Upon completing the main campaign of Half Life 2 (I still have the episodes to play), I laughed.  Oh, cheeky Valve.

Traditionally, I struggle with first person shooters and even though I picked up the Xbox 360's The Orange Box for a mere $20 I largely avoided the titles while I played other games.  Sometimes a gun with a chainsaw attachment applied to an enemy's head is a cathartic release and other times it is a mindless grind rolling from one convenient waist high cover to the next.  Mostly my struggles with FPS games are based on the overwhelming horde that never ends.  A chokepoint with enemies rushing from every corner is fought with many deaths, strategic changes, and a sweaty controller as the tension builds with the final but superhuman enemy rushing towards me with a scream.  In the end, there is no relief.  Only a brief headset conversation from the intelligence operative (usually a woman in science fiction but a man in "realistic" military shooters) while I rush forward into an eerily similar shootout. From one high stress map to the next I usually switch games because I must build up the wherewithal to face the overwhelming horde again and again.

I figured that my early gaming years on JRPGs with turn based enemy encounters broken up with wildly distant checkpoints but with the reward of emerging out of an enchanted forest into the next town full of conversations, shops, and mini games (most often hide and seek with cheeky children) established my gaming expectations that made me struggle with playing FPS games for hours. 

Is it coming?  Maybe, maybe not.  

Half Life 2 was an obligation, a gaming requirement to at least appreciate the fans' hair pulling wails for Half Life 3.  HL2 may not rank as one of my favorite games of all times but now I get it.  The beloved but tough as dirt grandparent franchise of first person shooters remains unseated from its throne.  HL2 may wish that a younger game with more energy would usurp its position as high ruler of all FPS games but the title must be earned, not given. 

Why?  Must you ask?

Follow?  Follow Who? 

HL2 is open level, not open world, but even that limited openness allows us to become lost.  Nearly any current FPS release nowadays includes the immortal NPC, Follow, who can lead us through any dangerous obstacle course and emerge unscathed.  In fact, refusal to comply with the command inherent in Follow's name results in a video game meltdown that throws the player back to the last checkpoint.  Leave Follow's side at your own risk.     

Ravenholm is a fantastically designed level, I even forgave the infinitely spawning zombies. 

The open levels of HL2 do not "lead the way."  The open levels range from a maze of a map that requires puzzle solving to unlock the next door or hidden ramp to the clearly attainable roof to a sequence that is more linear than open with its high concrete walls and directive to ride the airboat to the end of a radioactive canal.  Also, items of interest are not highlighted (hint: the watermelon is totally destructible).  HL2's minimal game developer assistance to the player is not a retro throwback to the impossible difficulties of bygone games.  In fact, HL2 is not a particularly hard game because the solution is on the screen and the answer is reasonably apparent which perfectly captures that sense of achievement in gaming upon discovering the solution rather than the button mashing luck that cannot be recreated. 

Door To Door Jumping In First Person Platforming

Admittedly, this is exactly what I thought when I played through this level.  

Take note Assassin's Creed: Revelations, first person platforming can be done.  Of course, Mirrors Edge has remained as the lone game based entirely on first person platforming based.  As the next generation gifts video game developers with much more computing power first person platformers are becoming a revived genre before the new consoles even launch with Mirror's Edge 2 finally announced and games such as Sunset Overdrive garnering much attention. Admittedly, the first person platforming in Half Life 2 is one of the game's rougher edges.  Jumping across the sandy beach on alternating pieces of scrap metal, driftwood, and the inexplicable numerous doors littering the beach was not my favorite level but the level was done well.  The platforming was doable with a fun and immediate consequence for missing the platform and made me decide whether or not I had the patience to hopscotch far out of my way for tantalizing supplies (I did not).    

Who Needs A Gun?

If only real life imitated video games more often. 

The Half Life franchise's hero, Gordon Freeman, is a maniac with a crowbar.  The crowbar is a last ditch melee tool, most effective for head crabs, and its value is well established as the best and most satisfying method of breaking open boxes.  The crowbar as the most iconic weapon in a game that also features a pistol, a magnum, a shotgun, a crossbow and more is a fun irony that a gun is not the featured weapon of a FPS game.  FPS games nowadays may use HL2's overall arsenal of guns, grenades, and mines but it is the unexpected weapon that is a fun treat.

