“Chernobyl is like the war of all wars. There’s nowhere to hide. Not underground, not underwater, not in the air.”
-Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl
“The following is a guest post by The Moronic Cheese Mage.”
Half-Life 2 is one of the best games of all time. If you’ve not yet stumbled across Valve’s masterpiece then waste no time in picking it up – I first played it in 2015 and immediately cursed the 11 years I’d lost in the interim. It’s available on Steam, Xbox 360, and the PS3 – you’ll find it, almost ridiculously, available at bargain bin price.
Now [steeling oneself]… whilst I, and some of other gamers, baulk at the relentlessly excessive reliance on first-person shooters by so many modern AAA developers, this one is different. It’s getting older now but, my word, it hardly shows. It’s a near-perfect gaming experience.
What exactly, then, does Half-Life 2 do so compellingly compared to hundreds of other FPSs available? Why should you enter a so intelligently constructed, dark, and twisted world of physics-based, radiation crackling lunacy which will so immerse you into the experience you’ll be left emotionally drained, yet elated, by the closing sequence? Read on, Macbeth, for the answers.
In the late 1990s, the Valve Corporation was rather busy riding on a wave of success, as well as working away on two projects which would shape (if not entirely revolutionise) the future of gaming. Half-Life had hit the shelves in 1998 and was immediately hailed as one of the greatest games of all time – it was radical and, whilst GoldenEye 007 had arrived on the N64 in 1997 and shaken things up a bit, this was something altogether different and exciting.
Valve was also developing its Steam software which most of us now know and love, but Half-Life 2 was also a central project continuing in earnest. It wasn’t without problems – although the company had some $40 million to spend (a piffling $40 million?! LOL!) it had to contend with intense media speculation and relentless fan interest. This peaked when a large chunk of Half-Life 2 was leaked to the internet, frustrating the development team enormously. Additionally, with immeasurable hype following the first game, Valve was up against severe adversity. It had to deliver something special – failure was not an option!
The hard work paid off as, when Half-Life 2 landed in 2004, its impact was immediate. The reviews poured in and it was a near unanimous 10/10 across the globe – this was a landmark moment in gaming and, all these years on, it’s still got what it takes to take on the latest AAA blockbusters. Why? Genius is a rare commodity, but it was very much at work here. The graphics may not rival the upcoming Call of Duty WWII, for instance, but its core gameplay and innovative nature mean it will remain effortlessly ahead of the rest for some time yet.
For the uninitiated, the experience is like George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen-Eighty Four merged with Aliens (James Cameron’s brilliant 1986 film). My first encounter with Half-Life 2 launched me into this wild world of horrific, joyous madness – by the end, I was a dribbling wreck and I wasted no time forking out for the Episode One and Two DLC packs.
The player takes control of physics genius Gordon Freeman who is also pretty handy with a large assembly of aggressive weapons (including a crowbar). The game is set several years after the events of Half-Life – in the first outing, Gordon Freeman and a team of scientists inadvertently connected dimensions with a hostile alien world. This was at the Black Mesa Research Facility (as a side note, the first game has been remade with modern graphics by a different developer – it’s called Black Mesa), but all the fuss got the attention of what is known as the Combine, an advanced multidimensional empire which took over Earth in a handful of hours. Seriously, not even polite British requests such as “I say, do you mind clearing orf?” could hold them back.
For Half-Life 2, the Combine has instigated a totalitarian state which, consequently, sets up a dystopian theme. This is a popular literary trope which emerged in full during the 20th century with novelists such as Aldous Huxley, Ayn Rand, Orwell, and Yevgeny Zamyatin coming up with some startling concepts. The most famous is, surely, Orwell’s terrifying novel, which placed the idea of Big Brother into the public conscience. The genre has become increasingly popular in film, TV, books, and video games, and Half-Life 2 riffed on this spectacularly – the result remains a truly groundbreaking experience.
Ramping up the Intensity
Right, so as you can tell this is a first person shooter, shoot-em-up, FPS, ratty tatty boom boom game. Although the genre has become something of an annoyance in the mainstream, Valve certainly didn’t bother with a lazy repeat of its first outing, or any of the tedious genre staples which the likes of CoD have collapsed in a bloody heap into.
The opening sections are rather nuanced, brilliantly introducing you to the world around you, but it’s not long before events get genuinely berserk and it soon hits home what makes the game so incredible – the intensity. It’s extremely full on, a visceral gaming experience like few others.
