Blast from the Past
And to finish it out, we have the second legendary game in the legendary Half-Life series, Half-Life 2! Half-Life 2 continues the trend of silent protagonists, crowbars, and a gargantuan modding community.
Half-Life 2 has aged tremendously well compared to its predecessor. Models are more detailed, faces have more structure, textures are sharper and higher resolution, shaders are improved, and some fun render-to-texture tricks are being played around with.
For the time, this game was amazing looking. But don’t get me wrong, you can still see the age in it today. Compared to today, you can still see blurriness in the textures and edges in the models on characters. You can see even more hard edges on terrain and architecture geometry.
But for all its technical flaws, it still looks good. It still sucks you in. But most of all, the art direction is spot on. I would describe the textures and the details of the world as … dirty. Everything feels neglected, and sometimes forgotten. And that works into the game’s favor. The blurry textures play perfectly into the dirty aesthetic. And due to the dirty, pseudo-realistic visuals, the world feels believable. This could actually be a real place.
As per last time, if you want the synopsis of the game, you can go to Wikipedia for that. The main things you need to know is that you are still Gordon Freeman, he still can’t talk, and things are still going terribly wrong. But this time, with authoritarian rule!
Half-Life 2 keeps the tradition of no pre-rendered, pre-animated cutscenes. The player always has control of the camera, even if their movement is restricted. And, as per its predecessor, Half-Life 2 uses gates during its narrative sequences to stop the player from continuing on while important story elements are being revealed. Unlike in the original, Half-Life 2 does not let you rocket past narratives and is a bit more liberal about using long, drawn out, narrative sequences that you must witness.
Some of the copy-paste scientists from the original game were turned into their own unique characters. Even Barney makes a few appearances, but ultimately, Alyx Vance, the newest character addition, is the main driving force behind the story. Everything you learn about the new world you’ve been dropped into is primarily explained through her.
Basically, not much has changed from the storytelling side other than some improved visuals and some new/old characters.
However, something is a little different. In the original Half-Life, Gordon’s actions are completely self motivated. He’s trying to stay alive, to survive. A terrible catastrophe has occurred and he just wants to get out of there alive. Half-Life 2’s narrative is a little different. Gordon’s actions are not his own motivations. He’s doing the bidding of others, and what they want him to do. The implications of what is going on around him are almost irrelevant, he’s just taking orders. The orders are given more in the form of requests, kind of reminiscent of BioShock’s “would you kindly”, except without a passphrase, and long before BioShock was a thing. And if the reader recalls the ending of the original Half-Life, that’s exactly the situation Gordon is in. His will is no longer his own, but that of the mysterious entity behind the G-Man.
Movement is similar to the original Half-Life, except this time you have sprint! The main additions to Half-Life 2’s locomotion repertoire is vehicles and physics. The Havok Physics Engine was starting to gain in popularity in the video game industry, and Valve was one of the biggest showcases as to why Havok’s physics technology was awesome. Other than the fact that Havok didn’t have any real competition at that point, and writing a physics engine is incredibly difficult. Anyhow, Valve really wanted to let you know that a bunch of stuff had physics! Things broke apart, you could pick things up, throw things, stack things, and more! Near the beginning of the game there’s a see-saw puzzle where you have to weigh one end down with cinder blocks so that you can use it as a ramp to continue.
However, for all the awesomeness that is the Havok Physics Engine, the physics puzzles don’t crop up too often. It’s still mostly running and gunning gameplay.
There are two vehicles the player can pilot during the game, the buggy and the hover boat. They were pretty neat and novel for the time, and showcased more of the physics engine. However, they’re awful. The buggy hardly has any power to pull itself up inclines and it’s wheels lose traction frequently. Even more so if you use boost. The hover boat only exists to allow you to travel across sewer sludge that does damage to you if you touch it. It’s fine as long as you never need to come to a stop and reverse. The moment you hit the brake/reverse button, the left/right turning controls invert. When you are trying to make quick decisions, it rapidly becomes frustrating. Other than that, the vehicles in Half-Life 2 are fairly bland and just drag you away from the rest of the game.
There’s a bit less variety of enemies in this sequel. You mainly fight Combine soldiers, all of which look nearly identical to each other. The only way to differentiate between them is to notice cosmetic differences, namely the color of their eyes or the color of their suit. In all fairness, all the variants are basically identical. The only functional difference between each variant is the weapon they are carrying and whether they use grenades or their weapon’s alternate fire.
The only alien-like creatures you fight are the antlions, which take on two varieties, regular and guardian. Guardians act as minor boss fights and bullet sponges. Regular antlions exist, for the most part, to act as a nuisance.
Half-Life 2 has the return of some tried and true weapons, such as, the legendary crowbar, the pistol, the revolver, the SMG, the shotgun, the crossbow, the grenade, and the RPG. They all behave exactly as you remember them from the original game. However, the audio design and the look and feel is vastly improved. The weapons in Half-Life 2 sound and feel exceptional.
Unlike the original, gone are all the alien weapons. In fact, there’s hardly any unique weapons in the game at all. We get the addition of one sci-fi weapon called the Pulse Rifle that you pick up from the Combine, but it’s standard fair as far as weaponry goes. The two other “weapons” we get in the game are the Pheropod and the Gravity Gun. The Pheropod you just throw at enemies and AI antlions will attack whomever you throw them on. Then we have the Gravity Gun, which was unique for its time, because again, PHYSICS! It basically allowed you to pull physics objects towards you, move them around, and throw them at things/enemies. It’s main use is to grab and throw explosives, either barrels or grenades. It supersedes the crowbar, making the inclusion of the crowbar more of a throwback to simpler times.
In a way, paring down the weapon list is Valve’s way of acknowledging that most of the weapon in the original game went unused. You will still settle on a handful of weapons as your bread and butter, but Valve has made this more intentional. Ammo isn’t scarce, but Valve does make sure you run out every once in a while to force you to swap to a different weapon.
Valve bumped up the audio design a few notches for Half-Life 2. Everything sounds believable, meaty, and everything is perfectly matched. At the same time, this makes sense as most of the audio in the game has a real world counterpart to draw from. There’s less sci-fi and alien elements to make unique sounds for. As with the original, everything feels cohesive, like it belongs. Unlike the original, nothing feels unrealistic or unbelievable.
As with the original, there is hardly any music. But hot damn, when it comes on, you feel like you’re doing something awesome.
Half-Life 2 is almost a perfect marriage of simple gameplay, great art direction, and exceptional sound design. The aesthetic the games gives off feels … raw. Everything feels raw. Nothing is pretty or shiny. Everything is dirty. It feels like you’re witnessing events unedited.
Half-Life’s influence is vast, and we wanted more. We got a little more in the episodic sequels, but they weren’t the same. Sometimes you have to take a break for a while and come back to it later. That’s what Valve is doing with Half-Life. If Half-Life: Alyx is anything to go by, Half-Life may have some great things still up its sleeves in the future.