Even today, there is no shortage of love for the so-called “Half-Life 2 beta”. From mod recreation projects to fan art as well as constant discussion of the subject in countless servers, it sometimes seems as if people care more about the unreleased content of Half-Life 2 than, well, the actual finished product.
What people tend to neglect is the fact that said “beta” was, for all intents, just a mishmash of ideas thrown at the wall to see what sticks, and what we got in the end was the really good stuff—not to mention that the “leak” that got most of said material into the hands of the same players who obsess with it was actually a theft that was so damaging to Valve and its relationship with the community that we are still feeling its repercussions, well over fifteen years later.
With that being said, there’s also no denying that the mystique of the “beta” is intriguing and there were certainly some good, Valve-approved pre-release materials to come out of it, which, to a fan who spent 2003 and 2004 waiting to see the final product, hold nostalgic value that few things can compare to.
So, with that in mind, I thought it’d be interesting to look over the official pre-release screenshots of Half-Life 2 and see what content has the most of that elusive “beta” feel that people love so much. That said, a few caveats before we get started:
- This list is for screenshots of Half-Life 2’s pre-release builds, rather than concept art, model renders or any other kind of artwork;
- We are only looking at official pre-release images, meaning that fan-made content or screenshot of the stolen “leak” materials do not apply;
- Likewise, we are not counting screen captures of other materials, like the E3 2002 and 2003 promotional materials, unless specifically released by Valve as its own standalone screenshot;
- The criteria are incredibly ambiguous, but we’re looking for the screenshots of Half-Life 2 that have the most beta “feel”—that is, the ones with that certain je ne sais quoi that inspire entire communities’ worth of adoration for unreleased content;
- We’ll also be conveniently ignoring the few scattershot images of very early Half-Life 2 engine prototypes, mostly so I have a poor excuse to not include the only known tiny, blurry, watermarked image of the “Get Your Free TVs!” prototype on the list, which would be too obvious a choice.
Also, please bear in mind that this list is just for fun and obviously completely subjective. Whether you agree or disagree (the latter being most likely), feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section at the end of the article!
Last but not least, all credit and a heartfelt thanks for archiving the screenshots goes to Valve Archive. If you like beta, that archive’s a resource like no other to get your fix.
With that out of the way, here are, ranked, the 10 most beta pre-release screenshots of Half-Life 2. Enjoy!
Early headcrab zombies approaching in Ravenholm (“Traptown”)
There’s no doubt that this is a pretty iconic pre-release shot of the game, taken straight out of the E3 2003 demo map, “Traptown“, hence why it earns a spot on the list. What brings it down to #10, though, is the fact that, for all intents and purposes, if you ignore the green-shirted zombies and their sickly-yellow headcrabs, it passes off pretty well as an actual retail shot of Ravenholm—so well, in fact, that Valve has used it on the game’s Steam page undetected for years now. No less lovable, but we can definitely get more beta than this.
Early medics fight off manhacks during the City 17 street war
Another absolute classic that suffers for much of the same reason as the previous image: replace the citizen-like medics of this early build and you’ve got an image that can almost pass off as retail Half-Life 2.
What gives this one a slight edge is actually Gordon Freeman himself—or rather, his weapon and hazard suit. The latter has a visible darker orange tint on the arms, whereas the former is the original Combine rifle, the OICW, an actual real-life weapon (or, at least, a prototype thereof; it never made it into full production) that was eventually cut in favor of the Overwatch pulse rifle.
The original “wasteland” docks
As far as beta vibes go, it’s hard to top this beaut. One of the earliest images ever seen of Half-Life 2, this map would be from an earlier version of the final game’s coastline, back when the concept of the Combine draining away the oceans was much, much more pronounced.
Of particular note are the citizens seen on the beached ship on the left, particularly the very last one on the left: a young girl! As we all know, children were ultimately cut from Half-Life 2, with the suppression field serving as an in-story explanation for their absence. Here, a child model from an earlier point in the storyline seemingly serves as a placeholder. Bonus beta points for the fact that she’s holding an actual Cremator’s head, perhaps the beta-est of beta concepts.
That being said, between the extreme fog and not much else happening in the picture, it’s hard to rock this one any higher than #8.
Early antlions in the wasteland near the Combine depot (early Nova Prospekt)
Keeping with the coast/”wasteland” concept, our number 7 is a much more dynamic shot of beautiful early antlion models—should we call them “ant-tigers” instead?—near junk from the dried-up ocean… and, far in the background, an early location for the Combine depot that would ultimately evolve into Nova Prospekt.
In a way, this is almost a bizarro-shot of actual Half-Life 2, and isn’t that really what the best of the beta is all about? Similar, but just “mirror universe” enough to be weird. That said, and perhaps because of that, this one was used a surprisingly long time in marketing materials for Half-Life 2, even after launch.
Pre-release “metropolice” harassing citizens in a very early version of the trainstation plaza
Of course we had to include a shot of some good old-fashioned metrocops!