You often don’t have a second to think, you’re simply left to fight for your life with whatever you come across, whilst a despotic horde of horribly deformed monsters flies at you from every conceivable angle. Some of them grunt and wail in disturbing fashion, plus there are these disgusting facehugger type creatures (clearly inspired by Ridley Scott’s Alien) which will scare you rigid.
Add in the remorseless assault of the Combine’s foot soldiers, with their distinctive radio communications and heavy foot shuffling indicating they’re on the way, and you’re up against the odds on a grand scale.
Later in the game, in a derelict prison called Nova Prospekt, the intensity is at its most evident. The atmospherics kick up your sense of anticipation and the heavy electronic soundtrack surges in and out at key moments to fully absorb you – Combine foot-soldiers pile on in wave after wave and it’s just you, your guns, and a supporting army of killer insect monsters to help you (it’ll make sense after you play the game). The beauty of the soundtrack is it just emerges and you forget it’s happening, so you’re carried along on a soundwave of adrenaline and it’s entirely intrinsic with your gaming instincts, as if you were born to do this, dammit.
The soundtrack is similar to the Metroid Prime trilogy (for my money, the only other FPS capable of challenging Half-Life 2’s genius), although not as warped and ethereal. Half-Life 2’s music carries you along in the moment and gets your pulse pounding, whereas in Metroid Prime you’re always on the verge of swooning at how beautiful and otherworldly the experience is – Metroid games aren’t frightening, really, just brooding and atmospheric, although this isn’t to detract from them at all.
Half-Life 2 is borderline horror, but it’s a contemporary telling of the genre and doesn’t need screeching violins or jump scares to make its point. To ramp up the eerie, a lot of the time there isn’t any music at all and, instead, total silence greets you, apart from the occasional grotesque groan from arbitrarily deformed monsters. This regular use of non-diegetic sound (a sound source not-visible on screen, in media studies language) is a brilliant touch which amplifies the sense of solitude and the magnitude of the task ahead of Freeman.
The result is you can arrive at a quiet village on the outpost of nowhere and wonder what evil lurks in the vicinity, the only sound to be heard the ocean lapping away at a nearby beach. These tense moments of reflection are a consistent theme in Half-Life 2, such as when you’re traversing the supports of an enormous bridge and you can hear a train rattling along in the distance – it’s stirring and always reminds me of a scene from Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, in which Sen sees a train rushing off into the distance from a high vantage point.
Now, that’s an Oscar-winning movie, which is where Half-Life 2, an insanely violent video game, through little touches elevates itself to the level of art.
I believe this was discussed on this here site recently – are video games art, or does the often juvenile violence make them too daft to reach such lofty heights? You can come across works such as the revered Inferno from the Divine Comedy (by Dante – a poet from the Middle Ages) and the psychotically beautiful artwork this inspired, and I believe Half-Life 2 is the gaming equivalent. It’s the deranged work of intellectually fevered minds and it’s glorious in its despicable magnificence.
Not a Normal Narrative
Helping the title enormously is the brilliant narrative structure, which is one of the outright best in gaming history. I have a habit of droning on about how awful the majority of video game plots are, made worse by hamfisted dialogue and terrible voice acting. I’m enormously critical of this part of modern, typically big blockbuster games as I find many are tainted by the relentless cut-scenes; voice acting can be so horrific, and dialogue so puerile, it makes you recoil.
It’s become something of a running joke in the industry to have storytelling and voice acting so bad it makes legendarily awful films like the Room and Samurai Cop look like masterpieces. Through casual acceptance it’s become a normal state of affairs. CoD, as enjoyably stupid as it is, is an overt example of this and remains, whether it’s Black Ops or otherwise, a teenager’s dream in terms of puerile and bizarrely eroticised violence. Elsewhere, titles such as the critically acclaimed Bayonetta 2 have been hailed as ingenious, despite the banality of the relentless and undeniably intrusive cut-scenes – meanwhile, GoldenEye 007 on the Wii is now rendered utterly unplayable thanks to unskipable cut-scenes.
Taking stock – a large proportion of modern AAA devs feel the need to load their games up with exposition in the belief games have to be like movies. The results are often stultifying, embarrassing, and boring. There are exceptions, of course, and Half-Life 2 is a perfect example. Crucially, there aren’t cut-scenes, just sections of dialogue in which the player remains able to move around and inspect the environment. The application of the script is also handled perfectly – this extends to the dialogue and voice acting.
I appreciate some gamers may love this element of modern gaming, but when you stop to compare what video games are doing it’s clear they’re numerous decades behind the finest books and films. However, Half-Life 2 shows everyone how it’s done – the voice acting is almost always excellent and natural, the narrative perfectly paced, and the result is a remarkably immersive video game. It’s a staggering achievement, considering this was completed going on 15 years ago.
