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An unreleased Half-Life game set in Ravenholm, alternatively called Half-Life 2: Episode Four[1], Return to Ravenholm, or Ravenholm, was in development from 2005 to 2008.

Overview

In a PC Gamer article about the future of the Half-Life series published in May 2006, it was stated that an Episode Four following the end of the Half-Life 2 Episodes trilogy story arc was planned. It was to be developed outside of Valve, with a stand-alone plot.[1][2]

In December 2007, Episode Three was said to be only the end of the current Half-Life 2 story arc, not the end of the overall Half-Life franchise, nor the episodic releases, with even more episodic games unconnected to the current story arc to be made.[3] This hints at the Episode Four mentioned in 2006.

The same month, Gabe Newell stated in an interview that they wanted to expand many pieces of the original story only merely referenced in the previous games, and develop games about Alyx Vance or Dog.[4]

In March 2011, Electronic Arts concept artist and 3D modeler Randy Humphries posted in his Coroflot profile six pieces of concept art for what appears to be a canceled Half-Life project, with no further detail (one of a canal, one of railway tracks along a canal, one of a town named "Haven", one of a building interior, one of two presumably Combine units, very different from the current ones). Though it has not been confirmed, it may be the now apparently canceled Episode Four mentioned in 2006, since it was said to be developed outside of Valve. Electronic Arts distribute Valve's games, so they may have developed this canceled Episode Four.[2][5]

Following the network intrusion of Eidos' servers in May 2011, and the subsequent data leak, community members reported that among the leaked CVs is one of an individual who had previously worked at Arkane Studios (makers of the Source game The Crossing). The CV states that at Arkane, he has worked on "Half-Life 2: Episode 4" (Episode Four) from 2006 to 2007, before "Valve decided to put their episodic efforts on hold," as the resume outlines. It was then discovered that on the public CVs of other Arkane employees (found for instance on LinkedIn[6]) can be found mentions of an "Unannounced Project (Valve Software)", built on the Source engine, sometime between June 2007 and October 2007.[7] Thus Arkane Studios, as well as Electronic Arts, seem to have been connected to Episode Four from 2006 to 2007, though to what extent is unknown.

On January 13 2012, Marc Laidlaw confirms the rumor that a fourth and canceled Half-Life 2 Episode, titled Return to Ravenholm at that time, was developed by Arkane Studios from 2006 to 2007. As big fans of Arkane, Valve wanted to come up with a common project. Valve threw ideas around, Arkane built "some cool stuff", but Valve eventually decided that it didn't make sense to pursue it at the time. They felt like a lot of the staples of Ravenholm (Headcrabs and Zombies) were pretty much played out, and the fact that it would have to take place sometime before the end of Episode Two (so as not to advance beyond where Valve had pushed the story) was a creative constraint that would hamper the project as well as Arkane. Episode Four and Return to Ravenholm are also confirmed by Laidlaw to be the same thing.[8]

The history of Arkane's Ravenholm project was largely unknown to the general public until a 2020 documentary from Noclip on the history of Arkane Studios, which included a section dedicated to the project.[9]

Development

There were two distinct Ravenholm-centered Half-Life 2 episodes in development at various points from 2005-2007. It is not entirely clear if either of these would have actually been titled Half-Life 2: Episode Four, although this was the internal name for these projects at Valve.

Warren Spector/Junction Point Studios' Episode Four

The Ravenholm-centered Half-Life 2 episode originally began development through Warren Spector's Junction Point Studios. Maps from this project leaked in 2017. Spector described the game's central mechanic as a "magnet gun" similar to the gravity gun but built on the concept of magnetizing nearby objects to solve puzzles. Spector wished to depict the events that occurred in Ravenholm prior to its appearance in Half-Life 2.

In an email correspondence, Marc Laidlaw explained Spector worked on the project for around a year before Junction Point was bought by Disney, and the game was canceled so work could begin on the Epic Mickey franchise.

Arkane's Ravenholm

Arkane Studios, the French video game studio, took up the Ravenholm project and started from scratch, internally referred to as Ravenholm. In Ravenholm's alpha story, the player takes on the role of Adrian Shepard, returning as the protagonist for the first time since Half-Life: Opposing Force. Set some time after Half-Life 2 but before Episode Two, Shepard wakes up in Ravenholm and meets Father Grigori in an old children's hospital. Grigori provides Shepard with food and leads him on a journey to escape Ravenholm through a swarm of zombies. These zombies were different from Half-Life's zombies: rather than attaching to the head, headcrabs "bite" the victims, initiating a process more akin to a classic zombie from horror fiction. These zombies were much stronger and faster than a Standard Zombie, more closely resembling the zombies from the Left 4 Dead franchise (which Ravenholm pre-dated by several years). During the game it would emerge that Grigori himself is infected and trying to stave off the infection as he helps Shepard along, until the end of the game when he mutates and Shepard would presumably have to fight him. The magnet gun created by Spector would have been kept, as well as other unique weapons including a nail gun which could be used to conduct electricity. The alpha build includes a melee "punch" mechanic that could be used when Shepard was out of ammunition.[9]

Internally, Arkane considered Ravenholm a spin-off game rather than a Half-Life episode. However, Valve considered the game as part of the Half-Life 2 episodic project, which they were moving away from at the time Ravenholm was in development: the scope creep of Episode Two strongly suggested the company's efforts were better spent on full-fledged games. Other problems emerged: Marc Laidlaw claims Ravenholm would have been "creatively constrained" due to it taking place before the events of Episode Two, while Arkane co-founder Raphaël Colantonio claims the game was taking longer to complete than Valve expected for its cost – by his estimate, the game needed at least another year of fine-tuning before it could be released.

To Arkane's surprise, Valve pulled the plug on the game midway through development, with about 8 or 9 chapters already finished and playable. Despite Arkane's frantic attempts to create an alpha build to show off their progress and in turn convince Valve to let them continue, Valve had made up their mind. Over a decade later, Arkane still keeps the alpha build in their system and occasionally shows it off to new employees, as a way to show a Half-Life game that never was.[9]

Trivia

  • Marc Laidlaw supplied temp audio to Ravenholm for Father Grigori. Laidlaw had no memory of this until Matt T. Wood tweeted about it in response to the Noclip documentary: Laidlaw speculates that he provided it after Arkane showed him the scene as a work-in-progress.[10]

References

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