Joe Martin is a Half-Life 2 obsessive who often wells up with actual tears when he thinks of the content Valve cut during development. Imagine his joy at finding the Missing Information mod, which collects workable snippets from the stolen HL2 beta and assembles them into a Steam-compatible mod. Joe takes a look at the parts of HL2 Valve didn't intend for us to see, and wonders if the game we got was the best it could have been.
The Borealis sits ominously in the water, sealing into place as the Arctic ice surrounds it. I climb the ladder on the side of the ship and greet the terse, moustachioed man who's waiting for me. His name is Odell. He looks just like someone I used to know.
Or, rather, there's someone looks just like him. When Odell's character was cut from the original version of HL2, his model was re-used for the role of Resistance leader Col. Odessa Cubbage. This is the Half-Life 2 that was never seen. Scraps taken from the leaked beta and E3 footage, crafted into a playable mod by the delightfully named team, Gabe's Love Tub.
Odell and I move through the ship's empty corridors and I can't help noticing how old everything looks, how bland the art style is. Blunted orange hues sit against off-whites and steel-greys, with only the occasional emergency-red wallbox to brighten up the place. I open one and take the flare gun I find inside - a weapon cut from the final release.
"I've got an idea, Freeman," Odell/Odessa says, sitting down. "You've got a gun, I've got a cigarette lighter. How about you take the lead?"
Alone, I move down empty, plain, shoulder-wide corridors, unable to shake the disappointment at how dull this has been so far. I've spent years fantasizing about what the Borealis might contain, going over and over the extracts contained in Raising The Bar - and a lonely, monotone boat is what greets me? Was this worth salvaging from the illegal betas and level fragments?
Up ahead is enough trouble to distract me for a while - a handful of Combine loitering purposelessly on deck in odd-coloured armour, carrying OCIW rifles I remember from screenshots of the leaked beta. I smother the soldiers in flarey flames and, when I'm done, there's a litter of weapons left behind. Rifles, shotguns... and a fire extinguisher? I blast the smouldering corpses to no effect, move on, then return to try again and investigate if it has a secondary fire.
It doesn't. Moving back down into the Borealis - which is called the Hyperborea in this map, but is identical to the point that the names are interchangeable - it strikes me that nothing seems to make sense. The Bridge leads down towards a meat locker, but there's no kitchen in sight. There are zombies everywhere, but no bodies or headcrabs. The demented geography funnels me through engine rooms and cargo bays with no logic or pattern guiding the route.
Why the zombies and soldiers are here, I have no idea. The Borealis has existed in so many versions of HL2's script that it's impossible to know which one this is. The ship has been everything from the starting point of the game to a critical objective in its own right, but Odell didn't give any reason for this visit in particular and there's no clue in the environment, which is bland and inconsistently paced.
It's not until I stumble into a couple of stalkers that I start to pay real attention. The stalkers, like the Borealis, were constantly cut back from their original outline, and felt under-used even when they finally stepped up in Episode One. Perhaps they are a chance for the Borealis to shine in my eyes? Instead though, without enough room to dodge their precise laser-beams, they feel like the lowest point yet.
Eventually I find Odell again - though I'm sure he must have noclipped his way through the ship to be able to get this far ahead. He leads me up to the deck where, hanging from the end of a crane, a submarine awaits us. He tells me this is the way out, and before I can even muster enough anger to hit Alt-F4, the screen fades to black and the main menu pops up.
I can't believe it. All that expectation and...that was it?
Desperate for and convinced there's more, I boot another of the standalone levels. The Borealis is nowhere in sight now; I'm back in City 17 instead. There's open battle on the night-blanketed streets, 'though I'm forced to stick to the rooftops and snipe manhacks out of the air through the OCIW's sickly green scope.
The rooftop level is short and buggy to the extreme, but it's still not all that different to the City 17 that was included in the finished game; same blocky architecture, same pastel textures. The mood has changed slightly though, and it's not until I've cleared the first area of baddies that I realise why - this is the first time I've seen City 17 at night.
Viewed after sunset City 17 drifts an awful lot closer to the bleak dystopia that it was originally planned to convey. The Missing Information mod sadly doesn't restore some of the more explicit attempts to capitalise on this - such as the Manhack Arcade where City 17's gamers would unknowingly pilot Freeman's foes - but there are hints to the overall tone. The Combine uniforms are more threatening for being re-done all in black, for example, while a different citizen uniform speaks to their own oppression.
Most of all the mix of enemies suggests a far more brutal, possibly desperate Combine force. Headcrabs, soldiers, striders and stalkers all mix together within a few hundred yards. Again, the stalkers prove to be the most annoying and it isn't long before I pull down the console and look for a quicker weapon to kill them wi--
The selection of weapons fills the screen. Missing Information hasn't just limited itself to adding fire extinguishers and assault rifles, it seems. There are AKs and Molotovs and SMGs. There's a hopwire grenade which I can't use without killing myself, the flamethrower that was supposed to be wielded by the lost Cremator enemy, and that tau cannon you always wished you could rip off the buggy. There's even a huge 'Combine Guard Gun' which turns out to be the strider's main cannon.
Once I've cleared my way past the stalkers, I try them all out on the remaining enemies. I start to really appreciate the way an old-fashioned AK-47 hints at an undersupplied rebel force, and the power of the knockback caused by charging the tau cannon.
But there's something wrong, and I have to delve into the remaining levels - mostly restored versions of what was shown at E3 2003 - before I figure out what it is.
For starters, the variety that's on show is simply too much. It feels like all the weapons of Borderlands have been dropped into a world and UI that were never designed for them. Trying to navigate the weapon list is impossible, while wielding mega-weapons like the strider cannon sucks the tension from the combat. What's worst is the incredible overlap in ideas. There are three different types of assault rifle with under-barrel grenade launchers, two identical SMGs, three different melee weapons. They nearly all have alternate - or tertiary! - firing modes. It's too much, too similar.
Compare that to what was eventually included in the finished game, where every gun was suited to a specific situation and I find it hard to look at Missing Information in the same way. It no longer feels like a memorial to the HL2 that might have been; it's more like a graveyard full of ideas there's no point pining over. All that time I spent pondering what the game might have been like has been a waste, because the value isn't in the ideas themselves - it's the refinement of them.
Guiltily, I thumb open my copy of Raising The Bar and take a fresh look at what lays inside. A quote from Gabe Newell's foreword immediately pops out: "It doesn't matter what we cut, so long as we cut it and it gives us the time to focus on other things, because any of the options will be bad unless they're finished, and any of them will be good if they are finished."