Half-Life 2 – A Retrospective Review

“Rise and shine, Mister Freeman, rise and… shine. Not that I wish… to imply that you have been sleeping on… the job. No one is more deserving of a rest, and all the effort in the world would have gone to waste until… well… let’s just say your hour has come again. The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world. So wake up, Mister Freeman…wake up and… smell the ashes.” – The G-Man, during the introduction to Half-Life 2.

When Valve Software released Half-Life in 1998, they came straight out of the gate with a game that is now regarded as one of the best and most important computer games ever released. Half-Life not only brought a stronger sense of storytelling and atmosphere into the mainstream of first-person shooters, but also served as the launch point for a huge variety of mods, including Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Team Fortress Classic. With this pedigree, Half-Life 2 became one of the most hyped titles of the early 2000s – and managed to live up to the hype. Half-Life 2 revolutionised computer game physics, represented the best in a generation of increasingly realistic graphics and used some of the most intelligent AI code seen to that point.

Half-Life 2 continues the adventures of Gordon Freeman, the protagonist of the original Half-Life. At the time of the original game, Gordon Freeman was a theoretical physicist, recently awarded his doctorate and working at the Black Mesa Research Facility, a military installation controlled by the United States government. Against the odds, Gordon Freeman managed to survive the alien invasion of the facility after an experimental disaster and was employed by the enigmatic G-Man, being kept in suspended animation until his services were required again.

Twenty years later, at the beginning of Half-Life 2, Gordon Freeman is brought out of his suspended animation, ending up on a train entering City 17, a mega-city located tentatively in Eastern Europe. The game wastes no time in presenting the consequences of the invasion at Black Mesa, as Gordon Freeman returns to a world where the people of Earth have been enslaved, under the administration of Doctor Breen, former administrator of Black Mesa and Quisling to the invading forces of the interstellar empire of the Combine. Floating camera drones buzz around, constantly observing and photographing the citizens of Earth; armed, uniformed and masked guards of Civil Protection stand as sentinels around the city, with no hesitation at beating and humiliating citizens for any hint of defiance.

The Vortigaunts who had proved so hostile against Gordon Freeman in the original game have been reduced to an even lower status than the humans, abjectly left to janitorial roles under the supervision of the brutish Civil Protection, while huge war machines resembling the tripods from The War of the Worlds march through the streets of City 17. Unarmed and given little indication of where to go, Gordon soon meets with Barney Calhoun, a security guard from Black Mesa and friend of Gordon who has been working undercover as a Civil Protection guard.

Directed towards the hidden lab of Dr. Isaac Kleiner, another old friend of Gordon who had worked with him at the time of the Black Mesa incident, Gordon goes towards the laboratory and before long is being chased through the streets of City 17 by Civil Protection guards and APCs. With the assistance of Alyx Vance, the daughter of another former scientist at Black Mesa, Gordon reaches Dr. Kleiner’s lab, where the revelation is made that the surviving scientists from Black Mesa have covertly been doing their own research into teleportation.

With the return of Gordon Freeman, who through his improbable survival of the events of Black Mesa, stopping the initial alien invasion, has inadvertently become a prophetic figure and a standard to rally behind, the seeds are sown for rebellion and insurrection. However, the teleportation technology of the resistance is untested. A failure of one of the components during an initial teleportation run ends up alerting the Combine to Gordon’s presence and leaves Gordon in a situation where he must run and fight for his life – and eventually for the lives of humanity.

The game presents this narrative to the player through a strong and distinctive cinematic technique where the camera perspective never leaves the sight of Gordon Freeman. Half-Life 2 uses the visual medium superbly, with a distinctive architectural arrangement which evokes the crumbling concrete apartment blocks of the Soviet era in Eastern Europe. This contrasts with the futuristic, industrial, metallic aesthetic of the buildings of the Combine, especially the colossal Citadel at the centre of the city, reaching far into the clouds and dominating the skyline. Gigantic screens dot the city, presenting propaganda broadcasts from Doctor Breen and the Combine. The citizens of Earth have been outfitted with the same overall-style clothing, which both invokes a sense of the citizens being unskilled workers and prisoners on their own planet.

Importantly, the game doesn’t become overbearing with these details, presenting just enough of them at a time to create a realistic impression of the world after the Black Mesa incident and the Combine invasion. Indeed, Valve’s attention to detail seems to be extremely professional, with a polish which shows the artistry that went into the game.

The gameplay demonstrates similar polish. At its core, it continues the same sort of linear first-person shooter action of its predecessor, but brings a set of important improvements which help update the game and make it feel more immersive and visceral. Chief among these was the introduction of realistic physics through the use of the Havok middleware package. The use of realistic physics not only helps immersion through relatively realistic interactions of objects, such as the scattering of objects with explosions or the ragdoll physics of dead enemies, but also plays a big part in the game itself.

