The Great Half-Life 2 Robbery

Hacking attacks and digital theft have been in the headlines a lot lately, whether it be the loss of user details on the PlayStation Network or a preview build of an upcoming game.

So let's look back today on a crime both more brazen and impressive than any we've seen in the past few years: the theft of Valve's Half-Life 2, months before it was actually released to the public.

In 2003, Valve was just a company that made video games. Namely, the classics Half-Life and Counter-Strike. Steam was yet to come (t would be released in September '03), and when it came people hated it, and there was no such thing as Portal or Left 4 Dead.

"Hacktivist" group Anonymous had only just been formed, it was before the erosion of online privacy brought about by social networking sites and before a lot of people even had things like credit card details stored online, let alone somewhere vulnerable enough for them to be stolen.

In short, it was a simpler time on the internet. A more civilized age. Or so we, and Valve Software, thought.

Towards the middle of 2003, Valve was putting the finishing touches on Half-Life 2, its hotly-anticipated sequel to what was regarded at the time as one of the greatest first-person shooters ever made. The game was due out in September 2003, to launch alongside the company's daring new online platform Steam, and people could not wait to get their hands on it.

One guy especially. German Axel Gembe went above and beyond the average Valve fan and conducted a sophisticated, and ultimately successful, attack on the company's network that ultimately led to his stealing of not just Half-Life 2's source code, but assets and other files that were enough to allow people to build a working, albeit unfinished, version of the game.

Gembe's attack began in September 2003, when Valve boss Gabe Newell's computer began exhibiting peculiar behaviour. Newell also discovered a few days later that one of his personal email accounts (a webmail account) had been compromised. Valve would later discover that not just Newell's computer, but several others at the company, had "keystroke recorders" installed on them, which let other people see what you've been typing on your keyboard (very handy for stealing passwords).

In other words, this was a very sophisticated attack. On September 19, 2003, an unauthorised copy of Half-Life 2's source code was made, and shortly after the lifted files were leaked onto the internet for all the world to see. And, even though the build was unfinished and unstable, actually playable (you can see some of the leaked build, featuring the cut Hydra and Alyx's old duds, to the left).

Valve boss Gabe Newell publicly acknowledged the hacks on October 2, at the same time asking Valve fans for assistance in tracking down those responsible.

The attack and subsequent leak was a disaster for Valve. The game ended up being delayed for months, and wouldn't be released until November 2004, over a year after it was supposed to be out. In the end, of course, the delay didn't matter, Half-Life 2 being one of the finest games ever made (the extra twelve months really helping), but remember, at the time, nobody knew that!

In its attempts to catch those responsible, Valve enlisted the help of the FBI, and a wacky attempt at luring Gembe (who had bizarrely confessed, albeit anonymously) to the US with a job offer failed, but by May 2004, Gembe's time was up. German police raided his home (actually on charges relating to his other hacking efforts, as the Germans didn't want him deported to the US to face the FBI) and he was arrested, though he'd escape jail time; in the end he was given two years' probation.

These days, the reformed hacker is repentant for his actions, telling Valve "I am so very sorry for what I did to you. I never intended to cause you harm. If I could undo it, I would. It still makes me sad thinking about it. I would have loved to just stay and watch you do your thing, but in the end I screwed it up. You are my favorite developer, and I will always buy your games."

Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.