Half-Life's raytracing mod is great because it makes the game look old in a new way
Turn on all the mucky filters and revel in the fancy mess
A new Half-Life mod adds raytracing to Valve's venerable first-person shooter, a shiny slap of 2023 lighting technology in a 1998 game. I normally think such anachronistic upgrades look awful but this one works for me. Rather than just slam fancy modern tech into an old game, the mod wants to change the whole look. And it succeeds in a surprising way: by making the rest of Half-Life look older.
The Half-Life: Ray Traced mod builds upon Xash3D FWGS, an open-source replacement engine, by adding real-time path tracing. This fancies up the game's lighting with more dynamic shadows and reflections, volumetric lighting, and all that. Light fills rooms, niches are appropriately shadowy, spinning fan blades and grates cast exciting shadows, glass refracts objects behind it, god rays beam down, signs and slimes glow, reflections capture everything around them (including Gordon himself), our boy casts his own full-body shadow, a few areas have added dramatic lighting, and so on. It's not the fanciest or most realistic raytracing, but it has a clear effect.
I dislike most modern makeover mods for old games. HD texture packs which overwrite intentful and suggestive detail with high-def noise. New models which replace charm with 'realism' or turn Alyx Vance into some sort of Leather Goddess Of Phobos. Raytracing mods which make every surface gleam. Post-processing shader tools which just agh. They might bring higher pixel density, polycounts, and other big numbers, but they typically break a game's style and make it look unlike itself (the phenomonal Resident Evil 4 HD Project is a rare exception). I like this mod's unusual approach to that problem.
At its best, the Ray Traced mod is dirty and murky and grubby and pixellated. The colours are trashed, details are obscured, and brightness can be all over the place. It looks not like Half-Life, but like memories of imagining how amazing Half-Life must be after seeing tiny screenshots printed in magazines or sloppy clips broadcast on analogue TV. It also captures another ancient Half-Life feeling, the memory of being wowed by technology. The impact of the new high-tech lighting is amplified by being in such dramatic contrast to the low-tech murk and mire. Where once I was in awe of scripted sequences, now I'm delighted by a spinning fan casting shadows down a dingy blue maintenance corridor.
Half-Life: Ray Traced disables texture filtering by result, giving the look of playing in software mode back before you got a 3D graphics card. It also has aggressive bloom and dirty lens effects, also on by default. But you really should turn on the optional CRT filter, which absolutely trashes the game to look a bit like it's running on an old rubbish low-resolution monitor. With all the mess turned out, it creates a new look for Half-Life, which I can see as a new experience, which is what it needs to be. Revel in the filth.
Without the added mess, the mod is just new technology crammed into an old game, which is wholly uninteresting. I imagine many people will think it looks worse with the mess, and I can understand and respect that. But responding to it with dislike is more interesting than the only reasonable response to the clean version: acknowledging that yes, this is indeed what Half-Life looks like with real-time path tracing added.
I do have a few gripes with the mod, mind. Quite a few colourful sprites, flashes, and other effects probably should cast light but don't. That's a shame. Some strong lights in the original are weirdly muted here. But on the whole, I'm quite pleased. Even the glitches fit within the messy experience.
I had meant simply to have a gander at the mod then take some screenshots and record a video for this post, but I've got sucked in. This mucky makeover is enough to draw me into another playthrough. You know, I think Half-Life is a pretty good game.
You can download Half-Life: Ray Traced for free from GitHub. It's made by Sultim Tsyrendashiev, using the RTGL1 open-source path tracing doodad. If you want to use Nvidia DLSS in the mod, do keep an eye out for the instructions to install this optional support—they're easy to miss.
Fans of the Freeman should also check out our recent interview with Half-Life's writer, Marc Laidlaw. He chats about the early days, his decision to release his planned Episode 3 plot as fanfic, and more.