half-life 2

a review of Half-Life 2
a videogame developed by valve software
and published by valve software
for Microsoft Windows, the macintosh operating system x, the microsoft xbox, the microsoft xbox 360 and the playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by Theodore Troops

4 stars

Bottom line: Half-Life 2 is “a miracle.”

Half-Life 2 is a miracle of a game. It should probably be a pack-in with Windows. Like Solitaire. You get a new computer, and Half-Life 2 automatically comes on it. In effect, that’s almost the case, considering how many ATI cards came with vouchers for it, and how many OEM software bundles it was part of. In all, over six million people have played Half-Life 2, and I can’t imagine any of six BILLION not wholly enjoying it. Not since Super Mario Bros. has there been a game that is so welcoming, so sure of itself that it could be understood and respected by people who do not play videogames.

The word “videogame” has a certain stigma attached to it, of course, so that kind of stands in its way. Important industry individuals are conspiring to replace that word with something like “interactive entertainment experience,” which is treating the symptom, not the disease. “Movie” and “play” aren’t words that should be taken seriously, if you think about them. They earned that respect. If there’s one game that’s going to empower the word “videogame” and get us all walking in parades, it’s this one.

As 2006 comes to a close, there is much talk of getting grandmas to swing tennis rackets and other such nonsense. A wave of paranoia is sweeping the industry, as though it has just been told that the royalty it has been intermarrying for generations is starting to get a little diseasey, mutating into hideous monstrosities with Tony Montana licenses. Fresh blood is needed, and so tiny little vampire bat-like games are released from the Xbox Live ArCave, flying down chimneys, sinking their teeth into your sister who was dumb enough to confuse that 360 controller on the coffee table for an iPod, and BAM, now she’s One Of Us. That’s the plan, anyway.

These games are bright and colorful, short, and about as involved as that “football” game the kids used to play at the lunch table in middle school where they’d fold a piece of paper into a rigid triangle, and “kick” it with their index finger through a classmate’s Cheeto-powdered uprights. Those kids were just wasting time while their Sprites and Lunchables digested into a toxic glob, and these new videogames for “the casual market” serve the same purpose, really. Does a man waiting in a five-person line at the bank really need to distract himself with a rousing game of Bejeweled on his cell phone? Is this what’s going to create a new generation of players? Three-minute gem-swapping sessions for ADHD sufferers?

In the eighties, the industry neared collapse (I’m told), and videogames, after having some buzz for a couple of years in the afterglow of Pac-Man, once again became uncool. It wasn’t some short little arcade game that got people excited again. It was Super Mario Bros.

I would describe Super Mario Bros. as a miracle. It was the most advanced game ever made at the time, and on its shoulders rested the responsibility of gently teaching people who had never played a videogame, guiding their trembling virgin hands toward its girly bits, which throbbed warmly with interrogative punctuation. These were people whose thumbs had never caressed the red little buttons or D-pad on the NES controller. It executed this task so perfectly, much like the original Macintosh did for a people who had never seen a mouse before, that one can scarcely imagine the world that would exist had it not succeeded.

Consider how Super Mario Bros. begins. The player is facing right, and so he walks right. A Goomba is immediately seen walking in the opposite direction, suggesting he is the enemy. The player dies after making contact with him. On his second try, he uses the A button to jump, either over or onto the enemy. The next thing he sees are flashing Question Blocks surrounded by ordinary bricks. Using the jumping skill he must have learned to have proceeded, he bonks the blocks, which are arranged in a way that attracts his attention to the center one. A mushroom emerges. It first moves away from him, but hits a wall and changes its direction, teaching the player about enemy and item behavior. Now it is moving toward him in a way that makes it almost impossible for him to avoid. He sees the affects of his picking it up. He attempts to break a brick now and does so. After jumping over the first pipe, he becomes stuck between two of them. The rightmost one is taller, and cannot be jumped over normally. This is where he learns to run with the B button, using momentum to jump higher and clear the second pipe.

This is the tutorial to Super Mario Bros. That’s not to say it ends there. The game introduces new concepts throughout, with the same consideration and understanding of player psychology. The first “cutscene” in the game, for example, shows the transition from above ground to underground. While this could be notable for showing the cohesiveness of the world, impressive then in the same way people went nuts over GTA3‘s loadtimeless city, it also introduces the player to the key concept of using pipes.

This sort of hand-holding has become known as the Miyamoto philosophy. In days when games had no text, it was transparently built into to the design of the game. Now that Miyamoto has become a legendary celebrity to be trotted out at E3, the concept is bloated and self-aware, and takes the form of a marine telling you that he’s configuring the diagnostics of your cybernetic neck, and would you please look at these cones, and would you like to keep this inverted, and please push this button, and I’m deactivating your shields now, tell me if you feel anything. Miyamoto himself is now a security mom of a videogame designer, and his Zelda games now have giant Peanut M&M button layouts taking up half the screen so that you don’t get confused, and every time you open a chest with rupees in it, a page of unskippable text types out to tell you what they’re used for.

Half-Life 2 is a game that is immediately gratifying and respectful of the player’s intelligence. In a world where it takes months of driving school and tests to finally strap yourself into a car with airbags, OnStar, AAA, and an emergency brake on the passenger side for the instructor to use, Half-Life 2 is the dad who just takes you to the mall parking lot at 1am. After a minute-long awakening from psychedelic stasis, you are given control, and it is never taken away for the rest of the game.

