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Minerva: Metastasis (PC) artwork

Minerva: Metastasis (PC) review

"It proved fitting that, by the end of Minerva: Metastasis, the glare of its initial daylight had given way to a cold dusk, the sun barely clinging on to the horizon. When I emerged from the game, exhausted and blinking, it turned out the same was true in real life. Four hours had disappeared, and it was night time. "

It proved fitting that, by the end of Minerva: Metastasis, the glare of its initial daylight had given way to a cold dusk, the sun barely clinging on to the horizon. When I emerged from the game, exhausted and blinking, it turned out the same was true in real life. Four hours had disappeared, and it was night time.

Reviewing mods can be tricky. A great deal of their behind-the-scenes gear-grinding is the work of the mother game's developers - the engine code, many of the models, textures and sound effects, basic gameplay mechanics and, in Metastasis' case, even the background story. Mark a mod low for such heavy borrowings, and it seems opposed to the very concept of such user-generated content. Mark it high, and you're always wondering how it would have fared were it a standalone product.

Sometimes, though, none of this matters. Minerva: Metastasis, the first in a vaguely planned series, is not only the best single-player mod I've ever played, but also some of the finest narrative-based shooting this side of Valve. Except that's no longer fully true - one-man development mastermind Adam Foster, a.k.a. CargoCult, is now employed by the FPS giants, currently hard at work on Half-Life 2: Episode 3. The reason? The remarkable, exuberant quality of Metastasis, and Foster's clear understanding of exemplary game design.

It's based around a couple of extremely clever ideas. Firstly, that it's not necessary to include huge reams of custom-created content to develop a successful single-player mod. Secondly, that the world should function as a sensible, cohesive and believable place. As such, the story and setting of Metastasis came first; the specifics of the gameplay were slotted into place later.

The resulting levels are breathtaking. With barely a loading screen in sight, they twist and intersect both epically and claustrophobically. Metastasis is based around a deep hole in the ground, home to a mysterious Combine bunker in which the oppressive alien race seems to be conducting some troublesome research. Instead of taking Black Mesa's sprawling underground blueprint, this facility sticks largely to tight, packed-in sections over an impossible number of floors, Each level buries deeper and deeper below the Earth's surface, broken only by the occasional vast shaft that disappears into oblivion.

It never looks anything short of astonishing. That the Source engine is capable of this level of beauty is an incredible feat considering its age, and the addition of the Half-Life 2 episodes' flashier lighting and shadow effects elevates the aesthetic even higher. Smaller rooms are unfathomably detailed, while their larger counterparts stretch out to dizzying heights, littered with dazzling, otherwordly architecture at every turn. Though ostensibly set in the Baltic, Metastasis is deep in the heart of Combine territory. Only the rare outdoor areas feel remotely human.

It all cleverly twists the Half-Life universe into something recognisable yet wholly unique. If Half-Life 2 was a microcosm of everything going on in the world at that time, Metastasis is the tightly focused case study of a particular place, a tiny spec on the map, and all the intricacies and dark secrets to unfold there. It borrows heavily from the original game's lore, but it's entirely self-contained, and impressively offers an explanation for some of the less developed aspects of Valve's own storytelling.

It also means that Foster has been able to recycle a number of assets from Half-Life 2 without sacrificing his own design vision, while never being distracted from the developmental areas in which he's most proficient. The focus on characters is gone - there's never a friendly face to stop for a chat with, never a collection of NPCs to provide a few minutes of exposition. Instead, Metastasis is built from a foundation of intense action and segments of twitchy foreboding. It is at once an exhilarating, isolating and genuinely frightening game.

Then there's Minerva herself. There's a reason she sits proudly in the mod's title. We never see or hear her. She manifests as a series of short, abrupt email messages, projected directly into your apparently stolen hazard suit. While she's your only companion, she's also cold, devious and suspect. She's always careful not to specifically reveal who or what she is, why she's using you, what her plans are. Your character, a nameless grunt, starts the game with no memory; she's reluctant to dish out any information about your life either. She drip-feeds enigmatic riddles, coaxing you onwards, but regularly lies and changes her tone schizophrenically. "How was I supposed to know there'd be a heavily armed outpost on the other side of the island?" she offers early on, as you desperately try to fend off half an army. "Oh, wait, it was on the satellite photos," she quickly adds. "Never mind. Have fun!"

It's a masterful project, though not without its flaws. Metastasis was developed and released over a number of episodes, and while each chapter flows beautifully into the next, picking up pace and becoming ever more atmospheric, it means the early sections suffer from Foster's initial lack of experience. The opening is clumsy, dropping you into a tricky, extended action sequence before you've even had chance to take a breath. A large portion of the first hour is spent tediously hunting for switches and doors, as you try to unlock a route down into the bowels of the facility. And the signposting isn't always spot-on. The levels are designed carefully, methodically, but there were still one or two occasions where I found myself meandering around in circles, running straight past the slightly obscured route I needed to take.

But it also means Metastasis is constantly evolving, constantly improving as you fight your way through it. Not once does the quality drop; it's always on the rise, always paving the way for another blistering sequence. A frantic firefight spread across three floors. A gargantuan portal emerging to an alternate dimension. An enormous explosion, ripping the facility apart as you leap between flaming structures, sprinting for your life towards the surface...

That's why Adam Foster now works at Valve, and that's why Minerva: Metastasis is an absolutely essential download for anyone with a copy of Half-Life 2 and its episodes. Constantly thrilling, gloriously evolutionary and enormously creative, it's about as finely crafted as straight-up first-person shooting gets. Not only does it stand head and shoulders above every other single-player mod on the scene, its astounding quality puts most of its commercial peers to shame too. A tight, sleek, visionary masterpiece of bedroom development.


Lewis's avatar
Community review by Lewis (October 08, 2009)

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Melaisis posted October 09, 2009:

I recall playing this years ago and getting stuck on one of the puzzles very early on. Its a shame, because even though I'd only played an hour or so, I could tell the mod seethed with potential.

Great review.
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Halon posted October 09, 2009:

Great review Lewis, as usual. I recently played this as well and its a fantastic mod. When it's at its best it rivals HL2, and even at its worst it is still better than probably 80% of FPS on the market.

Supposedly the guy who made it works for Valve as a level designer now, which is a shame because we probably won't see the second chapter.
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bluberry posted October 09, 2009:

my score for this review will be an element of a compact subset of the real numbers.

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