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Clearing The Backlog – Portal 2

Clearing The Backlog – Portal 2

A few things strike me as I start writing about Portal 2. For one, how has it taken me until nine years after release to write about this game again? And for two, it’s strange to look back at Ben’s review from 2011 and to think that was one of the early Verdict’s following the relaunch of the site in April of that year. So much time has past, and yet with regards to Valve’s singleplayer games, it’s only now that anything has changed. Following the recent release of Half-Life: Alyx, I felt it right to go back to the one game from the Half-Life and Portal series that I hadn’t completed, and with that impetus, I cleared Portal 2 from my backlog.

Tracing my progress through the game via Steam achievements, it appears that I made strong headway through the Aperture Science Labs in 2011 before making tiny returns in 2012 and 2016, before making more substantial progress last summer. As for why I didn’t finish the game originally, I can offer no explanation. Looking back at the archives, nothing substantial took my focus away writing wise, but as for my brief dallances since then, I can only put that down to being out of sync with the challenges posed in by Stephen Marchant’s Wheatley. Indeed, when I offered up some early impressions of the game, I talked about the need to get myself Thinking With Portals once again.

For a nine year old game, it has some breathtaking moments.

Without being in the zone for Portal’s challenges, they can take some time to figure out. I’m none too ashamed to reveal that in my last push to complete the game, I fell back onto some handy guides on the internet. Nine years after release, there’s no point in banging my head against a brick wall and getting frustrated. What the guides did tend to reveal when I called upon them was that I wasn’t entirely Thinking With Portals.

There was a certain pace and style to the original Portal, and the three gels and energy tunnels that were new for the sequel really offered a new twist on what was an extremely successful formula. The moments in my last couple of chapters where I put the puzzle together without resorting to a guide provided me with the kind of buzz the I rarely receive from solving puzzles in other games. My girlfriend, stuck in the Corona lockdown with me, gave me more than one funny look while I yelped out in excitement when the lightbulb went off in my head for a few levels.

Humour, a defining quality of Portal 2.

The two Portal titles are really quite different from the mainline Half-Life games, and showed that Valve had a fantastic grasp over characters, world building and most important, humour. The Half-Life titles are exceptional adventures in their own right, but for me Portal shows the breadth of talent in that studio. Their quest for perfection might well have held them back from releasing more singleplayer wonders to us in the years since Portal 2, but when they produced masterpieces like this, we can’t hold that against them too much.

If you’re looking at those playing Alyx right now in the delights of VR, take a look at Valve’s back catalogue and give this one another blast. The jokes are still sharp, and the performances from Ellen McLain, JK Simmonds and Merchant are something to behold.

Half-Life: Alyx – Missing Out

Half-Life: Alyx – Missing Out

Way back when, Half-Life and Valve were the biggest topics doing the rounds. The hype for the release of Half-Life 2 was unprecedented in the PC landscape, with equally unprecedented levels of debate doing the rounds about the introduction of Steam as the delivery tool for Valve’s blockbuster.

Now, with Half-Life: Alyx just days away from release, I see news stories that pre-loading of Valve’s dive into VR has begun, and I wonder when a game last had pre-loading. Maybe I’m so complacent with fast fibre connections and a lack of time to spend playing new games on the day of release that I don’t keep track of pre-loading details, but hearing about the pre-loading for Alyx sparks a memory of the good old days.

It also reminds me of how Valve fumbled the ball with the franchise. The idea of episodic game releases came and went in the blink of an eye, yet the ending of Episode 2 sticks in the mind as the mother of all cliffhangers, especially for someone who started their games writing life on a Half-Life fansite in

Valve were for a time the masters of storytelling when it came to first-person action games. I’d argue Arkane took that title and ran with it with the Dishonored series, but Valve were breaking new ground with Half-Life 2. Fellow ex-writer at, and now one half of the writing team behind A Place in the West, Ross Joseph Gardner penned a great piece on the storytelling innovations seen in Half-Life 2 and its episodes.

I would love to allow myself to become invested in the hype for Alyx, I yearn to be taken back into the world of Gordon, Alyx and the G-Man. But…Alyx is a VR game, and one exclusive to a subset of PC headsets. It might be the game which pushes VR towards the mainstream, but the capital investment required to have the requisite hardware will push Alyx beyond many, not to mention the motion sickness worries that put people off VR will likely limit the impact Alyx will have on the broader gaming world.

I don’t doubt that many people will watch others venture through Valve’s new adventure through streamers or lengthy Let’s Play videos which will do a lot to share the experience widely.

