Mod Watch

Recently in the Mapcore forums, Magnar Jenssen posted screenshots of Mission Improbable 3. I hadn’t played the first two, although I knew of them and their acclaim in the mod scene. For that matter, it’d been a while since I played any mods, and since last time I discovered Radiator, Dear Esther, Korsakovia, and Hazard, I went forward with excitement.

Mission Improbable 1 and 2 (by Magnar Jenssen):

The Mission Improbable levels take the form of additional chapters in Freeman’s campaign. The gameplay mechanics and narrative style are consistent with the original content. In the first mission, the player’s objective is to reactivate a rebel communication post, and discover why the connection was lost. In the second mission, the player regroups with a rebel outpost, and then begins an attack on combine territory. Of the two, I enjoyed the first one more for its pace and tone.

The slow intro on a boat, and gradual uncovering of the island sets a tone in Mission Improbable 1 that’s essential for the complete range of tension. It’s this range, like a crescendo, that makes the level so interesting. In Half Life 2, particularly in episode 1, there aren’t many moments to slow down. In episode 2, the small encounter while exploring became more typical, and contributed to a greater tension in combat throughout. This range made the final fights of Half Life 2 episode 2 and Mission Improbable 1 similarly satisfying to complete. Mission Improbable 2 maintained a more typical fast pace throughout, which I found less enjoyable.

Whoopservatory (by Magnar Jenssen):

Unlike the Mission Improbable levels, Whoopservatory introduces a new mechanic to the combat of Half Life 2. In it, the player can use machines to record and replay seven seconds of activity, allowing for single player cooperation. Rachel Cordone’s Prometheus had a similar mechanic, which was used to create some complex puzzles. Here, however, Jenssen only used this mechanic twice, isolating bouts of combat. Two puzzles didn’t feel substantial enough to grasp the mechanic’s ideas, so it’s a shame he didn’t explore it more.

Aesthetically, the level looks as good as anything in Half Life 2 episode 2. The exterior sequences feel straight out of Alan Wake, blending blue tones from the surrounding forest with warm pools of artificial light. I especially enjoyed the motes of dust caught in light shafts, and the use of chalk boards as ludodiegetic tutorials.

The combat gameplay was consistent with the Mission Improbable levels, sharing the same strengths and weaknesses. Encountering individual or small groups of zombies while exploring gave the space life and implied narrative interest. The reuse of space for multiple encounters was also well executed. My primary complaint remains that overpopulating a space with enemies prevents the combat-sandbox that makes Half Life 2 interesting (see Ravenholm).

I found the overuse of manhacks (in Whoopservatory and Mission Improbable) particularly irritating. When used infrequently manhacks upset the player’s target priorities and disrupt plans, adding a dynamic challenge. Isolated from larger encounters, however, they bland to fight. When there is a large quantity of them, especially when mixed into larger encounters, they encourage frantic, nonstrategic gameplay. There is a place for this, but it is only valuable through its infrequency.

Minor complaints aside, I enjoyed Whoopservatory. Mods aren’t usually known for their polish, but this one deservedly is.

Level With Me (by Robert Yang and friends):

Level With Me reminds me of Psychonauts, where levels represent characters, and gameplay challenges are functions of their narrative flaws and motivations. Psychonauts has some of the strongest instances of ludonarrative support I’ve encountered in video games. This should encourage greater exploration into levels as abstract representations or characters, but such levels are rare. Level With Me, however, begins with this sort of exploration.

In the first chapter of Level With Me, which was designed for Portal 2, test chambers are named and briefly described. A boring and simple character makes for a boring and simple level. A confusing and broken character makes for a confusing and broken level.  The question is whether this interesting abstraction justifies bad design. A moment I enjoyed was after an irreversible puzzle, when I had to crawl through a laser-filled tunnel as punishment, and emerge surrounded by an arc of vacant seats. It felt below insult; the audience was too bored to stick around and boo (or call Chell fat).

The second chapter vaguely continued this theme by representing actual people (the interviewees) or their ideas in iterations of the same puzzle. This chapter began with the orange-boxed version of the level, where the player has to step through a level editor screen and then interact with programming to open the door. This is a recreation of Robert Yang’s Door Challenge level, which frames himself around the test chambers to follow as the host designer and interviewer. Throughout, these test chambers are filled with self-aware audio segments and self-reference, which often left me laughing.

The final chapter is the least interactive. The levels largely transition after a set time, regardless of player interaction. This concludes in a recreation of the original Half Life test chamber, where Yang narrates that the space isn’t remembered for clever gameplay or puzzles, because the player merely presses a button. After this, all of the voices from the interviews intermingle into an indecipherable crowd, and the level ends. There is also a moment in this chapter where the Farnsworth House is replicated, but I’m not sure about its significance to the whole, not yet anyway.

Levels representing characters and levels about level design are interesting, and seldom explored despite their past success. I found Level With Me to be a thought provoking and largely enjoyable experience even at its least forgiving.

If any of these mods sounded remotely interesting, check them out! (They’re free!)

(Note: the other design participants in Level With Me were Dan Pinchbeck, Richard Perrin, Magnar Jenssen, Ed Key, Jack Monahan, Davey Wreden, and Brendon Chung.)

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