It begins on a train. There are trains everywhere in Half-Life 2, their rails veining the land. They are symbols of strict control, predetermination, exercised by the designers in real life, and by your blue-suited puppetmaster in the context of the game. At all times it feels as though there is free will, though there never truly is. If you are to go forward, you shall do so on their terms, along the invisible rails they have crafted for you. There are big red wire-bound cargo trains, sleek razor trains, and there’s even a figurative underground railroad through which citizens escape their oppressors. The train you wake up in is a passenger train that is just pulling into City 17. The first thing you see upon opening your eyes are two friendly men who say they didn’t see you get on.

As you exit, you immediately encounter a chirping, flying one-eyed cantalope of a robot who flashes its light at you, turning your screen white for two seconds. If you’re playing this in the dark with no other light source, it can hurt. You long to smash that thing, but you have no weapon.

Seconds after this, if you look up, you will see the dystopian ruler on the monitor, and he invites you to your new home. His looping announcements are long and numerous, and you come to anticipate them. These speeches, nearly Shakespearean in their rifeness with metaphor, are acted with such nuance, such effortless ebbing, flowing mastery of his own material, it’s as though he’s turning poetry into a personal conversation with you, The Citizen. If you don’t want to bow down to him, you at least want to buy one of his audiobooks.

Second- or third-time players already know what he has to say, and can simply ignore them if they like. They are built into the fabric of the game, invisible, weightless elbow pads that aren’t itchy obstacles to the kinds of speedruns today’s kids are into. Boys will be boys, after all, and if they’d rather hear dudes being shot than reproductive reassurances, more power to them.

In the train station, civilians in the same blue prison outfits as those on the train wait on benches, as nervous and wary of their unfamiliar surroundings as you are. If you approach them, they’ll share with you the empathy they’ve rationed amongst themselves. One man tells you not to drink the water. A woman whose fingers are desperately woven into a chainlink fence waits for her husband who was taken away, and who, you conclude, is probably dead. They are the first people you meet in a dangerous world. They are the best characters in the game.

Keeping order in the station are the metrocops. You can approach them as you did the citizens, and for that they’ll swat you with their stun batons. No actual health is subtracted, because there’s no health display to subtract it from, but the attack looks vicious, and if you have a big enough monitor and some good enough weed, you might flinch. The game assumes the player doesn’t know that videogame health is represented with numbers or bars, and before introducing them to the concept, it conveys danger in ways that are immediately understood.

The game soon puts you in a situation where, hiding from this police force in the safety of a closet, you have no choice but to stack crates to climb out a window, and so you are forced to learn this ability. Out the window you fall two stories onto a crate, fragmenting it into a splintery mess, and you are taught that you have weight, and that objects can be destroyed with force. Right next to the broken box are empty wine bottles. If you pick them up with the same button used to move the crates, you find they shatter if they are dropped, from almost any height. This teaches the player that different objects break at expected levels of stress.

At this point the player is enamored with the physical behavior of objects, much like a four-year-old playing Super Mario Bros. during the Reagan Presidency might rattle with excitement over the realistic depiction of momentum and gravity when Mario jumps. He wants to pick up and throw more things, but he is out of objects. Continuing on, the next thing he sees is a metrocop, who throws a soda can on the floor and tells the player to pick it up and put it in the trashcan next to him. Remembering his implied pain, and armed with the first thing that could be considered a weapon, he tosses it at the guard. Hilarity ensues.

Soon the player gets the HEV suit, and sees his hands for the first time, wrapped in tight, rubbery gloves, and, at the same time, a health indicator appears on the screen where there wasn’t one before. The player is instructed to use a nearby charging station to increase this his suit’s armor, the implication being that it will decrease under harm. And thus the concept of numerical health and damage is communicated to the player while he is still not exposed to any danger. He finds a crowbar, and the only way forward has been boarded off, teaching him to destroy things in ways other than tossing them. And then, the first target the player sees is that hovering one-eyed cantalope. It flashes him. The crowbar is swung, and it is the first in a series of small victories.

What follows is a three-hour chase sequence, any scene of which is iconic enough to be referenced in Family Guy. A mad dash through a train yard. A helicopter whose solar-charging ammo leaves precious time to rush between hiding spots. A swim through a canal while fuel barrels float on the surface above you, ready to explode from the gunfire of your enemies. From a blue spire on the horizon pour hundreds of little black dots who will surely spell retinal doom for you. It is so tall that it disappears into the clouds, like a girder holding up the heavens. There is no question that it is your final destination.

The first time the player is forced to kill another human being, he does it in defense of a woman. The crowbar pecks away at his gas mask, and he falls to the floor. A death tone sounds, and a British woman on dispatch who was been ripped from the film adaptation of 1984 stoically cackles the location of the crime through radio fuzz. Beside the downed soldier is the woman’s male friend, a victim of police brutality. He is dead. She is upset. “They’ll be looking for you now,” she says. “You better get going.” She has the same voice and face as the woman who was waiting for her husband at the train station. The player takes the officer’s gun and runs.

The original Half-Life was populated with expendable videogame items under the guise of characters. It had nameless security guards who would provide backup and nameless scientists who would heal you and open certain doors. They all had the same voice samples, repeated with the frequency of a Street Fighter “Hadouken,” to note the toggling of their functions. Some of the scientists were black and their generic lines were pitch-shifted. The designers of that game understood the limits of their game engine and the power of 1998’s computers, and never tried to convey emotion with them. They often ran in front of machine guns to their humorous doom, like your own personal mine detectors. You could kill them yourself, if you felt like it, and they’d inexplicably reappear later.

