It’s absolutely ridiculous just how much people talk about Valve’s FPS masterpiece Half-Life 2, especially close to six years after the game’s release. Not in a bad way, of course, but just how it’s basically the standard for so many things in games: storytelling, character development, gameplay, physics, art and design, the list goes on. And, until very very recently, I had only played a small sliver of Half-Life 2, and never touched the episodes. And here I am, six years later, finally typing out my thoughts on this legendary and hugely important game.
While I had played the original Half-Life here or there having been exposed to and subsequently blown away in early 2000, I never truly realized how important the series was until I was first exposed to Half-Life 2 back in late 2004, just a month or so after its release. My friend had bought it for his newly souped-up PC, and I couldn’t wait to see how its visuals looked. It was then that I was blown away by not just the graphics, but everything else. The way the story was told, the way it flowed, the atmosphere of City 17; I was absolutely floored. We stayed up for hours, until he made it to Ravenholm, where we both were absolutely terrified and promptly shut it off, to play another day.
We never did.
Then Half-Life 2 came out for the Xbox in 2005. Since my PC couldn’t handle Half-Life 2, that was my only chance to finally get my hands back on the game that struck such a chord with me a year prior. I received it for Christmas of that year, and played the game that same day. I absolutely loved every second of it and, experiencing it a second time, and on my own, was even more in love than before.
Then I made it to Ravenholm, where I was absolutely terrified and promptly shut it off, to play another day.
I never did.
Then in early 2007 I got a brand new PC for school. Having gone to school for game art and design, I needed a powerful machine to run all the different programs I needed. To celebrate my new purchase, I decided to pick up a game to try out my new machine. The game? The very game I already owned: Half-Life 2. Figuring the graphics and PC controls warranted my restarting of the game, I installed it, played for about 20 minutes, and then realized I had a ton of console games to finish first and would come back to it later.
You know what happened.
Then The Orange Box came out in autumn 2007. Finally, a definitive collection, featuring Episodes One and Two and, of course, Portal, which looked amazing. I plowed through Portal the day I got the game, then started Half-Life 2, this time determined to go through everything. I made it to Ravenholm, where I was absolutely terrified and promptly shut it off, to play another day.
God damn it.
Ravenholm was so terrifying, so absolutely frightening, that the thought of going back to play it scared the hell out of me. So having tried the game so many different times, I came to realize it was never meant to be.
And then I let a coworker and friend of mine borrow the Orange Box a few months ago. Every week he would come in to work and talk about how awesome it was, how amazing it was. That, in addition to months and years about hearing all I let myself miss out on from this site and the podcasts and just the entire gaming world, I realized this time, I had to do it. I had to discipline myself, and not take the Orange Box out of my 360 until I was finished.
I started Half-Life 2 on Christmas Day of 2009, and finished Half-Life 2: Episode Two on February 16, 2010. Yes, it was just a wee bit of peer-pressure that broke me years after the fact. Having gone through almost the entire experience years after these games came out, and having played dozens of games inspired by or blatantly ripping off the game, the following are my thoughts on Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episodes One and Two, really really late.
And it should be pretty obvious that there are going to be full-blown SPOILERS
What Blew Me Away
Obviously, a whole lot blew me away, but it really was the storytelling, from beginning to end, that nailed me. I have played a ton of first person games with the silent protagonist, but it is only Half-Life 2 that really made me feel like I was in the shoes of the player. I really felt like I was Gordon Freeman, that I was in that world and that everything I did 100% mattered. And especially during the combat-free, story-heavy segments. Being talked to by these lifelike, expressive characters really made it feel like I was there. Every single person in the opening segment in City 17 set the game up for such an incredible, indescribable atmosphere, full of darkness, depression, and that one small sliver of hope.
The opening, since I’ve experienced it about 900 times, still manages to be incredible every single time. From the slow-paced initial exploration of City 17 and your introduction to Dr. Breen on the giant video screen, all the way until you are chased by the Combine and saved by Alyx, is just little moment after little moment that will stick with me forever. The tic-tac-toe board, the see-saw, tossing televisions and chairs out the window, and of course tossing the can at the Combine soldier, are all these tiny little details that made the game world feel alive.
