The news most of us have been waiting for has finally been confirmed: Valve is readying the first expansion pack for the unanimously acclaimed Half-Life 2. Provisionally titled 'Aftermath', the new adventures of Gordon Freeman and his able sidekick Alyx is tentatively scheduled for a 'summer' release only via Steam, according to PC Gamer UK, which has - incredibly - scooped the world with its cover feature on the hotly anticipated game in its May issue, out today.
Grabbing a quick chat with Valve designer Robin Walker and writer Marc Laidlaw, the ten page PC Gamer feature doesn't reveal much in the way of concrete information about Aftermath, but instead, the ever-slippery chaps at Valve talk around the subject of the game, choosing to focus more on their motivations for choosing to make new Half-Life 2 content all by themselves rather than, say, farm out the job to Gearbox as it did during the Half-Life era.
Valve in "good at making Half Life games" - shock!
Walker admits in the PC Gamer interview: "Right now, we're really, really good at making Half Life 2. We think our customers want a lot more of Half Life 2. That's what we're going to give them. But we'd just got comfortable with all our tools and what we could do. That's normally the point in which we'd go off and make new tools - we didn't want to do that."
The focus for Aftermath appears to break with the Half-Life tradition of presenting the storyline from the viewpoint of other key characters in the game, with the mooted Alyx-based episode apparently not happening as many of us imagined it might. Instead, it would appear that as a compromise, Alyx figures as a much more active partner of Gordon Freeman's adventures.
As Walker asserts in the PCG interview, the rationale is for the player to get a much greater sense of attachment to Alyx, after doing so much to introduce her in Half-Life 2: "It's kind of ironic that despite so much of the theme of Half Life 2 being about other characters and other people, you spent most of the game alone."
Get up close and personal with Alyx
"We really want Alyx to grow as a character," he insists in the Gamer piece. "There was the promise of that in the first game, but we spent so much of our time introducing her as a character, we didn't really get a chance to spend time with her for an entire section. She would flit in and out. Since she's with you quite a lot, we're working on ways to make her a lot more interesting to be around, a lot more interesting to interact with." Ahem. A burgeoning romance perhaps?
As for where Aftermath is set, and the timeline, it's very much a logical continuation from where Half-Life 2 left off, as Laidlaw goes on to explain in the PC Gamer feature: "[Aftermath] deals with the events and issues set in motion during Half-Life 2. You've done critical damage to the Citadel. The whole place is going to go up, taking out City 17 and what's in its immediate radius. You and Alyx are leading the flight from the city getting up close and personal with some of the creatures and sights from the end of the game." Interestingly, apart from a few ambiguous illustrative captions, the PCG piece at no stage makes it 100 per cent explicit that Alyx's sidekick will be Gordon. However, writer Tim Edwards has subsequently clarified that you do play as Gordon in Aftermath.
Unlike in Half-Life 2, creatures that were barred from the confines of City 17 have now found a new home unfettered by the barriers that kept them at bay previously. "We have a philosophy that we try to re-use and provide interesting twists to our core concepts," says Walker in the same PC Gamer feature. "Like the Antlions started the game as your enemy, and then became your friends later on. In Aftermath, City 17 was 'one thing' and now it's this 'other thing'," he continues, refusing doggedly to elaborate despite probing from PC Gamer UK writer Tim Edwards, the man who unearthed this stunning exclusive ahead of the world's press.
Letting off Steam
One very big question mark over the fate of Aftermath is how much the game will cost over Steam and whether the game will be also be released in boxed form through long-term publisher Sierra/Vivendi-Universal Games at any stage in the future; if the PC Gamer piece is to believed, no boxed version is planned - although how VU Games feels about missing out on this expansion pack would be very interesting indeed.
Walker states in the piece: "The reason we're able to do this, and why it's so exciting is because of Steam. If we were doing this without Steam we'd have to put it in a box, we'd have to start figuring out shelf space over a year beforehand. You'd see it six years from now."
Six years? An exaggeration for comic effect, maybe, but we don't recall Blue Shift or Opposing Force taking "six years" to emerge after Half-Life. The Steam online content delivery system admittedly speeds up the process by cutting out the middle men, gets piped straight to the end user and generates a huge amount of cash for the game creators, but producing a boxed version shouldn't hold up the delivery of new content to a significant degree.
"We're enthusiastic, we want to make games. We're people who love to create, but we don't have the thrill of smaller projects," admits Walker in the PC Gamer exclusive. "We can't just throw something out there and see how the customers enjoy it. As soon as Half-Life 2 came out, the mod community created all these combinations of monster battles that we hadn't gotten around to. We never did the Xen Controller versus the Tentacle. This time we want to be the ones to have that fun." Walker also admits later in Gamer's feature that he's "desperate" to work on a mod based on Lemarr, the little headcrab.
Even less specifically, Walker goes on to talk in general terms about Valve's concept of "design economy". "Simply: how economically do we use each game element?" he asks in the PC Gamer piece. "How well is an object in the game connected to all the others? The heart of the game design is making those connections, and making them more interesting. By the end of Half-Life 2 we could see them very well and understood how they work. The better you understand those connections, the better you are at processing new gameplay. Can I sit today with five other people, and create a new level using the elements we already have?" We don't doubt it.
More questions than answers
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, we leave you with many questions rattling around your fevered minds about the next episode in the Half-Life series. What new weapons and monsters will there be? How long will it be? When will it really be coming out? Will players still have to go through the same authentication nightmare just to play it? Doubtlessly, as ever, Valve will leave as many questions as possible unanswered in the lead up to its 'summer' release, but with all this in mind we look forward to congregating in an ATI booth at E3 to catch a glimpse of the first footage from the game...