Far Cry 3 includes a blowtorch.  The blowtorch's function for vehicle repair is not as helpful as a box breaking crowbar. At the point that my vehicle required repairing the needed repairs were often beyond the blowtorch's capabilities.  Fact, the blowtorch will not repair your fully submerged vehicle, I tried.  Yet, the ability to use the blowtorch as an impromptu melee weapon was reason enough for me to equip the blowtorch now and then, just in case I needed to melt off an enemy's face (that is not an actual mini cut scene but take this idea under advisement Ubisoft).      

Save Anywhere

The modern FPS game uses a checkpoint save system.  Nowadays, such checkpoints are not clearly defined record books (that are always in a house of worship) or tape recorders (that are always in a utility closet) where players stop and save but an animation in the corner of the television triggered by an invisible line.  Undoubtedly, the worst part of a reload is waiting for the revelation of where the last checkpoint was.  By a show of hands, who here has become frustrated enough to turn a chokepoint into a full out sprint towards the enemy horde hoping to trigger a checkpoint before certain death?  Me.

I died a lot here, I mean a lot and then I died some more. 

HL2's and Valve's overall commitment to the save anywhere feature allows us to test out our different theories for puzzle solving as well as experiment with our weapon choices and battle plans.  Again, a show of hands for who stopped plans worthy of an action hero after remembering the location of the last checkpoint?  Again, as the rare modern FPS open world game, Far Cry 3 required reloading at unlocked safe houses and radio towers.  The sudden memory that the nearest unlocked spawn point was across the map of the outpost that I had under siege kept my sniper rifle aimed on patrolling guards rather than a Molotov cocktail based approach.  Whereas, after a save before opening a door in HL2, I threw barrels (the gravity gun is simply Gordon imitating Donkey Kong after all), aimed for a magnum head shot, attempted the perfect grenade throw, or whatever else I felt like trying. 

Is That Pain You Felt?: Closed Captions

Truly an epic experience with closed captions. 

Remember that I laughed when I finished the game?  The endgame joke is only truly funny for those who know the ending of the original Half Life.  I did not play the game and ultimately gave up on Game Informer's Super Replay of Half Life because the game featured no subtitles or captioning of any kind.  However, and this topic deserves more space than I will dedicate here, Valve responded to complaints regarding no captions in Half Life with actual closed captioning in Portal, Half Life 2, and Portal 2.  No other game developer that I am aware of provides this option in the menus and then provides actual closed captions.  The quick explanation of this importance is that subtitles are for the hearing because subtitles are simply a language translation that does not include auditory clues.  HL2's closed captions are truly impressive including "*pain*" when an enemy is hit or "distant zombie groan" and I felt included rather than a befuddled by countless cheap deaths.   

Zipping down the water chased by a helicopter...the original experience. 

When I initially began HL2 I was not stunned, merely appreciative of one of the original FPS games.  While my airboat sped down the seemingly endless canal full of radioactive sludge and a helicopter's guns aiming for me, I flashed back to Call Of Duty: Black Ops.  I remembered the thrill of zipping from land to sea to sky culminating with a helicopter versus helicopter battle.  At that moment I realized that the original thrill came from HL2 and I kept my eyes open for how else HL2 made the genre that we know today as a staple of current generation gaming.

We cannot argue with science. 

HL2's narrative is not even particularly more substantial than Call Of Duty or Halo.  Go here and get that and spend the majority of the game enroute to the "go here" objective.  But HL2 took the time to make a game that forces the gamer to actively participate in order to advance.

Thank you for your readership, I appreciate you.  I was disappointed to miss a week last week after life's responsibilities all but eradicated my gaming and writing time.  All problems may not be solved but I just bought XCOM: Enemy Unknown to play on my birthday and my GIO fantasy football team will rise from the infirmary to crush the opposition.  Life is good.

What is your favorite FPS game?

What is your favorite gameplay mechanic of HL2?

Do you think that FPS games can include a more substantial story?