Half-Life 2 (2004)
I’m hard pressed to come up with an experience similar to the one I had, sitting in my pitch black office at Io, big fat grin on my face and a sense of elevation, as the credits for Half-Life 2 rolled over the screen (in alphabetical order, not in ranked mind you). Fifteen minutes later (after having told the world) when I rode the bus home, on the first day of snow in Copenhagen to boot, I was entranced. Usually I hunker down in the far corner of the bus for the 35-45 minute ride home, and bury myself in a book. But that day I just couldn’t concentrate on anything but Half-Life 2.
Spoilers ohoy matey!
To say that 2004 was a letdown in terms of the games released during these last 11 months would be almost an understatement. It was to be the year of sequels, picking up loose ends from old favorites like Doom and recent masterpieces like Deus Ex, Halo and of course Half-Life 2. The reality of the games, as they one by one finally popped up their heads (mostly all of them much later than anticipated), it turned out that we weren’t quite as lucky as we had hoped.
A strike of poetic justice perhaps, that Half-Life 2 were to be the game that had not only been pushed back the furthest, but also the one that has had by far the most arduous development journey and now finally the only one that manages to lift its own weight, and then some.
It became the game we talked about at Io for days on end. “How far are you? Did you shit your pants when so and so happened? It was fucking awesome!”. During lunch, the people I otherwise usually dine with had to choose their seating more carefully so as to not have anything spoiled as the ones of us who had made our way furthest into the game gave up biting out lip and started spewing spoilers left and right.
And already here Half-Life 2 distinguishes itself from the rest of the games I’ve played this year, because to be quite frank, none of them have anything worth spoiling in the first place! And I’m not just referring to lousy re-rehash storylines (Doom 3 I’m looking at you!), but weapons, enemies, sightings of the G-man, special effects, architecture as well as storyline twists…
In fact, Half-Life 2 is, as far as I can recall, the only game that I have had serious discussions about, in terms of speculation on the storyline, characters and so forth. It’s not like any of us are going: “So what do you think of the Imps? Do you think they were once humans, perverted by Hell or something?” Nobody gives a flying fuck, 3 hours into the game you’re ready to look up the cheat codes and jump through the rest of the game just to see if it ever gets any better.
So obviously a lot of great things can be said about Half-Life 2, but let me start with pointing out some of the less good things about the game.
First of all, it covers a lot of ground. You go from street combat to riding an unarmed waterscooter to a horror section to fighting snipers to full on squad combat to weird surreal ending stuff. And as much as the playing style changes, so does the style of the game itself as well. This works wonders most of the time, and I doubt anyone will top Valve in the sheer audacity it took for them to plunge into something so utterly complex as what the end product actually is.
But it’s not without a few glitches here and there. Your squadmates that you get later in the game are mostly useless, insomuch that while you can control them, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps if the system had been more Freedom Fighters-like (I can say that without stroking my own pony, I didn’t work on the game), it would have worked better. But mostly they come off as very polite, but constantly in the way and worth little more than cannonfodder for Striders.
I would actually rather have seen them relinquish the control of the squad, making it less obvious to the player what the mechanics at work are. That, and make them not get in the way…
To backtrack a little, I must admit to finding Ravenholm unnervingly out of context. It felt almost as if it had been tagged on as an afterthought, though I doubt that to be the case. But if you think about it, you could cut at the beginning and end of Ravenholm, remove it clean out of the game, and it probably wouldn’t be missed.
This is of course also influenced by the fact that I don’t so much care for fighting headcrabs and the zombie-like guys. But more than that, I think the mode-jerking is too great going from one kind of playstyle to something entirely different. And on top of that, I don’t think Ravenholm was pulled off all that well. Spawning zombies, arbitrary physics traps and what not. If I had been game director, I would seriously have considered cutting it early in development.
On a much smaller scale, there were a few places in the game where I thought the pacing was hampered by small derailings that served little purpose. One time you reach a point in a highway tunnel or something where you have to crawl through a small section of contaminated yuck to open a door from the other side, yet you’re armed with all manners of weapons, why not just tear it right off the hinges?! There are a few of these along the way, but by and large it’s not that big a deal, and Valve understands what they need to deliver and how they should deliver it for maximum efficiency.
A final nitpick would be the story and how you’re thrust into the game. That is, until I had the above conversation with my coworker. Initially, I did find it odd that Valve had opted for a weird half-psychedelic in- and outro, with more questions than answers. But once we started looking more closely and what was being said and done throughout the game, it all slowly starts to not only make sense, but also really show that Valve knows what they’re doing.
And they really do. From start to can’t-lower-my-arms-ending, the game just delivers in every way possible. Not only does it feel like a decendant of the first Half-Life, which is quite a feat when you compare the immense difference in technological level between the two games. But it also manages to create this great story arc and actually puts you into the shoes of the can-do persona of Gordon ‘I’m a Puppet’ Freeman.
It’s linear as hell from you step off the train till the credits roll, though it does have several occasions where you actually have a choice of taking the buggy off-road to just check out that house, or heading straight through that checkpoint or stopping to engage them. Linearity isn’t a problem however, though some people in and around the games industry would have you believe otherwise. Sure you do have games on the extreme end of it, like Medal of Honor, where you’re sometimes being put through almost embarrassingly linear sections, though they of course do have the potential to run you through a carefully tailored experience.
