Why I love duelling with toilets in Half-Life 2: Deathmatch

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We're digging into the PC Gamer magazine archives to publish pieces from years gone by. This article was originally published in 2005. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.   

When Tim was on his super-secret Seattle mission to trick Valve into spilling on Aftermath (PCG 148), the most exciting thing he sent back to Gamer HQ—for me—wasn’t about that. It was a photo of a T-shirt, with no text and a simple white icon. A man, getting hit in the back of the head by a toilet. We are a cult, we Gravity Gunners, and this is our sign.

Long play

HL2 Deathmatch: The secret world of a radiator tosser
Played by: Tom Francis
Played for: Five months

The smart money wasn’t on Half-Life 2 Deathmatch as the ‘surprise for the community’ Valve teasingly announced a week before its release. It was bound to be a CS:S map or a new terrorist skin. Then, on the day, everyone restarted their Steam clients and got a picture. It was of a woman, firing a toilet at a Combine guard with the Gravity Gun. We grinned.

Our previously private Gravity Gunning habits were suddenly revealed  to each other. There were sink fanatics. Filing cabinets were popular. The CRT monitor has a particular resonance with some gamers. The gamblers liked the explosive barrels—suicide if the enemy shoots it, but the splash damage means you barely need to aim. Me, I was a radiator man. It’s the biggest thing that’ll fit through a door, making it the ultimate compromise between mobility and power. It even serves as a bullet-shield one way round, and allows excellent visibility the other. And it’s heavy. Really, really heavy. The radiator doesn’t care if you’ve got full health and 200 armour—no bone goes unbroken, no victim survives.

Soon I had become a Gravity Gun connoisseur. The Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator is an elegant weapon for a more civilised age—not as clumsy or as random as the SMGs the unrefined masses favour. Most of my scores came from sweeping these crude gunmen up with large tables, fences and trolleys—killing three or four at a  time, deflecting their slugs with a door or catching their grenades and Combine Energy Balls with ease and tossing them back with distaste. But now and then, I’d run into a fellow Gravity Gunner. Our eyes would meet over our filing cabinets, and there would be a moment’s respectful pause as we took note of the crushed corpses we’d each created, perhaps recognising each other’s names from the scoreboard. Then, we’d fire.

There are three gravity duel situations: both combatants armed, one armed, or neither armed. The best battles start with the first and degenerate through each stage, and the best of these I ever had was with a fellow radiator man. Our identical projectiles collided in mid-air with sparks and a clang, both perfect first-shots, both spinning off at right angles. We switched—I grabbed his central heating unit, he mine—and flung again. One radiator ricocheted up and  landed on a balcony above, and we both turned to the other, lying on the ground between us.

The secret handshake of Gravity Gunners.

We dived for it, both holding the grab trigger of our weapons. It jumped into the air and hovered between us. Our eyes locked over its grill, neither of us sure who had it. He suddenly jumped back—he thought it was me, and wanted room to catch it. But the radiator went back with him, and after a moment’s confusion he fired. I caught it, of course—he’d given me the room for that himself. I aimed low and fired. He strafe-jumped, twisted and caught it as it bounced past. It came back at me at head-height, but I was ready for it. With each fling, though, I could feel the catch getting harder, the shots more cunning.

This is the move we use to put down Gravity Gun tourists—machinegun deathmatchers who fancy a dip into the world of object-flinging for a break. We scoff at their obvious shots, seemingly aimed into the very jaws of our own weapon. Their poor choice of object is immediately rejected and returned violently to sender, catching them off-guard and probably putting them off Gravity Gunning for some time. To return a return—playing object tennis—is like the secret handshake of the serious Gravity Gunners.

But a practised throw is harder to stop—if it comes too low or too high, it’ll end up travelling laterally across your view as you track it, requiring extraordinary reactions to pinpoint and grab it. Some shots I just had to dodge, spinning one-eighty and catching it on the rebound—and leaving my back momentarily open to anything else he might find to fling. But my shots were causing him problems too, and soon I had him in a corner, just a few metres away, and used a low shot. It was too close to catch, but incredibly he jumped and landed on it as it rattled to a stop beneath him. I went to snatch it back for another throw, but it wouldn’t budge. I looked up at him. He looked back at me, then jumped. Seizing my chance, I tried to grab the radiator. It flew towards me, but stopped further away than I expected. As I looked up, I realised what had happened. He didn’t pause this time—those toasty-warm ridges slammed into me and crushed me against the wall. I gaped appreciatively. This man was an artist.

PC Gamer readme

First review: Not reviewed.
Why now? It finally has enough maps.
A tactile, gratifying and silly experience, with unexpected refinement beneath the physics.

Half-Life 2 Deathmatch is the only one of the three games you get when you buy Half-Life 2 that doesn’t gleam with polish. On a bad connection, or a bad server, the lag becomes a nightmare rather than a mere handicap—objects stutter, hover, go through things, disappear. But really, given the amount of network traffic involved in synchronising that many complex physics reactions for 20 odd players, it’s a miracle it works at all. And perfect though Counter-Strike: Source feels, when a bullet from a better player cracks my head and kills me, my reaction is frustration, outrage and expletives. When a better player kills me in HL2DM, I’m left with only breathless admiration.

If you want to imagine the future of deathmatch, imagine a toilet, hitting a human head, forever.