Half-Life 2 maps leak online, but are they legit?

A newly leaked set of Half-Life 2 maps, built with Valve’s Source engine, are floating around the internet. Polygon has gotten ahold of that package and cracked it open. While we can’t guarantee their authenticity, sources with experience in the engine tell us they look legit.

One file in particular appears to contain a never-before-seen portion of an unreleased Half-Life 2 episode. It even includes assets rumored to have been considered for Half-Life 2: Episode Three.

So is this a leak of a prototype level, developed internally at Valve? Or could we be looking at something made by the team at Junction Point Studios, a secret project first uncovered in an interview with legendary designer Warren Spector in 2015?

WE DON’T GO TO RAVENHOLM

The story began on March 24 when a user on the forums of Garry’s Mod developer Facepunch Studios plopped down a link filled with uncompiled levels. There were dozens of them, and they were only readable in Valve’s Hammer toolset, a Source engine editor.

Forum goers began to tear into the files immediately.

Inside they found quite a few familiar locations from the Half-Life 2 universe. There’s an uncompiled version of the famous Lost Coast, as well as environments used to make the trailers for Half-Life 2: Episode One and Episode Two. But digging a little deeper they found something remarkable.

It’s a map called “styleguide_ravenholm_o1.vmf” and it’s inside a folder labeled “gautam.”

Gautam Babbar is an artist and designer at Valve. Their LinkedIn page indicates they’ve been with the company for more than 11 years, and their credits include Half-Life 2: Episode One and Episode Two.

Inside that file are a number of strange entities, or game objects, several of which use the prefix “jps.” The community at Facepunch quickly jumped to the conclusion that JPS must stand for Junction Point Studios, an organization founded in 2005 by Warren Spector, the father of the Deus Ex series.

In an interview with GameInformer in 2015, Spector admitted that for a period of time his studio was working on a big project for Valve.

“We were working on an episode,” Spector says. “[Valve] was really into episodic content at that point. We were working on an episode that would fill in one of the gaps in the Half-Life story. So we were trying to flesh out a specific part of the world of Half-Life and we created a new tool. A thing we elegantly called the Magnet Gun, which I still wish they would do something with. We came up with so many cool ways to use a magnet gun that were completely different from anything [Valve] had done and was really freeform in its use. I still think it’d be cool.”

Spector hasn’t provided any more details on the project since that interview. His team ended their work with Valve in 2007 when Junction Point was acquired by Disney Interactive Studios.

But we were unconvinced by the Facepunch community’s theory. Why would a map created by Spector’s team be inside a file that seems to have belonged to a Valve employee? And was this a legitimate file in the first place, or something slapped together by hoaxters for laughs?

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WHAT’S IN THERE?

For help in analyzing the map, Polygon called on two developers with professional experience working with the Source engine and the Hammer editor. Both declined to be named for this article, citing a desire to stay on Valve’s good side.

As stated above, the Facepunch community found that some objects in the Ravenholm level include references to “magnet” and “magnetization” in their metadata. Polygon found those entries as well, and our developer sources confirm that they were added manually.

Magnetization is not a feature that has been found before or since in any other Half-Life 2 objects.

The Ravenholm map also shows a unique, snow-covered section of the Half-Life world for the first time. In the files that Polygon reviewed, it appears that the player enters the map from above, crashing through the roof of a building in a “gondola” where they meet two non-player characters named Duncan and Scooter.

Our developer sources found Scooter to be particularly interesting. That character has a series of custom animations attached to them. One of them is called “JPS_GetPick,” which could be a reference to the ice axe weapon that was supposedly part of Half-Life 2’s cut Borealis chapter. The ice axe was also rumored to have been included in at least one abortive attempt at Half-Life 2: Episode Three.

Our developers tell us that there are at least two more named NPCs in the Ravenholm level, named Kate and Harry. In a scripted sequence that they uncovered, Kate is supposed to fire her weapon and then speak with Harry, who then dies. No dialogue was included in the level. The climax seems to take place around a Combine-controlled water tower. At one point a Combine dropship arrives, disgorging troops into a train yard. They rally there for a final assault on the rebels.

Other features of the map include some machinery players can interact with inside a warehouse, including a large mechanical scoop. There’s also a wooden attic and a wooden walkway that winds through some of the buildings toward a tight, interior basement space filled with rebels. It then flows out into an alley fight featuring a Combine armored car.

WHERE DID IT COME FROM?

The leak first came to light thanks to the reporting of Hayri “Barnz” Yurdakul at ValveTime.net. Polygon reached out to Yurdakul for help in independently verifying the story behind its release. They directed us to a Steam user named “danielmm8888.” We’ll call them Daniel.

As the Valve Cut Content group on Wikia explains, the map pack was released somewhat by accident due to a miscommunication on a semi-private Discord channel. Once they were out there in the wild, it was only a matter of time before someone posted them.

Daniel told Polygon that he can’t say where the maps originally came from. He will only refer to the source as “that person.” But he did tell us how he thinks they might have been uncovered.

“What I can say,” Daniel wrote us in a direct message on Steam, “is that certain people that obtain a Source Engine license are given access to Valve’s Perforce server which contained these files.”

Perforce is a kind of version control system, used to track changes and merge the efforts of multiple programmers and designers working in Valve’s Source engine.

“Anybody who has ever had a Source engine license could have leaked these files,” Daniel said.

Nevertheless, Daniel tells Polygon that hasn’t stopped Valve’s attorney from requesting that the files be taken down immediately. He showed us emails originating from inside Valve Software that asks for their removal from the Facepunch message boards. So far, that request appears to have had no effect. Polygon was able to access and download the files from publicly available links.

RISE AND SHINE, MISTER FREEMAN

Based on our analysis, we doubt that the Ravenholm map is from Spector’s Junction Point Studio. Our developer sources seem to think that the map likely originated from inside Valve. They tell Polygon that it’s clear from the way the level is assembled. Based on how the shape of it was “roughed” up from available resources, and the way that the objects and NPCs were placed within the environment, the Ravenholm map appears consistent with genuine Valve work from the time period.

Furthermore, the narrative shared by Daniel about the map’s provenance makes sense given the file structure in which it was found. Why else would a folder named after a Valve employee show up in the wild if it didn’t originate from inside Valve?

In the end, it’s likely that this level represents a sample environment and not a real level at all. But the timing is hard to pin down. It could have been created either before or after the work done by Junction Point.

It’s important to note, as ValveTime points out, that the “styleguide” prefix applied to the file name has commonly been used to designate “special maps created by artists to inspire the level designers” at Valve. But the kind of detail here, and the elaborate scripting that our developers found, is uncommon.

#TechDomes2017

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