A turning point in the history of videogames. A mind-blowing accomplishment. The best game ever made. These are the kind of phrases that people like to use when talking about Half-Life 2. Now hold on to your butts, people. Because, the first time I played this messiah of the gaming world, I didn't like it. In fact, I more than just disliked it, I bloody hated it. As you may have guessed from the title, this is no longer my opinion. It was, however, genuinely how I felt about the game, and for a very long time too. But before I discuss my change of heart I'm going to go all the way back to the very beginning. I'm going to tell you the tale of my love-hate relationship with Half-Life 2.
The year was 2004, Lost was still years away from unfulfilling it's potential, nobody knew what a 'Justin Bieber' was and the iPhone was but a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eye. Much more important than all of these things, however, was the fact that I was a geeky 16 year old boy fully embracing my passion for drinking… Errr no, sorry, I meant gaming. Yeah, that's the one. Actually it was the combination of these two adolescent passions that led me to my first experience with the very subject of this article: Half-Life 2.
It was at a house party, somewhere around the game's November launch date. More specifically, it would have been the morning after the actual party - bleary eyed and smelling of alcohol and shame - when I played that iconic intro sequence. The G-Man's speech, delivered with his brilliantly creepy cadence. Gordon's escape from the train station. The truly stunning chase that gives players their first glimpse of City 17. All moments that will be forever burned into my minds eye. Unfortunately my time with the game was cut short - everyone else wanted to play a little game by the name of Counter Strike: Source. But that first glimpse, that tiny initial sample, was enough. There was just one small problem, a vital puzzle piece I was missing that would enable me to sit in my own house and play. No, it wasn't a chair. It was something even more vital: a computer that was actually capable of playing the game.
Clearly this was a problem that needed to be remedied as fast as humanly possible. But, just like 24 year old me, 16 year old me was a Mac user. So the decision to build my own gaming rig was a big one. Once that decision had been made, however, I threw myself into it with all the enthusiasm I could muster. A whole new world opened up before me. A world filled with graphics cards, motherboards, processors and pretty, shiny cases. Due to my modest budget, I ended up plumping for an AMD Athlon 64 processor, an ATI X800XL GPU and a mighty 1GB of RAM. Very tame indeed by todays standards, but back in the dark ages of 2005 this was a very respectable set up. Anticipating a minor disaster during the assembly of my new machine, I was pleasantly surprised when everything appeared to go to plan. With a fresh copy of Windows XP installed, and all the necessary drivers and software downloaded, it was time to play some games.
Top of the agenda was, of course, Half-Life 2. The intro sequence unfolded just as I remembered, and I was eager to proceed through the rest of the game. It was at this point that things started to go awry. The trek through the canal system, followed by the airboat sequence, really felt like it sapped the urgency out of the story. It literally felt like the game was saying "you need to go here for the story to progress, but that would make the game too short. So instead you're going on a long and tedious detour". I was being pushed down corridors and forced through constricted environments - it was like a step back to the Doom and Quake days of yore. This was only compounded by the boring and generic weapon selection found in the first third of the game.
Making things even worse was the fact that I wasn't connecting with the characters at all. Gordon Freeman's complete silence and lack of any personality created a character vacuum. Why should I care about this guy? He's literally nobody, what's his motivation? And the fact that I was completely free to move around during crucial story scenes made me feel like they were unimportant, unfocused and ultimately unnecessary. I needed direction - if something's important then make me focus on it.
Despite my misgivings, I pressed on in the hope that things would improve, and for a time, at least, they would. Arriving at Black Mesa East kicks the story into high-gear again. I was introduced to the awesome DOG, and the Combine mount an assault against the stronghold. Plus I finally got my first taste of the Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator (Gravity Gun). After this, though, I was booted into Ravenholm, and yet again I felt like the wind had been taken out of my sails. Fighting through the zombie infested town slows the pace to a crawl and - despite the presence of the entertaining Father Grigori - I found myself slipping into boredom once more. And what was waiting for me on the other side? Why, another tedious driving section, of course.
The drive along Highway 17 was the final nail in the coffin. It was yet another boring trudge from point A to point B that provided no motivation for my actions. There were long dark tunnels that seemingly existed solely to mask loading times, the dune buggy controlled poorly and I was fighting the same dull enemies as before. So I quit, right there. I tried coming back when Valve released The Orange Box on 360, but I ended up quitting again at pretty much the exact same place, for the exact same reasons.
