Adrian really loves Half-Life (and Half-Life 2) but does he love it as much as Al (aka D3ads) who’s making the unofficial fourth Half-Life 1 expansion pack Half-Life: Dark Matter? We got him to send Al some questions to find out more about this intriguing mod and to decide who’s the bigger fan (because we like finding things out like this). You can follow Al and the project on Twitter and check out the mod’s page here.
Why do you think the Half-Life games have created such a lasting legacy?
Half-Life has been a pretty big part of my life for almost 22 years now, having first experienced it via the Day One pre-release demo showcased in a Game Store way back in 1998 (the first day of the game’s timeline from “Anomalous Materials” to “We’ve Got Hostiles”). I only played the “Office Complex” segment, and I remember seeing the zombies for the first time and feeling quite unsettled at their appearance! The game itself was just awe inspiring, for the first time we had a major FPS which wasn’t about being a military tough guy fighting Nazis or Demons, you were just an ordinary guy in a semi-realistic research facility… and then everything goes very wrong. The sheer originality of the setting was always interesting to me from seeing the various media and interviews in magazines prior to release, but it wasn’t until I actually had the chance to experience it firsthand that I realised just how groundbreaking and original Half-Life really was.
Half-Life 2 hasn’t lived up to the same standards set by the first game to me, it’s still an enjoyable experience for what it is, but it feels quite disconnected from the first game, barely even referencing previous events. It was and still is disappointing that Xen aliens were mostly cut (although Alyx has fixed that rather well since) Still, Valve wanted to do something completely different, and Laidlaw did not want the sequel to be in Black Mesa, so that’s why the facility was nuked, and City 17 took its place. The Combine aspect of HL2 is fantastic, their look and feel really sells that feeling of a vast colonial alien empire that can conquer entire worlds in mere hours.
I think the Half-Life franchise has thrived so well thanks to Valve’s innovative game mechanics such as the AI in Half-Life and the motion captured facial animations in Half-Life 2. A massive part of it is also Marc Laidlaw’s unique and interesting storyline, where the lore is purposely open to allow the community to make content built upon their own takes on the universe, the modding community has long breathed new life into the series and will continue to do so for a long time more, especially with the Alyx workshop tools now released!
When did you first get the idea or inspiration to create your own Half-Life expansion pack?
I first started creating my own levels for Half-Life in 1999 after grabbing the Worldcraft 2.0 level editor from the game CD. It was quite a frustrating procedure because it was prone to bugs and crashes, and everyone was still trying to figure out what was what back then, working out how to achieve certain things as they went along. Thankfully today the tools available are far better than they were and creating new content is much more straightforward with plenty of tutorials and design veterans like myself around to offer a helping hand.
Dark Matter came about after I decided to play the first Half-Life and the expansions again for the game’s 20th anniversary in November of 2018. It had been some time since I’d played the main campaigns fully and I felt it was the perfect time to revisit one of my most favourite games. As I was playing Opposing Force, it hit me that the Black Ops perspective of the incident had never really been covered to its full potential. Aside from the fairly well known fan mods “Black Ops” (which mostly takes place outside of the facility) and “Ultimate Attack”, no one has really done it the full justice it deserves.
So I started to think.. what if there was one last expansion that not only follows the Black Ops perspective, but also covers various unresolved and unexplored plot elements, presented as if it were an actual official release with quality and presentation to match? From there on I began brainstorming multiple ideas and conducted extensive research on various parts from the Black Mesa incident, both seen and unseen. I also looked at relevant events from Half-Life 2 as well since we now know what happens next. With all this information and ideas, I started to put together a draft design document, and Dark Matter was born.
Can you share with our readers the story of the game and what they can expect to see?
Dark Matter opens not long after Freeman has managed to launch the Satellite Delivery Rocket “Omega”, after the HECU forces aborted the launch sequence before it could be completed by Black Mesa personnel. The Satellite is a device which controls the major facility recovery systems, and enables the science team to enact the Resonance Reversal procedure as seen in Half-Life: Decay. The sequence only reverses some of the effects of the disaster, since Nihilanth is still holding open the rift allowing his military forces and other Xen creatures through to Earth. The rocket launch alarms the government since they realise Freeman is a major threat to the cover-up operation. Following HECU’s failure to prevent the launch, Black Ops forces are deployed to shadow the military units, observing and intervening where necessary, with one group of assassins specifically positioned in the facility to eliminate Gordon (“Apprehension”).