You can’t kill any of your friends in Half-Life 2. The old scientists and security guards have graduated into real characters with real names, real personalities, families, and development arcs. In their place are another set of nameless, static people. The citizens. This time, though, they feel more like those ordinary people you see riding the T in Boston than elements of a videogame; it’s not that they don’t have stories, feelings, favorite colors, but there’s just never any time to ask them. At any rate, they’re a lot more likable than the superstars, who are always so concerned with fulfilling their canned roles and telling you something IMPORTANT in lines that have been smoothed over and polished so many times by the editors for the sake of EFFICIENT STORYTELLING that they’ve lost all meaning. They show up right on cue for a story event, promise they won’t leave you again, but something DRAMATIC always ends up happening, and in a few minutes you’re on your own. There’s an inkling that if you ever got to know them offstage, if you ever actually sat down and had that beer that the security guard says he owes you, you’d find out they’re real assholes. Phonies. Videogame characters.

The citizens, though, are there for you. They represent the love that everyone who played Half-Life had for the game, and channel the hope and trust that swirled within every Half-Life fan during the six-year wait for the sequel. Now that your character, Doctor Gordon Freeman, has returned, they are overjoyed upon meeting you, a living legend who won over 50 Game of the Year awards. It is almost like the use of Katamari Damacy‘s fans in the sequel to that game, but less overt, coming off as more of a big hug than an in-joke.

The most interesting thing about the citizens is that much of what they do is determined in code. If you are running low on health or ammo, they will go out of their way to share with you. They’ll remind you with grave concern to reload your weapon when you’ve forgotten. If they get in your way, they blushingly apologize, and move. They’ll watch your six and warn you of threats. Sometimes they’ll come upon more powerful weapons and get excited. Very rarely they’ll have a random two- or three-line conversation that sums up what everyone is thinking; the kind of thing you might passingly say to a stranger at a bar in Queens on 9/11/01 as both of you watch CNN through the cigarette smoke. Standing around, huddled in the middle of a street in the demolished downtown, streetlights twisted like paperclips, Eastern European tenements barely erect like chocolate bunnies with big toothy bites on their legs, no one quite has a plan. Everyone’s a little edgy. Eye contact is mostly avoided, with you, and with one another. The effect is so subtle, so natural, so accidental that it could only be the product of weeks of work. If you spend a while admiring the smoky tangled architectural wrecks, and look back to the small crowd, a girl might elbow through it and ask, “You waitin’ for someone?”

Remarkably, none of this ever feels repetitive, and it is a testament to the quality of the programming. If you wish to see if there really is a man behind the curtain, you can load up a level in Garry’s Mod and drop in these citizens. Then spawn different types of enemies. If you spawn a zombie, the nervous female in the group will announce it with dread. Spawn in some cops, and everyone will get riled up with “Civil Protection!” (“Cee Pees!”) and a beatdown will simply commence without you doing anything. When they die, you shed a tear. Because they CAN die, unlike the main characters who writhe in ketchup. In the actual game, when you rescue them from their prisons or meet up with them in the streets, they are procedurally spawned, ensuring that there’s never a duplicate amongst them, or that it never becomes a sausagefest. My favorites are Homeless Black Guy and Vaguely Asian Girl. They have nicknames for you, too. Usually “Doc.” Slightly subservient, familiar. The Marty McFly to your Emmitt Brown. That is the voice of the game code itself speaking, so enraptured that it has the privilege to be playing with you. Quitting Half-Life 2 is kind of like when you were a little kid and you shut down your computer, heard the monitor exhale a sigh of static-electricitous relief, kissed it goodnight, and went to sleep soundly, knowing that it was resting, too. It has a soul.

This sort of Imaginary Friend A.I. has been sort of a holy grail for a while now. It’s more commonly called “Emergent Storytelling,” because the former would paint too accurate a picture of the people responsible for writing it. In interviews, fat men with huge beards and their sociable translators, clean-cut boys in Polo shirts, talk about TELLING YOUR OWN STORY, man, through the use of randomized game elements that conform to basic algorithmic rules in the code. This ensures that each moment you create for yourself is YOURS. Don’t do what the DESIGNER wants you to do. Pave your own path! FREEDOM! Proponents purport that the most interesting stories in videogames are the ones that just sort of happen, like that time you were being chased by seven policecars in Grand Theft Auto, and they nudged you in a way that the physics launched you over a building and across a river, to safety, in an unbelievable stroke of luck. We’ve all had shit like that happen. I am reminded of being eleven, and trying to explain to my mom why we were laughing so hard, tears streaming down our cheeks, strewn on the carpet like contorted Source Engine ragdolls. I might as well have been telling her about how I finished my RIVETING game of Sudoku.

Entire games are now being designed around Emergent Storytelling. They’re basically simulations of entire worlds. They’re all kind of the same. One of them takes place in Chernobyl. It looks kind of like Half-Life 2. You explore a lot. You find stuff. There are other entities in the world, off doing their own thing. They might attack you, or they might not. Maybe they’ll fight amongst themselves. Maybe they’ll finish the game before you do. There are lots of complex things happening behind the scenes, just waiting to assemble in your presence and create a unique memory of arguable worth. There’s this trend now that the computers are powerful enough that we don’t need people to actually design games. We just design the systems, and the systems design the games. Like a Sudoku puzzle, all the solutions technically, mathematically fit correctly. But there’s no soul. There’s no dialog with the designer. There’s no thought in the back of your head that someone wanted you to feel this way. No Miyamoto on your shoulder.

