I Judge a Half Life 2 Custom Map Competition

I Judge a Half Life 2 Custom Map Competition

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I love Half Life 2. So when asked if I’d
judge a competition to recreate the Half Life 2 experience, I said YES.
It’s all contained in one download and I suggest you check it out for a couple of hours
of single-player fun. The Nostalgiaville Competition had 8 entries, and one bonus, which I’ll
start with. Freeman and Bob could pass as a Half Life
2 level. It looks, plays and smells just like one, but on top of that throws some original
ideas into the mix, which is most welcome. The first half is puzzle-based. You’re without
a weapon, but luckily for you you have BOB, who will shoot enemies and generally be quite
helpful, if incredibly stupid. Something that Half Life 2 had, but never really used, was
the squad function. You could point to somewhere and anybody following you would run to that
spot. In Half Life 2 this was only really good for setting off tripmines, but Freeman
and Bob uses this mechanic to help complete puzzles! You must guide him to control panels
in order to progress through the level further. Clearly, Bob can’t think for himself. But
then again, maybe you can’t either. Something I was impressed with from this entry was the
level design, which would do a good job of hinting at where you needed to go, without
ever having to scream it in your face. The overhead cable in the starting zone tells
you all you need to know and these sorts of subtle hints are applied throughout, making
you feel smarter than you actually are for solving stuff. Midway through there’s an
escape sequence full of baddies, manhacks and helicopters dropping bombs, as well as
the risk of drowning. This was my least favourite bit- I felt rushed and thought a lot of the
damage dealt was a little unfair. But the end of the level picks up again as you and
Bob fight off an army of enemies and a helicopter, which satisfyingly concludes this entry in
the finest boss sequence of the competition. This was a professional, consistent and enjoyable
map, maintaining or surpassing Half Life 2’s quality and keeping what was special about
the game. It also did a good job with the jokes and references. Poor Lazlo. Who needs
Alyx? Give me Bob any day of the week. I give it 8/10 for being at, or above, the standard
set by Half Life 2. The first of the proper entries is METRO,
which takes the nostalgic theme seriously. This entry recreates the first third of Half
Life 2, but within a single, sprawling level. You have the train intro. The City 17 streets.
The escape from the cops- at this point I could tell exactly where it was headed. You
escape from the city, which seems to have grown a few skyscrapers since 2004- and plummet
into the water far below to commence the sewers sequence, before ending on the canals. Like
I said, it tries to be nostalgic… but a little too seriously, perhaps. In recreating
Half Life 2, but to a lower standard, its limitations are obvious and it doesn’t introduce
enough new elements to stand on its own two legs. All in all, I would say that this is
a solid, but average entry that doesn’t have quite enough shooting for my liking.
In fact, I don’t think you shoot any enemies at all- it’s all crowbar action up until
a vehicle sequence, which ends with mounted gun scene for end boss fight, which I guess
is always a good way to go. But Metro tries to cover too many things too quickly, and
it all feels a bit shallow as a result. I give it 5/10 for being kind of like Half Life
2, but to a lower standard and with no original features.
As a judge, HERE AGAIN worries me. I’m concerned that I didn’t ‘get’ this level. Maybe
I missed out on something obvious that would have made it all make sense. But for now,
this feels like a very flawed map. Let’s begin. You start in City 17, people and combine
walking about everywhere. What do you do? Where do you go? I don’t know. I slipped
through one of the laser gates at one point, but don’t think I was supposed to. The scanners
seemed obsessed by the vortigaunt sweeping the streets, all like OH COOL LOOK AT THAT!
Which I had a good laugh from. But SUDDENLY a huge fight breaks out and you die. Oh. Not
gonna lie- I gave up and had to noclip out of this level to see where I had to go. Apparently,
you have to head through this doorway, but there’s nothing that hints that this is
what you have to do. After this you go through a clone of that bit in Half Life 2 and have
to break out of this window. Once again, not obvious. And then you plummet off the top
and lose some health. And then get attacked by headcrabs. Okay. Then I tried to go through
here, but you can’t. And you can’t break it. So instead you go through a maze of rooms
and sewers- this bit here also being remarkably difficult to find. The bits that look like
you can pass through, you can’t, and the bits that look like you can’t, you can,
but probably aren’t supposed to. Special mention to this bit- I was desperate.
I had run to every corner of the map, found several passages which turned out to be dead
ends, and I was trying anything to make progress. Since there was an enemy up here, as well
as some miniature scenery, I thought that perhaps this was where I had to go. Sure enough,
I could get through! -But no, wrong way. Again. So I returned to this and found an outpost.
But this proved to be a dead end. Eventually I resorted to noclip again and
found this train bit, which is only accessible through the bit you can’t pass through.
At this point I had no idea what I was supposed to do and gave up, making this the only entry
I wasn’t able to complete from this competition. I don’t get it- this map does so many things,
some of which are complicated to make. It has the potential to be pretty decent, but
it’s so poorly planned and playtested that I’m simply left confused and disappointed.