Kovac and his unit are tasked with infiltrating the Gamma Labs and stopping the science team there from enacting the next phase of their plan after the rocket launch (the Resonance Reversal). In addition the Black Ops are ordered to eliminate hostile/non-essential employees, and detain high value ones such as Dr Keller. Kovac’s transport arrives in Black Mesa when the procedure has already begun, and as they travel closer towards the drop zone the reversal process escalates creating Portal storms in the sky which swallow the Osprey up. What follows is a less than pleasant trip to Xen and back before passing out…
By the time Kovac wakes up the Military has withdrawn, Gordon has entered Xen, Shephard is in Waste Processing Area 3 (“Pitworm’s Nest”), and Gina/Colette’s status is still unknown. He’s a prisoner of the stranded HECU forces hauled up in a storage complex, keeping him for interrogation so they can find out why they’re now being targeted. Of course Kovac has been in a coma during all this, so it’s not until he escapes confinement, and retrieves his gear that command contacts him over the radio communications to update him on the “New Orders”, the title of the first chapter.
Kovac is then informed that now everyone and everything is greenlit for termination (aside from any aforementioned high priority targets still evading capture) and that the ultimate goal of the Black Ops forces is to install and activate “the package” in order to obliterate the facility completely, since at this time there is no other course of action left to take.
As Kovac you’ll see both new and familiar parts of previously seen locations like the Lambda Complex / underground parking lot, plus new unseen areas like the Central Transit Hub and Main Facility Entrance, and of course brand new places unique to Dark Matter! Xen also makes an appearance naturally, Nihilanth is dead, and the Vortigaunt rebellion has started!
Why did you choose to create the game from the Black Operator Unit named Kovac?
When I first started the project the protagonist was simply given a code name “Alpha-7”, however I was rightfully convinced that this was rather silly and sounded more like something from Call Of Duty than Half-Life, so it was quickly dumped. Thinking of a suitable and interesting actual name for the lead character, I found so many generic Western names just didn’t fit. So I started thinking of names of Slavic origin since I knew a few Russians and people from various Eastern European countries, having worked on older projects set in those regions previously. I studied various names and eventually settled on “Kovac” which translates into “Blacksmith” in several Slavic languages, so I thought it was quite a fitting name with a somewhat double meaning. Although the name would be actually “Kovač” (pronounced Ko-vach) he’s referred to as simply Ko-vak, a kind of Grand Theft Auto IV moment where Niko’s surname is “Bellic” rather than “Belič”.
As a result, his family origin isn’t clear, but after his parents came to the US, he was born an American citizen. He’s a longtime combat veteran at 44 years of age, and would have been involved in several of the late Cold War and early 90’s Operations led by US Forces in various places around the globe. Before joining the Special Operations Unit, he was part of the Navy Seals, deployed in several highly dangerous missions. Now he’s a high ranking Black Operator, taking part in the most secretive, off the books jobs you’ve never heard of. Kovac has seen a lot over the previous years, but nothing will prepare him for what happens in New Mexico…
Are you adding new enemies, ideas, weapons or game play elements we haven’t seen in a previous Half-Life title?
Absolutely! There’s plenty of new story elements, and added/expanded lore for the purposes of the plot. We’re extending the Race X bestiary to include all new species unique to Kovac’s experience, and they’ll be new zombies and other new enemies as well. In addition to a mixture of weapons returning from HL and OP4, there will also be brand new unique firearms added into the mix as well, I think people are going to like them a lot… hopefully!
There’s also other new gameplay features such as a real time radio communications system, thermal vision, and keycards to access certain areas since security guards no longer help you (they instantly open fire on you instead). Dark Matter is a simple concept, but there should be enough new there mixed with the familiar to keep the experience fun and interesting!
Will Gordon Freeman, or any other famous Half-Life characters be making an appearance?
As Dark Matter’s events take place late on during the incident, Gordon is already in Xen by this time, so you won’t see him at all (same with Barney, he already escaped Black Mesa). However there’s Shephard, and the fate of several characters from Decay is still unknown…
What software did you use to create Dark Matter, and can you reflect on the current progress of the game?
