Rise up against Earth’s alien overlords.
PC Release: November 16, 2004
By Ian Coppock
Well, readers, the game is up. In my bid to become more like Valve, my Lord and Savior, I’ve adopted habits that seem to make me, well, literally like Valve. I disappear for weeks at a time, I leave no notice of when new content might be expected, and my articles seem to be about as good as goddamn vaporware. I could extend the usual platitudes about life being chaotic and me trying to find a good creative balance with this blog, but truth be told, I started losing energy when I went to a measly one game a week. I suddenly felt like I had nothing to talk about. Let’s get back to the games.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 15 years, the story of Half-Life is one of the mainstays of video game lore. Taking place in modern times, that story followed Gordon Freeman, a physicist who accidentally rips open a gate to another dimension. Aliens come spilling through, and he has to take a long, lonely journey through the Black Mesa Research Facility to stop the extraterrestrial aliens at the source (or GoldSrc, in that game’s case. Anyone? Oh…).
I won’t spoil what happens at the end of this sci-fi epic, but I can say that Gordon is whisked away to a place beyond our time and understanding, and suddenly wakes up on a train bound for the heart of a crumbling city in Eastern Europe.
With such a snap beginning, Half-Life 2 sets the stage rather quickly. Gordon steps off of the train to find that the city, and indeed, all of Earth, is under the control of the Combine, a totalitarian alien empire who invaded the planet through the very portal Gordon accidentally opened in the first Half-Life. They’re not the enemies from the first game, but a new, more insidious foe who heard all the racket going on at Black Mesa and decided to take a look. And then do a lot more than that.
As the silent, stoic Gordon, I crept cautiously through the heavily guarded streets of City 17, shielding my face from security cameras and watching mouth agape as columns of soldiers and vehicles trod the streets of this European dystopia. The atmosphere of Half-Life 2 is thick enough to be cut with a knife but far too dense for such a tiny instrument. Secret police beating civilians, rations being allotted, all while Big Brother-style info-casts drone without end on big TV screens.
If I thought my guilt at getting a few scientists in Black Mesa inadvertently killed was substantial, it paled in comparison to seeing the entire world at the mercy of an indifferent alien apparatus. Those are the emotions I chose to transfix onto Gordon, who is a silent character for just such purposes. Half-Life 2 builds its atmosphere on both grand and subtle scales, mixing the raw terror of secret police home invasions with euphemistically worded policies about why it’s good that the tap water erases your memory.
Conveniently enough, a bunch of Gordon’s buddies from Black Mesa are inexplicably concentrated into City 17. Valve took a few of the nameless NPCs you interacted with in Half-Life and superimposed names and back stories onto them. Gordon is re-introduced to his best friend Barney, a former Black Mesa security guard, his former mentor Isaac Kleiner, and Alyx, the resistance leader’s daughter (of course).
Gordon is immediately roped into joining the human resistance against the Combine, in my mind as a result of the guilt felt for opening that damn portal. He gets back into his trusty HEV suit just in time for the Combine to learn of his return.
His reputation from Black Mesa having preceded him, the aliens and their puppet human overlord, Dr. Breen, waste no time in mobilizing their forces against the world’s deadliest physicist. So begins Half-Life 2, a nightmarish, dystopian and beautiful journey that uses Half-Life as the jumping point for a new narrative.
So, let’s jump into why Half-Life 2 belongs in the library of any self-respecting interactive story collector. Though the game is set under different circumstances and its Eastern European setting is a far cry from a New Mexican space lab, Half-Life 2‘s narrative is immediately reminiscent of the first game’s minimalist tale. The game has only one cutscene at its very beginning, keeping your feeling of interaction with the story at 100% from the get-go ’till the very end. The game’s dark, dense atmosphere is comprised primarily of Gordon being alone for the rest of the game, and secondly by the constant armies of alien military units hounding him throughout Half-Life 2.
Every environment is meticulously detailed to reinforce the notion of fear and despair. Gordon traverses environments ranging from bombed out skyscrapers to radioactive swamps, and Valve meticulously decorated all of them with detritus, corpses and wreckage to make the stinking, dying world of Half-Life 2 that much more in your face. In a shoutout to both Half-Life and my nightmares, the alien animals from the first game have spent 20 years taking Earth’s place as the planet’s wildlife, so if you still have night terrors about headcrabs… well… there’s three different kinds of them now instead of just one.
