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Whatever happened to Half-Life 3? The complete saga so far

The story behind PC gaming's most anticipated game that never happened

Half-Life 3 is the greatest mystery in PC gaming. More intriguing than the actual magic that makes your GPU work, and more elusive than a good movie tie-in game, so what is the current state of Half-Life 3?

The Half-Life hiatus has finally ended, after a rumour that a VR Half-Life game is in the works, we have confirmation of Valve’s third full-length entry in the series, Half-Life: Alyx. Although it’s still unclear on what this means for Half-Life 3 (or if this is even Half-Life 3) and PC players, Half-life: Alyx launched in March, 2020, and will hopefully open the doors for more Half-Life in the not too distant future.

So, what is Half-Life 3, especially now Half-Life: Alyx has been released? Over the years there have been two quite different answers – it’s either a collection of three short, episodic games – two of which have already been released – or it’s a full-length sequel to both Half-Life 2 and its expansions. Here’s the story of Half-Life 3 so far, leading up to the release of Half-Life: Alyx.

Half-Life 3: the story so far

Back in 2006, as Half-Life 2: Episode One released, Valve boss Gabe Newell referred to Episodes 1-3 as being Half-Life 3. “Probably a better name for it would have been Half Life 3: Episode One,” he admitted during an interview with Eurogamer. He went on to explain that after the six year wait for Half-Life 2, Valve didn’t want players to go through another similar experience. Instead, the next game in the saga was to span three smaller episodes that would be released with far higher frequency.

“This is what we’re trying instead of the large monolithic release. Let’s take what we would ordinarily do and break it up into three pieces and see,” Newell said.

And the format worked, almost. Half-Life 2: Episode One suffered a delay, but released just two years after Half-Life 2’s 2004 debut. Episode Two promptly arrived the following year in 2007.

During that time the general opinion on Episode Three has changed. If Valve has been working on a Half-Life 3 game all this time, it’s logical to presume that Episode Three is no more, and a full-size Half-Life 3 game is now what to expect. Valve couldn’t possibly release a four-hour episode to an audience that’s spent almost a decade in waiting, could it?

Half-Life 3 concept art

2012 saw the leak of a series of concept art images reportedly drawn for Half-Life 2: Episode Three. Among them were various drawings of Alyx Vance, men wearing cold weather gear, and a return to Xen. The art was acquired by the fan website ValveTime, who claimed the images were from a 2008 project. Concept art is generally part of the pre-production process however, so it’s not an indication that the third episode ever even reached a greybox build.

Half-Life 2: Episode Four – Return to Ravenholm

While the concept art leak helps keep the candle of hope burning, the story of Return to Ravenholm offers an opposite viewpoint. Between 2006 and 2008 Arkane, the studio behind Dishonored 2, was developing Half-Life 2: Episode Four. Entitled ‘Return to Ravenholm’, it was to put the player in control of a new character and revisit the zombie-infested titular town during a period before Episode Two’s conclusion.

Valve pulled the plug on it, though. A report from ValveTime explains that the company felt the episode couldn’t introduce anything new due to the setting constraints, this could be why Valve eventually chose VR as the platform for Half-Life: Alyx a decade later. Valve says that the process of creating a VR game, has urged the studio to “explore new ways to tell stories with these characters and this world, and we’ve discovered a lot of new gameplay experiences that go beyond what we’ve been able to do before.”

“There’s no such thing as Half-Life 3”

In the opening month of 2017, Game Informer recorded a podcast and published an article containing some revealing information from a single, anonymous source within Valve. By this point in the story you won’t be too surprised to read the words “There is no such thing as Half-Life 3,” but that’s exactly what was said by GI’s informant.

Valve has a ‘flat’ structure, meaning there’s no real management, just a few influencing personalities. Among them is company co-founder and president Gabe Newell. Game Informer’s source seems to suggest that Newell is not interested in making Half-Life 3.

“Every time a Half-Life project gets some gravity and then collapses, it becomes harder for the next one to start up,” said the informant.

Over the years there have been some Half-Life 3 prototypes, and the source says they have been more inventive than you’d imagine. According to the Game Informer podcast, one was an RTS, while another was a riff on adventure games, done with live-action actors.

But those projects appear to be a thing of the past now. Game Informer’s executive editor Andrew Reiner said on the podcast “I reached out to ten to 15 people who worked for the company and they just didn’t want to talk about it all. Dead end after dead end after dead end.” He suggested that Valve is now fed up of being asked about it.

WARREN SPECTOR’S LOST HALF-LIFE EPISODE

In March 2017, website ValveTime released images from a leaked set of files that were made for the Half-Life 2 episodes. Among them were images of a snow-covered Ravenholm map that included puzzles, scripted sequences, and fights. ValveTime noted that this wintery level was not related to Arkane’s Episode Four, but was part of another cancelled episode that was being developed by Junction Point Studios in late 2005.