Primarily I use Jackhammer aka JACK which is a community made version of Valve’s original Hammer level editor. It adds far more features and bug fixes, making design much easier than before! Other than that I use Photoshop as well as Paint Shop Pro for any 2D art such as texture updates and brand new designs as well as any concept, interface or promotional artwork that needs doing. Then there’s lots of other additional misc programs I use for various tasks. Others in the team use various sound and music programs, Blender and 3D Studio Max for modelling, and of course Visual Studio for programming purposes.
In terms of progress, we’re still in quite early stages of development; The main storyline itself is pretty much done now, some chapters have been started whilst others are in late concept stages, coding is an ongoing process, much of the dialogue is still being written (and re-written) in preparation for the final lines that will be spoken by voice actors when we have them for the roles. I’m confident that things will start to speed up a lot more as the year progresses with most if not all of the chapters under construction in some form or another! Time will tell just how accurate that will be…
When do you hope to release Dark Matter to the public and where is the best place to keep up to date with the games progress?
It’s really hard to put any kind of date on the release, which is why I’ve simply left it as “X/X/202X” with the obvious aim of finishing it sometime within the next decade. It’d be great to have it done sooner rather than later of course, and although Dark Matter has a relatively simple structure keeping within the existing lore, it also features a fair few new things and as a result it’s going to take some work to finish it. This is a passion project worked on in mine and everyone else’s spare time, so we still have work, and/or studies to contend with, not to mention a healthy social life from time to time! I’m more interested in taking my time to produce a quality and enjoyable bug free (as much as possible) product rather than rush through and do a poor job of it.
The ModDB page is the main site with the high quality updates, but the best place to keep up to date with the game’s general progress is the Twitter account, where certain things get posted that don’t appear on the ModDB until later when it’s more polished! If you want to see absolutely everything, the Discord server has a media channel where I post rough images of progress, models and levels; both in editor and in-game shots of environments when I’m in the mood!
Do Valve know about this game, and is this any chance this could ever be an official release?
Valve are not aware of Dark Matter at this time, and aside from a possible future Steam release, there’s about a 0% chance it would be considered as part of the official timeline however faithful to it. Most likely it’ll just exist as a fan made “what if there was another expansion from the Black Ops perspective” since the Black Mesa incident is done and dusted at this point. It certainly doesn’t interfere with any of the lore and “canon” events already established in previous events surrounding the facility, and it takes into account HL2 and Alyx as well where relevant.
What are your views on Half-Life: Alyx and what direction do you think Valve should take with Half-Life 3?
I haven’t played Alyx, so it’s quite hard for me to really comment on it as a result. I don’t have VR and I’m not really interested in it personally. Having seen a full walkthrough of the game, I did find it quite underwhelming and a bit dull at times. I’m told that you can’t really appreciate it without the VR experience, so just watching it or playing a modded version which is dumbed down and buggy will leave you disappointed. Like I said though, HL2’s setting underwhelmed me anyway compared to the first game, so I wasn’t expecting to be blown away. Of course it was fantastic to see Xen fauna and creatures make a reappearance again for the first time since the original game! From a technical perspective it’s quite impressive, the materials system is really clever and they absolutely nailed the “Eastern European” look and feel they were going for, City 17 really feels like a real place in contrast to HL2 before it! Also… that ending!
As for Half-Life 3, it’s difficult to really say what should happen in a third game, but it seems that things may start to move away from the Combine into unknown territory, which is interesting…
Have you got any ideas to create any future games or expansion packs?
Dark Matter will be my last ever full Goldsource (Half-Life 1) project, after it is finished and released, I am very unlikely to do anything significant with the engine again, except maybe small scale stuff for fun. Otherwise I’ll be looking to make something brand new on a more modern graphics engine and perhaps turn Pipeline Software into an actual game development company! We shall see how the future unfolds…
If you could have a drink with any Half-Life character who would you choose and why?
Hmm that’s a tough one… well, I reckon Colette Green would be interesting, her sound files paint her as somewhat maniacal. So I reckon she might be quite fun to have a drink with, some crazy stories to share and a unique sense of humour… maybe?!