Half-Life 2 however deals with the linearity by a string of pearls, where each pearl is a playground of some sort for the player, be it as small and truly ‘playground’ like as tossing a ball with Dog or something larger, like one of the small stops along the coastal stretch.
And personally that’s how I like my action games. If I wanted openendedness, I’d be playing Pirates! (the name comes with the exclamation mark, I’m not ending the sentence until now). Of course, I’ll be playing Pirates! regardlessly, but…
That covers a lot of the general stuff happening throughout the game, but what about the more specific stuff then? Well where to begin? Literally! First of all, the 5-6 years in development ooze from every pore of the game. The sheer number of well executed ideas in this game is staggering, from the menacingly designed drop- and gunships to the lumbering Striders and the austere Citadel. I never once felt cheated as I was playing. I never felt like they were trying to earn cheap points somehow (well, with the exception of the points mentioned earlier I suppose). Rather it almost always felt as if they were fully aware of all the things that could be used to heighten the sense of the scene, be it the use of distant sounds or the fearful expression on the face of a rebel who has been holding a position for days.
These little touches, these details, are not to be taken for granted in today’s industry, where quality is time, time is money, and money is something doled out with a sparring hand. And of course, Valve wouldn’t exist in the form it has today, had it not been for the monetary determination of Gabe Newell. Bill trained him well.
I mentioned the sounds, and let me just return to that, because they really deserve an honorable mention. Though of course so does most of the game elements. But the sounds really stand out as fitting, powerful and original. Savour the sounds the Combine’s radios make when they’re killed, the sound of seagulls hitting rocks (yeah, you can kill the birds, very satisfactory), the wail of the Striders (straight out of War of the Worlds, ‘Uuuuuullaaaa’) and the whining engines of the dropships. This game sounds fucking amazing! Other games have sounded good, but Half-Life 2 really manages to keep the spirit of the original game’s soundscape, while at the same time just expanding upon it immensly, really making this weird perverted world come alive.
Another thing that really brings the game to life, is the much lauded facial animation system. It. Rocks. It just works so well that it’s hard to believe sometimes. Now of course it’s not photorealistic as such, but as an abstraction layer, it’s the best out there bar none, case closed.
And the animation in general is also just really really good. Both in terms of movement, though it doesn’t quite escape the stratosphere of ‘it’s still just a game’, it is some of the best I’ve seen ever, but also in terms of the character interactions. People interact with items, with each other and with you. It all just transports you right in there.
Speaking of animation, it’s natural to also just drop a comment about the physics system. In a word: great! I doubt much more needs to be said about that, except that it is tons of fun to play with, though in the future I’m hoping that we’ll see even more of it in action. I was slightly disappointed that the scene we saw in one of the E3 movies, where Gordon blockades the entrances to a building with furniture, locking out the Combine never really happened. A small loss though.
Another physics related thing that rocked my world, was the boosted gravity gun you got to wield in the climax of the game. Seriously, how many games actually change the game mechanics in the 11th hour? And how many of those get away with it!? Very very few.
And of course, the climax is a great example of the amount of polish this game has. Grabbing a soldier and throwing him up alongside a wall made sparks fly out to the wall. When he landed his body would convulse in the most scary manner. Throw him into those strange core-like cylinders and the body would float as if in 0G. It’s a game in itself!
For me though, the element that serves as icing on this chocolate chipped cake is the overall design direction. I’m a visualist, and so that’s naturally where I get my kicks. And this game just kicked my ass up and down. One thing is creating an eastern European city of some sort, that’s hard enough in itself, but actually coming up with a whole new science fiction style, that’s just not something you cook up over the weekend (I’m looking at you Doom 3!).
From the half-organic, half-machine striders and dropships / gunships, to the grate-like growing citadel structure and the internal immensity of the citadel itself, I was just awed. It’s like a wet dream that keeps going and going and going, onward and upward.
Phew. Yeah, as you can tell, I kinda liked it.
As for the bundled CounterStrike Source, I don’t have much to say, as I don’t really find CS interesting (Play for a minute and sit out until next round? I don’t think so…), and I haven’t yet had a chance to try out the new Deathmatch update. I will say however that I think it was a smart move of Valve to bundle an updated Counterstrike with the game instead of ‘merely’ a Deathmatch mode…
Another thing that Valve did better than most other companies with the first Half-Life, and which they look set to do even better with the second, is their community support. There are but a handful of companies that truly get this, and Valve is certainly one of them. I hope I can find the time / energy to play a bit in their sandbox, but we’ll see.
Also worth mentioning before I wrap up, is Steam. Valve digital distribution utility, which has finally seen its full unveiling seems set to finally do something about digital distribution, something which I had seriously envisioned being done years ago. Hopefully they’ll go the way of Bioware and also fulfill my vision of communit creations for sale on there, but we’ll see.
In conclusion, Half-Life 2 is without a doubt on my mind of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s inventive, exciting, beautiful and so full of details that you could extrapolate 3-4 other games from it. If you only play one game this year, you’d better make damn sure it’s this one!
PS: It’s worth mentioning this little fact: In the US, the game comes on 5 CD’s, but in the EU it’s on DVD only… 5 CD’s? What is this, Phantasmagoria!?
PPS: I will dress up this review with some screenshots and what not later on, for now you can view my somewhat small collection of screenshots on flickr.