But, will that replicate the wonder of the tram sequence from the first game, or your first interaction with a Combine soldier? I don’t know how others will feel, but I would want to experience that moment myself.

I’m going to be missing out on a series that I once held in highest regard. I wish Valve would release a non-VR port of Alyx, but there is also a large part of me which is exceedingly happy that Valve are actually returning to the Half-Life world.

For those lucky enough to be in a position where you will be able to play Alyx, please savour the experience and feel the excitement of pre-loading and waiting for the hour of release.

The Joyful, and Head Scratching, Moments of Half-Life

The Joyful, and Head Scratching, Moments of Half-Life

Half-Life stands proud at the top of the all time greatest games for many of the pre-Fortnite generation. Even to this day, it still inspires developers to create videos about it, and for me to rattle on about the AI. Having just sent the finished On a Rail, and sent the top secret rocket into space, I wanted to share some memories of this special game. And no, I won’t be talking about the introductory tram ride.

The Resonance Cascade is, of course, the moment which causes all hell to break loose at Black Mesa. While the overarching question of why gets answered as the series progresses, when you first witness it, you don’t care about why it’s happening, only whether you will survive those first moments where you see your first vortigaunt, and whether the whole building will collapse upon you.

The most wonderful thing about the Resonance Cascade for me, comes in Half-Life: Decay. This was the PS2 exclusive bonus that came with the port of the base game to Sony’s device. It’s also the only co-op game I’ve actually completed. Taking the roles of Colette Green and Gina Cross, I spent a few days playing Decay after school with my best mate. It was an entertaining aside to the main game, giving some further context to how large a place Black Mesa was.

Barney’s are the endearing security guards who inhabit the Black Mesa facility.

They are accidental cannon fodder for the marines.

They are allies who might open a door, or give you some ammo.

They are legion.

Alright, enough about that. The Barney’s in Half-Life are all well and good, perhaps even better with the high-definition pack that was released along with Blue Shift, an expansion, like Decay, handled by Gearbox Software. My Barney isn’t just a random security guard, nor is he just the suave, handsome chap found in Half-Life 2. No, my Barney is all of that, plus a character that you can take on his own journey to Xen.

Here’s to Barney!

Why am I showing off a picture of a broken bridge from Blast Pit? The answer is simple, a broken bridge nearly broke me during my PS2 playthrough.

While I initially played Half-Life on the PC, I didn’t complete it there. After a certain point, I lent the disc to a friend, and it wasn’t until the PS2 release came along that I was able to complete it.

But, while exploring the Blast Pit chapter, I remember blowing up one of the bridges linking the main structure with the ancillary areas where you activated the various mechanisms that would allow you to destroy the three-headed tentacle creature.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t able to traverse the gap in the broken bridge. Was this because of a bug in the PS2 release, or was I missing a narrow bit of piping that I could have climbed over?

I’m none too sure, but with the benefit of hindsight, I’ll point the finger of blame at the god-awful jumping mechanics that plagued everyone.

I’ve most recently finished off the On a Rail chapter, one that always received bad press from the old community, but when playing through now, makes much more sense.

Admittedly, there are some janky moments. As FPS games have progressed, the way you naturally approach a shooter these days is to explore, see what paths there are to take, and generally have a poke around the edges of the main route.

Half-Life wasn’t designed for such poking, and once or twice I have had to reload a save from quite a bit earlier in the chapter to get myself out of sticky situation. Those electric rails are a killer, while some of the water ways are not easy to get out of (remember, the jumping sucks in this game).

But, playing On a Rail with a more critical eye, you can see that the Marines have designed a very nice maze for you. Shuttling between different rail carts, raising barriers, dodging missile strikes…they’re all signs that the Marines fear you.

I love the various ways that the Marines communicate their fear, and hate, of you. They daub graffiti around the rail network, and if you take your time and don’t just rush headlong into combat at every opportunity, you can listen in on their conversations.

The best comes at the end of On a Rail. You see sky for the first time in hours, and hear two Marines talking about how you’ve taken out all of their buddies. It’s all in self-defence, after all, they have been sent in to clear up the mess you created with the Resonance Cascade.

What the above image also brings to light though, is some of the design choices Valve made. There are numerous examples of corridors that lead nowhere, or vent systems that are just dead ends, without even any grates or fans to indicate a working system exists.

The heavy machinegun positions are perhaps the best example of a head scratching moment. Every one you come across is fully enclosed, there is no way for the grunt to escape…which also means that logically, he had no way of getting into position in the first place, unless the emplacement was built around him.