Half-Life 2 defines, for me, the extremely weird videogame relationship between design and technology. Most design choices in videogames are born of their limitations. Mario, for example, looks the way he does because a mustache gave contrast to his face and a hat made his head more visible, back when you could only throw a few samey-colored pixels on the screen and call it a person.

Most American developers began their work on the PC, which was a constant moving target. Every year or so, the cutting-edge would be redefined, and so there was no need to make tradeoffs. If it wasn’t fast enough for you, go out and buy another machine. They weren’t custom-coding to individual processors, but to bloated, high-level frameworks that did the interpreting. With the rise of the graphics processor and 3-D graphics, PC games became an arms race to make the most technologically impressive, most accurate depiction of reality, and shoehorn a game into it. Memory banks became large enough for massive, wide-open levels, and so free-roaming gameplay was born. GPUs became capable of colored lighting, and, for a while, games had floating crystals that emitted light everywhere. Then developers were able to make things shine and glisten in light, but instead of keeping this to wet floors and gooey blob monsters, it was put on everything, even human beings, which made them look like sweaty plastic action figures. The technology was there and it needed to be used. To look back on a lot of these games is embarrassing, now that “realistic” has been redefined seven times since.

You can still play Super Mario Bros. without cringing, though. It is foremost a videogame, and the technology followed what it wanted to be. Even though it was extremely technologically impressive, it had a reason to be. It was one of the first games to employ a smooth sidescrolling view of the action, as opposed to Pitfall‘s static screens; without this, the locomotive, rythmic feel of the game would have been impossible.

Half-Life 2 is as impressive and as encumbered with the limitations of its time, though, like SMB, it is smartly designed around its engine, instead of in spite of it. Everyone in the game either has short, inanimate hair, or keeps it tied in a bun, because making a polygonal “bowl” with a hair texture on it would look stupid, and the video cards capable of rendering individual strands of hair aren’t ubiquitous enough.

Because the player is always free to move around, everything must exist within runtime. There is a character animation system that assembles independent functions like head-tracking, lip-syncing, scripted animation, and AI, in a way that could never look as good as hand-pruned animation, but provides the benefit of participation. A lot of information in the game is conveyed through looping broadcasts on monitors, and so instead of inefficiently throwing some compressed movie on a flat surface, a system was devised that essentially creates a viewport and transmits it in real time to to a television screen in the world, saving storage space and processing power. This technology then fed back into the game for use as security cameras showing what one might be up against in the next room.

The rendering engine itself picks its battles, choosing to best serve narrow, weaving, linear levels (though it has a few tricks up its sleeve for displaying full-size skylines from 1/16th models). It’s a great fit for the world of Half-Life 2, a tight, congested place that the confused fugitive player fumbles through. It is with great care that its creators invisibly lead him down paths like a seeing-eye dog, and escape routes always seem just out of the way enough to be plausibly secret. One never quite gets a good look at where he’s been, and where he’s going, because it seems the only way to get anywhere in a city under martial law is through a detour. Sometimes through a clearing he can see big apartment buildings in the distance, or the omnipresent tower which houses Machiavelli.

The levels themselves are labored over down to the last tree. Nothing is left to chance. The enemy intelligence is barely beyond that of the Goomba in Super Mario Bros. As in that game, they are patternous creatures, and what is most important about them is their placement within the levels. In five years, when first-person shooter opponents are on-par with The Terminator, Half-Life 2 will still impress, because you are not fighting a computer; you are fighting the hand of the designer. The arrangement of healthpacks, ammo, and just the general layout of every square inch seems obsessed over, the product of hundreds of playtests. There are places that seem to chip away at your health, like the collapsed tunnel flooded with toxic waste. A slip here, a slip there, while trying to traverse ramps of fallen steam pipes and floating wire spools, your health dwindles down, and all the while you’re teased and directed with a breadcrumb trail of life-ups (of course, when you get close, zombies will emerge from the sludge just in front of them). The game always seems to know when you’ve had a strenuous fight, and gives you a crateload of goodies that feel like a good rubdown. The doot-hiss of a medkit, the zap-crunch of a suit battery, it’s all very game-like, and, through repetition, becomes familiar and loving. Each pickup has a big, crisp yellow icon that appears on the right side of the screen, and seeing them all stack up when you run over a pile of stuff is like coming downstairs on Christmas Day and being overwhelmed by all the presents.

Playing through, you get the sense that Half-Life 2 level creation could perhaps be a major at a university in the far future of Hedy Lamarr’s dreams where art and science are not rigidly defined, and people sit in coffee shops segueing from conversations about great American poets into the floating point units on the Pentium 4; there’s definitely a proper way to make a Half-Life 2 level, and this way can be taught, but it calls upon both hemispheres of one’s brain. From a playability perspective, you have the various enemy types, each specific in their function; the ammo with which to kill them; all those wonderful props to break apart; exploding barrels – gotta have those; and the geography to which it’ll all be placed, which must be realistic given its locale, and, for example, can’t be too obviously sculpted like a happy face or a penis if seen from above. On the technical side, you have to fit within memory limits, not betray your triangle- and fill-rates, make sure the A.I. is given adequate pathing. From an overarching design perspective, everything must flow well from one map to the next; the player must constantly see something new every few minutes; each element of the game must be given its own careful introduction, and then be gradually blended into the grand scheme of available concepts. It’s like balancing the duties of a writer, an editor, and who decides what’s a front-page story.

