It’s pretty fair to say that I spend a fair amount of my time gaming. What can I say? There’s something about having the ability to control another man’s body and lead them into an endless conflict! Sure the person is just a fictional character designed to be controlled, but I still enjoy the imaginary thrill that I’m some otherworldly being possessing someone. But while the vast majority of games are kind of rubbish, there are a number I’ve played that have stuck with me and if anything get better each time. Half-Life 2 is one of these games.
First released in late 2004 for the PC, Half-Life 2 was controversial for introducing the online steam distribution model which is one of those things that confounds and angers everyone when it first comes out but after a while everyone wonders what they got so angry about it. Anyway, the game follows the wacky misadventures of mute spectacle d scientist Gordon Freeman who is awakened from a coma in a strange dimension after accidentally releasing an alien invasion at the end of the first game to find the whole world tightly controlled by a creepy alien race. After navigating the Orwellian type world, Freeman steadily amassing the tools and the allies to fight back against the invaders.
First thing first, while Half-Life 2 seems to have an incredibly generic plot that seemingly every first person shooter replicates, what really separates the story is in the telling. HL2 features not one single cut scene. Never are you stopped from you adventure while a crazy movie like sequence plays out, never are you suddenly warped two years into the future with a voice over and never are large amounts of plot information dumped on you in the form of audio recordings. HL2 developers Valve were smart enough to make it so that pretty much every bit of detail in the game is told to you through the absolutely amazing attention to detail.
The opening section is a good example of this. Game play wise, you’re running from a to b meeting with someone then running to c and being chased to d, end level. But Valve utilizes this to set up it’s central narrative in a way I’ve never seen any other game replicate.
Right from the start the player is dumped on a dilapidated train occupied by a couple of miserable looking people in a dull overalls. Looking out the window of the train shows us pulling up an ugly, east European train station. “Well…” remarks one civilian sadly “End of the line”. Upon exiting the player is confronted by various flying security cameras snapping photos. Overlooking the station is a gigantic screen with a bearded man speaking in a condescending tone
“Welcome. Welcome to city 17. You have chosen or been chosen to relocate to one of our finest urban relocation centers. I thought so much of city 17 I elected to establish my home here. So whether you are staying or passing through to parts unknown, welcome to city 17. It’s safer here”
Almost immediately that illusion is shattered as the player witnesses one of the civilians from the train beaten by a gas mask wearing guard for trying to retrieve his luggage. At the gate a woman begs “did you see my husband on that train?” Her husband was taken from an incoming train some time ago. But they’re being nice you see! They’re letting her wait there for a man who will never arrive.
Further on, the player wanders through a filthy station. The floors are covered with grime and rubbish, the pay phones are torn out, disturbingly upbeat signs in foreign languages cover the walls, no doubt celebrating the alien oppression. A man begs you not to drink the water because they put something in to make you forget. Civilians are shown to be herded through corridors to their destinations like cattle all while the bearded man who we learn is Dr Wallace Breen prattles on about how wonderful it is that “our benefactors” turned on a force field to stop people breeding, because now we’re free of that horrible desire to make babies. Gas masked guards are all to willing to pummel you with electric rods, often purely because they can (One character remarks about a “beating quota”) Upon finally exiting the station, we’re greeted with the sight of a gigantic blue steel tower overlooking the city which is known as the citadel.
Like I said earlier, the sequence is really short. If one felt compelled you could simply run past in a minute or two. But in doing so one misses out on how much of the world and it’s people Valve poured into Half-Life 2. Realistically Valve could have been like almost every other game ever and had a grizzly voice snarl “The aliens took over. They oppressed us and broke us down. But we will fight back!” but by instead letting you see and feel the despair and sense of helplessness, the player is urged on.
Throughout the game, the tapestry of the story is filled in through little details like what I described as well as off handed comments and photos. Half-Life 2 was so radically different in terms of setting to it’s predecessor that even veterans of the first game were rendered just as confused and helpless their protagonist.