It’s nitpicking, I know, but these are the kinds of things that Valve learnt from when it came to Half-Life 2 and Portal.

The image I’ll leave you all with is this one. Boot Camp, the training level from Opposing Force, another Gearbox special.

At times, it feels like the work Gearbox did is treated like the red-headed step-child of the series, never to be talked about.

For me, Blue Shift, Opposing Force and Decay are key parts of the Half-Life experience. No start-to-end playthrough, from the tram ride into Black Mesa to the final moments of Episode 2 is complete without acknowledging the legacy left by Gearbox, and some of the jankyness of the original titles.

The PC Store Wars – What Next?

The PC Store Wars – What Next?

Earlier this week, I took at look at the current state of play with regards to The PC Store Wars. We’ve gone from a situation where, despite repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot, Valve have had little, to no, real competition in the online PC store space. Then, all of a sudden, Epic turned up with their own store. What happens now?

The Fortnite Effect

Epic made no bones about it when they launched their new store front. Their ability to launch it with such a developer friendly revenue split was thanks to the runaway success of Fortnite: Battle Royale. In 2018, the free-to-play title that was spun away from the premium (for now) Save the World variant, made upwards of $2.4 billion for Epic.

That’s right, analysts have calculated that one simple free-to-play game has made Epic more in one year than the GDP of several countries. Fortnite has had a drastic effect on the landscape of popular culture, let alone the game industry. It has been so successful, that Epic don’t even advertise it on their store. They just know people will have it, if they want it.

The phenomenal success means that Epic have a war chest, which means they can readily afford to take a hit on their revenue splits compared to the industry standard, thus enabling them to score exclusives like The Division 2 and Metro: Exodus.

What if the bubble pops? 

While the success of Fortnite so far can’t be denied, it isn’t the only free-to-play game making mega-bucks, let alone the only battle-royale title that is pulling in the money. DOTA2 is Valve’s own baby, while PUBG might be considered a has-been compared to Epic’s hit, but still pulls in over 800,000 users on an average weekday.

Looking at the Steam stats, there is one venerable oldie still standing tall. That, of course, is Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Still going strong, this won’t trouble Fortnite in the revenue stakes, but shows that there is a healthy appetite among gamers for non-Fortnite games.

But might the bubble pop? EA and Respawn only released Apex Legends back on the 5th February, but has already knocked up over 25 million users. How many will stick around for the long haul, and turn into money makers for EA, we can only wait and see.

Those players though must be coming from somewhere. Yes, Fortnite has gang-buster player numbers, but something like Apex Legends would fit right in the wheelhouse of some of those users. It might not be a mass exodus, but if the Fortnite userbase crashes, or more importantly, those who are spending money on the game move on to something else, where will that leave Epic?

If there is a drastic drop in revenue from Fortnite, it won’t happen overnight. I fully expect Epic to have contingency plans already in hand, and will be playing the long-game, knowing they can build a loyal audience on their store moving forward.

Valve’s Resilience

 Valve might have made some self-inflicted wounds when it comes to Steam, but they’ve been at this game for a long time. They survived EA departing their store, and have stood firm in the face of Fortnite. Epic launching their own store is unlikely to scare Valve too much, indeed, it might force them to sit up and pay attention to events taking place beyond the end of their nose.

They will likely make more blunders, but with a strong user base (just look at the numbers playing DOTA2, CS:GO and PUBG), why should anyone expect a rival store to suddenly destroy the rolling monster.

Indie game developers might be unhappy with their revenue splits, but are they more likely to make strong sales figures on a platform not solely dominated by one hit? On a platform where they won’t run the potential risks of seeing their game given away, with an unknown reward at the end?

I can see Valve improving their revenue splits, and Ts and Cs for those selling on the platform, but I don’t envisage an immediate emptying of the store from regular big hitters like Sports Interactive, SCS Software or Paradox Interactive.

Indeed, Valve haven’t even turned their back on game development like many people cry out. No, we are unlikely to ever see Half-Life rise from the grave, but DOTA2 and CS:GO are still very much supported, while something like Artefact is sure to undergo changes to push it to rival the Hearthstone’s of the world. That isn’t to forget In the Valley of the Gods.

Closing Thoughts

Competition is ultimately good for business, and good for consumers. Maybe not in every instance, as the splits between Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney’s upcoming venture are sure to show. But rival stores like Steam, Epic, Origin and Uplay should only drive companies to offer better user experiences, with better deals for the developers who sell through them.