The map implies that the player would have crashed into a warehouse in a gondola. When awaking from the incident, two new characters – Duncan and Scooter – would have aided them. Rebels and Combine soldiers would be fighting in the streets. The episode would have included a new physics weapon – the Magnet Gun – and objects in the map have magnetic fields.

The kicker of this story is that Junction Point was headed up by legendary designer Warren Spector, the man behind Deus Ex. The now-closed studio was started by ex-Ion Storm employees, including Spector and Art Min. Alas, we can only guess at the kind of Half-Life game such minds would have made.

Half-Life 2: Episode 3’s cliffhanger

Valve’s long-term writer Marc Laidlaw left the company in January 2017. Several months after his departure he gave an interview to Arcade Attack. Discussing Half-Life 3, Laidlaw explained that the game would likely have ended on a mystery in much the same way as Episode 2. “I will say that I expected every instalment would end without resolution, forever and ever…” he said.

Discussing specifically Episode 3 (it would appear that internally Valve was still considering the next game as part of the Half-Life 2 saga and not a fresh game), Laidlaw said: “My intention was that Ep3 would simply tie up the plot threads that were particular to HL2. But it would still end like HL1 and HL2, with Gordon in an indeterminate space, on hold, waiting for the next game to begin. So one cliffhanger after another.”

Half-Life 2: Episode 3 story revealed

A few months after taking part in the Arcade Attack interview, Marc Laidlaw published a short story on his blog in the guise of fanfiction. Told from the point of view of “Gertie Fremont” and featuring gender-switched versions of the Half-Life 2 cast, it’s a tongue-in-cheek method of revealing Laidlaw’s story for Episode 3.

So what would have happened after Episode 2? Alyx and Gordon bury Eli Vance, and along with Dr. Mossman head to Antarctica via seaplane in search of the Borealis. After being shot down and spending time traversing the icy wastes, the team finally discovers the time-and-dimension shifting ship. They manage to board it, and fight their way through the decks as the entire ship phases through several realities. These include the Seven Hour War, the far future of the Half-Life universe, and even a glimpse of the Combine homeworld.

With the ship captured, a fight breaks out between Alyx and Mossman. Alyx intends to use the Borealis as a makeshift time-missile battering ram, while Mossman believes it will be useful for the Resistance. The argument results in Alyx killing Mossman, and so Gordon goes along with the battering ram idea. The plan is a suicide mission, and as the Borealis is about to collide with what is clearly an indestructible Dyson Sphere that it will have zero effect on, the G-Man shows up, saves Alyx, and leaves Gordon to his doom. Thankfully the Vortigaunts have other plans, and lift Gordon out of time and space, only to dump him back in the Half-Life timeline many years into the future.

It sounds incredibly Half-Life, with sequences like the Borealis fight appearing akin to Titanfall 2’s Effect and Cause mission, albeit devised years before. It’s easy to see why, back in 2008, this could have been considered a technical challenge too far. Its publication also feels like an admission that Episode 3 will never happen. It’s nice to know what we missed out on, though.

Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, fans didn’t take the news well, with Valve getting the brunt of their ire. Some people took to Dota 2’s user reviews to express their displeasure that Valve ‘killed’ Half-Life 3 in exchange for their highly successful MOBA. Comments from negative reviewers on the Dota 2 Steam page added in the days after Laidlaw’s blog post include: “This game is very good. But Half-Life is better,” “Negative review in memory of half life 3,” “Not only is this game a miserable bore, it killed Valve’s creativity and eliminated any need to finish the Half-Life series. Thanks Gabe!”

Is Half-Life 3 even possible?

Is Half-Life 3 even possible anymore? Especially after the announcement of Half-Life: Alyx. With the return of the Half-Life series, fans are asking what this means for the future of Half-Life, and the possibility of Half-Life 3.

Clearly, the answer is yes. Half-Life: Alyx is a full-length game, and is roughly 15 hours long. With gorgeous new 2019-friendly assets, a full cast of voices, and practically everything else that you need to make a triple-A game now, there’s no denying that if Valve can still make a game like Alyx, then they can still make a proper sequel to Half-Life 2.

The Valve we know today is a very different company to the one that released Half-Life 2. In an interview with Develop in 2011, Newell said: “With episodes, I think we accelerated the model and shortened development cycles with it. If you look at Team Fortress 2, that’s what we now think is the best model for what we’ve been doing. Our updates and release model keeps on getting shorter and shorter.”

Half-Life 3 release date

Until the words ‘Half-Life 3 confirmed’ stop being a meme, a release date for the game is nothing but a pipe dream, although Valve’s VR exclusive Half-Life: Alyx is out now. In a recent interview with Geoff Keighley, Valve respond to the question about why the VR game, Half-Life: Alyx isn’t Half-Life 3, dev Robin Walker says, “In all honesty, back in 2016 when we started this, Half-Life was just terrifying. Half-Life 3 [was] a terrifyingly daunting prospect, and I think to some extent, VR was a way we could fool ourselves into believing we had a way to do this.”

