The game-savvy, handsome, yet short Chris pointed me to Research and Development, an awesome HL2 Ep2 mod entirely created by Matt Bortolino.   Apparently the author started it as a way to noodle around in the Valve editor, Hammer; in that case I can only say that his noodling is of higher quality than many people’s gourmet meals.

Tootling away on Mr. Whirly

Tootling away on Mr. Whirly

The first clever bit is that although there are plenty of monsters, you have no guns.  Not even the little pistol.  No crowbar, even.

The next clever bit is that it’s made up of clever bits.  It’s a set of puzzles, where you use the resources at hand to defeat enemies or move on to the next area.  They’re generally just hard enough to be interesting… wander around and test things and you’ll generally find the right solution.  Quite a few of them had me grinning: that’s neat.  My favorite part was a tense chase on a runaway railway cart– puzzle solving at velocity.   You do get a gravity gun at one point; but (another clever bit) you have to build it.

Different people seem to get stuck at different points.  Some people hate the final boss battle; I found it fast and pretty easy.  On the other hand I had a terrible time with the gunship.  First, I didn’t even notice the damn thing– I was trying to take down the helicopter which appears at the same moment.  And second, I suck at throwing mines.  At least it was easier than taking down 13 striders at the end of Ep2, which I never managed to do.

Bortolino followed Valve’s lead in making gorgeously detailed environments, and ramping up difficulty.  (For instance, you have to learn how to get past leaking steam pipes.  Then you can do that while riding the runaway cart.)

Stay for the whole ending scene, which has a great final joke.

It’s just a few hours long, but hey, it’s free.