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The Half-Life vibes are intense in the free Steam demo for co-op survival game Abiotic Factor

 Scientists in a lab.
Scientists in a lab.

You think Gordon Freeman had it tough? Dude never had to stop what he was doing and run to the bathroom to poop while fighting his way through interdimensional monsters and psychotic marines in the Black Mesa Research Facility.

Ol' heroic Gordo was also pretty content to get the help of a bunch of science nerds while he was rampaging through the lab, and had very few qualms about leaving them behind once they'd unlocked all those doors for him. In a way, those dorky scientists were the true heroes of Half-Life.

So… what if you were one of those hapless science dorks Gordon left behind in Black Mesa? That's how the Steam Next Fest demo for co-op survival game Abiotic Factor begins, on your first day at work in a sprawling underground facility. You're a scientist, but rather than the action hero antics of Gordon Freeman, you're mostly gonna have to rely on your brain when everything goes wrong and the facility is invaded by interdimensional horrors.

I immediately felt right at home in the Abiotic Factor demo. A survival game is such a perfect fit for a Black Mesa-like facility overrun by monsters and marines that it's a bit ridiculous Valve didn't come up with the idea themselves (to be fair, they only had 25 years). I'm used to crafting tools and weapons from sticks and rocks in survival games, but this is a huge science lab full of technology, and who better than a geek to take apart computers and electronics and make sci-fi gizmos out of them?

Crafting in Abiotic Factor starts humbly enough, using torn strips of fabric as nets to catch and immobilize alien critters (one is like Half-Life's headcrab, though it uses a long tongue to grab you and then pulls itself over like a grappling hook). But there's plenty more gizmos down the tech tree that would make Isaac Kleiner proud, like laser cannons, proximity mines, electric traps, and (just speculating here) teleporters. And while I haven't found a crowbar, I'm doing pretty well with a hammer, a screwdriver, and a knife I found in a kitchen.

Scientists in a lab
Scientists in a lab

In keeping with the nerdy vibe, unlocking new crafting recipes isn't just a matter of being handed some instructions. You sort of have to dream up each recipe yourself by guessing which components might form the item you want. I needed to craft an energy brick to replace one that had been damaged so I could open a sealed security door, so I took a power supply from a computer I smashed, threw in some scrap metal, added a keyboard I'd found, and chucked in a spare circuit board.

That wasn't quite right, but once I replaced the keyboard with a case fan (from that same smashed PC), my idea for building that energy brick turned into a proper crafting recipe. One more click let me craft it right then and there. It's a fun system that makes me feel like I'm actually coming up with crafting recipes by using my big pulsing brain instead of them just being handed to me.

There's plenty of humor, too—you're guided through the tutorial by a Barney-like security guard who is amusingly unconcerned by just how many things are going wrong in the facility. And yeah, unlike Freeman, you do have to use the bathroom from time to time: all that vending machine food you're surviving on (and later, all that alien meat you cook and eat) has to go somewhere. The throwback graphics perfectly emulate the games of the late 1990s, and I'm one of those old farts that prefers the original Half-Life to the Black Mesa mod so I dig the clunky character models and low-fi aesthetic.

There's also plenty of those Valve-ish scripted sequences you see in Half-Life, where you come along just in time to watch some NPC get dragged offscreen or perish horribly right in front of you. Developer Deep Field Games really nailed the vibe: it's weird to feel so much nostalgia in a game that isn't even out yet.

I'm not too far into the demo yet, but I'm already looking forward to playing the full game when it launches on May 2. I played alone, but you won't have to: Abiotic Factor supports up to 6 players in co-op.