Investigate what the Combine is up to on a remote island.
PC Release: September 2, 2005
By Ian Coppock
Half-Life 3 is never coming out. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but between the retirement of series writer Marc Laidlaw and Valve’s seeming disinterest in developing new video games, Half-Life fans are best off accepting what we’ve already known for years. This fact—sad as it is—has not stopped legions of Half-Life enthusiasts from developing their own maps and mods. Some of them are even worth playing, and the one most worth some playtime is Minerva.
Minerva (often stylized as MINERVA) is a Half-Life 2 mod created by a developer named Adam Foster. Although a Half-Life 2 mod ostensibly sounds like a love letter to the series, Minerva is actually Foster’s way of taking Half-Life 2‘s level design to task. To hear him tell it, Half-Life 2 fails to create architecturally realistic environments, making its levels focus entirely on gameplay instead of being more than “a series of unconnected boxes.” Foster’s critique may sound incendiary to Half-Life fans, but don’t click away from this review just yet; this guy might have a point.
Even though the main purpose of Minerva is to criticize Valve’s level design, the mod is far more than a mere tech demo. The game features a story set in the Half-Life universe in which players investigate an island at the behest of the titular, mysterious Minerva. As a nameless agent, it’s up to players to descend into a hidden facility and find out what the big bad Combine is up to. In that regard, at least, Minerva is pretty similar to the Half-Life 2 games.
Fans who are defensive about Half-Life 2 are probably wondering what Foster’s idea of “good” level design is, if the original game’s is allegedly so flawed. Minerva‘s level design is indeed a far cry from that of Half-Life 2; rather than relying on a series of linear environments, Minerva explores vertical space. It features level design that gives players several options for getting to the next objective instead of confining them to a single path. One method of level design is not objectively better than the other, but Foster’s use of open-ended environments still makes for a lot of fun.
As an example, suppose the player reaches a junction leading to the next level of Minerva‘s island base. Players can take the most direct route by using the stairs, or perhaps circle around the side of the chamber. Maybe that balcony over there is a way down? It’s unfair to say that Half-Life 2 completely lacked sections like these (Highway 17, anyone?) but it is true that open-ended level design was the exception rather than the rule in that game. It’s the other way around in Minerva.
Minerva‘s more open level design makes it a fun mod to play. The possibilities afforded by the multiple paths forward allow for different playstyles and enemy encounters. Players who prefer short and brutal confrontations can mow their way through Combine soldiers head-on, while players who prefer strafing the fight rather than being in the middle of it can pop shots off from the sidelines. At the very least, this design presents a fresh new experience for Half-Life fans weary of replaying the series.
However, just because Minerva‘s level design is different doesn’t mean it’s flawless. By providing players with multiple pathways, Minerva inadvertently makes it easy for players to get lost or turned around. This problem is compounded by a lot of the game’s rooms looking too samey. Not all of Minerva‘s segments suffer this problem, but players looking for the next route deeper into the base might find themselves heading for the door instead. If all else fails, just keep trying to head downward.
One thing that Minerva‘s levels do share in common with Half-Life 2‘s are the objects and textures. It should go without saying that a game seeking to resemble the Half-Life universe is built in the Source engine and uses many of the same objects, textures, and other props found in those games. For all of the noise Foster made about Half-Life 2‘s visual design, there’s no denying that he studied it down to the tiniest detail. Half-Life fans can therefore look forward to seeing all of the alien machinery and dilapidated textures found in the main Half-Life game, as well as the same masterful use of lighting.
Games built in the Source engine tend to age gracefully, but that doesn’t mean that they look ageless. It’s been twelve years since the first segment of Minerva hit stores; the game still looks pretty good, but time can only do so much to stop the telltale signs of a beloved game getting older. The surfaces’ edges look a bit serrated, the objects look a bit polygonal… Minerva still looks a hell of a lot better than other games that first hit shelves in 2005, but as the years go by it’s easier to tell that it came out in 2005.
Minerva also borrows the gameplay of Half-Life 2, which has aged a lot better than the Source engine’s oldest visuals. Just like in Half-Life 2, players can take on glowy-eyed enemy soldiers with a colorful variety of weapons. The Half-Life series’ trademark crowbar is present in the player character’s inventory, as are the beloved pump-action shotgun and the deadly-as-Dillinger .44 Magnum. Half-Life 2 fans should have no trouble adapting to combat in Minerva.
In addition to all the same guns and other weapons, players can expect to find Half-Life 2‘s lineup of bad guys waiting for them in the island base. Combine soldiers comprise the bulk of enemy forces in Minerva, but players can also count on finding plenty of synths and other war machines. As always, Half-Life fans should prepare to use that shotgun on headcrabs… because this island is absolutely lousy with the little bastards. For better and for worse, Minerva‘s combat is pretty much the same combat experience afforded by the Half-Life games: fluid, if a bit clunky by modern standards.
Even though Minerva was intended primarily to be a response to Half-Life 2‘s level design, the mod ended up getting a lot more attention (and praise) for its story. Just like Gordon Freeman in the Half-Life games, the protagonist of Minerva is a silent character who verbalizes no observations about the world around them. Unlike Gordon Freeman, this person doesn’t even have a name. They’re just really, really, really good with guns.
Minerva, the aforementioned entity guiding the player’s actions, does drop a few hints here and there about the character’s background. She communicates with players exclusively by text chat; it’s never made clear if “she” is a person or an AI. Critics lauded the character for her admittedly well-written dialogue and a snarky sense of humor not unlike that of Portal‘s GLaDOS. Like that humorously sadistic robot, Minerva takes breaks from giving objectives to make wry remarks about the player. Foster’s character writing is comparable to Valve’s in that regard.
Minerva‘s story is not the avant-garde literary masterpiece that some critics seem to believe it to be, but it does present a thrilling tale that raises more questions than it answers. Minerva never quite discerns why she wants the player to break into this base; only that she wants them to. The game’s writing presents an even rotation of black humor and eyebrow-raising implications about the player, culminating in a raucous, penultimate confrontation done out in the style of all Half-Life narratives.
Unfortunately, Minerva is too good at emulating the pattern of Half-Life 2‘s story. Like Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Minerva had planned follow-up games and episodes that ended up never being released. How ironic; Adam Foster is so good at imitating Half-Life‘s nuances that he too ended up never releasing a highly anticipated sequel. Let’s be fair, though; Minerva resolves its story and doesn’t end on a pulse-pounding cliffhanger like Half-Life 2: Episode Two does. It’s just funny that a mod for an unfinished series ended up becoming an unfinished series itself.
One reason why Foster never finished Minerva might be that Valve hired him. Rather than take offense at Foster’s constructive criticism, Valve brought him on as a level designer and encouraged him to share more of his ideas. He went on to work on the unreleased Half-Life 2: Episode Three at one point, as well as a few levels in Portal 2. Given that Valve has moved out of the game production space (at least for now), Gaben only knows what he’s currently toiling away at.
Valve was smart to not throw a hissy fit at Foster’s critique of Half-Life 2, and fans of the series shouldn’t either. Minerva is a sublime game whose take on the Half-Life series isn’t perfect, but it is different. It puts a familiar universe through the paces of vastly different level design, preserving the essence of what makes that universe great without re-treading what previous games have already done. Foster’s take on open-ended level design is worth series fans’ time to experience; download Minerva and see what mysteries (level design and otherwise) are hidden in its depths.
You can buy Minerva here.
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