At this point, I probably don’t have to tell you how awesome Portal is. On the off chance you haven’t heard of it, I’ll only say that it’s a first-person puzzle game about shooting wormhole-style portals in walls and using momentum in clever ways, and is filled with delightfully black humor. It’s also only $20 and takes 4-5 hours to finish which, as I think I’ve mentioned somewhere on here before, is the perfect length and price for me: twenty bucks, about five hours of game. Go get it right now if you don’t already have it. (Actually, finish reading this post first, because you might want to buy The Orange Box instead.)
Portal’s already been thoroughly covered by the other video game blogs, however, and they’ve already gushed about it just as much as I could, so I wasn’t compelled to post just about Portal. What really got me to sit down and evangelize this morning was an amazing mod called MINERVA: Metastasis, created solely by a guy named Adam Foster over the course of two and a half years. It was started as a Half Life 2 mod, but switched to a Half Life 2: Episode One mod to make clever use of Stalkers, Zombines, and some beautiful HDR lighting effects.
I first checked out Minerva a couple years ago when only the first chapter of the game was available. I was very impressed by the design, but was sad that it was so short, and presumed that that 8-minute-ish first chapter represented about a third of the finished game. The premise is a very clever use of Half Life 2: Episode One‘s existing assets; rather than yet another Gordon Freeman adventure, you control a nameless Combine soldier who’s been reprogrammed, Terminator 2-style, to be more or less one of the good guys, and is airlifted onto an isolated island fortress to do some reconnaissance for “Minerva”, a mysterious scientist who watches your progress through your eyes and talks to you throughout the game via on-screen text. Being a Combine soldier has its advantages; you can actually open most of the “Combine locks” on doors in the game. Of course, the other Combine soldiers on the island immediately sense that you’re no longer one of them and open fire on you as soon as land, which makes the beginning of the game somewhat of a pitched battle, but once you’ve cleared the beaches the difficulty calms down, and then steadily ramps back up as you descend deep, deep, deep beneath the surface.
The original release ended shortly after you began your descent, and like I said I presumed that the final version would be about three times that length, making it a very polished little mod with a 20-30 minute play time. The final, full version of the mod was recently released, and since Portal got me interested in Source games again I gave it a whirl, and was amazed to discover that that first chapter really only accounts for about a tenth of the complete game. Not only that, but as you move deeper into the facility beneath the island, the game literally becomes deeper in every possible way; the plot thickens, the map design improves, the fights become more complicated, and the puzzles become trickier. Minerva actually develops a sort of “Zelda” feel, with weapons and physics being used in clever ways that the official Source games never thought of (and without the over-used Gravity Gun making a single appearance!), and just when I thought I’d reached the end, I discovered that it was actually just the halfway point, resulting in the most entertaining “there and back again”-style game I’ve ever played (which is saying a lot because I usually hate that design choice). It has numerous, spectacular set-pieces, and is so well constructed that I honestly think it’s just as good as HL2: Episode One itself, and am absolutely astounded that it was all built by one person. My one and only suggestion for improvement is for the developer to replace the text communications from Minerva with actual voice acting (and I’m sure many quality voice actresses would be willing to work for free on a project this impressive), although by the end of the game I’d gotten used to the text, and Minerva thankfully only talks to you during breaks in the action, so you’re never trying to fight off enemies or solve puzzles with a screen full of text.
Because Minerva is an HL2: Episode One mod, you’ll need HL2: Episode One (which is only $10) to play it, but Minerva itself is free, and to tie back to the top of this post if you don’t already have Portal and Half Life 2 either, then you might as well splurge and get The Orange Box, because then you’ll end up with Portal for $20, HL2: Episode One (and, by extension, Minerva) for $10, and Half Life 2, Team Fortress 2, and HL2: Episode Two (that’s a lot of twos!) all for another $20.
Valve, if you’re reading, please offer Adam Foster a job on HL2: Episode Three, and please work with him to port MINERVA: Metastasis to an XBL download for the Orange Box so the 360 people can also enjoy this masterpiece. Adam Foster, if you’re reading this, thanks for making the best mod I’ve ever played. (The second best mod I’ve ever played being Don’t Eat the Mushroom, for the game Knytt Stories.)