This is a review for Valve Software’s Half-Life 2 (stylized Half-Life²) along with sequel Episode One. Plenty of spoilers below! So if you were living three years in the past like me, don’t read on unless you’re OK with revealed plot details. Ariel dies. My opinion is mixed as I recognize the assets that were well executed but also decisions that reduced replayability. That’s a fancy way of saying there are obvious pros and cons (not of hitchhiking).

I played through the original Half-Life twice back in 1999 and 2000. It was a revolution to PC gaming due to the immersing aspect of the narrative. At that time it was commonplace for games take controls away from the player. The first-person perspective switches to third-person for short cinematics of dialog. Gamers preferred HL’s approach of allowing you to roam free during non-player character interaction. It was also fun to kill scientists with a crowbar, am I right, you bloody sadist?

I never bothered with the Blue Shift or Opposing Forces expansion packs by Gearbox Software as they were variations on a theme, even when canon to the series. See: re-using resources to pad gameplay time and put moneys in the corporate bank.

HL1 left your main protagonist, Gordon Freeman, on a cliffhanger. He has accepted a job with G-man, a creepy guy in a suit that followed you throughout the game as he observed from behind locked doors and distant ledges.

Breen vs. Sean Connery
Breen vs. Sean Connery

Half-Life² begins with G-man awakening you from stasis for a new task, of which he does not spell out. Instead, you teleport to a train, which halts to the last stop of the line, in City 17, an Orwellian nightmare of fascist high security. A white bearded Big Brother appears on ubiquitous large screens littered on buildings and streets, welcoming citizens to the safe confines inside city walls. You go through the motions of forced navigation through rooms and hallways until an interaction with a character is to be had. It is Barney, the security guard grunt that returns from the original game. Question: How does Barney know Gordon Freeman was arriving? Does he interact with the G-man?

A short chase sequence follows, ending in the safe house of Dr. Kleiner, the bald scientist that also returns from HL1. Fifteen minutes of exposition follows to setup the story. It’s vague and focuses on citizens controlled by a fascist power. Another teleporter accident occurs. Can these dudes come up with a new plot device? That convenient inconvenience leads the main antagonist, Dr. Breen, the white-bearded City 17, to become aware of Gordon’s presence. He pulls out all the stops to ensure Gordon doesn’t… I dunno… fuck shit up?

Has Breen

A quarter-way through the game, a low resolution newspaper clip on a bulletin board points out Breen was the administrator of Black Mesa. That scientific laboratory was the setting for the first game when alternate-dimension beings attacked Earth. Well it seems our new leader was in on the invasion for only his own gain. Oh, I hate him and must kill him, must I!

Necessity stipulates you must run through sewers and canals of the city for the first quarter of the game to avoid Breen’s army. They’re an alien race The Combine that assimilate its enemies to their culture physiology through a genetic-fusion process that isn’t explained.

So for a couple hours you fight a man-like soldiers along with flying circular-saw bots and the usual Xen-life alien force encountered in HL1. Ambient sound design in this area is well done to accomplish world building. Distant gun shots and above rotating propellers communicate the impression of a space larger than the immediate surroundings. Valve does builds on ideas in the sequel by adding vehicles, such as the air boat that can travel across both water and land. It’s not as good as the motorboat. Many dislike this section, complaining it just extends playing time to justify a 4+ year development period. I found the jumps and gun-play at the end fun, escaping the usual FPS claustrophobic tropes. Hi, F.E.A.R.

Black Mesa… East?

You arrive at your original destination, called Black Mesa East, where Gordon is to meet another scientist and his daughter, Alyx. It’s here that we get introduced to Judith, who’s clearly an iron maiden. She snaps at Gordon when you walk into a room where she’s alone by a computer. Treachery!