This shot is a treasure trove of beta materials, mainly due to the fact that it’s actually from very early in production; in fact, it’s from a map used in materials for E3 2002, Half-Life 2’s original planned unveiling, until Gabe Newell shot that idea down. The map itself has plenty more beta beyond what’s seen on the image, including an early scanner model, a completely different plaza than the one we ultimately got and, most notably, a completely different design for the Citadel.
Ultimately though, the screenshot itself is fairly tame, showcasing nothing that we wouldn’t ultimately get in some form or another in the final game (Civil Protection harassing citizens is hardly cut content), to the point that this one was also, yes, used extensively pre- and post-release of Half-Life 2 for promotional materials.
Very early headcrab zombie model inside the Borealis
It’s… the Borealis!
Yes, it’s no secret that Half-Life 2: Episode Two’s big twist (well, before that particular one at the end) was originally meant for Half-Life 2. In fact, at one point you started the game in the icebreaker itself on its way to City 17, before it was moved further into the storyline and ultimately cut from the final game.
This shot, released with an early Half-Life 2 press pack, is one of the few official shots of this area of the game, perhaps because, by all accounts, it was cut fairly early in production. Considering the mystique of this place, especially given that we have spent over a decade waiting to actually get into it in a sequel to Episode Two, it’s hard to deny its beta-ness, especially with that glorious (and somewhat bloated) early zombie model. But we can go deeper!
Combine soldiers standing in front of a Combine wall, the Citadel looming behind it
After so many early shots decried for being too similar to the final, you may be wondering how a seemingly vulgar shot of Combine soldiers in front of some Combine machinery can possibly beat the friggin’ Borealis, not to mention all the good stuff that ranked even lower.
Well, for starters, just look at those soldiers! The early camo skin with the yellow arms is as beta as they come, not to mention the low-poly OICW right in your face. But there’s more than that; while Combine walls—the ever-consuming mechanical apparatus that eats City 17 alive during the game, most prominently in its latter chapters—were very much kept for the final game, this was an early prototype recreation of Viktor Antonov’s concept art.
That’s not the whole reason it ranks in the top 5 of this list, however. The real reason is far more nostalgic: this was one of my personal favorite pre-release images of Half-Life 2, and even saw extensive use as my desktop wallpaper during the early-to-mid-2000’s. And, ultimately, what is beta if not nostalgia?
A Strider chases after gas-masked citizens in the war-torn streets of City 17
At first glance, this shot is probably pretty underwhelming. It’s just a Strider doing its thing, striding along in the City 17 war of the latter chapters, right? What’s so special about that?
That’s a fair assessment, but divert your eyes to the bottom left of the picture and you’ll find… the only arguably-non-prototype appearance of the infamous “gas mask citizens” in Half-Life 2, making this also one of the very earliest shots that was actually used (pretty extensively, I might add) in marketing materials for the game.
To be fair, just because the Strider was so iconic a design that it lasted basically unchanged from early development until… well, the very last Half-Life game released at the time of writing this, that doesn’t mean it isn’t beta!
Early Doctor Eli Vance and Alyx Vance in a prototype version of Doctor Kleiner’s lab
Ah, Half-Life 2’s breakthrough facial animation, a real game-changer for the industry. It’s no wonder, then, that it was one of the big selling points of the game from the get-go, leading to unforgettable classics such as this image.
This is, perhaps, the very first image of Half-Life 2 I ever saw, personally, and it’s made a lasting impact. Eli and Alyx are obviously recognizable enough, their faces pretty much finalized by the point the game was unveiled years into development, but once again, everything just feels slightly… off. Their costumes are a far cry from the final game’s, with Eli’s body, although similar enough to his final get-up, looking like a model straight out of 2001 (and, let’s face it, it probably is). Most striking still is Alyx’s, with that infamous bodysuit under a garish green jacket that was, thankfully, eventually replaced with her more modest and iconic final look.
Couple that with the background of Doctor Kleiner’s lab, easily recognizable but also clearly very early, and you’ve got the ultimate Half-Life 2 beta shot. Well, almost.
A Hydra impales an early Combine soldier in the sewers while bodysuit Alyx watches
Here we have it. The Half-Life 2 beta shot to scrap all other beta shots.
This one has it all. Obviously, the thing that catches the eye is the Hydra, the beloved enemy that was cut because playtesting revealed it was absolutely horrid to fight, yet everyone still wants it back because it looked so cool. But we also have a Combine soldier model that never made any reappearances holding the OICW, plus, again, Alyx’s early look. We even get beta Gordon Freeman in that early darker orange HEV Suit and a slightly different-looking pistol!
I’m sure someone would point out the map’s textures or something of the sort, but there’s still a case to be made that not a single pixel in this image actually made it into the final game, and yet it’s still recognizably Half-Life 2… the opinion-splitting Half-Life 2 that many in the community are still waiting to play, in fact!
What did you think of the list? Did we miss anything obvious? Point it out in the comments below and enjoy another chance to rave about the Half-Life 2 that never was, because those aren’t common enough as is.