One of the biggest and most touted features in Half-Life 2 was the Zero Point Energy Manipulator (also known as the Gravity Gun), a device allowing the player to pick up, move and violently hurl objects around them. This comes in handy at several points in the game, where it can be used to move obstacles out of one’s path, use other objects to shield one’s self or build impromptu stacks of objects to climb to out-of-the-way places or use the objects as weapons by hurling them into enemies. It does seem appropriate that a game named after a physics concept, with a physicist as a main character, was one of the first to use realistic physics in such a way.

However, there are a few instances where the game turns into a showcase for the physics engine and the Gravity Gun. There are a few instances where you must manipulate certain objects in a certain way to proceed and the game seems to go almost as far as to shout out, “This is a physics puzzle!”, which doesn’t help with immersion. Luckily, such occasions are few and far between. By and large, the physics manipulations are integrated very well into the game and really help with making the game feel more of an authentic experience.

Another place in which Half-Life 2 feels distinctive is in the vehicular sections. At certain parts of the game, you are required to use various vehicles in order to progress – an airboat used for getting through the canals of City 17 and a stripped-out scout buggy for roaming the countryside outside of the city itself. While vehicular sections in first-person shooters weren’t new by that stage, most contemporary games rendered their vehicle sections in either third-person, in imitation of Halo, or in a modified first-person perspective, such as through gun sights. Half-Life 2, on the other hand, steadfastly sticks to its “eyes of Gordon Freeman” first-person perspective throughout.

The vehicular sections in Half-Life 2 are a bit of a love-or-hate beast, since they are quite a divergence from the core gameplay, but I personally love them. They present a sense of speed and exhilaration as you make your way through obstacles, enemies and the scenery around you. There are plenty of stunning set-pieces, such as being chased through the canals and tunnels by an attack helicopter, culminating in a duel to the death near a large dam. There are opportunities to experience the potential of the vehicles as weapons in their own right as you use them to plough through the infantry forces of the Combine. Between that and the use of realistic physics with the vehicle handling, I think that these sections represent some of the best vehicular action in any first-person shooter.

Speaking of set-piece battles, there are some spectacular ones outside of the vehicle sections as well. Alien gunships periodically attack, forcing the player to shoot them down with rockets, steering the rockets past the defences of the gunship as it seeks to shoot down the player’s rockets in mid-flight. Even the standard infantry of the Combine can offer some impressive battles, with AI that was at that point very impressive, even if you don’t get to see their full potential in the tight corridors of the city.

Half-Life 2 was a graphical masterpiece when it was released, even managing to look distinctly better than its best contemporaries. Surprisingly, the game still looks good ten years after its first release, especially with the addition of HDR lighting in conjunction with the release of Half-Life 2: Episode One. While later games have improved on texturing, especially at close ranges, Half-Life 2 certainly does not look embarrassing, especially given that its architectural aesthetic was so distinctive.

The sound design of the game is similarly impressive. There are realistic sounds for all interactions with the environment, including the meaty sounds of the guns in the game. The sounds of the enemies are all distinctive and impressive, from the muffled radio reports of the Combine soldiers to the screeches of the headcrabs and the groaning of the zombies. The game’s music is a peculiar mix of various genres, from rock to techno to ambient, but it is set up very well to create atmosphere and is a credit to Kelly Bailey, long-time composer for the series.

Given the polish of Half-Life 2 and the way it shines out in gameplay and presentation, there are few flaws which I can point at in the game. Some of the physics puzzles are a bit blatant, while there is a short period after you are forced to abandon the scout buggy where I feel the game slows down a lot in a jarring change from fast-paced action and set-piece battles. The section of the game takes place on the coast line outside of City 17, where alien creatures known as antlions burrow out of the ground whenever you touch the sand on the beach. Cue frustration as you try to either fend off enemies as they persistently attack you or try desperately to stack objects in front of you in what feels like an extended game of “keep off the lava”. The addition of an achievement for getting through this section without touching the sand adds to the frustration; I have the achievement, more out of sheer bloody-minded completionism more than anything else, but I won’t be going for it again any time soon.

Despite those occasional flaws, Half-Life 2 is a triumph of first-person shooter design. The polished professionalism shines out as an example of how to do a cinematic game without bogging down the action with overly long cutscenes. The gameplay is tight and intuitive, while the game physics and the strong AI work well to improve immersion. Half-Life 2 is a masterpiece of modern game design and should stand as an example for any developers hoping to develop in the genre.

Bottom Line: Half-Life 2 is a masterpiece, combining excellently polished gameplay and design with graphics and sound that are still impressive. The cinematic presentation works exceptionally well and creates immersion in a way that should be an example to other developers even now.

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