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Final Thoughts 12: Half-Life 2


Final Thoughts 12

Half-Life 2

 

Note: This is not a review, but merely my musings after having recently completed a game as part of my Rogue's Adventures playthrough of my backlog. Follow @RoguesAdventure to keep up with my playthroughs.

Also Note: This was originally written (and game was completed) in May 2013.

 

Developer: Valve

Release Date: November 16, 2004

"Wake up, Mr. Freeman. Wake up and smell the ashes."

It's a difficult proposition to experience a universally praised and critically acclaimed form of media after it has already permeated the culture and cemented itself in the annals of history in its particular field. Of course we do this with books all the time, but decades and centuries of standard education curriculum help make classic novels more a rite of passage then an optional discovery. Classic cinema is a more apt example; unless you're a film student or a big film buff chances are you haven't seen too many of the American Film Institute's Top 100 Films. When exploring many of the older films (pre-1970s) it can be grating to watch the overly-dramatic stage acting, intrusive soundtrack, and rudimentary special effects and camera shots. But in order to accurately appreciate classic works one must put themselves in that time period and era and accept all the nuances as having been the best of their time. Obviously if nothing held up the media wouldn't become a classic, so many of the aspects are timeless and infinitely enjoyable. The same revisiting of classics can also be applied to video games.

2004's Half-Life 2 is widely considered, among gamers and critics, to be one of the greatest video games ever made. A sequel to Valve's own blockbuster breakout hit, the Half-Life series puts players in the silent shoes of Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist with a penchant for kicking ass. While Half-Life, released in 1998, was far from being the first 3D First Person Shooter, it did combine story-telling and immersive gameplay in a way that was rarely seen in the FPS genre, and arguably helped bring it to the popular heights it continues to enjoy to this day.

The end of the original Half-Life (which I never played), introduces the mysterious figure who talks in a creepy mincing cadence known only as the G-Man. Gordon is congratulated on his work and put into suspended animation as a reward, only to be reawakened twenty years later to help solve the world's dystopian problems in Half-Life 2. The world is now ruled by an invading alien force known as the Combine; Big Brother screens are everywhere spewing the propaganda of human liaison Dr. Wallace Breen, Overwatch security forces perform frequent raids on the working class, and an underground railroad has formed among the resistance to shuttle people out of City 17.

Gordon Freeman is activated by the G-Man in a very minimalist intro cutscene, and soon joins up with the resistance and meets some familiar faces like Dr. Eli Vance and his feisty daughter Alyx. In a time where discussing female roles in video games has finally become a hot button topic, Valve had created an awesome portrayal nearly a decade ago with Alyx Vance. More mechanic than physicist, Alyx built and raised her own giant robotic pet (affectionately named Dog), handles a gun just as well as a computer console, and is an integral part of the resistance and the player's path through the game. She also has a wonderfully loving relationship with her father, and it's her father who gets captured part way through the game that fuels a rescue mission for you and Alyx (to be fair, Alyx herself does get captured near the end, but she's freed along with her father and immediately helps you again).

The introductory chapters did a phenomenal way of easing the player into the world and showing off future theatres to come: gunships and helicopters circle overhead, a hulking three-legged strider ominously walks by, and numerous security forces are ever present and soon chasing after you. HL2 offers a bold and exhilarating beginning by not giving the player any kind of weapon, instead you must rely on the scattering of resistance forces to help slow down the advancement of the Overwatch and scamper over rooftops and through windows. It's an awesome scene that would fit perfectly in any big screen dystopian thriller. Even after making the first big story advancement in meeting Dr. Kleiner and Alyx, Gordon is still only given the now infamous crowbar and must acquire his first gun by close and brutal force.

Gordon's journey through City 17 and its outlying areas is divided into distinct chapters that help separate not only areas but themes and primary gameplay segments. Two chapters are dedicated to vehicle driving segments, the first of which nicely evokes exciting themes of big budget action films as your little airboat outmaneuvers a menacing helicopter. Another is drenched in survival horror as Gordon makes his way through the headcrab infested town of Ravenholm. The assault on the prison of Nova Prospekt could be likened to a classic World War II shooter, even taking place on a beach with your own army (of sorts) under your command. The chapters do a fantastic job of breaking up the action and making each area feel unique, though if I have one nitpicky complaint it's that I felt some of the chapters go on a little too long. Route Kanal was the first chapter that Gordon is unleashed on the world with actual weapons and he begins by following the train yards, tunnels, and sewers of the underground railroad, but eventually going through the 10th sewer tunnel gets a little old, and with such limited weaponry in the beginning there's not a whole lot of variation. Considering the 15 hour or so length of the game, I did feel that the rate of new weapon acquisition was just about perfect.