But once you get into combat and start shooting everything in your way, it’s a whole different level of wonder and excitement. The smart AI of the Combine soldiers, the explosions, the breaking boxes and falling objects, it felt like the whole world was after me and that I had to be pretty damn important if they’re going all out against one man. The very basic but very user-friendly guns provided the perfect generic template for an FPS weapon selection. The assault rifle for when I needed to take down tons of guys, the shotgun for going after the zombies, and the pistol for when things got desperate. Every weapon had a purpose, everything designed with so many specific instances in mind.
And the vehicles made me feel the same way. Controlling unbelievably smoothly whether on water or on land, and providing for some thrilling moments whether you are taking it slow or speeding away from an onslaught of enemies, the vehicular sections in the game were actually something to enjoy and not dread as in most games. That feeling when I first got to start shooting in the airboat was one of pure joy, like things were finally on an even playing field.
That level of power kept coming back throughout the whole game. It was constantly, for me anyways, a complete back and forth of feeling super weak and super powerful. I would always get into a big firefight and waste every single shot, feeling terrified and vulnerable after. No weapons, no health, I treaded with caution every step of the way. Avoiding confrontation, playing it smart, once I finally made it to a stash of weapons and health I was right back on the offensive. The game never let me feel too strong for too long, or too weak. They toyed with my emotions just right.
However, if you want to talk emotion, you’ve got to bring up Alyx Vance. Known to many as one of the strongest characters in any game, Alyx wasn’t someone who I really hit it off with at first. While I thought she was quite friendly and enjoyed her company, especially seeing her interact with her father, Eli, and Dog, I never really got why people praised her so much.
It wasn’t until Episode One, where she and Dog pull me out of the rubble, that I began to feel a real connection. It was then that I felt we were in this together, and we needed to help each other out to make it out alive. And then, of course, she busts out the classic “Zombine” line and I instantly saw her as a real person, a human as vulnerable and alive as I am, that is not just there to make my life easier, but to fight for the same thing as me. From that point on, I always made sure to work WITH her, and not just have her there as a prop. I would even go out of my way to protect her in especially heated firefights, like the Hunter assault on the house in Episode Two.
Which is another great thing about these games: Valve designed the entire game with my own sanity in mind. Very rarely were there moments where I felt like Valve was being a dick to me. Whether it was the crates with unlimited rockets for gunship fights, the replenishing help in the Strider assault in Episode Two, or the constant flow of conveniently placed supply boxes loaded with just what I needed at that point in time, it always seemed like Valve tried to make my life easier without making the game easier.
The best part about all this? The fact that Alyx was with me for huge chunks of the game, and almost always took care of herself. She didn’t have a health meter to worry about, she didn’t have limited ammo, and she never needed a single supply from me. She did her own thing, was completely responsible, never got in my way, and never once in the entire game did I feel like I was in the middle of an escort mission. She held her own, we got each other’s backs, and the entire game was amazing as a result.
I have to say, though, that my favorite parts of the entire experience were whenever I was just hanging out. Even a moment of brief down time in a hangout was a huge relief, and seeing the humble gratitude of every soldier and resistance member along the way actually made me feel like what I was doing made a difference. But I just loved that first meeting with Dr. Kleiner and Eli. Getting to stand there and be a part of the story instead of watching the story really made the game feel like IT was telling the story, not cutscenes. Seeing Alyx interact with Eli, seeing Dr. Kleiner bicker with Dr. Magnusson, or seeing the heart-wrenching and slightly comical interactions of that one resistance couple spread throughout the game always made me feel like I was a part of the world, something very few games can accomplish.
Can I also say just how much I love Vortigaunts? They are the nicest, sweetest, friendliest race ever and I wish they were real. Their charming manner of speech and nonstop barrage of compliments makes me want a real-life alien ego stroker to follow me around all day.
