There's a game on Steam called Hunt Down The Freeman, released on February 23 by developer Royal Rudius Entertainment. It's bound to cause a few double-takes for anyone browsing the Steam store because it's got Gordon Freeman's picture stuck right on it. This isn't some free Half-Life mod: it was made using a license for the Source engine, and it's being sold for about $25 (with a discount until March 2).
If you go to its store page you'll immediately notice a few hundred extremely negative Steam reviews. Dig into the discussions page and you'll find more than just complaints of bugs and glitches, but also scores of accusations that the developers are using assets from other mods and games without permission. You'll also see a strange explanation from the developers who say the release was rushed in response to harassment from Half-Life fans—as well as a claim that the version of the game that was released isn't the version that was intended.
Hunt Down the Freeman had a troubled start—a couple of years ago its Indiegogo campaign raised exactly $12 from a single backer—and now that it's been released (or some version of it has, anyway), the trouble continues. Along the way, it's managed to piss a hell of a lot of people off.
I talked with the developers of Hunt Down The Freeman to try to unravel the drama.
Did the creators of HDTF use assets from other mods without permission?
This appears to be the reason for a lot of complaints in the forums, but according to the developers, including game director Berkan Denizyaran, who I spoke to on the phone, and a member of Royal Rudius Entertainment, who answered a few questions via email: no, there are no stolen assets in the game. An early demo of the HDTF did use assets from other mods, I was told, but they were used as placeholders during development. The developers say these placeholder assets are not present in the finished product.
The Steam forums are filled with posts from users comparing various textures and assets to those from other games and mods, and it can be a bit of a nebulous process trying to verify their accuracy, what version of the game they're from, and if these assets are in fact taken from other mods or games. However, a member of the team of one of the mods in question, Holymac from Firearms: Source, posted in the Steam forums that the team had looked into it and didn't see any of their work being used.
"Our art team determined that upon a cursory look of the content released with the demo," wrote Holymac, "and assets the HDTF team provided willingly, it appears no theft of intellectual property has taken place."
I sent a follow-up email to the Firearms: Source team to ask if they had done any more investigation since January, and received a response from project coordinator Vincent Micelo, stating: "The source content in question was inspected by some of our team members and they agree that it is original content. We have no further statements."
The developers of Hunt Down The Freeman also point out that just because an asset looks familiar, doesn't mean it's been stolen. In an email to PC Gamer, Gabe, who identifies himself as Head of PR for Royal Rudius Entertainment, writes:
"People have found assets that they stated were stolen, but then we've given them the source we bought it from, like the US soldiers in our game, they are from TurboSquid, a site where you can buy models and use them for commercial purposes. Another example would be a shot-up car from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was found in our game and paraded as definitive proof that we were stealing. It took me three minutes to find the car, and it was in one of L4D2's DLC files, of which we have permission to use."
I've also sent an email to the Black Mesa development team—some of the textures and models in HDTF are said by some forums posters to be taken from Black Mesa without permission—though I have not received a response yet.
Is it as broken and buggy as Steam reviews say?
Well, yes. I can confirm this particular complaint. I played about 30 minutes of Hunt Down The Freeman this week and I ran into a number of bugs, which brings us to the developer's claim that the wrong version of the game was ultimately released:
"We kind of failed on the file organization," Denizyaran told me on the phone, "and the person who was supposed to release the final version, released an older version of the game. And right now we are basically collecting all the files, the final versions of everything, which is ... it's a pretty big game."
"On the day of the release, it was a big shock for all of us when we saw the game on streams and realizing it wasn't the game that we had on our end," Gabe said in his email.
I can't say if their the developer's claim that an older version of Hunt For The Freeman was accidentally released is accurate, all I can say is that what I played certainly doesn't feel like a finished game.
Apart from bugs, how is the game?
This is kind of the sticking point for me: while I haven't played much, what I have played hasn't been good, and it's not really something that bug fixes or visual improvements alone will change.
I was initially impressed by the cutscenes, particularly the cinematic opening sequence, in which scenes from the main character's traumatic life are blended together as he grows from a child to an adult, joins the military, and ships out during the Black Mesa crisis from Half-Life (including a couple nice cameos from G-Man). Later scenes, however, feel like a change in tone, consistency, and quality. More importantly, between these scenes are a collection of mostly unimpressive FPS levels. And again, the quality and consistency varies from one level to the next.
It begins (rather abruptly) with a brief level where you battle a few zombies and headcrabs as your character attempts to locate his squad within the Black Mesa complex. Even on the small starter levels I became lost more than once, with no real indication of where I was meant to go. There are no on-screen prompts as to what your character can do—I discovered, eventually, that I could go prone and even cling to walls.
After these few small levels, I eventually wound up in a massive outdoor firefight between human soldiers and some sort of alien enemies that advance from three directions. I joined the fray, grabbing a rifle and firing at the slowly encroaching aliens. I killed several and kept fighting, but eventually I realized they were never going to stop spawning. In the gif below you can see a clip of this street fight, and I have about seven more minutes of recorded that are basically identical.
Finally, I just picked a direction and ran down the street past the enemies, wound up stuck in a loading screen that took over a minute to resolve, and then arrived in another bland level of city streets filled with more aliens (and several Source Engine Error icons). I kept running until, for some reason, the screen slowly went black, though I could still hear and even fire my own gun, and I could still see the UI. I waited in the dark for about a minute, then finally quit.
In short, what I played feels like an unfinished mod project with rudimentary level design. I was told a re-release of the completed game would happen Monday, March 5, so I plan to revisit the game after the update and see how it looks, and what exactly has changed. Bug fixes would certainly be welcome, but I don't think a glitch-free experience would make up for the general quality of the FPS levels I played. If a large team of experienced developers worked on HDTF, as I was told, it's definitely not evident in what I've seen so far.
If Valve is done making Half-Life games, which seems pretty likely at this point, then should we welcome enthusiastic fans picking up the torch? I do like the concept of HDTF and how it views Freeman not as an unlikely hero but as a crowbar-wielding serial killer, which makes sense from the perspective of a confused soldier just trying to do his job. Different takes on familiar source material can be jarring (hearing G-Man with a new voice in HDTF certainly was) but it's not a bad thing. Except when, y'know, it's bad.
It's natural that fans of Half-Life are protective of the series, and any game associated with the characters and universe we care about is going to face extra scrutiny. This will especially be the case when a licensed Half-Life game features Gordon Freeman, G-Man, and other characters so prominently, and even more so when the game being sold appears to be a bad one.
That doesn't excuse the many abusive forum posts I've seen aimed at the developers, but the negative reviews and complaints are perfectly understandable considering the state of the game. We'll see if any of those reviews become more positive after the game is updated on Monday.