You do feel an integral part of the story, which is complemented by the excellent AI – you’re often joined by world-weary fighters to help you out at key stages of the plot, so there’s a sense of grand scale participation where you’re caught up in the fight for survival, which is never ruined by some cretin reeling off the type of dialogue reserved for the Transformers films.
Gravity Gunning for Innovation
Guns are a big part of any FPS and Valve went ultra-creative for Half-Life 2’s showpiece – the gravity gun. At the time, there had been titles like Shenmue which tried to up the level of detail and intricacy in video games with physics-based prompts and whatnot. This varied in levels of success.
Valve followed suit, but in emphatic fashion – Gordon Freeman can interact with his environment to a reasonably high degree, such as picking up cans, bottles, or using the gravity gun to manipulate your environment to traverse high obstacles or take out baddies. As a lack of ammo is a constant problem in the game, the gravity gun becomes something of a lifeline – you can use it to wield chainsaw parts, radiators, tins of paint, bricks, and other stuff to fire at antagonists and it’s hugely satisfying to watch zombie dudes get obliterated with some of the weird stuff you can manipulate.
It’s not just the gravity gun, though, as gamers get other little flourishes which are essential, primarily the ikkle wikkle flashlight you have from the word go. Without this thing, you’d be doomed, so we’re rather fond of it due to its relentless usefulness. There’s also a meaty shotgun we love and one of the best bazookas in a video game ever which is used frequently in the closing sections of the game to wipe out a fleet of War of the Worlds styled walking robots.
To the game’s credit, whilst the guns are integral, it’s not just about mowing stuff down. The sum of the title’s parts add up to a weighty, even profound, experience that has grand scale concepts about the nature of reality (so plenty of Philip K. Dick styled themes there), politics, and the future of humanity. Deep? Yes, you’ll care for humanity a tad more after playing this one.
The 8-bit Review
Showing their age a touch, but I’m from the NES era and don’t get why some gamers work themselves into such a frenzy about minor graphical issues. The game, simply put, looks great and a HD remake (as some have been demanding) wouldn’t add much to an already near perfect experience.
Thunderous use of thumping techno music hammers home, in unique fashion, the horror sections and really gets your pulse pounding. This is matched by reflective moments of calm – no music to heighten the atmosphere in order to keep you on your toes. Belting.
It’s here and it’s genius. It’s one of the most intense games I’ve ever played, providing the type of immersive and rewarding experience every developer should be striving for. The imagination involved, from every aspect of the title, is just remarkable.
I recommended it to the 18 year old apprentice at my last job and he got lost pretty early on and then abandoned the whole thing. Then again, all he ever plays is FIFA (noob!). The young executive at my current job absolutely loves it, though. If you know your video games, then, you’ll be in and away, but others may struggle with the initial sections.
The two modes you’ll be keen on are Normal and Hard, with the latter offering a mighty challenge. The game is tough in places and there are two extra DLC packs to blast your way through.
I’ve thumped in over 75 hours on the thing, plus 30 combined hours on the two DLC packs. Yes, it has replayability.
It was stunningly unique and innovative in 2004 and, although some of that has waned over time, this is still a masterpiece brimming with radical ideas.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
The chances are a lot of you reading this will have played the game already and the two extra, equally stunning DLC packs. For me, and many others, this is one of the greatest games of all time, and arguably the greatest FPS.
It’s much more than a shooty boom ratta tatta tatt experience, in fact. It’s an epic scale adventure which, much like the gravity gun, sucks you in and refuses to let you go. A masterpiece? Yes. Absolutely! It’s the pinnacle of the genre and the perfect example as to how FPSs should be done.
Addendum: Half-Life 3
What of the fate of Half-Life 3, which remains in enigmatic non-existence? Valve can do what it wants and the two Portal games indicated it’s into being innovative, rather than reeling off familiar territory… but is delivering another masterpiece just too daunting a prospect? Half-Life 3 doesn’t seem like it will ever be made, but it would cause the internet to melt if Valve did the impossible and announced it. Well, Metroid Prime 4 is on the way, so who knows? Here’s hoping.
Aggregated Score: 9.0
The Moronic Cheese Mage is also known as Wapojif. That’s Mr. Wapojif to you. He’s a self-deprecating humorist with his head on straight. For silliness and surreal humour, definitely find your way to his blog at professionalmoron.com.
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