Here's what that "hl3.txt" leak actually means for Half-Life 3

When Valve does anything that can in any way be related to the number 3, the internet flips out. So when the developer pushed a file named "hl3.txt" to Dota 2 in an update late last week, bedlam ensued. But beyond the name, which admittedly does include three of the most-anticipated characters in gaming, it can tell us a lot more.

Hl3.txt and two other files spotted by the ever-watchful Steam Database appear to be new definition files (i.e. where all those helpful tooltips get stored) for Hammer, Valve's level editor. While many of them are related to basic stuff like clearing out unused save data or setting the render mode, some closely resemble NPC behavior files from Half-Life 2 and its two epilogue episodes.

Half-Life 2 becomes a squad tactics game in its third act, letting Gordon Freeman recruit and (kind of) command members of the Citizen resistance. It was a nice change of pace for an otherwise bleak and lonesome adventure, but they weren't terribly helpful - I prefer working with Antlions. Judging by these help files, much of that squad system has been lifted wholesale for use in Source 2, along with the addition of significant "quest" squad members.

The files also reference new ways to procedurally spawn enemies outside of scripted encounters, which sent some minds reeling with the possibilities of an open-world Half-Life. Parts of Half-Life 2 Episode 2 were pretty open already, so it may be in support of more scenes like the climactic muscle-car-ridin' base defense finale rather than "Skyrim with crowbars."

Since Valve went through the trouble of moving Half-Life 2's squad stuff up to its shiny new engine, I see three possibilities in ascending hype value: 1) Valve needed a working squad system for something else in Source 2 and just decided to retrofit this one; 2) Valve is working on a Source 2 version of Half-Life 2, or at least parts of it; 3) Valve is working on Half-Life 3, and it's going to have squads.

Normally I'd favor the first explanation, because it's pretty typical to experiment with old assets as part of the prototyping process. But the fact that one of the files was specifically named "hl3" does make the latter option seem more tantalizing. Then again, the studio hasn't been afraid to play with our expectations in the past - this could well be another Half-Life 3 shirt incident. As of Saturday it's been eight years since Half-Life 2: Episode 2 left players grasping at its cliffhanger ending, so you could say our resolution's a bit past due.

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