Half-Life 3. It has got to be one of the most anticipated video games of all time, if not the most. Legions of Valve faithful await the day that the series that revolutionized shooters and gaming in general finally steps back into the limelight. Expectations are so high that I'd be very surprised if it even fulfilled a fraction of them. So I find it quite odd that I hardly see people actually discussing what kind of game Half-Life 3 could reasonably be like. For that I look back at the first two Half-Life's and see how that projects for a third.
The significance of Half-Life
For me personally, the Half-Life games have always been important touchstones in my time as a PC gamer, but they've also been truly genre-defining games in general. The first Half-Life opened eyes of many a gamer that video games can not only tell stories without any of the previous crutches like huge walls of text or obnoxious FMV sequences, but that they can actually evoke immersion thanks to good level design and both from a gameplay point of view, as well as a story telling one.
The great innovation were script sequences and it is actually quite amazing when you go back to play the game and see how masterfully they knew to integrate them back then already. The game is a triumph in many respects. For one, there are the scripted sequences, showing scientists in peril or sudden shock moments, like falling elevators. The fact that you are witnessing these happenings in the regular first person view and in fact, are never forced out of it, adds a lot more weight to these events, which are really just cutscenes.
Another triumph is the overall pacing and variety. Intense firefights are followed by light environmental puzzles with platforming gameplay which are followed by interesting scripted sequences, and all the while you traverse a rich environment. Then there are boss fights, which really are overpowered and unique obstacles that demand that the player figure out a strategy and both test his wit as well as twitch skills. I will never forget the three-headed monster.
Half-Life contained many innovations in the FPS genre, which becomes clearer if compared to its direct competitor at the time, Unreal. Unreal was a great FPS, but it really was more of an evolution of the traditional (at the time) style of shooter, of games like Quake or even Doom before it. It was really one of the first "experience focused" games, laying a lot of ground work for modern linear FPS's like the Call of Duty series, which take the general formula further with extremely high production values.
How Half-Life 2 progressed from the original
So if Half-Life embodies this turning point in shooter game design, what was expected of the successor? Gamers would expect another revolution of Half-Life 2, they would expect nothing less than a game which was truly next-gen, not mainly in terms of visual fidelity but in game design.
When Half-Life 2 was unveiled at E3, I was giddy with excitement and simply blown away. Valve succeeded in offering something new that wasn't really seen before: believable physics. Sure, shortly before Half-Life 2 came out, Deus Ex: Invisible War was released and it had physics. You could move crates around and they'd fall and tumble realistically (as opposed to the simplistic physics implementations in earlier 3D games like the original Deus Ex). But it was Half-Life 2 that didn't use physics as a mere gimmick, but consequently embedded it into the level design. The pinnacle of which was of course the creation of the gravity gun.
Yet Half-Life 2 wasn't as impactful or genre-defining as the original. It was an amazingly well crafted experience-focused shooter, and there's so many things I loved, ranging from the satisfying combat, to the simple look and feel of the world and the masterful pacing. It was more of the same, just better, featuring just about enough innovation to mark it as the best FPS I'd played since the first Half-Life.
One could argue that Half-Life 2 did change the landscape in that it forced customers to use Valve's new service Steam, which we all know became a hugely successful platform over the years since then. If anything though, it only speaks of Valve's willingness to leverage the appeal of their games to further their ambitions in other directions.
So what does that mean for Half-Life 3?
It's now about ten years since then, and the gaming community is crying out for Half-Life 3. But what are gamers expecting of it? Are they like I did with Half-Life 2, perhaps unfairly, expecting a truly next-gen game, a game that features gameplay never seen before? Half-Life's innovation was really a game design specific one. Half-Life 2's was a technological one. Where are the frontiers in this day and age? I don't remember where I read it, but there was a suggestion that Half-Life 3 would be an open-world game.
This makes sense in the way that highly linear games that heavily rely on spectacle and high production values are just reaching their limits as I believe. Just look at the stagnation in the Call of Duty franchise. I believe the Valve has much too ambitious game designers to be simply settling for a linear action game trying to imitate a movie.
If you look at one of the big shifts from the first to the second game, there's the switch of location from Black Mesa, which was really a confined area with only one direction to progress, to City 17 and surrounding areas, where there was still only one direction go, but which evoked a sense of being a large, real place. It is a testament to the skill of Valve to keep the player engaged that the level design never felt confining.
But this just won't do anymore for Half-Life 3. There are games out now which truly let you move around freely in huge areas and keep you interested, games like Skyrim, or the more comparable STALKER series. I think that there is a lot more potential in open world games in gameplay terms than in linear ones to innovate.
Yet the problem is: would it still be a Half-Life game? Half-Life is arguably just as characterized by the finely tuned pacing and flow of action sequences as it is by the innovation aspect. The former has always been the strength of linear game design. After all, in an open world, the designer simply cannot be sure what the player's state will be at any given moment, whereas in a linear game, this is much more possible. Half-Life 2's commentary mode provides a great window into the mindset with which Valve is crafting levels for their games.
So, something has to give. Either blow us away with something completely new in an open-world setting and run risk of straying too far from the roots of what defines Half-Life, or run risk of at best creating a wonderful FPS experience that doesn't really stand out from the mainstream FPS crowd. Of course, the other possible outcome would be the master-coup, an open-world game which Valve somehow manages to marry with gameplay that allows for experiences with moments that up to now can only be seen in games which were finely crafted "by hand".
Additionally, Valve would have to steer clear of implementing RPG elements such as inventory management, or quests. Not that these are bad things (RPG's are my favorite genre), but because Half-Life has a minimalist philosophy in that regard. They're very clean and streamlined games with a very clear focus on action, and the third would doubtlessly have to be of the same mold.
With all this in mind, I am not at the least surprised that Valve hasn't even announced Half-Life 3 yet. It's a much too important franchise to treat lightly, and since Valve is not in need to make the game, they will not do it until they can come up with a game design that does the name justice.
Personally I'm happy to wait, if it means the result will be all the better for it.