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Half-Life 2 is getting a ray-traced remaster

The mod community is updating a classic, two decades later

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Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Half-Life 2, the acclaimed first-person shooter from Valve, is getting a remaster in the form of a mod that will add ray-traced graphics to the game, Nvidia announced Tuesday ahead of Gamescom 2023.

Bringing cutting-edge visuals to Half-Life 2 is a fitting upgrade for the game, which itself delivered astounding technical advancements for its time, including a realistic physics simulation that was integrated into gameplay via elements like the Gravity Gun. There’s no word yet on whether this remaster will arrive in time for the game’s 20th anniversary, which is roughly 15 months from now in November 2024. Nvidia cautioned that development on Half-Life 2 RTX: An RTX Remix Project, as the project is known, “has just begun.”

Half-Life 2 RTX follows in the footsteps of Portal with RTX, which was released in December 2022. Portal with RTX was made by Nvidia’s in-house Lightspeed Studios team using RTX Remix, a modding platform that is designed to allow modders to more easily create ray-traced remasters of classic games. RTX Remix — which Nvidia announced in September 2022 — is not yet available to the public, but the company has granted early access to four top Half-Life 2 mod teams, which are working together on the mod under the banner of Orbifold Studios.

Asked to clarify whether Nvidia is paying the people working on this project, a company representative told Polygon that Nvidia is “not at liberty to discuss commercial relationships.” The available evidence suggests that development is being conducted on a volunteer basis: This is functionally a mod for Half-Life 2, and it’s being made by modders familiar with the game, rather than Lightspeed Studios or Valve. In fact, Orbifold Studios is “looking to invite the entire mod community to join the effort to build Half-Life 2 RTX,” Nvidia said in a news release. We’ve also reached out to the four teams that comprise Orbifold Studios — Project 17, Half-Life 2 Remade Assets, Half-Life 2 VR, and Raising the Bar: Redux — to ask for additional details, and we’ll update this article when we hear back.

We got a glimpse of Half-Life 2 RTX in a media briefing last week. Nvidia played a trailer for the remaster, although it didn’t show much — the camera simply moved through two versions of Dr. Isaac Kleiner’s laboratory, one with ray tracing disabled and the other with ray tracing enabled.

As an RTX Remix-based project, Half-Life 2 RTX will show off Nvidia’s proprietary graphics- and performance-improving technologies, such as Deep Learning Super Samping (DLSS) 3, Reflex, and RTX IO. The visual upgrades being developed for the remaster — which you can see in six pairs of screenshots Nvidia released alongside Tuesday’s announcement — include materials rebuilt with physically based rendering (so they absorb, reflect, and refract light accurately), and extra geometric detail. The average textures in Half-Life 2 RTX have eight times as many pixels as in the original game, and items like Gordon Freeman’s HEV suit have 20 times the geometric detail, according to Nvidia. Of course, a game from 2004 will need a lot of additional detail if the textures and in-world text are going to look good at 4K, as seen in these screenshots. (Look at all those now-legible words on Kleiner’s CRT monitors!)

With all of those upgrades in store for Half-Life 2 RTX, the other big question for PC gamers is whether their computers will even be able to run the game. Our reviewer needed an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090, with DLSS enabled, to get “something close to reliable performance” in Portal with RTX at 4K. And the tenor of the nearly 12,000 Steam reviews for the game is mixed, with the vast majority of negative ratings coming from people complaining about the extremely demanding system requirements. (The Nvidia rep confirmed to Polygon that Half-Life 2 RTX, like Portal with RTX before it, will be compatible with any ray tracing-capable GPU — although Nvidia-exclusive features such as DLSS will require an Nvidia GPU, of course.)

Image: Orbifold Studios/Nvidia and Image: Orbifold Studios/Nvidia

One Nvidia upgrade that Half-Life 2 RTX will not support as of now is the next version of DLSS, the company’s proprietary image reconstruction technology, which uses a variety of techniques to improve image quality while keeping performance high. DLSS 3.5, which Nvidia also announced Tuesday, builds upon the existing features of super resolution and frame generation with a new element called ray reconstruction.

Ray reconstruction works on a key part of the ray tracing pipeline: denoising, which fills in missing pixels by sampling light rays across multiple frames of a game. The existing denoising step delivers adequate results, but the nature of the process removes detail in the final image, which causes problems such as inaccurate lighting effects. DLSS 3.5 uses AI-powered ray reconstruction to do a better job, making it so that, for instance, headlights will cast a directionally accurate beam ahead of a car’s front end, rather than being dispersed into a diffuse blob surrounding the vehicle.

During the briefing, Nvidia showed a clip of this in action in Phantom Liberty, the upcoming expansion for Cyberpunk 2077, which will support DLSS 3.5 when it launches Sept. 26. Other titles coming soon with DLSS 3.5 support include Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake 2, which was just delayed slightly to Oct. 27, and Portal with RTX.

Most importantly, DLSS 3.5 will work with all of Nvidia’s RTX GPUs going back to the first-generation RTX 20-series cards, which are coming up on 5 years old. This is a nice change from the typical trend: The frame generation technology in DLSS 3 requires one of the company’s newest cards, the RTX 40-series GPUs.

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