After hopping about with a new weapon called the gravity gun for a couple minutes, you realize this is where the fun begins. The gravity gun can pick up game objects such as barrels, saws, and furniture to fling them at enemies. The Combine discover the Black Mesa East hideout and Gordon must escape alone to Ravenholm. This abandoned mining town is Valve’s chance to get their film noir horror on.

You fight and claw your way through Ravenholm. It’s populated by crazed zombies that jump across roofs, sprint incredibly fast, and scream at the top of their lungs in the dark. The scream is loud enough to give goosebumps, even after the hundredth encountering.

The only live human found in the town is a priest tending to his flock of zombies through a series of traps you navigate past. He kicks ass for the Lord. After the zombie fight in a church cemetery, you follow into a short romp in the mines that lead Gordon back into daylight. How does one go from total night darkness to a noon Sun within 15 minutes?

I think the following part is the most fun in the game, as Gordon drives down a coastline in dune buggy. He’s attempting a trip to Nova Prospekt, a former-jail where Alyx’s father (a scientist part of the resistance movement) is captive. You too are part of the resistance. But I want to be a tyrant! Why don’t I have this choice? Digressing, you drive along a seaside road with stops along the way to visit abandoned homes, cargo ports, and lighthouses. The neatest area is a train bridge where you must traverse scaffolding of its underbelly to disable a forcefield that prevents your dune buggy from crossing above.

Nova Prospekt not the best proposition

Unfortunately, in Nova Prospekt the game becomes unfun again. It’s back to the tight confines of concrete buildings with dull combat, lacking in puzzles. You rescue the scientist, along with Alyx, and discover Judith has betrayed the resistance, working for Breen in an attempt to capture Gordon. She escapes to The Citadel, a tower in the centre of the city acting as Breen’s headquarters. She takes Alyx’s father Eli with her.

Gordon and Alyx teleport to Dr. Kleiner, yet another teleporter malfunction in the form of a huge explosion delays their transport by one week. This explosion causes an uprising in the city, where streets turn into war zones with the resistance rising up against the Combine to take back their planet. Rock! \m/

The Citadel vs. Sky Vag
The Citadel vs. Sky Vag

You fight through a series of city blocks, inching closer to The Citadel. Combat is more interesting, including sniper sequences and open areas involving rocket propelled grenades. You must shoot down tall War of the Worlds-esque alien creatures called striders.

Once inside the tower, your weapons get stripped aside for the gravity gun. It’s now power-boosted so you can shoot pulses of energy or even pick the Combine up and toss towards their friends in a form of people bowling. The architecture of The Citadel is more industrial and alien, like Halo except it doesn’t have as much monolithic weight to its structure. You ascend the tower, including a long sequence travelling in a container on an assembly line. Marvel at the large number of citizens captured and enslaved in the building’s confines, working to expand the Combine’s war machine.

Still captured in the container, you come face-to-face with Breen along with Eli and Alyx, where he monologues he will kill them all. Earth is his (under their benefactors), Combine über alles, etc. But wait, Judith turns on Breen! He tries to escape by teleporting off-planet and your final task in the game… is it a boss battle? A super cool chase? No, you shoot energy balls at a reactor causing an explosion in a hope that Breen doesn’t escape. Lame.

Right at the point of the explosion, time stops and G-man shows up out of thin air. He tells Gordon a job done well done on this mission and he’ll have further work for Gordon to the highest bidder. You’re put back in stasis, leaving Alyx to die in the reactor explosion. So the game was all leading up to, “there’s more to come!”

Half Life 2: Episode One

Episode One picks up at that exact point, when alien Vortigaunts revive Gordon. He and Alyx teleport outside The Citadel without any explanation. Teleportation? No explanations? Noticing trends here? You return to the tower and jump-start a reactor to delay a massive explosion that will wipe out the city including the resistance force.

Then it’s more fighting through underground parking lot areas (car park!) and streets above, with the help of Alyx whose AI is decent. Gordon and Alyx finally flee City 17, ending in a cool sequence. You exit the metropolis with haste by train while a massive blinding explosion eradicates The Citadels and its immediate surroundings. This leaves me to assume the series’ next episode will take place in the countryside outskirts of the city.