No one knows who does what at Valve, the company responsible for this masterpiece. Their names are just listed in alphabetical order in the credits. At first this seemed a little odd to me, like they were trying to say they were too good for labels, and that everyone is an equal. But consider that they invented all that technology to power the art they wanted to make, and ideas fed ideas. It’s probable that over the course of SIX YEARS, while sitting on a never-ending cash pile from HL1, everybody got a little good at everything. I mean, six years is a long time. That’s almost as long as law school. But it’s probably not long enough to fabricate an entire language and then use it to write War and Peace.

Super Mario Bros. could be read and interpreted, rolled out like a horizontal Hebrew scripture scroll. Like letters in a big, blocky alphabet, the bricks and pipes and coins and goombas and koopas and elevators and scales and mushrooms formed the language of Mario, waiting to be placed into something sensical. Or nonsensical, as the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 explored. If SMB1, with its kindness and caring, is like the New Testament, introducing its Messiah, SMB2 is like the Old Testament, where God is a fucking psychopath. The deity in question was Tezuka, the main programmer from the first game, who, at that point, probably WAS writing Mario levels like it was literature, and decided he had reached the postmodern era.

Half-Life 2 has its own SMB2 of sorts: “Episode One,” the first in an expansion trilogy, perverts all the things you’ve taken for granted into something beautifully backwards. You begin with the most powerful weapon, and eventually find a crowbar at the end of the game. Weapons you once found incredibly useful are ammo-starved. There are entire levels where you can only see using your flashlight, which has a draining battery. Most interestingly though are its slight extensions to the Half-Life 2 language, and its fine leaps of videogame logic. In vanilla Half-Life 2, melon-sized energy orbs provide power to different circuits and can be shot from certain guns; so of course when Episode One needs to show the player a power-plant’s core, it is represented simply by an enormous breathing ball of energy.



People don’t like that Episode One retcons Half-Life 2‘s ending. I suppose that’s fair.

design by reroreroHalf-Life 2 was criticized for its “abrupt” end, which isn’t fair at all. Halo 2, a game which shares its first three letters and a numeral with the object of this review, was released just a week or so before it. It ended with the protagonist saying he wanted to “finish the fight,” immediately before the credits rolled. Critics felt compelled to level the same criticisms they had of that game at Half-Life 2, calling it “the middle chapter of a much larger story,” which is a huge disservice to every speck of planning that has gone into it. Half-Life 2 is a game about one thing. If Denis Dyack was its director, he probably would come right out and say the theme is REBELLION. The player was dropped into that train in the beginning of the game with a single objective, one that becomes clear within minutes. The very second that objective is achieved, that’s it. The man in the blue suit intervenes, and it is back into stasis for you. Freeman is anything but. Did this man know precisely what course you would pave through the world? If he’s that all-knowing, all-powerful, transcending time and space, why did he send you at all? Sure, there are scraps of explanations you can pick up here and there when you talk to your scientist buddies. Stuff about string theory and parallel universes. If you play games in-character, then you’ll move the mouse up and down to make Doctor Freeman nod at all the terminology he’s supposed to know, but it’s all so over your head. It could be retconned in any number of arcane ways that would be consistent with what we know about interdimensional travel: nothing.

The ending, of course, is much longer than that single second, though that’s what people tend to focus on, because what a cool second it is. If the first four hours are spent building up the world, then the last four demolish it in the most spectacular way seen in a videogame. As you return to the heart of the city from journeys along the coast, you find lockdown has become warzone, and there is blood in the streets. You feel like you’re riding a tsunami of revolt all the way to that blue spire. With each map it looms larger on the horizon, a countdown to a showdown. This game says goodbye to its world the way Metal Gear Solid 3 bows out its greatest characters, one by one, with payoff after payoff.

And then, it comes suddenly, and yet not suddenly at all.

–Theodore Troops

(please see also our review of portal, which we called “game of the year” in 2007)


31 Responses to half-life 2

  1. This is one of the very few games I’ve played start to finish, like a novel. Most games I won’t finish, or I’ll play them for a bit, play other games, and go back to them.
    I bought a new computer. I bought HL2. I played through HL2. I lived HL2. I dreampt HL2. I played multiplayer a bit and then I didn’t play the game again. I didn’t really buy another game for my PC
    When I get my new PC i’ll buy Orange Box, finnally play Portal, and probably play HL2 before playing ep 1 and 2 again
    The grace and flow is amazing. My favorite ‘learning’ moment is in the middle of the game. You get the Gravity Gun, which would be the selling point of the game if the rest of it wasn’t so well designed. You’re in Ravenholm, a horror movie town full of monsters. You’re out of ammo for most of your guns.
    There’s a wall full of saw blades and fun physics bits. You have a Gravity Gun, and there are zombies
    Also, Ravenholme is a survivor horror game in minature, though maybe i’m just easily scared

  2. er, i’ve never played ep 1 and 2. so i’ll play HL2 and then play the two expansions
    I’m worried that if i play it again something of the experiance will be missing though – like i’ll see the cracks

  3. Half Life was better than Half Life 2. In Half Life you were a scientist in a hazard suit caught in a catastrophe trying to escape. In Half Life 2 you were the same guy in the same hazard suit trying to bring down an alien totalitarian regime and bringing down a seemingly impenetrable citadel.

    half Life 1 seemed much more plausible. i mean, in the year HL2 was set was there only one hazard suit in existence? Don’t the enemies have a similar type armor available?

    I like some of the things the game does and by rights it is a great game, but the whole change from escape to penetration just irked me.

  4. I guess I am weird, because I don’t feel “free to move around” as you suggest, troops. Instead I feel constantly forced upon a very narrow and defined path in HL2, never allowed to stray for longer than a few seconds. The game feels as if it doesn’t trust me at all to get where it wants me to go, so it doesn’t ever let me go anywhere else.