And worried that I missed something obvious. I’m sorry to say that Here Again only gets
2/10. BADWATER is a gorgeous map, looking like Half
Life 2 but on a larger, more spectacular scale. I’m not sure about the colour filter; replacing
blacks with murky reds made me feel a bit blind in the darker spots. And the map has
an identity problem: it’s unsure of what it wants to be. You start by a hovercraft
and it made me think it was going to be like the Canals segment. But it ditches that idea
without doing anything with it, becoming a warehouse shooter before ending with a boss
fight. Along the way are optional places to explore, which reward you for doing so. And
while it’s light on puzzles, there are a fair few enemies to shoot. WHICH I AM FINE
WITH! Sadly, this is where I felt it fell apart. More so than with the other entries,
I found the graphics hindered the gunplay, either by hiding enemies in dark spots, or
from plastering sections with unnecessary clutter that doesn’t quite serve as cover.
There’s no room for flanking or alternative routes- every fight is you running at newly
spawned batches of enemies. The warehouse theme had potential for so much more. The
best bit is the final boss-fight, which did bring back memories of the Lost Coast, though
it felt a bit cheap that I couldn’t go up this ladder here, and that when I beat the
first helicopter another spawned. I’d rather have gone up against a single helicopter with
double the health. I know I’ve gone on about its flaws, but I still liked this map. It
just frustrates me that it wasn’t more. A second combat section would have done the
gameplay wonders- what about a gatehouse in the canals section you have to clear out before
advancing to the main one? All in all, this was one of the most impressive looking entries.
The music was well chosen and I like this eerie sounding bit: …never figured out what
that was supposed to be, but it added to the atmosphere. Rating this map 6/10 feels a little
harsh, but I can’t shake the feeling that the graphics came first and then gameplay
was added around it. LONE was another difficult one to judge. It
did its best to give a bad first impression. It didn’t have lighting. But to make matters
worse, being a 3-map entry, the later 2 DID, but players won’t see that, since the first
level disables the lighting for the rest of it! I had to rate this entry down for this.
Adding to the poor first impressions was the clutter. Every area was spammed with seemingly
random props and details. It seems that Ravenholm had a serious hoarder problem. Get past this,
however, and this entry’s actually quite a bit of fun! In an amateurish kind of way.
An early puzzle is to fill this generator with GAS. A later one is to fill this precarious
bucket with concrete blocks to open a gate. And boy, is it precarious. Incredibly, though,
it worked! The poorest bit by far was this bit. You man the slowest-firing, most inaccurate
piece of rubbish ever and must shoot wave after wave of combine who enthusiastically
run at you. Why did the combine even come to Ravenholm?! Honestly, you’re better off
hiding further back because this gun turret’s a death trap. And then I got insta-gibbed
for standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not good. And here’s a lesson for
all budding Half Life 2 mappers- if you use cables to point people to where they have
to go, don’t then turn it around and use one to confuse them. I thought this door was
a puzzle of some kind… then felt really stupid when all I had to do was to press the
button next to it. LONE ends on a boss fight, which I felt was ruined by the presence of
mines everywhere for no good reason, which I found distracting. All in all, LONE is an
easy entry to dislike, but it also gets a lot right. It gives you ample opportunity
to shoot things, which is something that a surprising number of submissions forgot about.
It doesn’t grasp the nostalgia of Half Life 2- but what it does do is to remind me of
the early custom maps you’d download online for it and I feel it’s been made by somebody
who might not have the best knowledge of mapping, but who has PASSION for the game. And that’s
something I respect. And the award for the most abrupt ending goes to… …yeah, that. I give it 5/10 for being a
flawed but gameplay-packed collection of maps. And now for something completely different.
POWER UP is a point and click adventure game, disguised as a Half Life 2 map. It’s absolutely
nothing like the original game and should lose points for that, but at the same time
it grabbed my attention and I couldn’t help but want to play it to the end, even if at
points it tried to put me off. Like, what’s this? Who am I? What’s that bus doing there?
Am I a combine soldier? Am I a civilian? Oh look, it’s an undercover cop, bit like Barney
from Half Life 2! He’s my friend and yet he shoves me off if I get too close. The story
is, you go undercover to get… batteries to… do something. The voice acting is difficult
to understand, and if you don’t hear it the first time, TOUGH! You’re left stranded
in a large but empty City 17 map without a clue of what you’re supposed to be doing.
You don’t get a weapon in this game, but it turns out you don’t need one because
cinder blocks are surprisingly effective. One of the first unintuitive puzzles is how
to get through this locked door. I figured you had to stack a load of stuff up to climb
over, but by accident I discovered that cinderblock beats lock. The cinderblock beats crab. And
finally, cinderblock beats window. Like any point and click game, the tasks you’re given
sound easy enough, but this being a puzzle game there’s only one, very specific path
that leads to success. And to end it all off, some guards chased me, so I ran away, not
realising that I had to be killed to finish the mission. Not intuitive at all. I don’t
think this entry was suited to this competition, but it could have been a bit of fun had it
guided the player better and felt like a mission of some sort, from start to finish. I give
it 4/10, points for originality, but… not for much else.
