' header in your Steam library.

Once downloaded, right click on it, select Properties, and pick 'upcoming' from the drop-down in the betas tab. This'll opt you in to the latest build. I believe everyone gets access to this for free, but some mods do require owning the game and (ideally) both expansions.

While some Half-Life 2 mods are hosted on Steam and are just a click away, installing mods from elsewhere is a doddle. Just locate where you've installed Steam on your PC (C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\ by default), and in there, navigate to Steam\SteamApps\SourceMods. That's where mods live. Unzip them there, making sure each has their own directory. If you did everything right, your freshly unpacked mod will be listed in your Steam library, same as any freshly bought game. Easy.

Gordon Gets A Tune-Up

If you've been away from Half-Life 2 for a while, chances are you'll want to play a bit of the original game just to warm up. Here are a few ways back to Ravenholm that go a more scenic route, or a little bit off the beaten track.

Half-Life 2: Update by Filip Victor

Watch on YouTube

Released: March 2015
Download: Direct via Steam

If all you want is to potter around the old original game as you remember, you can't go far wrong with this unofficial (but Valve-endorsed) patch. It's a gentle remastering - slightly better lighting, some environmental effects back-ported from the expansions, and some old bugs and mapping errors smoothed over. It's Half-Life 2 after a run through the car wash, and with a few dents hammered out and painted over.

Half-Life 2: MMOD by Gunship Mark II

Watch on YouTube

Released: December 2018
Download: Mod DB

A recent and popular release, if Update is just a cleaned-up version, MMod is Half-Life 2 taken down to the garage for a full oil change, engine tune, and maybe a decal kit. It's a mostly-cosmetic suite of enhancements, but they add up to a more modern feeling game. Notoriously weedy-feeling weapons like the SMG have some oomph to them, weapon spread is rebalanced, and bullet weapons are now fast projectiles instead of instant-hit, making long-range gunfights feel fairer.

Most of the combat tweaks are subtle, but if you don't like any of the changes, almost every feature in MMod is fully optional. Best of all, it's compatible with all official Half-Life 2 releases, several semi-official ones, and even some major mods -- including Half Life 2 Update.

You can find MMod compatibility patches for other level packs and mods here on Mod DB too. Once a compatibility patch is installed, you'll find it in your Steam library as a separate entry, normally with MMod in the name.

SMOD by Creators Unknown

Watch on YouTube

Released: 2004
Download: Mod DB
Video Credit: "GameSnippetsUK" for the footage

If MMod is Half-Life 2 after a professional tune-up, then SMOD is the game after replacing the engine with an oversized dragster rig that doesn't fit under the hood and burns pure ethanol. It's also prone to catching on fire, but you'll have a great time until then. SMOD was developed by an anonymous individual (or collective) from Japan, with a request that people just do whatever they like with it. They did.

The most stable and coherent build I've found is a polished-up Version 10 hosted on Mod DB, and if there's a better version, I'd love to see it. It offers an unpredictable ride through Half-Life 2, with extra (and sometimes new) enemies added to the world, lots of new weapons, over-the-top effects and bullet time. It's unbalanced, it's unstable, and it's all very silly. It is also an important part of Half-Life 2 modding history, and one that I'm glad to see people keeping alive.

Gordon's Big Adventures

There are an enormous number of single player mods for Half-Life 2, but for now, here's a handful of fresher releases -- proof that there's life in the old HEV suit yet.

Entropy: Zero by "Breadman"

Watch on YouTube

Released: October 2017
Download: Direct via Steam

All cops are bastards, and Combine Metrocops are double bastards. And now you are one, you git. Entropy: Zero puts you in the shoes of a Metrocop who enjoys his job just a little too much, especially the civilian-brutalising part. Being the bad guy, you get to casually waltz through Combine energy shields, use a (prototype and inaccurate) pulse rifle, and even carry around Manhacks to deploy for combat and puzzle-solving purposes. Oh, and you've got cool blue hazy night vision mode.

It does have weirdly uneven difficulty. On Normal mode basic rebel troops don't do much damage, unless they shotgun you, which really, really hurts. Still, some nice setpieces, and a surprising amount of dialogue. Make sure you have subtitles turned on, 'cos for some reason the mod crashes if you don't.

