First Look : Half-Life 3

Occasionally we here at NitWitty Magazine get to do something really cool. Recently I was able to leverage my connections as a former game developer to gain access to Valve Software on the 1st of this month. We thought we could tour and get some content for our readers. What we did not expect was that they wanted to show to give us an exclusive first look at the perpetually in development Half-Life 3. Here’s a quick spoiler – we played it, and it’s what (wet) dreams are made of.

Yay! We're at Valve!
Yay! We’re at Valve!

A few feet past the gleaming aluminum doors of Valve, a few doors down and a set of stairs later, we found ourselves in the coding bullpen. Scores of programmers sat with the intense look of concentration of people trying to do math problems several functions deep and while we looked over the shoulder of one of them, we got our first look at Half -Life 3.

The Valve Programmer's Bullpen.
The Valve Programmer’s Bullpen.

Displayed on the massive flat screen of the workstation was what appeared to be Gordon Freeman’s hands working a remote. Beyond it seemed like it was controlling a Combine Strider while it fired its Warp Cannon at an incoming brigade of heavy infantry. Meanwhile above them a drop ship rained down fire that set the dried grass on the ground ablaze. As the programmer tapped keys on the screen, Freeman’s fingers hit different buttons and twisted knobs while the Strider followed both of their commands. Even though he was in the process of coding the thing, keeping the Strider in view and fighting while searching for cover seemed a little tricky. We stood there watching in a state of shocked awe until the programmer hit the break command in exasperation.

He swiveled in his chair, and said, “You must be the guys from NitWitty Magazine. I’m glad you’re here. My name’s [Redacted], and it’s so cool to finally get to share with people what we’ve been working on for 15 years.” He pulled up the IDE he was working on and showed us around. Apparently one of the things that has been keeping Half-Life 3 from seeing the light of day for so long is that the technology just wasn’t there yet. Valve’s proprietary Source engine – the same game engine that runs Left 4 Dead 2 and Portal 2 – wasn’t up to snuff for the kinds of experiences that the design team was putting together for Half-Life 3. So the team went back to the drawing board to create a new engine that was called “Source 2” until it was cheekily dubbed “Re-Source.” The coder told us, “It runs 4K and has a draw distance equal to the actual visible horizon of the planet Earth. But that’s not the really cool thing.”

Half Life 3 Not shown :The Golden Gate Bridge Level
Half-Life 3
Not shown :The Golden Gate Bridge Level

With a few keystrokes he’d booted the software back up again. Now Gordon Freeman was on the Golden Gate Bridge, in the middle of a furious firefight between hundreds of people [Redacted] couldn’t share the details of, and legions of the Combine. If Half-Life 2 was to a certain extent a demo of the applications of physics in a shooter, Half-Life 3 and the Re-Source are using their full power to show off some of the possibilities of fuzzy AI and quantum computing. “These hundreds of assets you see here are all making decisions in real time. They’re all running AI more advanced that what we had in Alyx Vance back in 2 and makes Google’s AI look like a special needs Casio watch. Not to get too technical, but we’re able to model neurological pathways in real time with Re-Source if we’re using the super-positional qualities of our CPUs. So the game assets are smart, and they’ll react to you and other outside forces.” As he said that, a Combine ship opened fire on the battle itself and the Golden Gate Bridge. The world class physics in play took over then, and the street crumbled and the orange painted metal deformed in real time. We watched it again, and this time the scene played out the AI made different emergent choices, which led to different physics interactions  He told us that the paint and metal are actually different materials and treated as such, “otherwise the paint won’t crack realistically.”

What shocked us though, was how that nascent AI reacted. They didn’t just take cover, but they panicked, broke, and ran. As other members of their band were hurt they would help each other up and provide cover fire. They carried their wounded, and pulled each other up as the bridge began to collapse. In seconds the bridge was collapsing and dropping massive chunks of metal and screaming, flailing, AI into the San Francisco Bay, and in that moment I found that I wasn’t impressed by the sheer spectacle, but by how very human everything seemed. I felt bad for those poor people the Combine had just wiped out. “With Re-Source, this is all part of the engine, and the more you can put into the engine, the less the designers have to worry about.”