    This extends to the fights, which feel like they just want you to shoot directly at this guy who will stand there and get shot, maybe duck once, but nothing more. Valve didn’t trust their own weapons long enough to allow people to devise their own fighting styles, and so just left their AI at near Doom-like levels of “stand there and get killed”. Really, as any sort of action game, HL2 is about as satisfying as a gun range, when I want to be in a gun fight.

    Eh, my own objections to this game are huge, and anyone who knows me knows them, but yeah, I figured this would show up sooner or later. I’m disappointed though, because the crunchiness I usually associate with this site is just completely absent in the cold world of HL2.

  5. Oh man, I dunno. I LOVED Half Life 2, but its pacing fell to shit near the end of the game. Up until just after Nova Prospekt I was loving every moment of it, but there was just too much garbage to do in the city and it started to drag on.

    I reckon if this were my list (and I respect that it isn’t) I’d still have it on there, but maybe a bit higher (by which I mean, lower). Possibly still in the top 10 though. This is about the only game so far that I’ve had a disagreement on, and that makes me smile.

  6. I enjoyed it, though I don’t think I got it. I think I got Episode 2 more, but that might be because I had prior games to reference, where as when I played Half Life 2, I never played the first. And on 360.

    My friend who enjoys halo and call of duty, did not like half life 2/ep1/ep2 at all.

  7. I concur with the notion that the first game is better. I think the pacing is off in 2. The beginning is brilliant, but then you’re running around in a sewer for what feels like an hour and nothing particularly fascinating is happening, then you’re in the hovercraft for what feels like double that, and it starts to get fucking exhausting. It’s a series of detours from the plot that are comprised of nifty set pieces that go on just a little too long. We don’t need to drive around the coast for hours. It’s needless, self indulgent fat, and the game could lose probably two hours and be a smoother, more pleasurable experience for it.

    Out of the three HL2 installments, I like Episode 2 the most. We’ve become used to having the characters with us by then so the stuff that happens to them is more emotionally engaging, and the last sequence is eversoslightly devastating.

  8. The lack of freedom is kinda the point, though! Almost all games lack freedom – hell, the GTA games are mostly made up of doors you can’t open and buildings you can’t destroy. HL2 makes the lack of freedom a part of the plot, complete with heaps of irony – the whole ‘Freeman’ thing and ‘last free man’
    And who needs freedom? I can still remember the first hovercraft chase – you go through tunnels for what seems like hours and then emerge in a lake so beautiful i still, literally, see it in my dreams. Its awesome
    Plus the freedom is in the stuff. If you want you can spend an hour just messing around with the gravity gun or painting zombies white or whatnot

  9. man the coast was like my favorite part of the game.

    using the gravity gun on your car, figuring out how the landscape and monsters worked, driving such a huge distance. it felt like an accomplishment!

  10. Here is the thing though: while most games do constrict freedom to a large degree, I still feel like I am doing something in them. HL2 largely feels like a movie I jsut happen to have to watch for 20 hours. I don’t ever feel challenged or like I am making any choices or planning a strategy or anything. I never feel like I am playing a videogame, but merely a movie disguised as such.

    Also, unskippable cutscenes do a lot to ruin a game for me.
    Or at least the chances I will play it more than once. Especially interminably boring ones.

    Yes, the GTA cities are made of lots of doors you cannot open, but in their best moments, the GTA games give you choices about how you want to do something. HL2 feels like those choices are made for me, and most of the time, they are dull. Shooting X hundreds of not moving guys with machine guns or maybe even rockets gets dull. Even the gravity gun is just an excuse to throw stuff at people, which gets dull before the end of Ravenholm for me.

    It just seems like if you are going to make a first person shooter, you might want to make shooting fun. Just a thought.

  11. What do you think of Troops’ assertion that the enemies in HL2 present a videogamey challenge, based on their individual abilities (which remain identical and predictable, but different depending on the enemy) and their placement in the level? That the fights are therefore more like Mega Man or Castlevania than a “tactical” shooter like Halo or Gears?

    Contrary to the assertions of many of its defenders, I don’t think HL2 is afraid to be a videogame at all. It’s incredibly gamey. That only works to its advantage.

  12. I agree with Cuba. The placement of the enemies are setpiece puzzles, though i do with there were more moments like the fight against the Spec Ops guys in HL1
    And yes, the game is ‘linear’. I think all the games on this list are, barring a GTA or Crackdown at 1. Linearity allows the designer to control the flow of the game and of the challenge. In HL2 i didn’t care that i didn’t have much freedom because i was having so much fun. And the freedom i did have was more potant because of the constraints. “Clear out Ravenholm with a gravity gun” is fun freedom. “Go anywhere, except the places you can’t go” is boring.
    I don’t really like sandbox games
    Did anyone else feel guilty when they shot their first Combine soldier? He wasn’t even looking at me. I had a pistol, i shot him in the head, he slumped down and I just felt.. guilty. I’m not sure why

  13. Can’t say I ever felt guilty about killing Combine. They’re Videogame Enemies, and enforcers of a fascist vichy regime to boot.

    The resistance members, though, I got real attached to those guys. Troops covers this nicely in the review.

  14. Cool. I was just playing this the other day and wondering whether you’d include it or not. Valve’s genius is taking a basic set of elements and interactions and coming up with endless variations and scenarios to keep you absolutely compelled over the course of 20 hours. Think about how the way you face choppers evolves over the game – at first you’re running scared in the sewers as it stalks you overhead. 10 hours later you’re at the top of a lighthouse popping them out of the sky with rockets. It’s pure flow!

