Puzzle games are tricky things. The creators have to get inside the mind of their audiences more than perhaps any other genre, to predict what their behavior is going to be when faced with a certain set of circumstances. Valve is a legendary dabbler in this field. If you have ever listened to the developer commentary mode on Half-Life 2 and even Left 4 Dead, you know that they take painstaking effort to ensure that the player knows where to go, but at the same time retain some degree of challenge. The people at Valve have it down to nothing less than a science, complete with its own terminology (“readability” for the amount of pop that an object has from its background).
Lost Under The Snow is a single player Half-Life 2 modification that takes assets from the episodes as well. The player starts off watching one of the Combine’s transport creatures zooming overhead with a container clutched in its graspers. We see a stalker pod gently tumble out the end of the container and land not-so-gently in the snow. The player then descends into a strange facility buried beneath the tundra that, in true Half-Life fashion, looks like it has been hit by ten different bombing raids from three eras and then infested by headcrabs. This seemingly endless fortress just keeps going and going and going, through doors and chutes and supply closets leading to air ducts leading to portals to other dimensions (literally). By the time you get to the end, you’re almost happy that the Combine are… well, I’ll leave out the spoilers.
First, the good points. The musical score was excellent, and seemed meticulously timed with the action, creating the kind of tension that existed in vanilla Half Life 2. The atmosphere was good as well, which really stemmed from the time and effort that was obviously put into mapping. Although there were a few rough edges, an invisible barrier here, a floating object there, none of it detracted from the rest of the experience. In particular, Smuz-juhl (the creator) really nailed the “bugaboo” moments. You never know when the door you thought was locked is going to burst open and a fast zombie is going to try to turn you into dinner. By the time I emerged back out into the sunlight I was constantly looking over my shoulder and checking my corners much more meticulously, which was good because the second to last fight scene involved getting the crap shot out of me from the rooftops, which I would never have been checking for enemies had I not been so paranoid.
Now the not so good points. There was some instability with the programming. A crash in the general store of the alternate dimension slash ghost town’s general store stumped me for about five minutes until I figured out how to skirt around the area of ground that was triggering it. Similarly, while there are generally instructions and little diagrams as to what you must do to advance, some parts are going to fly right over your head and require you to simply bump around until you find the key you were missing, or the wire that was hiding behind a stack of pallets. None of this detracts from the final product, which contains a surprising amount of polish.
Bottom line is, if you were one of those people who really enjoyed exploring and interacting with the visceral urban environments that Valve put together, then this is for you. It has a nice blend of shooting and puzzle-solving, and although it is not the most intuitive mod out there, it was a lot of fun to play.