Steam won’t be going anywhere soon, and Epic have the might of Fortnite to keep them going. The nature of some games becoming exclusives to Epic is frustrating for some, but what harm is there in buying Metro from another store (or even somewhere like Game or Amazon), while The Division will route its online component through Uplay.

People aren’t losing out at the moment with this shakeup to the PC landscape, and I think in the long-run, we will see benefits to these changes.

The PC Store Wars – The Story so Far

The PC Store Wars – The Story so Far

The PC Store Wars have been in a Cold War, pretty much ever since Valve launched Half-Life 2 with the requirement that users ran it through Steam. The Humble Bundle, GoG and more recently, Discord offer their own alternatives with distinct twists. Meanwhile EA, Ubisoft and Blizzard have stores primarily to promote their first party games.

They have all been efforts to break the monopoly of Steam, though without any obvious impact on Valve’s money-making machine. Most of Valve’s problems around their storefront have been self-inflicted PR gaffes.

The present…

I talked about their regular problems around Steam back in June, though my prophecy for what the future would hold was, with the benefit of hindsight, not quite how things have played out:

I don’t know what the best way forward is for Valve, but I feel that the European Commission investigation will go a long way to determining how they manage Steam in Europe in the future. 

I also pondered about whether Valve would be wise to consider splitting the storefront away from their product development business. While this hasn’t happened yet, in December they made some changes to how they split revenues with developers selling on their platform.

Rather than making an across the board change to their splits, they introduced a tiered system. While allowing developers with over $10million of revenue on the platform the opportunity moving forward to retain a greater share of their sales, is undeniably good for the big boys, it left indie developers less than enthused.

It was another example of Valve shooting themselves in the foot. Their efforts to try and ensure large developers, especially a company like Ubisoft who already have their own store, selling through Steam were perhaps a bit desperate. But to not offer indies the same benefits was yet another of those PR blunders.

…the future?

What happened just a few days after Valve made their announcement shows it in a darker light. Epic, you know, those guys behind that little Fortnite game, came along and announced their own store, taking aim square at Valve.

A flat, across the board revenue split of 88/12 shows how meagre Valve’s offerings are. The make no bones that the great financial success of Fortnite has allowed them to be so bold with their decision. It’s already one that is having far reaching implications with Ubisoft planning to release The Division 2 on Uplay and the new Epic store, while Metro Exodus will be available exclusively from Epic.

What had been a cold war that was starting to slowly warm up has suddenly exploded into life. What comes next? We’ll take a look soon.

Valve’s Steam Troubles – Years in the Making

Valve’s Steam Troubles – Years in the Making

Steam, it’s not the be-all and end-all of the PC gaming market. It might have over 125 million users, with 16 million active right now, but other storefronts are out there. There is Uplay and Origin from the AAA publishers, with and Humble Bundle targeting the indie markets. Users have lots of choice now for where they buy their games, but we can’t deny Steam stands at the top of the pile. Despite its numerical supremacy, Valve’s little baby isn’t having things so easy anymore, with numerous crises arising over the last 18 months.

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What Happened to Half-Life Decay?

What Happened to Half-Life Decay?

This past week saw GameInformer drop a massive article charting Andrew Reiner’s longstanding quest to unearth information from Valve on the latest goings on with their most famous franchise, Half-Life. What emerged was a lengthy interview with an inside source, which pretty much confirms that Half-Life is all but dead. The article though prompted me to revisit an old home –, or as it used to be know, What did I find? An interesting article looking at Half-Life Decay.

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Read Half-Life A Place in the West on Steam This Friday

Read Half-Life A Place in the West on Steam This Friday

Steam has seen a lot of changes take place over time, progressing from a simple store to buy games, to somewhere selling software and movies. From this coming Friday, 30th September, you will be able to read the first graphic novel to launch on Steam. The first chapter of the Half-Life themed comic, Half-Life A Place in the West has been available online since 2015, but will be coming to Steam with new pages.

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Valve Ready More Counter-Strike and DOTA2 Goodies – No Half-Life 3 Leaves The World Sad

Valve Ready More Counter-Strike and DOTA2 Goodies – No Half-Life 3 Leaves The World Sad

Valve have managed to bring joy to two thirds of the PC gaming population while leaving the other third wishing they had some news to hold onto. I am of course talking about news regarding Dota 2 and Counter-Strike and the (continued) absence of news about the mysterious less spotted Half-Life 3. What news do I bring? Hit the break…

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