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Half-Life 2 (PC) artwork

Half-Life 2 (PC) review

"The abject fascination of curiosity will consume you, as will the scope of its storytelling mechanism."

The first time I played Half-Life 2 it was on a machine not geared especially well toward the sort of gaming I was about to pursue. Steam was new in my life, though I had played, watched, then played and bought Portal. In that order.

I tried to enjoy Team Fortress 2, but I’ve long lost interest in PVP grindmouse festivals. Its visuals are sharp, entertaining, grisly, and a hair too demanding to max out all of the graphics settings for my poor little GeForce 430/1GB. It’s a Zotac Totally Silent Edition thing with a monstrous fanless cooling affair. Looks like a beast, but sputters during heavy action and high resolutions.

It matters because Half Life 2 was one of the reasons I upgraded to my GeForce 650, with which I was able to crank every single setting in HL2 to its maximum on my 1080p monitor. I wanted to re-experience its story with all water reflections on, with a smooth framerate, and ... well that’s it, really.

HL2 running in the source engine is not demanding for any modern system. In 2008, however, my hardware got a little shy when I encountered (sssh) GLaDOS again in Portal 2. You know the room, the one with all the foliage, fascination and sarcasm. Fascination is a key feature of Valve games.

You see, that’s where I began with HL2 and Gordon Freeman. Curiosity. I kept hearing about the associations between Portal and Half Life, and eventually I had had enough. I wanted to know for myself. I knew it was a shooter, I knew the writing was good, the storytelling “groundbreaking”.

How about genre defining? Well, I didn’t know it but they’d done that already with Half Life. But you know what it’s like to jump into a franchise at any point after the beginning. Where you land is home, and whenever you get lost you circle back in the hopes of finding sustenance.

My introduction got me a snoot full of questions. Really compelling questions, like “Why is everyone dressed in blue?” “Who’s the grey haired jerk on the giant monitor?” “Why am I being muscled around by these guys in gas masks?” “What am I even doing?”

Oh, the first chapter hands you all the questions you’re going to be answering during the rest of the entire game, and its two, subsequent episodes. In that chapter, you plod through a run down looking train station, run away from some security thugs who shoot at you, then meet a really attractive and clever woman who saves your scrawny neck.

Life is actually pretty good. I mean, I was enthralled. Barney was a lovable dope, the brotherly type with a kind smile. By the time you’re back in the suit, you’re ready to hunt down those answers and beat the living logic out of them. And blood. And whatever it is the alien biomechs have in them.

A crowbar, I mean, the crowbar, the most basic tool in any kit, is provided by Barney, for your liberty. Literally. You’re going to beat crates, robots, even security thugs over the head with this thing. When you’re out of ammo, you’re not out of crowbar. Not that you’re going to run out of ammo.

See, that fascination needs to be fed, and mechanically, concessions are made for your progression. At first I found that HL2’s new fangled First Person Shooter AI was a challenge. My skills needed polishing; the last FPS I’d really sunk my teeth into was ... hm ... Doom II. Oh, I’d fiddled around with Quake 3 Arena and gone toe-to-toe with friends in Unreal Tournament, but that was a decade ago.

A whole decade.

Once I polished my skills, and dropped a few hundred corpses, I began to see that HL2 actually has stone dumb gunplay. Enemies don’t cover, they don’t flank; they walk at you in plain sight. In the first few chapters you blow them up with conveniently placed barrels. It’s fun, and on my ... oh, sixth playthrough, it’s still fun.

It doesn’t matter that the thugs aren’t scary, it makes sense; they don’t perceive you as a threat, though the lack of reaction from their compatriots dates HL2, technologically. You’re going to have to accept that the developers give you twice, sometimes three times as many resources as you’re going to need, once you’ve had some practice.

They do this so you’ll relax and think. Panicked players do not solve puzzles, and do not engage in story very well. Especially the drip-feed type of interactive storytelling that was so new to players at that time. You need to notice details, you need to unearth the plot, to navigate the map and get hurt.

