They’re right, the critics are right. Half-Life 2 is one of the best games, if not the best, I’ve ever played. The original Half-Life is probably the only game that offered such a rich, full experience. But HL2 exceeds it in almost every way, and not merely because it’s newer. It has the crafted, focused thrills of a well-designed game, the gritty, intense roughness of combat, and the bleak, varied immensity of a ravaged Earth.
Because of this, HL2‘s greatest weakness is also its greatest strength. Valve has created a world bristling with such variety, intensity, struggle, possibility, and life, that I ache for more. I want to break the fence and drive over the mountain, smash down a new door and walk an unseen avenue of City 17, or see the rest of the Earth through the eyes of Valve. HL2 feels like the stunning beginning of something that will balloon into a universe beyond even its creators’ expectations (largely due to their openness to the gaming community and the modders). There’s no way for HL2 to encompass every desire it creates, even after exceeding so many expectations.
I’ve beaten the game over 2 times now, and I can see already that I’ll be playing it over and over for quite some time. There’s so much to cover and so many surprises that I’ll warn you before you continue reading: SPOILERS AHEAD. Don’t read below if you want to play HL2 with an unformed view.
The game opens with deceptively quick pass through the world of Half-Life, with a great degree of detail packed into each swift transition: train station to the Combine to the resistance to the courtyard to tenements to the core of the resistance to combat. However, having seen these segments twice now, with the benefit of hindsight the second time, the verisimilitude and attention to realism is quite stunning. And I don’t just mean the trash blowing around in the station, the effect of light passing through corrugated glass, the pervasive and surprisingly developed propaganda of Dr. Breen, or the clash of Earth’s Eastern European architecture with the cold, angular, slate-grey, dagger-like structures of the all-consuming Combine. I mean the seemingly effortless blending of all the elements into a world that doesn’t give the impression of being designed, it gives the impression of just being that way. The amount of information you can glean about the world in just a few minutes is very impressive.
An example of this development of a full world, which comes at roughly 1/3 through the game, is the Highway 17 sequence. During this section of the game, you drive a cobbled-together Frankenstein’s dune buggy along the coast (sometimes on sand, sometimes on highway-topped cliffs) towards Nova Prospekt (which I’ll touch on later). After battling past ant lions in a variety of cool sequences, including one involving a magnetic crane that you control, you cruise along the highway, encountering old wooden shore homes, painted white and slowly aging at the edge of the sea. The sunlight is bleached and grey (the time changes as you pass from area to area) and neighbors are far between on this road. One house in particular has a fence blocking off its lower section and it quickly becomes apparent, as you approach in the buggy, that the Combine Overwatch is present. You ram down the fence, which bursts apart realistically, sending panels flying, and come upon two Combine troops and their armored van. You spin out, crushing one and leap from the driver’s seat, wielding your shotgun, dispatching the other. In the frenzy, you dash for the house. Previously, these houses are full of standing troops, waiting for orders or clearing them out. You blow out the windows with your automatic, the glass fragments and breaks away; one window per floor, one grenade per window.
Such caution is called for because Combine troops aren’t the only things you’ve found in these houses. Zombies, created by the Aliens-esque headcrabs, often lumber, lay dormant, or lay in wait for unsuspecting intruders, waiting to attach to their heads and pervert their bodies into twisted, bloody, mindless creatures. These zombies are the unfortunate end result of the Combine’s bombing campaign, unlucky citizens that were too slow to run when the shells that crashed through their roofs split open, overtaken by the headcrabs that crept out of the smoke. The Combine often ’soften up’ assault zones this way before raiding them.
Bam! Bam! Bam! The grenades go off one by one, blowing out the remaining windows, shattering the boards on others, pulverizing furniture and sending items flying around rooms and out windows. Hopefully, they dispatch or stir up anything inside for easier entry and clearing. As you make your way in, the first floor is a mess (from the blast), but is empty. A quick sweep leads you up the stairs. As your head crests the entry in the floor, you find a similar mess. The rooms are equally empty. It would appear that the Combine only sent two troops, and that means there are probably zombies upstairs. Perhaps it’s one of the nasty ones that hurls headcrabs that inject neurotoxin venom. You check your shotgun and your magnum. Up to the third floor.
As you enter the top level, you find a makeshift barricade of a table in the back corner where a valiant citizen held their last stand, crossbow in hand. It was not a successful stand. You collect their items and turn to leave, not seeing any zombies or headcrabs. Suddenly, from the ceiling come crashing two smart mines, little metal soccer balls, charged with energy, rolling and jumping towards you. Quickly, you switch to your gravity gun, a handy device that allows you to grab objects and manipulate them, or hurl them like missiles. You catch the first one, while dodging the second. You smash the nearest window with it, catching it as it falls to the floor, then fling it in a long arc into the nearby sea. You don’t have time to see it hit the water, but you hear it burst underneath the surface. You turn to dispatch the second. As you move down and out of the house, the mines come crashing through the ceiling. This is a trap. There are no zombies. The Combine were on their way out. Once you make it back out onto the lawn, you see why.
The soldiers had just finished burning the corpses of the occupants on their front lawn. The order of things on Earth becomes apparent through this brief vignette: submit and be herded into the cities under Combine rule, or await extermination in the unguarded zones where alien creatures roam largely unchecked. You step back into the buggy and drive off, too late to save the former occupants of the home, but still feeling the rush from escaping the traps of their executioners. On to the next checkpoint.
