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Late to the Party




Fairly recently, I finally got around to finishing Half-Life 2 (and episodes 1 and 2) of The Orange Box. This was actually my second playthrough of the game, and I have to say, the series just clicked with me this time around. I can’t quite pinpoint what had changed, but I have become a big fan of the series, and of Valve. Half-Life 2 still holds up well today, and I consider the diverse characters, atmosphere, and gameplay (which is so interconnected with the environment), to be trailblazing.




 
One of my favorite aspects of Half-Life 2 is the incredible arsenal you have at your disposal. Long distance enemies? You can take them down with your crossbow (one of my personal favorites), or RPG. Close encounters? Use your crowbar, or throw blades using your gravity gun, to slice enemies. Don't feel like lifting a finger? Summon your antlion minions (which eventually become under your control) to do your bidding.  If a Zombine is running after you holding a grenade, simply get out of the way and let it blow up its fellow zombies. 


 
In Half-Life, there is creativity in killing. Players aren’t just given guns to mow down enemies with bullets. As you advance through the game, you build up a formidable weapon stash. Each gadget comes in handy to face off against different enemies, that work in their own ways, which pushes you to try new things, and use your surroundings too.





While I was playing, I often joked to my sister that I was enacting scorched earth policy (destroying everything so the enemy cannot use it), because I left no crate untouched, and no window unsmashed. Seeing what I could discover and/or destroy was very entertaining. For example, in some kitchens, if I poked around, there would be a watermelon for me to "chop up" with my crowbar. One time, I came across a soda machine, and to my utter delight, when I pressed a button, a few drinks tumbled out. And in dark areas, if I turned on my flashlight in Alyx's face, she would actually cover her eyes. 


 
These little details taught me to look around in the environment not only for fun distractions, but also different ways to defeat the enemy or make my way through an obstacle. This is probably my favorite part of the game: Valve did a remarkable job in creating a physical world for players to interact with.  
 



Half-Life 2 is a very linear game, but personally, it didn’t quite feel like that. Though you have to go from point A to point B, the game doesn’t force you to stay within a certain area. Many times I went off the main pathway to explore nearby areas, or simply soak in the beautiful atmosphere.


 
This makes the game very satisfying because when you end up going where you need to, you do it because you found the way to go. Unlike most games which use colors, NPC commands, or some kind of sign to point you in the right direction, Half-Life 2 generally skips this, giving you control. You can choose to explore the various nooks and cranies or skip optional areas and enemies.

 
Overall, the game is a unique balance of complexity and vagueness, and trying to figure things out really put me into the game. If you are not very adventurous in exploring, it still is important to be aware of the surroundings, because in between battles, there are environmental puzzles to figure out. So even if you don’t care to, Half-Life still expects players to keep an open mind and think outside of the box. For example, during the Sand Traps chapter, in order to open a gate, car batteries must be found. There is one already located in the room, but upon further searching, there is a battery on top of a windmill (that you blast off with your gravity gun), another under the hood of a nearby car, and one underneath of a bathtub! 

Valve also did an incredible job of using the environment to set up the mood. The sound effects are incredibly realistic and every action or thing seems to have its own voice/sound. What sets Half-Life 2 apart from other games though, is that the setting not only sets the tone, but as I have mentioned before, also helps players as well. If I ever came close to a poison headcrab zombie (which has poison headcrabs to throw at you), I would hear its signature raspy breathing and brace myself. In the cavernous pits of a mine, antlion grubs on the walls not only lit the way I needed to go, but also provided health when killed. If there was a horde of zombies coming after me, and there was a gas valve, I could turn it on to send them to their fiery demise.






Later on in the game, Gordon is joined by a mini-squad of Resistance soldiers, and can send his team further on to fight, or call them back. As I delved more into the story and encountered my fellow comrades,  I could see show diverse this Resistance was. Female and male soldiers, medics, and scientists all were working side by side for the common good. It was incredibly refreshing to see different ethnicities and genders supporting one another, even as NPCs. 


 
Speaking of NPCs, I have to mention Alyx Vance, one of the best sidekicks ever created. It was really great to see a female character important to both the protagonist and the story, who was not solely a love interest. She's an invaluable hacker who can more than handle her own, and she even saves Gordon's neck a few times. Alyx also has a very touching bond with her father, Eli, which is something I haven't really encountered in many games. It helped show more of a human side to the war I was fighting in, which I appreciated. 



 



Overall, the creativity and imagination of the Half-Life universe is amazing, and contains so many distinct levels, critters, and characters. As Gordon, I began the game clueless and alone (like he was), battling strange creatures, but by the end, I was more than capable of taking down hordes whether I was alone, or surrounded by my fellow squadmates cheering me on. It was a great perspective to experience. Whether I was escaping City 17's bleak oppression, running from the haunted Ravenholm, or traveling through the scenic, tranquil White Forest, each place helped to create a memorable adventure.


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