Jordan closed his 3dS and pointed out a person standing on the bridge that wasn’t doing anything. “Yo, you got a bug.”

“Oh that?” the progammer said, “It happens. If you graph the neural paths the AI starts doing some really weird stuff. I once had an AI draw messages on the walls. Crazy stuff like, ‘Do we exist?’ And ‘I think, therefore…?’ Sometimes they just cry. We’ll figure it out before launch though.”

When asked about the poly count, [Redacted] advised us to go talk to the artists. So we took his advice and wandered further into the labyrinthine halls of Valve Software. We seemed to have gotten turned around somewhere. It didn’t help that I was leading the party, and have basically no sense of direction. Jordan and Eric, always the consummate professionals, were too busy grinding their character relationships in Fire Emblem : Birthright to pay too much attention to where we were going. So we wandered into a courtyard that was interesting for a few reasons. First of all, there was a sign that demanded no photography (which we ignored). Second, there was a koi pond full of otters.

Valve swimming otters.
The Valve Software Otters in the secret Otter Pond.

Seriously. Like, I’ve always wondered what I would do if I had access to $1.5 Billion per year. Now I know. I’d go stark raving mad and keep a secret pond full of otters in the middle of my campus. So through another door we went, now considerably far off of our proscribed arrow and found a freight elevator made of glass. Inside was a button conveniently labeled, “Art Assets Department,” and down we went.

The Valve Software Artist’s Warehouse.

Something that people don’t always understand about game development is that most of the time and money devoted to a project is taken up by art people. The common misconception is that it’s all programmers, and while there are frequently a lot of programmers on a project often focusing on different fields and specializations, the art team still takes the lion’s vividly rendered share of the development resources. All of this is to say that the art team for Half-Life 3 is massive with hundreds of people all lined up at innumerable graphical workstations. We tried to take a picture, were stopped by a nice woman from doing so, who quickly drew us this instead:

Since everybody else had headphones in, and were bobbing their heads in different tempos while working with a combination of Zbrush, Maya, and Photoshop, we asked [Also-Redacted] about Half-Life 3. There was a short moment of crazed fear from her eyes before we explained who we were and that the programming team had already shown us a bunch of stuff. “It’s great that we’re finally getting to show people what we’ve been working on for 15 years,” she said. “But I hate how much we’ve tossed. It’s like, I know that when you do art for game development, as the needs of the project change then art assets may become unusable. Maybe a level was changed, or an enemy has a different uniform on or something. It’s totally different when the the Producers and the Designers scrap an entire game 7 times.”

“Wait, what?” Seal said, taking his eyes off of the softly glowing screen of his 3DS for a moment.

“Yeah,” she said. “We finished the first Half-Life 3 almost 10 years ago. We had a launch party and everything. It was magical, to be part of something that great, with our whole lives ahead of us.  And then the design team felt that we really wanted to update the game to play on the new XBOX 360 and PS3 dev kits they got. So we came back to work and with new hardware that means new art assets (since the rendering pipelines will be different – ed). Then after that it was new Nvidia GPU chips, and then then the upper management got the idea to sell the software too.”

“Re-Source?” I asked, and felt like a journalist, a real “man on the street” type.

Crowbar # 9
Crowbar # 9

“Yeah, that’s the one,” she said with a sigh. “Don’t get me wrong, the quantum stuff that it runs on is really cool, but the tools we have to work with kept changing too. So they would upgrade the software and make it better, or make it so it would run on the XBOX One and the PS4, which of course would mean that we have to start over from scratch… again. I’ve personally modeled that fucking crowbar 9 times. I see it in my dreams swinging at me. After a while there, I stopped trying to dodge it.”