This means HL2 is drop-dead easy for an FPS player with any modicum of skill, versed in the AI tactics of the day. Naturally, when it was released, HL2’s breakthroughs made it the leader in the field. Graphically it was impressive, but it’s true strength lay in its interactive elements.

The puzzles that made you think before you acted.

Some of those puzzles are known for their frustration, such as the slog through the toxic bog laced with crab-headed baddies who’re more than groany to knock you into the muck. That muck is going to kill you quick, because that’s what it does.

Now’s where we get a little spoilery. Read on, if you please, or come back if you don’t wish to spoil details of the game’s story. I watched Portal from beginning to end on YouTube and still thrilled every bit when I blew GLaDOS to bits. Fair warning is fair.

Half Life 2 is going to disappoint you, and it is probably because Valve wanted the story to resemble a novel. I mean, the franchise is going to let you down. It’s the novel that was never finished. Along the way though, HL2 is going to let you down in little ways.

For example, the dune buggy. My first thought was, “Yay! A vehicle! Hey, listen to the awesome music!” It’s fun, though the buggy controls poorly for newbies, and then there’s that darn train. That bedratted train and the instant failure state. What, you mean I can’t survive a potentially fatal fall? in my space age wondersuit? with morphine injection and armor plating?

It is at that point you start to want to buck the narrative. The developers have given you freedom, within parameters, and that is when they become apparent. You’re in a corridor shooter with really spacious walls and interactive puzzles. And cool cut scenes you can walk around in. They were cool, right? They were totally cool.

You are the rebel for real now, though, and cleverly enough, you’re given the tools for the job. A small army of endless fodder, “Antlions” who will die for you and protect you, after terrorizing you for an entire chapter. Oh, Valve is clever with their mechanics.

You get involved all right; by the end of an earlier chapter you’re going to be gunning down a Combine helicopter with a gun of its own kind with sheer glee. And panic. And desperation. Don’t forget desperation. Somehow that fight never gets any easier.

You are the hero, let’s not forget, and whilst your siege of Nova Prospekt picks up steam, you are granted some time for reflection. That’s another thing that Valve does; pacing, and they do it very well. Developer commentary tells us that they quality tested every, idea, map and scenario within an inch of its original concept.

Which explains why it’s so blasted good, but not so spontaneous. One of the joys of combat, any player will tell you, is the unexpected. The stuff they didn’t plan for. Valve play tested so thoroughly that they integrated those elements into the final game.

That’s why Half Life 2 can feel like reading over a dull script, during replays. There’s no honest to goodness room for variation. Each enemy has an optimal attack vector; each map can be cleared in a few pre-determined steps. Have you ever tried running up beside the dropships during the fight at the lighthouse?

Just stand out of range of the gun, then pick off the soldiers as they step out. It’s like hacking without all the moral conflict.

Age does HL2 no favors, and it increases the technical hurdles that HL3 would have to overcome to be anywhere near as good. I’m going to wrap this up, and then move right along to HL2: Episode One. I suggest you follow me, because we’re going to continue this retrospective exactly where I’m going to leave off.

Half Life 2 is a genre defining classic that set the stage for modern shooters. Combat is interesting, varied and well paced. The physics engine is rock solid, and Valve actively maintains HL2, so you can run it on your current rig. What’s more is that owning it opens your world to a near endless array of mods and entire game conversions upon which this is based.

At 1080p texture quality is noticably low, graphic detail is dated, and some environmental puzzles are going to frustrate you. Enemies are either ‘walk into your bullets’ stupid, or bullet sponges. Larger enemies just require some good cover and heavier weapons. The fact that the story ends on a cliffhanger is okay, as the thread is picked up by its sequel, Episode One.

This is a must own for single player experience FPS lovers. The gaming industry has plenty to offer now, but few have actually done as memorably what HL2 does best. The best time to pick up this game is during Christmas, when it and a host of other top-quality Valve titles are discounted heavily in a sweet bundle.

hastypixels's avatar
Community review by hastypixels (October 17, 2016)

At some point you stop justifying what you play and begin to realize what you're learning by playing.

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