  15. “Can’t say I ever felt guilty about killing Combine. They’re Videogame Enemies, and enforcers of a fascist vichy regime to boot.”

    Only the first one… or maybe its not the first but there’s a shot i took on an unaware Combine guard and it got to me. I’m not sure why
    but yeah the game felt really… human. you were fighting in houses and deserts and beaches, not ‘levels’

  16. It’s not that linearity bothers me so much; it’s just that such tightly controlled linearity feels like I am not even really doing anything. For example, a level in Halo is damn linear, but I still feel like I am deciding what to do, and executing that. In HL2, it feels like the enemies are just standing there, waiting for me to kill them, and I just kill them like they are supposed to be.

    Killer 7 was one long joke about this. I didn’t think HL2 really realized it was the same thing.

    Killer 7 only lets you stay on the track. HL2 likes to pretend the track isn’t there, and I never get the feeling Valve were aware of how present the tack was.

    I would be ok seeing the enemies as videogamey challenges, if they were challenges at all. Sadly, they aren’t. And nobody tell me to play on hard. Hard in HL2 is just a clear demonstration that Valve really shouldn’t make action games.

  17. I don’t know – Mega Man 2 isn’t a particularly difficult game, but I don’t think that’s a mark against it.

    I also felt like I had options in HL2, much like your options in MM2 (aside from the stage select; HL2 has other priorities): Metal Blade or regular old Buster? Pulse Rifle, Shotgun or Crossbow? Et cetera. When you add the gravity gun on top of that (with the brilliant g key for instaswitch), I feel like each of the setpieces is a pretty compelling little rumpus of enemy placement and ability versus my imagination.

    Take for example the Combine snipers in their little hidey-holes, with their big blue lasers seeking you out. The game makes it very clear that you need to get an explosive in there to kill them. This is videogamey – you can’t decide to, say, snipe them instead (this ain’t Halo).

    So maybe you’re at the end of a long corridor and there’s one of them snipers in his little hidey-holes at the other end of it. You can’t chuck a grenade that far, and you can’t run to the next piece of cover before he can shoot you. You do know, however, how often he shoots, and that he’ll only be able to get one shot off in the time it takes you to get over there. So maybe you pick up a barrel and hold it in front of you. It gets shot and goes flipping off, but you’ve made it successfully to cover, where you’re now in grenade range.

    Maybe you get sick of that and just use a damn rocket (pull out the Metal Blade). Maybe you don’t want to waste a rocket – maybe you get smart, throw a grenade at your own feet and launch it all the way over to the sniper with your gravity gun.

    I mean these all seem like compelling little pieces of action-almost-platforming to me. It’s not really an “FPS” in the strictest sense, but I find it incredibly enjoyable.

  18. But see, those are the same decisions (with the relative and underutilized novelty of the gravity gun as the exception) that we have been making in FPS games forever. Doom gave me a bunch of different weapons and left it up to me to decide which to use. That isn’t really novel design, especially when Halo 1 had been out for a few years before HL2, and made deciding over weapons a much more prominent issue.

    Megaman 2 isn’t the best comparison, as there aren’t constant reminders in MM2 of how dangerous the robots are. Everything in HL2 tells you the Combine is something you should be afraid of, and yet, they go down far too easily. These are the forces that have seemingly conquored the Earth? Did nobody think to, you know, pick up a gun and shoot at them? They don’t exactly avoid getting hit.

    The gunplay being so weak just undermines a lot of what the game is trying to say in it’s plot. To go to the plot/narrative thing from the other thread, the narrative of HL2 is so boring and dull that it destroys the plot for me. And in a game that is theoretically about being linear (which I still think is a near Deus Ex Machina excuse at the end come up with by Valve to excuse the rest of the game), having the linear plot completely undermined by the narrative is a big problem.

  19. “These are the forces that have seemingly conquored the Earth?”

    The organic, gigantic war machines, the ability to assimilate or zombify the human population, the constant surveillence through floating robots and the ability to stop our race’s reproduction? Yeah, pretty much.

    “Did nobody think to, you know, pick up a gun and shoot at them? They don’t exactly avoid getting hit.”

    Perhaps you missed latter 95% of the game where you’re aiding a rebellion.

    Seriously though, did you never die through gunfire? Even on the hardest setting?

  20. Did I die through gunfire? Sure. But not nearly enough. And the hard mode in HL2 is a joke, as it just makes things hurt more and puts less health out, as opposed to something like Halo that actually tweaks the enemy intelligence and such. But that wasn’t my point. My point was the enemies in HL2 stand there and take bullets. Maybe 1 out of 15 attempts to get some cover or even move. The others generally stand in place and die.

    My question about picking up guns: If anyone in HL2’s universe had half a brain, there wouldn’t need to be a rebellion. The Combine couldn’t have done anything at all because their gunfight strategies would embarrass a WWI general. Basically, they seem to have conquered Earth because everyone was too damn lazy or stupid to try and stop them, because one dude can take their a chunk of their shit down pretty effectively.

    Don;t even talk about the rebellion in “the later 95%” because they were mostly cannon fodder led to the slaughter. Jesus, one of the things I love about Call of Duty 4 is that the guys you roll with in that game do something other than get shot and whine about death.