With a thanks for the picture, we left [Also-Redacted] to her thoughts and continued on through the break-room. Inside we discovered, along with the Red Bull drinks, a Starbucks Barista in a full sized kiosk, an inexplicable number of ham options, and a full sized model of GLADOS. I reached for my camera as my compatriots attempted to turn on the 3D cameras in their 3DS devices, before we were halted by a voice that thrilled us even as it filled us with existential dread. “Hello,” GLADOS said. “If you could please refrain from taking any pictures, I would appreciate it enough to not murder you.” There’s something about a killer robot (even if it is only a model {was it? -ed}) that renders the human fight or flight response woefully inadequate. We did however, have the presence of mind to decline participating in the “tests” she offered to administer.

With a thanks for the picture, we left [Also-Redacted] to her thoughts and continued on through the breakroom. Inside we discovered, along with the Red Bull drinks, Starbucks Barista in a full sized kiosk, and an inexplicable number of ham options, a full sized model of GLADOS. I reached for my camera as my compatriots attempted to turn on the 3D cameras in their 3DS devices, before we were halted by a voice that thrilled us even as it filled us with existential dread. “Hello,” GLADOS said. “If you could please refrain from taking any pictures, I would appreciate it enough to not murder you.” There’s something about a killer robot (even if it is only a model {was it? -ed}) that renders the human fight or flight response woefully inadequate. We did however, have the presence of mind to decline participating in the “tests” she offered to administer.


Into another great glass elevator we went and up we went, far higher than the offices had looked from the outside. When the glass doors swung open to reveal a floor that was oddly bare. We wandered the halls for a few minutes after taking some pictures, and then began to wonder out loud if this was some sort of Aperture Sciences Killer AI scenario. Then we heard someone down a long corridor say, “Woah, that’s awesome.”

When we walked into the offices we found the design team all strapped into early release HTC Vives. They looked around the offices blindly with grins on their faces. After a moment, one of them waved at us without looking.

“Oh, hey,” he said with a smile. We realized he was watching us through a webcam piped through the Vive. “Welcome to the dream factory. We’ve got you all set up,” he said as we walked towards a great room filled with large displays and couches. “We are really excited about this build.”

“I guess,” another designer said. “I liked the 3.5 build we had. The difficulty curve was smoother. More balanced.” We took a seat on the couches as they continued. “How do we get the best parts of Half-Life 3.5 into the Vive?” he asked while looking towards the ceiling in wonderment.

“You could just release that version,” Jordan offered, to which the room responded by bursting into laughter.

“There’s no way we can release a game that is 6 years old,” the third designer offered. “We’d be flayed by the press.”

In Half Life 3 you will revisit some fan favorite places too.
In Half-Life 3 you will revisit some fan favorite places too.

“Yeah,” the first said. “The thing is that now we’re been working on Half-Life 3 for so long that I don’t know if anything we do is going to to able to meet expectations. There’s too much build up. It’s one thing to have a game where nobody knows anything, but the fans know what they want. They, like, know.” We could see him slump in his chair as if a great weight had been placed there. “It’s not enough anymore to be good, or great even. We need to be the 2nd coming of video games as art. Those expectations are really, really hard to endure.”

The second said, “Well, I think we should add VR support. It shouldn’t take too long for the programmers to implement.”

As they discussed the possibility with increased giddiness, we took controllers in greedy hands and began to play the great white whale that is Half-Life 3. The physics are great, and dual wielding the Gravity Gun with the Portal Gun is exactly as awesome as you would expect it to be. Hell, even the half finished Strider control device was equal parts amazing and ground breaking. After everything, it really could be just as good as people have hoped for. Dreamed of even.

But after a few minutes, we realized that what we were actually playing wasn’t Half-Life 3. Not really. Instead it was just another prototype before the next one, and the one after that. The crushing weight of expectation is sometimes too much, even for a multi-billion dollar company. So they would keep chasing and trying to make the game that has grown in the minds of the fans for over a decade. The developers would just continue, boats in the current, borne ceaselessly into the future.


halflife3 -wp



Eric Carr

Occasionally has mad notions, and more often than not runs with them. Welcome to one of those.

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