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Behind the Times: Half-Life 2

A little explanation: this past summer I moved halfway across the country and spent two and a half months wallowing in unemployment and a frustrating job hunt. The result? Much more time to sit around and play games than life had previously afforded, and also the chance to work my way through a bunch of famous games that the wider community has played through, obsessed over, digested, and moved on from. This is the beginning of a series where I'd like to chat about first-time impressions of said games, and hopefully remind folks of their thoughts and feelings from way back then. Here we go - hope you enjoy.

Over the years I've cultivated a slightly notorious habit for not buying games until they hit that magical price point of 20 bucks. That, coupled with a couple years of critical and popular buzz, led me to finally grab a copy of The Orange Box while out running errands. The one game I really wanted to leap right into was Portal, but I decided to exercise some restraint and start with the biggest chunk of the disc, which of course is Half-Life 2. I knew of the first Half-Life by reputation only (and a quick Wikipedia scan of the plot to make sure things in the sequel made sense), and I'd played about 45 minutes worth of Half-Life 2 on a friend's PC in high school (just long enough to make a cinderblock see-saw in the canals and learn that physics can also apply to video games). That aside, I didn't know much of what I was getting into, and as a result had plenty of pleasant surprises in store for me.

One of the results of buying an Xbox 360 last year was that I've probably played more first-person and third-person shooters in the last year than in my entire previous gaming career. This is not to say that I had an aversion to them before - it's just that the 360 caters well to the genre, and action games have been engaging me more than RPGs as of late. While I would hardly start to call myself an expert (or even particularly well-educated) on the genre, I have to say the main thing that sets Half-Life 2 apart from other genre competitors is the focus it places on environment, atmosphere, and (relative) realism.

The opening scenes of the game, for example, are a testament to the power that visuals, audio, and game design can carry when assembled carefully. Arriving in City 17 and progressing through the train station and plaza was a powerful experience, because the developers managed to integrate scripted events and NPC routines in such a way that gave the world more spontaneity and realism than most games accomplish. It's a frighteningly plausible police state that you're walking through, from the menace of the Civil Protection officers to the meek citizens and the video screens sprouting propaganda overhead. Adding to the emotional impact was the developers' choice to leave you unarmed and helpless, only heightening the oppression around you. When you get caught in the middle of an apartment raid and can see avenues of escape getting cut off one by one, the fact that running for your life is literally the only option you have made for a surprisingly terrifying experience.

I have to say it was surprisingly satisfying when the game finally gives you a pistol and the chance to fight back. The action of shooting your first enemy, which in most shooters wouldn't cause us to blink an eye, became an act of great significance in light of your previous fear and inability to act. In this bleak and weary world, the revolution literally begins with you.

The opening of this game still remains the most striking part to me, as you can perhaps tell. Once you get into the swing of things, it moves along like any well-polished and thoughtfully designed game: new equipment is acquired and explained, opportunity is given to use your new skills, puzzles and enemies scale in complexity. The fact that I don't have as many specific things to say is hardly a criticism: rather, it is always a pleasure when you can let a game take the reins and just follow along its journey, confident that you are in good hands.

I would like to talk about the ending for just a moment, however (in mostly benign non-spoiler terms, so don't worry too much). The last chapter of the game actually switched up the gameplay in a really enjoyable way (via your weaponry, specifically), and I thought that it created an engaging new way to play the game. I have a friend who holds the opinion that some of the best games throw their toughest challenges at you right before the end, and then give you a fun, low-stress segment afterwards as a kind of reward (a prime example being the Brumak ride at the end of Gears of War 2). In this case, I suppose the strider battle would be the big hurdle to overcome, followed by a big playground for the gravity gun. I dug on that.

Rather, I'm talking about the ending-ending of the game, as in the last moments before the credits roll. Abrupt is the first word that leaps to mind when I think back on it. I'm well aware that it is similar in many, many ways to the end of the first Half-Life, but I can't help but feel that in the first game the plot must have felt at least a bit more wrapped up before the end. So much of the end of Half-Life 2 gets unexplained that, if I didn't know I have Episodes 1 and 2 still ahead, I think I would have felt cheated. Those of you who played the game on PC right when it came out, what are your thoughts? I'm really curious if you thought the end was satisfying in any way whatsoever, or if it pissed you off.

Half-Life 2 isn't a perfect game. If I were to get nitpicky about criticism, I think I would say the vehicle segments dragged on a bit long, and some of the precision platforming required made for a few too many cheap deaths (although this is a criticism in pretty much any first-person game with jumping, even Metroid Prime which does the best job with it). But like I say, that's nitpicking. It's not a perfect game, but it's still pretty freaking great, and I'm happy to have finally made my way through it. But now I've got two more episodes to tackle, so the ride is far from over...

Thanks for reading. I'm hoping to get a blog series started with this and get people engaged, so any feedback is mucho appreciated.

Oh, and a postscript: I finished Portal today and am now officially obsessed with it, so I expect I'll write about that sometime soon. And "Still Alive" has been stuck in my head for a couple of hours now...
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About Prince Wendellone of us since 7:39 PM on 08.13.2009

23 years old, Chicago

I was a Nintendo purist while growing up, but fortunately I wised up eventually. Now I have a 360 in addition to a lot of older-generation consoles and games, but hopefully a Wii and PS3 will be in the cards as soon as finances allow.

Update: Finances allow! Wii Get! Badow.

Trying to reconcile adult responsibilities with diehard gaming is a challenge, but it's a day to day process.
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