Another area where Half-Life 2 stands head and shoulders above the rest is in progression. Now I love some of campaign modes for Call of Duty but those games are a lot like someone screaming in your ear nonstop for five hours followed by the rolling of credits. There’s no real build up. No progression in energy. At the start of one of those games I’m shooting people in the face with a gun and by the end I’m shooting more people in the face with a slightly different gun. Sure I may have gone from fighting a bunch of guards to stopping a nuclear launch but strip down that and I’m essentially shooting guys in the face.
As previously mentioned, Half-Life 2 renders you completely powerless. You have no weapons, no tools and no allies to fight back. If a guard tells to get the hell away from you there’s nothing you can aside from getting beaten up. Throughout the course of the game, the player is very steadily given more and more tools to fight back. The first weapon given is a crowbar but lo and behold suddenly you can break down barriers and destroy those annoying camera robots. Then a pistol allows you to start killing guards. Then after fleeing for an hour or so from a killer attack chopper you’re given the tools to bring the damn thing to the ground. Eventually, after fleeing endless alien ant monsters, the player can sic them upon guards and start to really do some damage.
In the final section of the game, the player returns to the city from the start and finds all the oppressed civilians taking up arms by your side ready to take out any opposition. After a devastating fight against bizarre three legged alien tanks, the player breaks into the citadel and obtains the ability to hurl even the strongest guard about like a rag doll and crush anything that stands in your way.
Though it takes quite a while to give you the feeling of causing massive damage, Half-Life 2 makes you feel like you earn the right to be the strongest person ever and for that it feels that more special when you go from being beaten with rods at the start to disintegrating guards into nothingness by the end.
Although released after Halo 1, Half-Life 2 thankfully spurns the two greatest gameplay elements from that series that have now infested the DNA of first person shooters. These two are regenerating health and carrying two weapons at a time. While they have advantages, these are two gameplay elements that need to be removed from games for quite a while. It quite frankly gets tedious and illogical that I can be pummeled with bullets and then fine and dandy (Like sour candy) after hiding behind cover for two minutes. And why can I only carry two weapons at a time? For realism? I just got pummeled with bullets and then came out perfectly fine!
Half-Life 2 allows you to carry a full range of weapons ranging from pistols to machine guns to alien machine guns to, a crowbar to the wondrous gravity gun. Every weapon feels alive and real (Even the ones that aren’t real) The weapons feel heavy and feel like they actually fire with a real kick which makes it oh so satisfying when you down an enemy. Health and Armour must be found which makes it intense when a rouge grenade leaves you clamoring for health packs.
One area that no other game has been able to replicate in the whooping EIGHT YEARS since it came out is the blessed physics engines. Put simply, everything in the game can be picked up and has actual weight equal to what it would have in real life. A paint can is heavier than a chair which can both be picked up and thrown to an extent unlike a desk. That alone is special considering my call of duty super regenerating soldier can pummel a desk full of items that seem to be glued on. But valve make this more than a rather cool bit of detail by giving you the gravity gun.
The gravity gun is a weapon that allows you to defy your physical limits and pick up any item whatsoever in the game and hurl it back. Use it to assemble items to get to areas or suddenly a room full of chairs and desks becomes a room full of projectiles and shield. It’s theoretically possible to get through the whole game without firing a bullet once you get the gravity gun. And you’ve never fought zombies until you’ve hurled a buzz saw through them with amazing force and severed them in half.
Half Life 2 is a game that holds up amazing well. The graphics are a little rough around the edges, but Valve pioneered an amazing facial technology that allows every face to feel real without drifting into creepy, LA Noire uncanny valley. Valve designed the game to constantly keep you moving and never ever getting bored. I find most FPS games to be a tiresome slog because they never really change throughout the game. Once you’ve seen what they have in the first few hours the sense of wonder morphs into me checking gamefaqs to see how much longer I have to keep playing.