  21. I agree with boojiboy, HL2 has always felt exceedingly linear to me. Sure, almost all games are linear, but HL2 is oppressively so. The game constantly feels like it’s shoving you into the same narrow alley and there is never any illusion of freedom or exploration. Even in Doom, where all the levels were essentially just simple dressed-up labyrinths, there were different paths around different sections of the level and you were able to wonder around wherever you wanted to find the keycard. The feeling is probably made worse by the fact that HL2 attempts to depict open environments like cities, roads, and towns rather than an enclosed underground science lab. HL2 has the strongest “on rails” feeling of virtually any 3D game I’ve played barring Star Fox, and as a result despite repeated attempts to play through it, I always got bored and sick of being restricted after a few hours and quit.

    It doesn’t help that the gunplay in HL2 feels is weak. Most enemies just stand there and shoot. Most of the weapons early in the game are just poorly executed iterations of standard FPS weapons – pistols, shotguns, machineguns, which are boring to shoot. Gordon still swings his crowbar in a limp-wristed manner like he’s handling a feather duster instead of a heavy, blunt, lethal weapon. The guns all recoil down instead of up (what??). Aside from novelties like the gravity gun, the weaponry is nothing special, the AI is not particularly challenging, there’s no visceral satsifying aesthetic feeling to combat, and even considering HL2 is supposed to be heavy in immersion, the combat lacks immersion. You should a guy in the head and instead of dropping like a sack of rocks, or at least reacting in some manner, he just keeps standing in place and shooting as if nothing happened.

    To me, HL2 is just 1 long cutscene except you have to push buttons and pilot through a series of dressed-up tiny alleyways to make it go.

  22. I would argue that the oppressive linearity of HL2 is precisely its point!

    Also, that the combat is pretty fun – but as a videogame challenge rather than as some sort of Visceral Gunplay Experience.

    The latter assertion I have already made above, and the former assertion I’ve repeated endlessly in different fora and am too bored with to rehash here. But just think about it!

  23. I would actually argue that oppressive linearity comes off as limited programming and design ability, and the ending of the game is a “deus ex machina” to try and excuse the rest.

  24. There’s not actually anything wrong with linearity, it’s not something that even needs to be disguised or hidden away. Gordon Freeman has a single mission, a single destination at any one time and a single path towards it. Likewise, the ships in Star Fox are flying in THAT direction because they have one single final destination, and because they’re a bunch of cocky, ace pilots they never feel the need to start flying in any other direction.

    I don’t understand the fetish many western developers have towards “ultimate freedom” and “playing how YOU want” when most (all) of the time it ends up loose and flakey, offering no sense of assurance towards the player that they are playing well and no oppertunity to really get better at anything. Even something as linear and basic as Ikaruga had me thinking “I never thought of doing it like that” when watching some other average joe’s video, what’s the deal?

  25. I think the most sophisticated of HL2’s critics would generally agree, but would insist that excessive linearity – restriction of gamespace – can make for a boring and therefore pointless game. It’s not, necessarily, that the paths through the level are linear, but that you have so few options for acting within those paths – basically, for killing enemies, the meat of the game – that the experience is dull. Often propped up by way of counterexample is Halo, which allegedly has far better AI (true) and more interesting weaponry (debatable) such that one is much more “free” to engage in each separate gunfight by exercising one’s own creativity than in HL2.

    To which I have a couple responses, which I’ve already outlined: 1, HL2’s combat experience is less like a chaotic run-n-gun experience and more like clever little puzzles executed in the language of shooting guns; 2, I empirically reject the idea that HL2’s gunfights don’t allow as much creativity as, say, Halo’s. The gravity gun alone makes it at least as interesting (although these same critics will say that the gravity gun is “just another gun” and isn’t used to its full potential).

  26. Yeah, Cuba pretty much covered my objections. I’ll just say that I never felt like the gunfights were puzzles at all, simply because they never offered a challenge. And yeah, the gravity gun really is just another gun, except you have to pick the bullets up off the ground instead of off of an ammo belt.

  27. So booj’s complaint is that HL2 isn’t Doom or Serious Sam?

    I played and LOVED Serious Sam. But I loved HL2 far more. Maybe just a thing about the environments being actually, um, immersive, and contributing to the feeling of actually being on a little bit of destroyed Planet Earth? Halo’s levels are usually a joke, all alien geometry and little to no alien sociology, sort of like if the entire game took place in the Half-Life Citadel, with rounder corners. Plus you’re kind of forgetting another reason all the people of earth didn’t do what Freeman did:


    Let alone Master Chief’s nigh-impenetrable bullshit armor. Getting body armor only as good as the Combine’s required submitting to mechano-biological mind control.

    And the best thing about the Combine is that they don’t even have to be aliens for them to be every bit as evil as they’re painted. Every combine soldier is both a slave and a mechanical chimera-to a totalitarian government, all is raw material to be COMBINED at will to form the perfect servant. Their humans are inhuman, their robots are not pure robots, being powered by human brains and alien anatomy, all is mixed together with little regard for anything but efficiency and obedience. They do not ponder the question of whether a biological or mechanical creature has a soul before tearing it asunder and putting it back together at random. Humans could have easily been behind it. Or Vortigaunts, or those brain slugs.

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  29. Reading this review was easily as much fun as playing the worst level of Half-Life 2 for the first time. As usual, you guys manage to hit on every reason I loved a particular game without being able to explain it myself. This makes me angry and uneasy as someone who claims to be a writer, but it also gives me something to aspire to. Bravo, Teddy Tee.

    I hope you don’t mind if I call you Teddy Tee.

  30. One nitpicky thing you may have missed – I believe the initial robot that ‘flashes its light at you’ is actually taking your picture, which quite helps set the dystopian Big Brother tone quite well.

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