You all know Half-Life 2 is great, right? Of course you do; it's one of the most well-respected first-person shooters in the world, developed by one of the most well-respected developer-publishers in the world.
But Half-Life 2's single-player story is just part of the grand picture. Half-Life 2 also has a multiplayer-centric deathmatch spinoff that, for someone like me who just wants to blast other people without having to worry about pesky distractions like "objectives" or "teamwork," is absolutely great.
I revisited Half-Life 2 Deathmatch for the first time in quite a while over the holiday period, and the experience left such an impression on me that I felt the need to extoll its virtues somewhat. Because although Half-Life 2 is, as previously mentioned, an enormously well-respected game, it's pretty rare to see anyone talking about Half-Life 2 Deathmatch, since Valve's other multiplayer-centric titles such as Counter-Strike and Team Fortress 2 tend to get all the glory.
What prompted me to revisit Half-Life 2 Deathmatch in the first place, though? Personal reasons, largely: a longtime friend of mine recently picked up a new gaming PC, and was keen to play some multiplayer online games together. Back when we were at university together, we both used to play the original Half-Life's multiplayer mode over the phone lines using the free internal phone calls between our dorm rooms. Although we've played many other multiplayer games over the years, Half-Life is one of our most fondly remembered experiences due to its simplicity and purity -- plus the fact that it was friendly to short sessions rather than demanding you commit to the more lengthy campaigns of cooperative games, which we inevitably rarely finished.
Fast forward to 2013, and neither of us are as young as we used to be. Consequently, neither of us have as much mutually convenient free time as we used to have, so short games are something we're always looking for. Returning to Half-Life's original deathmatch would be fun, for sure, but why play Half-Life 1 when Half-Life 2's out there with the added fun that physics-based shenanigans bring to the table?
To be honest, we'd actually tried to get Half-Life 2 Deathmatch games going over the Internet a number of times, but none of us were keen to play with strangers on public servers; blowing away strangers is never as satisfying as obliterating your friends. And, for all its good qualities, Half-Life 2 Deathmatch does not make it at all intuitive how you might go about setting up a private game for friends only. Sure, there's a "Create Server" option on the game's title screen, but what it doesn't tell you is that this creates a local area network game rather than an Internet game; anyone attempting to join this game will simply be met with a "server not responding" message and be unable to join.
I've been trying to figure out how to get private Internet games working in Valve games for years now, so it was much to my chagrin that I recently discovered all I needed to do was something extremely simple: navigate to Half-Life 2 Deathmatch's configuration directory (C:\Program Files\Steam\steamapps\common\Half-Life 2 Deathmatch\hl2mp\cfg by default; replace "Program Files" with "Program Files (x86)" if you're on 64-bit Windows), create a text document called "game.cfg" if there isn't one there already, then add the line "sv_lan 0" (without quotes) to it, then save. Next time you create a server from the main menu, it will be available on the Internet rather than your local network; if you want to make it private, simply add a password.
But why bother, when there are hundreds if not thousands of other multiplayer first-person shooters out there? Well, because despite its simplicity and bare-bones nature -- your only options without adding mods are free-for-all or team-based deathmatch with optional frag or time limits -- I still find Half-Life 2 Deathmatch to be one of the best, most enjoyable multiplayer shooters there is. It plays at a good speed -- not too fast to be controllable; not too slow to be too easy -- and is well-balanced. The weapons available all have their uses, and you're given a decent selection every time you respawn rather than being forced to fend off enemies with a peashooter of a pistol. Players aren't bullet-sponges, but if you learn the levels and where the items are you'll be able to buff up your health and armor to survive a little longer than you would be able to normally. And there's a variety of creative ways of killing each other with everything from a "Stun Stick" to remote mines.
By far the best thing about Half-Life 2 Deathmatch is the fact that the default weapon is the Zero-Point Energy Field Manipulator, better known as the "Gravity Gun" from Half-Life 2. Using the Gravity Gun, you can pick up any physics-based object in the level -- level designers seemingly always take care to strew their creations with tables, chairs, desks, dumpsters and other objects that can be grabbed -- and then fling it at your opponents. Throwing something with sufficient force or weight can be a one-hit kill, but it brings with it its own challenges; if you picked up a desk sideways, for example, you may have trouble fitting it through a doorway, leading to some wonderfully hilarious, slapstick moments -- the sort of incidents that can't be planned or scripted, but just naturally happen. You can even use your own Gravity Gun to catch an object someone's hurling at you, leading to a deadly game of tennis as you each try not to be obliterated by the exploding barrel flying towards your face at high speed.
Half-Life 2 Deathmatch is probably not a game you'll want to play for hours at a time; it lacks things we've come to expect from modern-day shooters such as progression, perks, customizable character loadouts and all manner of other things. But by golly if it isn't the most fun I've had with a multiplayer first-person shooter for years.