The word Classic gets thrown around a lot in the world of pop culture, but Half-Life 2 deserves the label. This first-person shooter from 2004 shows up near the top of most ‘best video games ever’ lists. (Like this one.) Because of its reputation, I always felt I needed to give it a closer look and I finally got around to it. How does a ten year old game age in the fast-moving world of video games?
The short answer to that question is ‘surprisingly well’. Sure, there are some signs of aging. The graphics are a bit more angular, the textures simpler and the sound effects are more clipped and repetitive. Also distinctly old-fashioned is the way you smoothly slide up and down ladders without seeing your hands. There is a physics engine in the game that was noteworthy at the time, allowing you to move and throw objects with some semblance of realism. It can be a bit wonky and unpredictable, making the puzzles that use the engine frustrating at points. And it can look goofy, like when you lift a car with a giant magnet (as you do) and it wobbles most unnaturally. The objects you throw around seem to lack weight.
The world and its characters are pretty engaging. What it boils down to, is that there is an alien invasion and you need to stop it. It all apparently started with a laboratory accident at a Black Mesa research facility, in the first Half-Life (1998). Not having played it, I am fuzzy on the details. Your allies are a small group of scientists and resistance fighters. Among the latter is Alyx Vance (voiced by Merle Dandridge). She will tag along for some of the missions, developing a romantic interest in you as she does. This feels odd, as your protagonist Gordon Freeman is mute. All the other characters are well-voiced and chattering away, frequently looking over at you to include you in the conversation, but none of them seem to find it strange that you don’t add a single thing. It may be that this is intended to involve you more, as Gordon remains a mostly blank slate for you to project your own personality onto. But for Alyx to fall for someone who can’t give her any romantic signals and frequently runs off, leaving her to fend for herself in a fight, makes it seem like she has bad judgment. Still, the characters are sympathetic enough that you will want to keep them alive. There is also a big, robotic dog simply called Dog, who ups the cute-factor when he shows up.
You have to get used to a bit less handholding than in a lot of modern games. I remember running around a building for quite a while before realizing that the stairway I needed to find was hidden in a corner behind my back. It’s not necessarily a negative, but does make you realize how easy more recent games tend to make things for the player, desparate to keep them from getting frustrated and tuning out.
Apart from the occasional moment of confusion, level design is a highlight of the game. HL2 is great at dropping you into mini-scenario’s that offer some special challenge. Sometimes there is only one solution, such as when a sniper targets you from a window and you have to crouch your way to him until you’re close enough to toss in a grenade. Other times you are a bit more free to handle things how you see fit. It drops you into arenas with a certain type of enemy and though it may strongly hint at how you could effectively take them down (‘Hey, here’s a rocket launcher and an unlimited supply of rockets!’) you can try to do things your own way.
There is a fair bit of variety, with driving sections thrown in and the mood of the levels switching between a scifi military shooter and a horror survival game. The horror parts are especially memorable. Tick-like crabs crawl around and hurl themselves at you, some of the larger ones temporarily poisoning you and making your health drop down significantly before it climbs back up again. There are also zombie-like creatures, humans under the control of the ticks, their head stuck inside of one. They bemoan their fate as they stumble towards you. Later on, you’ll encounter more varieties of the pitiful creatures, like an armored one that rushes you and tries to blow you up.
Your weapons are for the most part fairly generic, but there is one that stands out by a mile – the Gravity Gun. This allows you to pick up and drop or throw things. Handy for puzzles and pulling down and breaking supply crates. But also handy in a fight, for tossing explosive barrels at the enemy or just directly stunning them with a blast from it. You will also find circular blades sometimes that can be used to do some creative dismembering. Towards the end, your other weapons are taken away and the Gravity Gun gets an upgrade, allowing you to pick up and toss your enemies around. It’s a great change of pace, though it’s easy to see why they withheld this ability for the rest of the game. It makes things easy and would have grown repetitive.
On the lower end of the power-curve, you also carry an apparently iconic crowbar most of the time, which you can use to break things and to fight. A third weapon worth mentioning is an egg-like object that allows you to command an army of insects (called ant-lions) for part of the game. Taking over a military base by siccing insects on your enemies is a lot more fun than just shooting things. Throw an egg in the direction you want them to go, then sit back and watch the mayhem.
The main game was followed by two mini-sequels (or ‘episodes’ as Valve has called them) that continue the story. (‘One’ appeared in 2006, ‘Two’ in 2007.) The first episode feels a bit less polished, demanding more precision than the physics engine can offer and slightly inferior level design. There is one annoying moment in particular where you need to use energy balls picked up with the Gravity Gun to stop falling debris from breaking the glass platform you’re on. It crosses from challenging to a chore as you’re fighting with the controls and the somewhat unpredictable physics. Thankfully you can save at any point, so you’ll never really get stuck, but save-spamming your way through feels like cheating. Thankfully the second episode picks up again, with a suitably daunting but do-able final challenge.
The story in the main game built to an interesting climax that left some major questions unanswered. In particular, who is that creepy, otherworldy guy who keeps popping up and talking directly to you in riddles? The two mini-sequels don’t answer most of the questions, add some new ones and end on a major cliffhanger that has still not been resolved after all these years. An Episode 3 never appeared. Rumors that Valve is working on a sequel have never died down, but there is still no concrete news. After such a long period of fevered anticipation, Valve would need to pretty much reinvent the medium of video games to not disappoint. But despite moving with the times, they would also need to recapture what made Half-Life 2 special. Will Gordon Freeman ever find his voice and be able to ask Alyx out on a date? We’ll just have to wait and see.