I thought I was done with Half-Life 2 for good. Until one quiet afternoon - looking at a pile of overplayed games and too poor to buy anything new - my eyes fell upon that glossy orange case. "why not? I've got nothing better to do today". So into the disc tray the game went, and over the next few days I fell utterly and completely head-over-heels in love.
Boy, was I wrong! Seriously, typing all that negative stuff up there genuinely hurt. But before I go any further into my new-found appreciation for Valve's masterpiece I need to qualify a few points. Firstly, I still maintain that the Highway 17 driving section is the weakest part of the game. It feels like it outstays its welcome, and I'm always glad to reach the end of that particular road. I also still believe the initial weapon selection feels uninspired - especially when compared to the kind of awesomeness you get access to in the latter part of the game. Basically, I'm stalling; trying to justify why I quit when I did, but really I couldn't have picked a worse time to give up.
I now realise I was approaching the game from completely the wrong angle. At the time, I was still very used to strictly directed stories in my videogames. Think Halo, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy and Zelda. These games tell you the tale of the protagonist(s) in a slightly removed manner. When the game wants to reveal some plot you have to stop and listen; a cinematic scene unfolds in front of you, and once it's done you're given control over your character again. This break in gameplay is essentially a bookmark telling you to shut up and listen, because this is important. In Half-Life 2 you almost never relinquish control of Gordon Freeman. I very quickly came to realise that this wasn't due to a lack of focus, but rather it was letting me choose what to focus on. Suddenly I was starting to identify with the world, because I felt like I was actually part of it and not just a passive observer.
My new found connection with the world swiftly bled into how I related to the characters. No longer did I see the good Doctor Freeman as an impersonal nothing-character, but as a blank slate just waiting for me to draw all over him with my mind. And I did just that. I became the character in the game, and Gordon dutifully became the vessel that let me accomplish this. I'm in the world, fighting my way through the zombified residents of Ravenholm, commanding my own personal army of Antlions, disintegrating Combine soldiers with the Super Gravity Gun, and I'm loving every last second of it.
Now I'm in the Citadel elevator, separated from Alyx by a thin glass door. As she reaches her hand out towards me I move forward and try to do the same, and that's when I realise my hand's off the controller and I'm actually reaching for the TV. That's one of the most immersive moments I've ever experienced in a videogame, and it would't have happened if Half-Life 2 followed a rigid, one-step-removed structure.
Once I was done with the main game's storyline I dove head first into the two episodic expansions. Having played nary an iota of these episodes, I had no idea what to expect. What I got was an infiltration of the crumbling Citadel, a daring escape through Antlion infested sewers, a deadly cat-and-mouse game with the snipers of City 17, and one of the most exciting drives through the countryside that anyone has ever had, videogame or otherwise. In short, some of the most exciting, engaging pieces of gaming I've ever had the pleasure to be a part of. And that's why I enjoyed it so much, because it felt like I really was an essential part of it.
Then there's that crucial moment in Episode 2 where the control is ripped away from you. No, not the ending - although that is also amazing in an absolutely horrifying way. I'm talking about the bit where they make you think that Alyx is dead. Trapped, peeking out through a small window in my hiding place, I was forced to watch the apparent death of one of the most well realised characters in all of gaming. Of course, it's revealed pretty quickly that Alyx will actually be fine, and there had been multiple moments before this one where control was temporarily taken away from me, but this one really hit home the hardest. It made me realise how successful Valve had been at manipulating it's audience. By giving me the expectation of control, when I lost it I felt all the more vulnerable and powerless.
For me, that's what Half-Life 2 is all about: the fine-tuned manipulation of the player. Valve realised that to really make you care about the game they have to put you in it, and once you're in, once you are
Gordon Freeman, that's when they've truly got you. Clearly, this didn't work for me straight away. I was too used to the old story tropes and too lazy to fully engage my attention. As the years went by, however, I got a little older and a little wiser, and I'm so, so happy that I decided to give the game one last chance. If I had such a thing, it would be very high on my greatest games of all time list.
As I write this, it's been about a year since I returned to Half-Life 2. I was blind, but now I see. Unfortunately, what I see is an endless expanse of sky with not even the faintest vapour trail that could indicate the approach of Half-Life 3. This means that I've successfully joined the enormous group of people who are desperately awaiting news of a sequel. How any of these people have held on this long I really don't know.