The lights are on
I don't have to tell you how popular Half-Life 2 has become over the years. However, it's one thing to know something is big and another to experience it for the first time almost 10 years after the fact. A lot has happened in the near decade since its release, but it's a testament to the game's popularity that I can still understand why it's such a phenomenon.
I can't remember why I never played Half-Life 2 when it first came out, and as the years rolled on, it was increasingly convenient to put it off in favor of newer titles on deck. However, I've always been aware of this embarrassing gap in my video game experience, and planned on righting the wrong in time. I recently started it up, and I was struck by particular elements of the title that I felt stood the test of time, providing a testament to Half-Life 2's quality.
Graphics are always the first thing to go, but looking at Half-Life 2 doesn't hurt the eyes. Sure, games nowadays shine with better textures and lighting (I played the console version, by the way), but the game has a solid look, and there are also plenty of graphical details and lighting effects to more than adequately set the mood. At one point I was even surprised when I shot a pane of glass to see it spider web and fragment. I wonder if that blew minds at the time.
In general, one of the abiding aspects of the game – and I say this never having played the first title nor harbored any particular affection for the series – is how the game effectively sets the tone. From the gritty look and location of the levels to the small incidental details you come across in the world (like the refugees or fellow rebels you interact with), you can feel the series' universe come alive. This includes the effectiveness of the minimal HUD, quality voice acting, and strength of the cutscenes.
It also says a lot about this game that there are titles these days whose enemy AI isn't even up to the caliber of Half-Life 2's. They stick to cover, move around, and are well-placed within levels, sometimes taking you by surprise or encamping far away in a prime sniping spot. Speaking of levels, the game exhibits one of the trademarks of good level design – you don't always know where to go, but you always get there in the end without getting truly lost. I was surprised how big some of the areas are (although there is loading) inviting alternate solutions to problems and making the area around City 17 feel natural.
One thing that I don't like about the game, although I can only hope it's a relic of the past, is its insistence on incorporating platforming into the mix. Given the lack of peripheral vision inherent in an FPS, I found little joy in trying to jump and land on objects; sometimes requiring pinpoint accuracy. Furthermore, for a game priding itself on its physics, jumping felt slightly floaty, and objects didn't feel weighty enough when manipulated.
There has been almost a decade of hype on Half-Life 2, and I think it lives up to it very well. Even at my snail's pace, I unfortunately imagine I'll have more than enough time to finish the other episodes before Half-Life 3 comes out...if it ever does.
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