“A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
So said Winston Churchill about Russia’s intentions just after World War II broke out, and it’s a saying that’s appropriate to the Half Life 2 mod Research & Development, albeit paraphrased. Essentially it’s a point-and-click game wrapped up in a physics-based environmental puzzler inside a first-person-shooter. Confused? Then let me elaborate…
The game opens with you regaining consciousness after a Combine attack on what turns out to be a covert scientific facility experimenting on antlions. You quickly ascertain that there are allies nearby, but to reach them you have to make your way through zombies, Combine and as many fiendish environmental and situational puzzles as the mind of mod-maker mbortolino could possibly come up with. What follows, to borrow an oft overused term, is a genuine rollercoaster ride of a game. That sounds like lazy writing, but the allusion is apt – R&D is short, intense and it will send you loopy.
The loopiness comes from the somewhat skewed approach to the puzzles; like a tradional point-and-click it’s a matter of seeing what objects will interact with other objects, or what switches will make things move. Often it’s like a giant game of Mousetrap – put object A here, click this switch to swing a crane and knock the object over there, then hit another switch to move it on. But your objective in each area is not always clear and sometimes it’s a case of hitting everything with a blast from the gravity gun too see what will happen. This is particularly the case in the latter half of the game’s short run time.
Of course, it being a puzzler and not a shooter, the length of the mod isn’t much of an issue,a s you’ll spend a lot of extra time thinking. At around four hours long for a first time playthrough, there’s not enough time to get overly frustrated with it, nor is it long enough to start recycling puzzles. That said, one can’t but wish for more… mbortolini’s sense of humour and style shines throughout, from the level names painted on walls like graffiti to Mr Whirly, R&D’s interpretation of the standard HL2 vehicle. While vehicles have been a bullet-point on the back of many an FPS title, they’re generally much of a muchness, usually only providing a distraction from the meat of the game. Mr Whirly, on the other hand, is a perfect example of mbortolini’s skewed approach to traditional FPS mechanics.
Created by the player as part of a simple hunt-the-part puzzle, it’s powered by a pair of fanblades and moves more akin to the Half-Life 2 hovercraft than the buggy, with a distinct floaty feel. It’s fun to drive for the first few moments until you realise that it needs to be taken intact through the last third of the game and into the final Strider confrontation. The fun then drains out of the experience somewhat, but comes back in spades when you realise exactly how you and Mr Whippy must overcome the game’s final objective. There’s an overt sense of experimentation throughout the game, but also one of wish fulfillment. Mbortolino seems to have approached certain puzzles straight out of leftfield – using microwaves as gravity bombs, for instance. There’s a certain flair and and some cinematic expertise in puzzle resolution as well. Gaining the gravity gun is simply a matter of true/false switch changing, but still manages to feel like a major achievement because of the way the section is laid out.
That said, perhaps the biggest flaw in the game is the arbitrary change in difficulty – like a traditional point-and-click, instadeath is a constant hazard, and this is nowhere more prevelant than in the second section, where you find yourself literally on rails, on a self-propelled cart moving through a train yard. Steam spewing from broken pipes will knock you into the acid surface of the yard, killing you. Combine will shoot at you or launch grenades in your direction, blowing you off the cart and zombines are a constant presence, suiciding themselves into you or tossing crates. Not much of an issue individually, but when all three are combined the game grinds to a stop-start halt as you constantly respawn due to instadeath. On one occasion I was even blown out of the map and left with no option but to reload from the beginning of the level. It feels like a slog, and it is a slog, but once overcome you begin to relish again the relative freedom of not having to check your corners, or worry about the stop-start nature of combat. It’s a puzzle game! It feels like a playground, like an assault course and once through it’s even more fun the second or third time.
In the long run, this is a very well put together, fun mod and provides a different view of the Half-Life universe, one that doesn’t involve combat. Gordon Freeman, in a past life, would be proud.