Valve keeps things interesting by having you keep going to radically different locations or introducing new gameplay mechanics. I can shift from racing through canals on a speedboat to working my way through a death trap and zombie filled town to cruising along highways on a race car to carefully avoiding touching sand that will trigger enemies. From start to finish Half-Life 2 is designed to keep you playing and keep you guessing.
Simple tutorials are turned into important story elements. Learning how to use the gravity gun is done by playing fetch with a giant robot dog. And what kind of ball do you throw? The same ball that’ll soon be introduced as deadly mine.
Half-Life 2 has a small cast but all of them make an impression to varying degrees. Dr Eli Vance is the kindly, warm scientist (voiced by the baboon from Lion King!) quick with a laugh. Dr Isaac Kliener is the kind of frazzled mad scientist, obsessed with turning a zombie making head crab into a beloved pet (“She may attempt to…couple with your head…fruitlessly I might add”). Dr Judith Mossman comes off as nice but clearly labors to be noticed by Dr Vance and clearly a little annoyed that your character seems to steal all the attention. A mysterious suited man haunts the side lines for most of the game only making his presence known at the start and end of the adventure. His curious speaking manner and choice of words leave you suspicious of his motives (He can spotted at multiple points in out of reach areas). Even the alien/human guards are given life through their static infused clips of dialogue. Yelling out orders to one another and screaming when being killed. (You know when you’ve killed them all as the long beep indicates their communications are shut off)
But two characters are the most unique I’ve ever encountered in gaming. The first is seeming antagonist, Dr Wallace Breen. Breen is essentially the face of the alien overlords and functions as a kind of puppet ruler. But his motives remain ambiguous up until the end and are never fully explained. At first he calmly transmits to civilian televisions about how our benefactors are here to help us ascend into the stars and that only the small minded would call them the combine (as they are known to all other characters in the game). After your character, Dr Gordon Freeman starts fighting back, Breen begins pleading with the populace to turn him in for the greater good. Though Breen presents a calm front to the populace, a transmission meant for the alien/human hybrid soldiers shows him extremely enraged that a man like Freeman can cause so much damage despite being a nerdy scientist (One of the great jokes of the series is that your character goes from his first day of employment as a scientist to a super army solider). Breen enrages that if humans don’t pull their weight, the combine will simply kill everyone and be done with it.
As the player gets closer and closer to Breen’s base of operations, private transmissions to Freeman reveal Breen as desperately pleading to stop the insanity to snarling that he’s dooming all of humanity in his mad lust. Breen’s argument seems to be that, hey, humanity may be horribly oppressed and unable to breed and grow but at least it’s alive. This is again thrown into question when the player finally meets Breen and hears him cackle that once he surrenders the captured player he can make any sort of deal he wants with the combine (despite calling those who use the word combine “Small minded”).
Even when fighting him at the end, Breen smugly remarks on the helplessness of the situation before screaming “You NEED me!” Upon dying.
The player is never really forced to call Breen’s actions into question. He’s pretty much a bad guy the whole time. But rather than making him a cackling psychopath, he’s presented in a way that the player can see layers of a deeply flawed man who may have been doing what he did for the greater good or simply because he’s just a jerk.
The final accomplishment is that of Alyx Vance. Little needs to be said of her other than that she accomplishes what no other character of her type has ever replicated. For one thing she’s a woman. She’s not presented a sexualised manner. She can fight and hold her own. She seldom needs to be protected or lead in the right direction. She never gets in the way and never makes things harder than they have to be. She’s genuine funny without resorting to “wisecracks” and you actually do miss her when she’s not around.
Half-Life 2 is an old game but it’s the kind of game that we really need more of. Half-Life 2 should have been surpassed and bettered or at the very least replicated. That it hasn’t is gaming as a whole’s loss but it means that Half-life 2 will continue to be a very special game.