Hands-On With Estranged, A Half-Life 2 Mod With Great Potential
I’ll be honest and admit that despite investing heavily into the indie scene since last year, I’ve never really paid a lot of attention to mods, and that was a big mistake on my part. Fortunately it completely changed for me after playing through the absolutely brilliant horror Half-Life 1 mod, Cry of Fear, and since then I’ve been keeping my eyes and ears open. Of course, I went on to play Day Z and a couple of others. Recently, I spotted a free Half-Life 2 mod on Desura titled Estranged. It’s currently in development, but part of it is playable to fans and it’s in its Alpha 5 version. After giving the mod a playthrough, I’m very excited by what indie developer AlanEdwardes and his team has done so far, and the mod really has great potential. Let’s take a closer look at exactly why that is in this preview.
The concept of Estranged is simple enough, and actually apart from the fantastic setting, the premise is pretty conventional, but no less enjoyable and intriguing as a result. Mainly because the game is unfinished, so there’s no telling where it will go, and right now the setting is awesome enough to carry the entire narrative. Estranged puts you in the shoes of a lone fisherman whose ship is stranded on a mysterious island during a violent storm. You don’t know much about the protagonist seeing as how you’re thrown right into it and he’s a mute, but the objective is clear from the beginning. You’ll need to explore the island and seek help. But, as inevitability would have it, things aren’t completely normal on this island, and something has gone terribly wrong. Spoiler alert, experiments gone wrong by a secret organisation on the island has resulted in a zombie outbreak. What I really liked about Estranged though was that despite the presence of the zombies, the narrative isn’t really focused on them, and the intrigue mostly revolves around the island, remaining people and the part you play in all of this.
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While the story seems to be on the right track and definitely is effective at capturing your interest, there are a few problems right now. For starters, the voice acting is quite bad. It breaks tension, as none of the characters seem particularly concerned with man-eating zombies or relay any sense of urgency when speaking. Luckily, some developer comments reveal that voice-acting is being re-done in certain areas of the game, which is great to see. Hopefully voice acting will have been improved by the time the game is fully released. The next narrative issue is that, even though this is Alpha 5 and the game is not yet finished, it ends really abruptly which totally breaks immersion. I understand that there’s a lot more to come, but it would have been much more fitting to end the current game on a cliff-hanger, as that would have definitely left players excited. Right now, it’s kind of eye-brow raising and completely unexpected, as though someone got slapped mid-sentence. Still, it’s not particularly game-breaking.
The first thing you’ll notice about Estranged is that it’s graphically gorgeous. A lot of work has been done to make this game look as good as you could hope for on the Half-Life 2 engine, and it even comes with its own set of unique options to add graphical enhancements like Lens Flare, Desaturation, Dynamic Lights and Motion Blur to the game. While performance was completely smooth and without problems throughout, I did have a few frame rate drops at odd moments, but nothing too lasting or serious. As already mentioned, the setting is fantastic, and together with the visuals and style of the game, it makes for a really great atmosphere that can immerse you from the first few minutes of play. This is absolutely one of the game’s strongest points, and credit also needs to be given for the work done on the custom models, as they look excellent. Furthermore, the soundtrack is fantastic, and it’s a small pity that it doesn’t have a larger presence in the game. It’s not entirely a flaw, as the silence often adds an extra layer of immersion to the experience, but it would be nice to have music featured more to set a tone or atmosphere during some of the less action-packed or intense moments of the game.
Gameplay focuses dominantly on shooting and exploration, with some light puzzle solving and platforming added in. Despite the gunplay, it’s remarkable that Estranged doesn’t feel like an action game, and far more like an intriguing mystery. Everything in the game is enjoyable, although that has come at a small price. The puzzles are far too easy and barely require a few seconds of thought. I guess the game itself isn’t all that challenging either, as you’ll get gifted buckets of ammunition and health packs. However, on the good side of things, the beauty of Alpha is that the developers revealed that consumables and ammunition will, in future releases, be spawned on the fly depending on your situation. For instance, if you’re low on health, you’ll find it, but you won’t get ammo if you’re packing heat. It’s a similar idea to Left 4 Dead, where inspiration is being taken from. This goes to show that all issues with the game are currently being worked on, and as I’m sure you see, apart from the voice acting they aren’t major, and I have to stress that this game is really great so far despite being a mod.
You’ll explore the island on foot, and apart from meeting a few inhabitants and unwelcoming people, you’ll mostly be alone on your journey. You’ll always be equipped to deal with any zombies, even though they do take quite a number of shots to kill. I very much liked that they actively throw objects at you with quite a lot of force, although the damage done to you is a bit low. Hopefully they’ll be more lethal in future releases. It’s great though that the developers are working on custom models to replace the quirky Half-Life 2 zombies, and it shows clear effort. As I said above, even though there is a lack of a challenge, the game’s strength is that absolutely everything is enjoyable to do, and I really did love every minute of playing. The tension and set pieces are handled really well too, and if the threat of the zombies is just increased by a little bit in future versions, it will be even better in these moments.
Since I’ve done a fair bit of criticism, let me get more into what makes this mod awesome. For starters, it’s just deeply interesting, and once you get into it you’ll really want to keep playing. Despite having the option to save and quick save at any moment, I played everything available in one sitting, because Estranged is just so entertaining, extremely well-made, compelling and intriguing. A great deal of talent lies behind the curtains of this mod, and the fact that it’s in its Alpha stage right now makes the future of it really exciting. I hope the setting continues to be utilized, because it’s really fantastic not just from a visual perspective, but also from a narrative one. It’s refreshing to see a zombie experience set in the past rather than the present, and hopefully the developers can take more risks and express themselves in the full story. The atmosphere, setting and mystery are already well-established.
Estranged is a really enjoyable and well-made mod with tons of talent and effort behind it. It has a number of shortcomings, but most are already being worked on and it’s only in its Alpha stage, so the potential here is just great. I could have easily played this game at Alpha 6, its next release, and most of my complaints would fall away given the description of what’s to come. This game can definitely, and quite easily, grow to be awesome when it’s done. Judging from what I’ve played so far, I’m confident that the developers will deliver, especially since they have the right attitude when it comes to fan feedback. I’ll be keeping a close eye on this one personally, and I’d encourage taking a look at it. It’s free after all.