Do you see? This is just one brief scenario in one segment of one chapter of HL2. The depth and subtlety of the storytelling is quite stunning. The basic plot is elaborated through cut scenes and character interactions, but the real grit and grain of the world is just…there. The rough-and-tumble sustenance living of the those taking their chances free of the Combine’s yoke comes through in their structures and their demeanor. After an intense battle with a gunship at a coastal installation, fighters lean against the walls, looking haggard and worn. Encounters like these are almost guaranteed to leave behind a few dead.
Another innovation, that permeates the entire world, is the Source physics engine, developed by Valve. HL2 is certainly not the first game to use physics of one sort or another, but I have yet to see a game that incorporates it in such a natural manner. Usually, games have a restrictive physics engine that only affects certain objects or just the characters. The rest of the objects sit like immovable boulders, or the scenes are so sparse that there’s nothing to interact with. When a gunfight occurs, the room is left in shambles. And it’s not just a few conspicuously placed liquor bottles or watermelons (though there are a few of those mixed in in HL2). Toss a grenade and it’ll bounce and roll in a realistic fashion, then burst outward, sending objects near it flying. The burst will knock over larger and more distant objects, which will in turn interact realistically. The effect is dramatic, giving the environment a unique feel, depending on how well or poorly the fight goes.
But Valve really shows off its physics with the ’gravity gun’. Through a very simple control scheme, the player can pick up and move virtually any object smaller than a refrigerator, and can push around any object larger than that up to things the size of a truck (roughly). Also, any object that can be picked up, can be hurled like a missile at a target or against a wall for its contents. This includes picking up grenades from enemies and throwing them back, or pulling a radiator from the wall and using it as a shield against enemy fire, before launching it forward, smashing enemies down. This kind of interaction allows for some fun and interesting physics puzzles, along with tactical opportunities that just aren’t possible in other games. Also, during the final stage of the game, the grav gun gets a juice-up, and can pull and fling enemies, along with some other surprises. It’s such a fun idea, that id Software, the makers of Doom, have even incorporated a gravity gun into their Doom 3 expansion.
HL2 has such a variety of these developed scenarios, it’s almost impossible to sum them up cleanly. As such, I’ve included some screenshots taken from Half-Life Fallout‘s galleries and resized, to give an abbreviated visual tour of some of HL2‘s areas. Each image has a link to the full-size version at HL Fallout.
The airboat, which you drive down riverbeds and canals on your way out of City 17 early in the game. That’s a Combine helicopter coming at you. It can also lay mines in your path. Notice the gorgeous evening sunset, and the water reflections. The water in HL2 is stunning.
A stop on the way down Highway 17. You need to power down the forcefields on the bridge in the background. Ultimately, you climb along the support structure beneath the bridge, high above the water. These troops don’t want you to do that.
A close look at a your antlion army in Nova Prospekt. Notice the reflective quality of their shells, and the ridges and bumps visible in the light. Don’t worry, if they die, just squeeze that pheropod you’re holding to summon more of them. The flashlight’s effects are also shown nicely here.
Check out HL Fallout’s screenshot gallery for more views of the game. There’s so much more than I’ve shown here, but that’ll give you a taste for some of the scope.
Let me take a moment, after focusing on the visuals so heavily, to touch on an oft-unsung hero of this production: the sound design. This is often the lynch-pin for realism in so many games. It’s also often the last piece developed for the game. The difference between the weak pop of a poorly-designed gun blast and the bass-y roar of a well-designed one become excruciatingly apparent after the 500th time. But it’s not just powerful guns, satisfying clunks, clicks, cracks, and crashes that make the sound truly work, or the ridiculously great range of sounds and effects, along with the superb voice acting, used for all of the inhabitants and activities in HL2 that give the game its pop. It’s the effect of the sounds as they occur in the environments. When I was in City 17, gun fire crackled in the distance, roared in proximity, echoed under bridges, and garbled when I was under water (and the bullets leave bubbling trails as they hit the surface). The effect is very immersive and convincing. Hearing automatic fire in City 17 often triggered mental associations with the footage of urban combat going on in Falluja, it seemed that real. I heard a repetitive cracking while running down a tunnel at one point, only to realize it was distant gunfire aimed at me when the bullets began ricocheting nearby. It’s not just a quiet version of the sounds, it’s distorted by distance and environment. I raise my glass to the sound designers and technicians. They did an amazing job.
My only complaint with HL2 is that the intense sense of reality and immersion are affected on subsequent replays. This isn’t because of scripted sequences falling apart, or flaws emerging, but because the world seems so real, that you want to see more of it and start to wonder about it. This desire throws makes you more aware of the restrictions. There is a certain degree of openness and non-linearity that is sacrificed to give such a strong experience. While there are certainly many ’sandbox’ scenes like Highway 17, Nova Prospekt, and much of the City 17 sequences, that allow tactical creativity and variation within a given area, I still got the feeling of being funneled a bit throughout the chapters. It’s subtle, particularly if you get caught up in the moment, as you often do, but it makes me wish for greater freedom. However, most of that is overpowered by truly amazing amount of realism contained in every niche of the levels, so it really only affects long-term replay value.
If you have the cash to upgrade your PC, I say do it. Half-Life 2 is so rewarding and truly represents the next step for videogames in general, not as a technology, but as an art and narrative form. And, from what I’ve heard, Valve will be expanding on the Half-Life 2 world, most likely with chapters telling the stories of other characters you interact during the course of the game.
Bravo, Valve. You’ve outdone yourselves. And that’s no small feat.