So to wrap up what I absolutely loved, let me just name off a bunch of moments in the game that will stick with me forever: First entering City 17, first getting your HEV suit and crowbar back, driving around in the airboat, playing fetch with Dog, the first time you cut a zombie in half with a sawblade, dropping a car on a group of zombies, lighting a bunch of zombies on fire, avoiding the sand to prevent antlion attacks, having antlions attack all of your enemies, the ride through the Citadel, the pure power of the souped-up gravity gun, getting tossed by Dog in the car into the Citadel, Ravenholm 2.0 in Episode One, the Left 4 Dead-esque elevator wait, seeing Dr. Kleiner on the giant video screens for the first time, dodging the Strider to get to the train, watching the Citadel explode from the train, seeing Alyx use the gravity gun, the fear, horror and sadness of the Hunter’s sudden attack on Alyx, the antlion assault, being chased by the glow-in-the-dark guardian, avoiding the autoguns, watching Dog make the save and destroy the Strider, the first time the G-Man is referenced by Eli, fighting to shut the silo, hearing the references to Aperture Science, the satisfaction of destroying the last Strider, the joy of seeing the rocket launch, and of course, the utter heartbreak of watching Eli die right in front of you and Alyx.
What Pissed Me Off
If you’re still reading this, allow me to break it down into a much smaller section of what pissed me off.
Basically any time I got truly frustrated with the game was because I am a terrible and impatient videogame player. I avoid conflict at all costs, do my best to conserve ammunition and health, and freak out if I get low on either. I am constantly too afraid to just go out there and take an enemy down, so any part of the game involving Striders really made me angry. That bit in Episode One where you’ve got to attack all the Striders while hiding under rubble made me want to blow up the world. It was very frustrating to conserve rocket launcher ammo and take out the Striders without dying when I was low on health. Again, all my fault for letting myself both get my ass kicked and not notice the section with the rocket crate, but I was still pretty miffed.
The massive ending sequence taking on the army of Striders also made me really mad. The sawmill got destroyed almost instantly, so my Magnusson device supply was gone for one of the main areas of the battle. The Hunters were too large in numbers, too fast and vicious, difficult to kill, and always destroyed my Magnussons. Of course this was all the result of my own impatience and desire to just destroy the Striders instantly, but again, it still made me really angry. I eventually just ended up waiting for the Striders to come to me so I could destroy them at the last minute while resistance members hit the Hunters with their rocket launchers, but even then the frustration still stood.
As far as story-related issues, I kind of hated the fact that there were like four voices totals for all the soldiers. I understand it was probably difficult to get a ton of different voices and lines recorded, but I still frequently had a Metal Gear style ? over my head any time I heard a familiar voice or saw a familiar face. Strangely, though, hearing those familiar voices across the game eventually ended up giving me a warm feeling of safety once I heard them enough.
I also hated the amount of people walking backwards while facing me, and I hated the SKIPPING backwards even more. Again, I completely understand the design reasoning behind it as well as the realism reasoning, but it irked me in a weird way.
And finally, I noticed a bit into Episode One that the game started to get a tad on the formulaic side. Namely the formula of 1) Something happens or something is needed, 2) I have to go make the thing not happen or fetch what I need in what seems to be an easy way, 3) The easy way goes horribly wrong and I either fall or get ambushed and end up having to go through an elaborate process to finish my task, and 4) Do what I need to do, and find a second route back that takes me about ten seconds. While I appreciate part 4 for the simplicity and lack of backtracking, there were so many instances where something simple turned into something ridiculous. I understand it wouldn’t be a game and there would be nothing interesting to do without it, but it was getting to a point where I would be told to do something and say to myself, “This is NOT going to be as easy as they make it sound.” I ended up constantly waiting for elevators to crash or soldiers to pop up out of nowhere, and most of the time I would be right.
It’s pretty obvious that there is a LOT more good to say about this game than bad. And it’s pretty obvious that I absolutely loved (almost) every second of this one game/two episode experience. For a game that is, at its youngest, three years old and six years old at its oldest, to hold up and wow me more than most major releases of 2009 and 2010 is a huge testament to the brilliant minds over at Valve. They have crafted a well-paced, well-designed, and absolutely remarkable experience of storytelling, gameplay, and pure excitement that deserves every single shred of critical acclaim.
Finally, after all this time, I completely understand why whenever people discuss storytelling through gameplay, games as art, or just what makes excellent game design, the first game out of anyone’s mouth is Half-Life 2.