Since the primary gameplay of any FPS are the guns, the weapon variety is pretty standard fare in HL2. You've got your pistol, revolver, SMG, assault rifle, shotgun, grenades, and rocket launcher. With no iron sight aiming whatsoever (a trend that continues with Valve's Left 4 Dead series) it feels like an eternity before the player is rewarded with their first and only sniper weapon - a scoped crossbow that takes a little practice to aim with. Another unique "weapon" resembles an organic tennis ball that Gordon uses to control his own army of antlions (big Starship Trooper-esque bugs) by literally throwing the pheromone ball at enemies. It's surprisingly fun and I wish the game hadn't abandoned the bug army after the prison chapters.

The real treat and unique aspect that HL2 brings to the gameplay is the gravity gun, which allows the player to manipulate the environment to create homemade projectiles or makeshift bridges over toxic water. Much of the action is broken up by physics based puzzles, such as moving barrels to keep a ramp afloat or using the gravity gun to continually build a temporary bridge across a chasm of bug-infested sand. I admit to nearly forgetting about the thing while desperately running out of ammo during the horror-themed Ravenholm chapter until perusing the achievements list. I realized I could pick up objects (like a sawblade) and fling them at the approaching hordes of headcrab shells (zombies). Other more obvious uses included picking up flammable barrels and mines to use them against foes. During the final chapter of the game the player is completely stripped of every weapon except for the gravity gun, which suddenly gets a huge upgrade, and bad guys can be pushed and pulled around like rag dolls in the ultimate satisfying power trip.

The plot seemingly comes and goes throughout the narrative, and while I appreciate the game for not resorting to the usual "voice in your ear" talking to you the whole time, I did long for a slightly more cohesive experience. I liked that all cutscenes were actually scripted in-game events, and the player only loses control during an extended tour of the Citadel during the end. The best example of the story and action coming together for me was during the latter chapters in which Gordon returns to City 17 as the resistance has begun a full scale uprising. An awesome war-torn backdrop blankets every area, and squads of resistance fighters become your new allies (though personally I preferred the voracious and endless antlions).

Although I enjoyed my time with HL2 immensely, I didn't come away with a flawless experience. The aforementioned lack of iron sight precision aiming bugs me to no end, but that's more a Valve decision than a limitation of the time. Giving the player control over a squad of allies during certain chapters was very cool, but definitely led to some frequent pathfinding frustrations; having resistance soldiers with you was awesome on the city streets, and aggravating inside cramped apartment buildings. While I hesitate to complain about something that might be considered hand-holding, I wish the game had been a little more forward about explaining the more aggressive uses of the gravity gun as I never realized I could use it on the flying, sawblade whirling manhacks or as a wonderful zombie deterrent until looking at the achievement list. Usually the game does a wonderfully intuitive job of showing you the next path (as well as little rewarding side paths) and what to do where that I fear I forgot about the gravity gun's more innovative uses. While I did enjoy the puzzles involving making bridges or paths with the gravity gun, actual platforming in an FPS can be a tricky affair, and I was thankful that the game seems pretty kind to you for the most part, specifically in constant autosaves and automatic reloads upon death.


At the time and era in which Half-Life 2 was released, any kind of storytelling in a First Person Shooter was usually ancillary to the gunplay and level design. Valve managed to marry gameplay and narrative into a cohesive experience that creates a satisfying game for fans of the genre and as well as presenting new ideas and mechanics for new players. Seeing the cool dystopian world only through Gordon's eyes gives the player limited but tantalizing information on his surroundings and makes the few moments of character exposition extra special. Gordon Freeman is considered to be one of the greatest heroes in gaming, despite never uttering a word, and it's a testament to how well the player feels connected to his avatar and how the world and characters react to him that the One Free Man remains in the upper echelons of gaming greats.


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