Half-Life 3 VR

Each Half-Life has seen something revolutionary introduced into gaming. The first title offered previously unseen levels of narrative immersion, while the sequel pioneered realistic physical object behaviour, empowering the player to use physics as a puzzle-solving device and a weapon. Following that pattern, it seemed plausible that Half-Life 3 could be developed for VR and although the newly released Half-Life: Alyx is a VR only prequel to the events of Half-Life 2, it hasn’t been branded as the third episode or third entry into the series.

So yes, Half-Life: Alyx is VR, but we’ve no idea if Half-Life 3 (whatever that is) will be exclusive to VR, too.

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Half Life 3? Half-Life: Alyx…

Valve’s new VR game Half-Life: Alyx is now out in the wild. Half-Life: Alyx released on PC on March 23 2020 and is a prequel to the events of Half-Life 2, in which you’ll play as Alyx Vance. It has launched to universal praise, and you can read our Half-Life: Alyx review to see what we think of it.

Half-Life: Alyx is Valve’s new “flagship VR game” and is set in the Half-Life universe. It is a “full-length virtual reality entry in the Half-Life series,” of which Newell says: “VR has energized us. We’ve invested a lot of ourselves in the technology. But we’re also game developers at heart, and to be devoting ourselves to a VR game this ambitious is just as exciting. For that to come in the form of Half-Life feels like the culmination of a lot things we care a lot about: truly great games, cutting edge technology, and open platforms.”

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Although it is still unclear what this means for Half-Life 3 and for PC players, we also spoke to the devs about the game’s development and release, and they told us that they want to keep exploring possibilities for the next Half-Life game.

Half-Life: Alyx is a VR exclusive and is compatible with all VR PC headsets. Valve confirms Half-Life: Alyx will not be coming to mouse and keyboard, as it is an “exploration of VR” and “the kinds of interactions that we can do now we couldn’t possibly do with a mouse and keyboard. Like interacting with doors is one of the most obvious things.”

Half-Life: Alyx arrives with mod support, featuring full Steam Workshop support and a level editor for building new levels.

Half-Life 3 story

Episode Two ended on a cliffhanger for the ages. After destroying the Combine’s super portal, Gordon, Alyx, and Eli plan to seek out the Borealis: an Aperture Science research vessel that mysteriously disappeared. Before the trio can board a helicopter and embark on their search, a pair of Combine Advisors attack them and kill Eli. The screen fades to black as Alyx sobs into her father’s corpse.

Half-Life 3 would presumably continue Gordon and Alyx’s quest to find the Borealis. The footage of the ship seen in Episode Two was flecked with snowflakes, suggesting an arctic location. The leaked concept art backs this up, with images of a crashed helicopter on a frozen landscape, and drawings of various characters in cold weather gear.

With the Borealis being an Aperture Science ship, it would seem that Half-Life 3 would explore the connections between the Half-Life and Portal games. Easter eggs aplenty seem likely.

The art also contains a few paintings of alien-like imagery, suggesting the story may take Gordon back to Xen. Hopefully the final boss will be more exciting than a giant floating baby this time around.

Half-Life 3 gameplay

With no official information released by Valve, there’s no way we can comment on what Half-Life 3’s gameplay will be like. It would seem logical to expect a big new innovation on the scale of the Gravity Gun, and that’s backed up by Gabe Newell’s own comments. “There’s stuff [in Episode Three] that’s visually never been in games before, and there’s certainly a bunch of game elements on the order of Portal that have never been done before,” he said in an interview with Geoff Keighley in February 2008. He went on to hint that Valve had created something more innovative than the Portal Gun.

At this point, though, we’d hesitate to even say it will definitely be an FPS. Half-Life 3 could genuinely be anything.

The only real word on the internet regarding how the game will play comes from a Pastebin document, shared in January 2016. The anonymous user who posted the document suggests that they are part of the game’s development team, and reveals a few tidbits.

“The game is fabricated to be VERY reactive to player choice and decision making,” the file reads.

“There are no forced cutscenes that break the pace of the game and put you to a stop. Instead you can still freely do as you please and fully interact with everything that goes on story wise and cinematically.”

The last point seems fairly obvious, as the series has never made use of cutscenes. Combined with the slightly iffy sentence construction, it feels as if this is a hoax. If not, though, we’re told to expect optional physics puzzles that are generated based on your decisions.

And that’s the Half-Life 3 story so far. Want more Half-Life celebrations? We have you covered with a check in on the team behind Project Borealis, and a rundown of the studios we’d like to build Half-Life 3, but for now you can either play (or, for most of us, watch) Half-Life: Alyx.

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