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Half-Life 2 (PC) artwork

Half-Life 2 (PC) review

"Changing the rules, stepping back, leaping forward, and raising the bar."

Half-Life was one of those rare games that cast an endless shadow over the standards and expectations of an entire industry; Half-Life 2 was one of those rarer games that replaced the shadow of its own ancestor with an even bigger one. "Replaced," not lengthened; see, this sequel is not an extension of all the ideas in its originator. Half-Life 2 refines, regresses, replaces elements in a formula. This isn't Half-Life 2: The Sequel to Half-Life 1, it's... Half-Life 2 as a sort of original entity with its own gameplay, its own aesthetic, its own world. And, just as with Half-Life 1, gaming was never the same, for better or worse.

If the progenitor was a transition from the ways of old to a new generation, the offspring was something closer to that new archetype. Which means slower and dumber. Despite wielding a supposedly superior HEV suit, Gordon is much slower now, and this slower movement speed inhibits the player's strategic options in favor of the new defensive boosts the "upgrade" entails. With this in mind, look at how the Combine enemies are designed; they have AI capable of robust routing, but they've only so many options when working with their lengthy animations and the occasionally straitjacketed level design, meaning that the times they charge blindly into your gun barrel stick out more in memory than the more clever plays. In Half-Life 1, the enemy design challenged the player to keep running running running in order to avoid vulnerability to acid projectiles, leaping headcrabs, and hitscan bullets alike. Here, you've a sprint to use in a pinch, but it's no substitute. Oh, and the game actively fills supply crates with exactly what the player lacks, so actions have even less weight through this system. Fewer options and consequence make for less dynamism.

Yet the gameplay here isn't bad by any means; beyond the regrettable regressions, -- spoilers: it's to appease the console crowd -- there's a solid gameplay core that doesn't always rise above being merely "reliable" but also avoids the worst of post-Halo FPS design. Having non-regenerating health management retroactively engrossment, and the weapons all having application and accuracy is an all-too-uncommon commodity, but what steals the show is the audio-visual design. The crackling of an SMG, the thwack of a crossbow, the whoosh of a crowbar, and the space-rending roar of the one-and-only Gravity Gun are sonic sorceries taken all to easily for granted; the experience wouldn't be the same without the tectonically tactile technicalities of otherwise merely dependable tools of termination.

Wait, there it is! It's the Half-Life experience, captured in a single word! No, it's video games all in a single word: it's running, it's jumping, it's shooting, it's lifting, it's throwing, it's striking. It's tactile.

Interactivity is given meaning by being tactile, thus immersion is born. Act, and receive realistic result. Step, and hear foot upon surface; shoot, and spill blood; cause, and observe effect. Combine interactive tactility with Valve's much-lauded visual storytelling, art direction, pacing, and general unobtrusiveness, and you have a gateway to another world for your players.

And what a world that is! A decrepit cityscape, a toxic waterway, an underground outpost, an undead town, a foggy coastside... all that and more in but the first half of the game. Detail reigns supreme; as soon as you see the placement, prominence, and context of human overlord Dr. Breen speaking through a giant monitor above silent shuffling serfs, you already know all you need to, and the giant alien Citadel similarly conveys power dynamic over Soviet-era shambles of City 17. The events and characters of Half-Life 2 aren't terribly original or dynamic, but the execution of the worldbuilding is.

Much of the impact comes from pacing, because pacing is contextualizing. In art book Half-Life: Raising the Bar, Gabe Newell himself likens the series' formula to filmmaking; the immediate assumption one takes from this is "linearity," and while that approach is taken in favor of polish, -- not that Half-Life 2 deigns from exploration of one's environs -- the true intent is mastery of flow. As editing can course buildup and and release, so can level design control the player's state of mind. Speedy progression followed by exploration followed by revelation followed by confrontations followed by downtime. Would the final confrontation at the Citadel be as mighty without those quiet moments traversing its goliath halls? Would those moments of unfamiliarity be as eerie without fighting along citizens in constrained apartment battlefields earlier? Would those demolished warzones pack the same punch had you not first seen them intact? The same reasoning applies to the rest of the game; in its own way, Half-Life 2 is artistic mastery at work.

Sometimes it can sting to think about the odd fashions in which this sequel abandons some of the ways of its predecessor, but it's hard to argue against the artistry at work here, especially when judging in a vacuum. It was a heavy price to pay from a company plagued by high expectations, information leaks, and legal troubles -- it's no wonder Valve has chosen to not be the same company as it was in years past -- so how fortunate we are to be in a world where something like this ever came to exist in the first place! With the immense modding scenes, Valve's delectable dystopia grows larger by the day by the grace and to the benefit of the thousands it has enticed, and there's good reason for this dedication and expansion, too. Half-Life 2 is one of those rare games that has aged in almost no regard; every misstep felt as sore then as it does now, but what's more important is that the immaterial experience still holds its power today as it did to slack-jawed gamers of 2004 seeing the future unfold before their awestruck eyes.

Follow_Freeman's avatar
Community review by Follow_Freeman (December 02, 2018)

When he isn't in a life-or-death situation, Dr. Freeman enjoys playing a variety of video games. From olden shooters to platformers & action titles: Freeman may be a bit stuck with the games of the past, but he doesn't mind. Some things don't age much.

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