is considered a masterpiece by many. Whilst the original Half-Life
is the game that can be credited as the game that started the long walk away from arena based shooters and towards FPS games being used as a compelling storytelling medium it's the sequel that built on that foundation and created a game that truly made everyone believe. Half-Life 2's
influence in gaming is obvious, the sheer abundance of FPS games in gaming today is a testament to its popularity but to limit its influence to numbers is an insult. Amazing games like Bioshock
and Call of Duty 4
would simply not exist had it not been for the brilliance of Valve's
But it's not only storytelling that Half-Life 2
advanced. The Source engine raised the bar for accuracy of control and environment. The engine itself has proven to be durable beyond belief, only now 6 years after release is it beginning to show its age. Half-Life 2
at its time was a piece of technical mastery, designed not only to provide a compelling story but to also showcase the technical prowess that the guys at Valve
has been described by this site as a "shining example of what videogames can accomplish, both technically and emotionally."
It's a pity I don't get it.
Before I go on, for those of you who prefer to listen than to read I have a podcast
where in the midst of awesome music I describe the feelings I'm about to pen down. I'd encourage you to listen to it seeing as my voice is apparently a lot nicer than my writing.
To accurately describe my feelings about Half-Life 2
it's probably necessary to divvy the game up into two portions; the gameplay and the story. Ultimately whilst Half-Life 2
has a lot of other memorable features, like it's awesome soundtrack or graphical quality, it's these two that people point to when they talk about how amazing the game is. They're also the two most disappointing parts of the game for me.
Gameplay-wise then, what is Valve
trying to do with Half-Life 2
. Well the easy answer is, "Show off their awesome new physics engine," but it's more than that. What Valve
is trying to do is what any other developer wants, to provide a rewarding experience for a player without the game ever becoming too difficult and perhaps more fundamentally, prevent people from getting bored with the game.
So how does Valve
do this? Well through a couple of means. Those who've played Half-Life 2
for more than an hour will have quickly realised that health drops scaled according to how much damage the player had taken. If Gordon was on critically low health then when he smashed open a crate, lo and behold there was a large med-pack ready to heal him back up. By contrast, Gordon on high health would likely find nothing or ammunition for his pistol instead. The system was more subtle than most and via this method Valve
wanted to keep a level of tension in the game, without it becoming that frustrating, the principle being that just as a player was about to die they'd reach the next health drop.
But that wasn't it, Valve
also realised that a game could quickly become stale if the protagonist was just left in an open field shooting people. To that extent, the variation in locale from chapter to chapter was, well vast. Ranging from chases through canals to prison complexes to battles in the middle of a half-destroyed city Valve
pulled out all the stops to keep the player entertained and engaged. Variety of location is supplemented with variety of weapon, just when a player gets used to his current arsenal, a new item is thrown into the mix just to spice things up. Then finally as the icing on the cake, Valve
break up combat with fun puzzles which really do show off Source engine.
At least, that's what everyone else will tell you.
Ultimately none of what I've written is true in my own mind. See, it wasn't long before I was incredibly bored by Half-Life 2
's gameplay. It may be because I played the game two years after release, but quality should not fade that quickly. Valve
's failure in the gameplay department was clear to me. The adjustable difficulty setting was great, until I realised what was going on. Yes, it created a sense of urgency for the first hour but when I realised I was getting to ten health and consistently surviving every time I realised that my health being low wasn't actually a problem. But that's relatively minor, it certainly isn't game killing.
My problem lies in that the pacing of the game as a whole was just wrong. While weapon variety is nice, when almost every enemy dies in the exact same way, point gun at head, shoot, it becomes difficult for a game to remain fresh. Great, so some enemies have just surprised me, guess what guys? I'm going to do the EXACT same thing I've been doing for the last six hours of the game, aim my gun at their soft unprotected faces and blast away. That may be a problem with the shooting medium as a whole but Half-Life 2
's longevity is meant to be a selling point, to me it becomes the game's biggest weakness.
Then as if to add insult to injury the sections that are meant to break this monotony up, the vehicle sections specifically, are badly timed. Why is there a massive vehicle section at the beginning of the game? Why is there another one with only a chapter's break in between? Why the hell are they so long? What should have been fun diversions from an otherwise monotonous shooting experience end up being so long they could be games in of themselves. And then we have the puzzles. Don't get me wrong, they're not bad, in fact they're really quite fun to begin with. But after the twentieth time I've used a gravity gun to form a bridge across acid/sludge/fire/radioactive goo from random objects that just happen to be acid/sludge/fire/radioactive goo-resistant it's begun to lose its shine.
But this isn't really a fair examination, Half-Life 2
isn't driven by its gameplay, it's driven by the plot. So in the same way that a game like Mass Effect 2 can have you running through the same cover fire scenario again and again, Half-Life 2
can put you through repetitive gameplay because its story is so amazing.
To make the story amazing Valve
do a few things. The first is a dedication to the first person perspective for the purposes of greater immersion in the game. Valve
never uses cutscenes, everything Freeman does, everything he experiences is directly associated to you because Freeman is never anything more than a pair of hands in the game. The use of the first person perspective in this way makes it feel as if the characters in the game are interacting with you as opposed to anyone else.
further this by creating characters who in all senses of the word actually act like normal people. Alyx Vance isn't an over sexualised teenager with massive narks, she's legitimately someone you could find in the real world and have a conversation with. What this does is actually create a level of empathy between the player and the game's characters. After all, it's a lot harder to empathise with some perfect superhuman that never gets anything wrong and looks amazingly hot, they seem unrealistic and it hurts the immersion of the game.
But where Valve
's master strategy kicks in is after developing these characters it puts them firmly into the line of fire. The game ceases to be so much about taking out an evil corporation like every other game in the world and becomes a game about fighting for people you actually like, to help them. It makes the prizes the game does throw at you more rewarding and it makes the tragedies that much more heart wrenching because they're happening to your friends.
At least, that's what people have told me.
See, my own issues with Half-Life 2
's plot lie come down to a single problem. Everything I said about caring for my characters was a lie. Half-Life 2
's greatest flaw is that in the early stages of the game you have what? 10 minutes of dialogue? (And by dialogue I mean Alyx monologuing) to want to care about this character. I'm sorry Valve
, that isn't enough. If your story is character driven then whilst I feel slightly bad that Alyx's life isn't normal and I think her pet robot mech Dog thing of doom is fairly awesome, I don't want to save the world for her. I sure as hell don't want to invade a prison to save her father who I've had even less of an interaction with. Alyx's father quickly became Random Black Scientist Dude in my head and Alyx became, "that bitch who I need to protect for some reason." Gordon Freeman had ceased to be an extension of the me that you'd normally see in real life; instead he was the extension of the powergamer who really couldn't care less about the characters in the game and just wanted to get to the next objective so more things would blow up.
's crucial mistake in Half-Life 2
was that its time allocation was all over the place. But further, it was compounded by the fact that the silent protagonist narrative prevented me from ever being able to find out more. I honest to God wanted to like Alyx for who she was; I wanted to develop some measure of empathy. But because I could never interact with her beyond a couple of scripted minutes, most of which entailed us talking about the mission rather than how she may have been a normal person before all of this crap happened, I never did develop that rapport. That's what made me lose steam. Valve
created a world that I wanted to understand, it created a story that I could have been interested in, characters that I might have liked. But I could never interact with them.
My biggest regret in gaming is that I understand why Half-Life 2
is meant to be good, I hope all of you can see that, I respect why other people enjoy it but no matter how much love I try to shower on that game, I can't make myself like it.
I suppose the E for Effort should go to me, but that would just be silly wouldn't it? read