The pacing of Half-Life 2 is just delicious. Each of the environments you visit has its own hazards and theme, delicately implementing intense shooter sections alongside horror portions that made me, the Amnesia junkie, jump and shout. Sometimes you’ll team up with other rebels for raids and firefights, and other times you’ll be in for lonely two-hour drives along beaches pockmarked with burnt houses. The constant changes in pacing don’t detract from the atmosphere implemented via the artwork, and they’ll keep you engaged long after your third or fourth playthrough.
Speaking of the artwork, let’s talk a bit more about it. Though a bit dated now, the Source engine of 2004 was groundbreaking for its time, implementing facial animation technology that was amazing then and pretty run-of-the-mill now. The Source engine is great for putting in a simple, clean look, which is why so many modders can’t get enough of it. Some of the textures are a bit grainy and blurry, but the game’s riot of colors and art assets will give you plenty to look at. More importantly; they reinforce that dreadful atmosphere I can’t shut up about.
Unlike the first game, Half-Life 2 features a cast of full characters. Though they all have their respective, well-written quirks and dialogue, the character that stood out to me the most was Alyx Vance. She quickly becomes Gordon’s best friend and partner in many of the game’s sections.
Alyx is a female video game character done right. In an industry saturated with sexualized female characters, who are reduced to boobs and makeup by cowardly designers and whiny, insecure male gamers with microscopic genitalia, she stands out as perhaps the strongest female character in all of gamedom. She doesn’t wear makeup, her clothing is tough and practical, and she is highly knowledgeable about the world. She takes command, takes no shit, and feels as close to a genuine human being as video game characters usually get.
What I love about Alyx is that she’s also not prone to random emotional outbursts. This is a common trope in gaming; the insecure and emotional female character succumbs to her womanly weaknesses while the strong male character protects her and takes care of her. Alyx isn’t without her moments of grief and sadness, but it was her refusal to cry and whine that made me more sympathetic to her plight than the usual pouting ever would have. Anyone who cares at all about the portrayal of women in video games needs to play this game to see how it’s done, because Valve done good.
Anyway, back to the game.
I suppose at this point it’s best to bring up the gameplay. Half-Life 2 is a first-person shooter with simple, workable mechanics. Nothing fancy, but then again, you don’t need to get fancy to get the job done. Gordon can wield about a dozen human and alien weapons on his tour de force against the Combine. You’ll also get to drive vehicles, man turrets and sneak around just a bit.
Gordon’s health is measured via a health bar and his suit’s shields. You can get points for both from vending devices or pickups scattered around the world. I will say that Valve made Half-Life 2 a lot more accessible to non-shooter fans by increasing the number of pickups. A smart play, giving this story more accessibility.
Despite being a landmark work of art in the gaming world, not even Half-Life 2 is a perfect game. A heavy criticism I wish to lay on this game and retroactively to Half-Life is that the combat isn’t very creative. Enemies are programmed to simply run up to you and shoot until one of you dies, a tactic that can be overruled with simple cover and running back and forth. I expected a bit better from Valve in this area, especially since this was a problem I first noticed in Half-Life, which came out in 1998. So, the combat can get pretty boring and the enemies are easily exploited.
The game also seems to have a puzzling number of bugs. I’ve played the console and PC versions both and was stunned to see the PC flashing a few errors at me. Sometimes, characters will get stuck in their routines and not open doors or give out supplies. The biggest problem I had was a lighting bug that washed the entire game in a sickly white light reminiscent of the doctor’s office. I was alarmed to find that this bug somehow spread to a few Half-Life 2 mods as well. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a permanent fix.
Despite all this, though, Half-Life 2 is definitely worth it. The strength of its story lies a bit more in characters and writing than in the first game, but the primary pillar of its glory is its atmosphere. You’ll become deeply invested in rising up against the Combine, and it won’t be a pretty battle, but the characters, environments and artwork will compel you to see it through to the end.
You can buy Half-Life 2 here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.