There is an MMod compatibility patch available here for Entropy: Zero but at present it disables some of the mod's neat effects, like the blue visor-vision replacing your flashlight, and bypasses the Manhack stuff.

Cosmonaut by "Dolmo"

Watch on YouTube

Released: May 2019
Download: Mod DB

A cosmonaut escapes from his station, right into the middle of the Combine occupation. What plays out from there feels almost like an abridged version of Half-Life 2 and its expansions. There's an opening scene where you're being walked through a Combine processing centre, an escape sequence, canals and a sewer level, followed by it opening up a little once you have the SMG. It's well paced, well scripted stuff, even if it's hard to shake the feeling that it's been done before, and it's an astonishing piece of work for just one mapper.

As Cosmonaut uses vanilla Half-Life 2 weapons and balance, I can't see any reason not to use the MMod patch for it, too. Adds some nice punch to those gunfights.

Downfall by "marnamal"

Watch on YouTube

Released: April 2017
Download: Direct via Steam

Short but sweet, this is the first chapter in a planned series of Episode 2 style levels. If it had voice acting, this could easily pass for an official Valve production, and delivers a good 45 minutes or so of Ep2 style action: a little bit of driving, and lot of exploring pockets of buildings, dense with traps, secrets and optional routes.

The only real complaint I can level against Downfall is its bizarrely huge download, part of its self-contained Steam distribution. There's also an MMod compatibility patch for it, improving it further. I'd recommend turning off Crepuscular Rays though - they get a bit glitchy.

Half-Life 2: Episode 3 - The Closure by Leon "Spymaps" Brinkmann

Watch on YouTube

Released: Version 2 on May 2016
Download: Mod DB

Again, the work of a single mapper, The Closure is on the far opposite end of the scale, i.e. you'd never mistake this for a Valve production. Its adherence to accepted Half-Life lore is questionable, it frequently breaks away from first-person perspective for cutscenes, and its borrowed Hollywood soundtrack is an order of magnitude too bombastic and loud. But...

... This is easily five or six hours of Half-Life 2, with some impressive set piece fights. There are plenty of opportunities to cut loose with bigger, more explosive guns, and it goes above and beyond on features, offering optional increased enemy density (independent of normal difficulty settings). There's even an integrated hint system, offering a shortcut on puzzles if you get stuck.

While there is an MMod compatibility patch for The Closure, it's largely a matter of preference whether you use it, as it overwrites The Closure's own reskinned weapons and enemies.

The Gate 2 by Craig J. Beattie
I appreciate these Space Nazis dedication to their craft. That must have taken a tall ladder and at least three buckets of fresh blood to write.
Released: August 2014
Download: Mod DB

"President Bush, the grey aliens, they watch while we kill each other!" - Real actual voiced dialogue from The Gate 2.

It's the sequel to Half-Life 1 mod The Gate, where you played as an American special forces soldier sent back in time to defeat the Nazis. Somehow, it makes the original seem mundane. There's even dinosaurs.

The Gate 2 only gets weirder over its 4+ hour run-time. The combat is Half-Life 2 standard for the most part, although there's perhaps too little health, and some areas hit you with an instant Game Over if your suicidal squadmates die. Still, the most memorable thing here is the story, which feels like a direct feed from the brain of one of those guys who believes that the pyramids were UFO hangars.

Gordon's Big Jam Session

One of the best places to be for fresh Half-Life 2 these days is fan-site RunThinkShootLive, maintained by Phillip Marlowe. As well as hosting a review database of maps and mods for several games, he organises annual Half-Life 2 map-jam competitions, complete with prizes. Each year features five challenges, with a limited time to produce a single level to that theme. Philip then packs all the maps up into a single themed mod, easy to install and play. Here are the big releases of the past three years.

The Hammer Cup 2016 by Various Mappers

Watch on YouTube

Released: 2016
Download: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5

Featuring ChasmVille, LiberationVille, BacktrackVille, TrapVille and AnyVilleVille. While had been a few map jams on RTSL besfore, the Hammer Cup 2016 was where it hit the big leagues. Some interesting themes here, starting with chasms (and dropping things into them), liberation, and creative backtracking. This jam wrapped up with AnyVilleVille, which let the contributors pick any theme from any prior contest on the site. Of the last set, Castle Siege may be playing it a little safe, but is an excellent, scenic Episode 2-style uphill battle.

