Throughout the mod, a stand-out feature is the environmental art and custom content, which is almost universally excellent. Particularly enjoyable are the many vast cityscapes visible throughout the campaign, which give a better look at City 17 than even Half-Life 2 offers. The attention to detail in other areas goes so far as including personal photographs and books belonging to individual characters. To the modders’ credit, there is plenty of variety in gameplay which helps to stop things getting too stale. The Citizen Returns usually (except in a couple of instances) avoids the trap of funnelling lots of Soldiers straight towards the player and instead provides a range of different combat arenas, broken up with some gentle puzzle-solving.
Views from the rooftops, as well as interior lighting, can be stunning.
The main reason to recommend this mod is that it is not afraid to do new things. The action centrepiece to the story is unique in that it gives the player a direct choice in how they want to approach the situation, and it works surprisingly well. From a thematic standpoint, it sets our protagonist apart from Gordon Freeman’s illusion of free will by giving us back at least some control over events. A scattering of new game ideas and set-pieces throughout give the campaign a fresh feeling which is not easy to achieve. They are not all a complete success; a level around the middle of the mod set in a casino is confusing and superfluous, introducing a horribly ineffective new NPC and feeling awkwardly out of place in Valve’s universe. Still, the modders’ are to be commended for avoiding creating “just another map-pack”. To that end, the story culminates in a conclusion that expands on an obscure piece of the Half-Life 2 canon in a fun way.
This guy shows up twice in the whole mod, fails to do anything, and is never mentioned again…
As already touched on, this mod is quite uncommon in that it tells a large and complex story in the HL timeline. This is done through the use of a lot of scripted scenes and many different characters. Unfortunately, the voice acting for these roles ranges from average to catastrophically awful. The main character, Larry, plays a pivotal role in the story but may as well have been a computer for all the emotion that was put into his dialogue. It is still possible to follow the story, but moments which are intended to have an emotional punch always fall hilariously flat. The emphasis placed on telling such an effective story can sometimes be to the detriment of gameplay as the heavy-handedness of cut-scenes towards the end removes some of the impact that extra combat could have made.
Whilst playing, I also encountered more than one game-breaking bug due to NPCs getting stuck or simply refusing to follow me. A range of smaller problems combine to tarnish The Citizen Returns’ otherwise professional presentation, however after so many years in development the creators’ wish to get the thing ‘out the door’ is completely understandable. Since its release, the mod has already split opinion, garnering praise from the likes of PCGamer as well as some heavy criticism on PlanetPhillip and ModDB. As is often the case, the truth may be somewhere in between. The Citizen Returns has its problems yes, but if you can look past some iffy acting and rough edges you will definitely enjoy this epic and beautiful romp through City 17 and beyond.