I really don’t know why I just made this review a plot summary.

Conclusions

I feel Half-Life’s storyline is unnecessarily convoluted. Even B-list Hollywood movies have better writing. The mystery must prolong branding of a franchise, because it’s all about implanting yourself in the minds of consumers! Write a vague ending to allow further sequels, whether their narrative be dull or not. They get ham-fisted with the Vortigaunt’s pronunciation of Freeman. Yes, we get it, Gordon is an example of the free-will and voice of social justice rising against oppressors. In a decade of Duke Nukem, Prey, Max Payne, and Alan Wake, I’ll now take the time to flip 3D Realms and Valve the bird for lacking subtlety.

Boom Goes the Dynamite
Boom Goes the Dynamite

The role of the G-man is the central point that drives the storyline’s mystery. It becomes more clear reading this Half-Life Saga Story Guide, but to summarize, it’s like a bad episode of Lost. So why doesn’t G-man just teleport Gordon to the top of the Citadel so the reactor can be immediately destroyed? Mechanic of the sequence, that’s not so fun!

The game’s physics are what lift the experience to must-play. E3 2003 teaser trailers advertising capabilities of the engine were unfortunately exaggerated. Trap Town was an early version of Ravenholm. Alongside zombie enemies, Combine soldiers appear eliminated by clever concepts executed in real time. Also of note is the “striiiiider” video. Portions of these appear in the final product, although encounters and paths got reconfigured.

In retrospect, these sequences were heavily scripted. Large objects such as the dumpster, steel beam, and building walkway are not “physics-enabled”. e.g., the gravity gun usage has object weight dynamically interacting with other forces. Instead they’re like the Dog sequence in chapter “Anti-citizen Zero” where the robot throws a car at a Combine soldier then attacks a moving tank. If you get in the way of the thrown tank, you do an MJ-style moonwalk and get pushed out the way. It’s interesting how these were deceptive marketing tactics, almost in line with 100% CGI game trailers found at E3 two years ago.

The game itself nods to film and game sources:

  • Dune, ground pulse from the Combine restrictors/thumpers
  • Starship Troopers, antlion’s character design
  • Tremors, antlions again due to their reaction to movement on land
  • War of the Worlds (striders with long legs and laser shots. I know Spielberg’s version came out after the game
  • Star Trek, Borg-like behaviour of the Combine adapting other species and races to their own modus operandi
  • Thief along with Neil Menke’s HL1 mod, They Hunger for Ravenholm’s dark horror setting.

It wasn’t until after finishing I realized anti-aliasing wasn’t enabled and a 4:3 aspect ratio was set on a widescreen LCD. I’m an idiot. After years on a low-end PC, I’ve accepted low standards when it comes to immersion in artificial environments.

I thought water effects looked realistic up-close, although along Highway 17, the view of water at a distance was Y2K. A game from 2004 wouldn’t have the same ocean effects as Crytek engine. The game handles far-view distances well, although small map sizes lead to many load-times.

Facial animations during dialogue and movement of eyes toward subjects of interest were believable. One thing I didn’t get was the overview city map as seen from the top of The Citadel. The graphic looked worse than anything found in the original game, made in 1998. Maybe they ran out of time? It looked more like a top-down view of florescent-lit Tokyo than a ravaged eastern European burg.

The main issue I have with the game is the almost-too linear nature of its gameplay. Rename every chapter “On a Rail”, am I right, am I right? There is no choice in how you handle situations. It only comes down to what weapons you’ll use for enemies, and even then there are some restrictions.

After non-linear games like Far Cry and Deus Ex, you’d think AAA titles in years of development would have more depth. Instead it’s a straight-forward science fiction take with some neat gravity gun mechanics. But such is life. I’ll play through this game again before Half Life²: Episode Two gets released this fall.