As Hammer Cup maps play it straight, there's little reason not to use MMod with them, and would you believe that there's a big compatibility patch bundle right here?

The Hammer Cup 2017 by Various Mappers

Watch on YouTube

Released: 2017
Download: Chapter 1Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5

DefendVilleTwo, ToxicVille, BridgeVille, TeleportVille and FusionVille this time round - mostly self-explanatory names, except the last. FusionVille asked mappers to combine three of eight past themes into a single coherent level. It resulted in some great setpieces from experienced mappers, with rooftop chases, perilous bridge crossings and even a battle between moving trains.

Once again, there's a handy MMod compatibility patch bundle available here.

The Lambda Cup 2018 by Various Mappers

Watch on YouTube

Released: 2018 to early 2019
Download: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4Chapter 5

Consisting of Coastville, GravityGunVilleTwo, BossVille, PhaseVille and ReplayVille, mappers were allowed to use a pair of extra gimmicks on top of Half-Life 2's usual goodies. There's the Mechacrab, a tougher, cyborged up headcrab that works alongside Combine troops, and an upgrade for the gravity gun that allows it to freeze objects in mid-air, letting you build floating platforms or hold physics objects in place.

Of this cup, my favourite is probably Chapter 4: PhaseVille, based around the concept of a single map with three segments using a different style of play and conclusion. One of the maps, Off-World Relocation by "XBLAH", got a standalone and expanded release here.

As with the Hammer cups, there are MMod compatibility patches for all Lambda Cup entries. Grab them here. As the only custom weapon in this series is the gravity gun mod, I don't think there'll be any compatibility issues, but mileage may vary.

Gordon Goes To Silent Hill(s)

Apparently there's a big crossover between Half-Life 2 and Silent Hill fans. I even saw a bit of this in the secret story arc unlockable in the anarchic Garry's Mod adventure Jazztronauts. If you've had enough of being Gordon Freeman: Hero Of The Rebellion for a while and are up for some scares, check our this trio of horror adventures.

Grey by Deppresick Team

Watch on YouTube

Released: August 2012
Download: Mod DB

Grey has some astonishingly detailed environments wrapped in bespoke textures. If I had to level a criticism at this, it'd be that it spends a map or two too long in building up to the start of combat, but what gorgeous maps they are to explore. It's a relatively short and sweet mod -- 2-3 hours, maybe -- on your first time round, with puzzles taking up a large chunk of that. Combat is more HL2 than Silent Hill, but that's just me nitpicking.

Impressively, there's reason to play this through twice. Completing it unlocks Hard Mode, with some secrets of its own and an extended ending.

Hellsound Dreams by Damian Duda

Released: November 2012
Download: Mod DB

What Hellsound Dreams this one lacks in polish it makes up for in pacing. I'm not even sure there's a story here beyond spooky houses, police stations and, of course, an asylum to explore, but they sure are haunted. Unpredictable traps and ghosts nip at your health pool, and the player is never well armed until the final act. Perhaps more of a funfair haunted house than a ghost story, but it's consistently paced and dense with puzzles.

Alchemilla by White Noise Team

Watch on YouTube

Released: April 2015
Download: Mod DB

If Grey and Hellsound Dreams are inspired by Silent Hill, then Alchemilla IS Silent Hill, right down to borrowing locations in the town itself. It also pulls of some great tricks, with classic fade out/fade in room transitions allowing them do to sudden jumps to the fleshy, barbed-wire-wrapped nightmare otherworld. It's a short but sweet piece of ultra-polished horror. Not even survival horror, just spooky. It's purely narrative and puzzle-focused -- walking sim with puzzles, perhaps -- but proof that Silent Hill can still be scary without monsters.

And on that traumatising note, we've barely dipped a toe into the deep reservoir of Half-Life 2 adventures, but it should be enough to keep you ravenous lot busy for a week or two. While some mods still maintain active multiplayer scenes, I opted to focus solely on the solo here. If there's anything you regularly play online and want to invite me to, or a favourite map-set you want to share, please do in the comments below.

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