Being the lifelong cynic that I am, I tend to roll my eyes somewhat severely whenever a mod or map comes out and it is instantly hailed as "Valve quality" - most are far from it. However, even I would be forced to admit that Research and Development is stunningly good. Possibly the most impressive thing is that even with all the ingenuity displayed, the author still managed to maintain the same level of quality all the way through, rather than it tailing off towards the end as often happens.
So what exactly is Research and Development? In a nutshell, it's a Half-Life 2-themed, puzzle-based mod set in an abandoned Rebel research facility. Let me emphasize now - if you're expecting hot and heavy Combine-slaying action, you're largely going to be disappointed. This is a thinking game for the most part, although there are enough action sequences to satisfy your bloodthirst.
Puzzling<hr size="3" noshade color="#ED761C"></strong>
The puzzles themselves are wonderfully done. The author has done a great job in finding a balance between letting the player stumble around without a clue, and giving them step-by-step instructions. A lot of the puzzles just involve some common sense - there's usually a hint or two around the place that'll give you an idea of what to do, although there is often also a degree of scavenger hunt involved. There were only a couple of occasions where I actually ended up not knowing what to do next, and the environments are cleverly set up so that you know only objects in the immediate vicinity are going to be of any use. There's a few annoyances with some of the puzzles that required careful placement of physics objects, but that's really a minor quibble in what is an otherwise excellent mod.
The author also has an excellent knowledge of how to use a learning curve. You present the player with a simple task in a generally harmless environment, and then gradually introduce more elements of risk - physical hazards, timed events etc so that the player has to learn to use their new skill in increasingly stressful situations, and it's done wonderfully. There were several occasions where I died, but this was almost always as a result of my own incompetence rather than a poorly thought-out situation.
In addition, many of the more complex puzzles reward the player with a big payoff - usually a scripted event, and these are amazingly well done.
Visuals<hr size="3" noshade color="#ED761C"></strong>
Aesthetically, the mod is superb. The author has used Valve's visual style perfectly. Old warehouses look and feel like old warehouses with clutter, debris, graffitti all placed well. One of the signs of a well-crafted environment is that you don't notice it. It's the background to the puzzles, as it should be. A particularly nice touch is the graffitti that denotes the start of each chapter. It's only a small touch, but it's the small touches that add to the overall professional feel.
The author also avoided going overboard on the custom textures - simple and subtle signs for hints, the clever occasional use of an animated laptop display. Spoiler (highlight to view): The "SHIT!" on the laptop screen as the chimney collapses after the helicopter attack is priceless.)
Thematically, everything fits well. Few of the puzzles feel contrived - they all generally seem to come *from* the environment, rather than the environment being made around them. They also flow particularly well - they're usually presented as barriers to progress, so there's less of a feel that you're just travelling from puzzle room to puzzle room. There's also a section that is gleefully reminiscent of Half-Life's "On A Rail" section, and worthy of some bonus points for that alone. Some of the events later in the mod tend slightly towards the silly side, but never feel really out of place, as there's a generally light-hearted and slightly tongue-in-cheek feel right from the start.
Final Word<hr size="3" noshade color="#ED761C"></strong>
So, is it "Valve quality"? No. I'd go so far as to say that in some ways, it's better. Don't get me wrong, Research and Development is not without its faults, but there's nothing so major as to really detract from the overall experience. It's such a fantastically well thought-out and developed mod that it could just about be a game in its own right. I would love to see more of M Bortolino's work in the future, hopefully in a box with the Valve logo on.
Seriously, if you haven't played Research and Development yet, you should. It's that good.
Also, thanks to Episode 2's native support for the Novint Falcon, I was able to play Research and Development all the way through using it.