CANAL ESCAPE looks like a Half Life 2 level that didn’t receive the last layer of polish.
And yet I found it to be one of the most enjoyable entries of the competition! You start with
nothing and end with almost the full arsenal of weapons at your disposal. It goes through
several defined and unique segments, all of which were fun in their own kind of way. I
really liked the early sequences where I had to fight with nothing more than a pistol and
a gravity gun. And I thought it did a good job of pacing when to mix it up and to move
onto the next segment. But there were problems. It doesn’t always guide you too well. I
got lost a few times and there’s a really silly bit in the middle. You’ve got to stack
crates to get onto a ledge. But you could easily destroy these and make it impossible
for yourself. And once you’re up, you open a gateway before going on a quest to retrieve
a valve to raise the water level to let yourself through. But do you see the problem here?
Why would you bother doing this, if you could just stack the crates again, like you did
to get to the control room in the first place? This was a very silly oversight. At one point
you fall and lose a load of health through no fault of your own, which is also a big
NO NO. And the end fight was flawed, too. With combine everywhere, I missed the rocket
launcher and had to backtrack to find it when faced with bringing down the helicopter later
on. And I’m all for the mapper using his favourite songs in his own maps, but he uses
the SAME SONG 3 times! It’s not even the best one. All in all, this was not the most
glamorous or intuitive submission, but I found the gameplay to be among the best in this
competition. And its pacing was spot on. That counts for a lot, making me rate this one
more highly than some other entries that on paper looked better. Maybe it just got lucky.
I give it 7/10 for being a self-contained, if short adventure. It was a pleasant surprise:
more fun than the sum of its parts suggests. GRIGORI! I had to replay this entry, because
the first time it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. However, with hindsight I can now
appreciate its fantastic storytelling. You play as Father Grigori, the eccentric vicar
from Ravenholm. In Half Life 2, he’s a mystery. An enigma. And this is something this map
builds upon. I mean, who has a chess board on the same table as a CACTUS? Who has a table
solely for a hula girl? You get the idea. And on this table is ANNABELLE, his custom
weapon that you don’t get to use in Half Life 2. It looks like a shotgun, yet contains
less ammo, a longer delay and a different button to equip it, all of which will serve
to confuse Half Life 2 fans. And although he respected the town’s residents in the
original game, here he doesn’t give a DAMN. His radio’s in need of repair and he’ll
rek anybody who gets in his way! This level plays like an arena shooter. Rooms filled
with demons ready to get smoked. It’s actually a bit of fun, but too short and the route
you have to take can often be misleading- perhaps this represents his own path to salvation.
Seriously, excellent storytelling here. With all that being said, this entry’s too basic,
too short and too empty to live up to its potential, and isn’t too similar to Half
Life 2 in any way. I give it 4/10. I couldn’t rate this one too highly. But I kind of wanted
to. And lastly, Cosmonaut. And what an entry this
one is! First impressions matter, and this one delivers. It looks beautiful, offering
a large open environment for you to explore as you leave the rocket crash which seemingly
nobody has noticed. This slow start pays homage to Half Life 2. I like the humour, too- like
this bit. Anybody who’s played the original will know why this happens- and likely has
done themselves! What follows are 25 minutes of great custom content. Each bit will feel
similar to places from the original, but it gets away with it by often ramping up the
scale or challenge to the next level. I’ll say now that there wasn’t as much shooting
as I’d have liked- I’m talking close-quarters with shotguns and smgs, here. Never been a
fan of long-range with pistols much. But what this submission contains is well designed
puzzles, and rooms that I would look at and think ‘Yes, yes I’d like to see what kind
of challenge this will present to me’. And despite the large scale of the environments,
I never felt lost or confused. COSMONAUT contains some outstanding examples of player guidance-
I don’t even know if it was intentional, but at this point I had to find a broken pipe
piece and a barnacle helped point it out to me. Thanks, barnacle! I also noticed that
interactive objects would highlight if I was close enough to them. This isn’t something
I’ve ever seen in Half Life 2 before but it’s a thoughtful guidance tool. As good
as Cosmonaut was, though, there were a few niggles that I had. Of the enemies, I find
manhacks among the most annoying- and there were a few too many for my liking in this
entry. And despite the scale and potential, the final boss fight was underwhelming and
far too slow. I was left wondering if I had broken it between waves. It was a bit of an
anti-climax, given what I had gone through to reach that point. But despite that, this
was the best entry and was faithful to the theme of the competition. This one deserves
a 9/10. Free content doesn’t come much more professionally executed than this.
Being a judge of a mapping competition is intimidating to me. Being a mapper myself,
I understand the effort that every entry has had invested into it. And I never like speaking
badly about one. I’ve enjoyed myself more than I expected though. It’s been great
to jump back into one of my favourite games and to play through these entries with an
open mind. They’re all so different and unique and I hope I’ve been fair with what
I’ve said about them. Thank you to the mappers for making me want to map again, and to Niker107
for hosting this competition- check out his Youtube channel here, and go over to runthinkshootlive
to check out the entries for yourselves. See if you agree with me.

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