A Fuller Life: HL1 vs HL2

At the annual Who Can Shout The Loudest competition that is the PC Gamer UK Top 100 meeting, there are rules. These rules differ from year to year, and in 2008 one of them was “only one game per series.” So we couldn’t say Thief and Thief 2, or Morrowind and Oblivion – which sounds harsh, but the idea was to ensure as diverse a list as possible. And yet still no-one nominated Big Mutha Truckers 2.

There ended up being a couple of exceptions to this rule, and the one I particularly fought for was Half-Life. I simply don’t consider HL1 and HL2 to be especially comparable games, despite sharing a lead character, partial arsenal and a name. I also much prefer the first game, for all its greater shlockiness.
Why? Because it’s Indiana Jones. HL2 is more 1984-as-action-movie, and while it’s marvellously well-realised, far more polished and thematically consistent, I don’t find that as thrilling as all of HL1’s rip-roaring high adventure.

(note – I’m pretending Xen didn’t happen for the purposes of this post. Yes, it’s a bit crap).

While the events of HL1 are hardly comical – alien invasion leads to massacre, exacerbated by governmental evil – Black Mesa is nonetheless a jollier place to be than the oppression and horror of City-17. HL the first is a b-movie and it knows it, but HL2 comes off, despite knowing comedy beats, as a lot more aloof, a lot more convinced it’s something more than an action game. That has its place and I certainly admire its accomplishments, but collapsing elevators, tentacle beasts and hapless scientists perishing in their dozens is something I’m much more inclined to return to. HL2 doesn’t mix things up anywhere near as, bar the vehicle sections and some physics-puzzling. It’s more like a sci-fi Call of Duty in a lot of ways, and it does it excellently – but it never surprised me as often as its forerunner did.

Oddly, I find HL a much more convincing journey too. Being trapped underground excuses the linearity, while HL2’s more open topography requires more uncomfortable compromises such as being unable to smash through the thin wooden fences throughout Ravenhom. (For all its spooky atmosphere, Ravenholm was the one element of HL2 I actively disliked. It was shooting for the sort of setpiece-based diversity HL1 does so well, but it felt so ghost train-contrived, especially in the maze-like layout of the level).

In Hl1, I’m stuck inside a sprawling concrete mega-bunker, a construct of tunnels and ducts: I entirely appreciate that I don’t have too much freedom of directional choice, and so the annoyances of that quintessential design handicap almost all singleplayer FPses suffer just… evaporates . As a result of this claustrophobia, those moments when I emerge into the outdoors are overwhelming and terrifying: it’s all so big, so exposed. The game entirely takes advantage of this confusion too, hovering helicopters over the open roads like deadly wasps, placing fortified RPG bunkers ominously overlooking the short jogs between shelters. It makes me long for a return to the concrete underworld, back where I feel much more like powersuited master of my domain. HL2 has plenty of outdoor/indoor switching, but there’s never that startling sense of contrast.

The age of the engine means it doesn’t work on me now, but on the first HL1 playthrough, my embarrassing vertigo kicked in when I was shuffling nervously along high-up cliff edges during one of the earlier outdoor escapades. So I faced the wall, walked sideways and refused to look down – a plan that rather fell apart when murderous soldiers started shooting at me. It all seemed so impossibly huge, like I’d been locked in a car boot for three days then suddenly awoke to find myself parachuting out of an aeroplane.

And of course there are the setpieces. HL2 has its Striders, but HL1 has the tentacle beast. The former are an incredible sight, heavy with menace and the defining statement on how the Combine manage to keep Earth in check. But once you fight them, they become just another enemy with so many hitpoints, and even worse the way to take ‘em down involves a magic box of infinite rockets. The Tentacle beast though – that you can’t fight. You can distract the stupid blind thing by lobbing grenades, but you can’t hurt it. Able to kill you in a single strike and fearsomely fast for something so huge, it’s an unforgettable monster.

You can kill it, eventually, by dousing it in fuel and setting it alight with a flame the size of a lighthouse, but you cannot fight it. Now that’s a bossmonster that never loses its threat, one that’s never diminished by falling over once you’ve shot it precisely x number of times. It’s great boss design all told, some annoying back-tracking aside – an entire level of the game is structured around it, with this huge, invincible, terrifying thing at the centre. You hear those dread bangs on its giant talons on steel wherever you are – even if it’s out of your sight, it’s never out of your mind.

I could go on, about the other splendid setpiece monsters, about how much more creepy the G-Man is when he barely speaks, about how it succeeds in making simple humans the creepiest enemies of all… But then I’d never finish this post. Half-Life 1 is the great omni-sci-fi adventure – Indiana Jones with aliens (there’s an Indy film like that, you say? You must be mistaken – there are definitely no aliens in any of the three Indy films ever made). HL2 narrows its focus in the name of tightness and polish, but silly, cocky old HL1 is the rollercoaster I want to ride again and again.


  1. Captain Captain says:

    I agree, HL was way more fun than HL2.

  2. Bobsy says:

    I REALLY want to see tentacle beasts come to HL2. I actually had a gaming dream (I never have gaming dreams!) about how it’d be. I’ve got it all planned out. If they grew that big in the few hours of HL1, ten years of festering in HL2 after the portal storm would make for ludicrously huge tentacles. Like, the sort that could tear through buildings. It’d effortlessly pluck Combine gunships from the sky, smash through skyscrapers to reach tasty noisy morsels below, and scratch through the ground to dig up antlion nests.

    It’s so beautiful in my mind. A huge crater with a massive tentacle beast in the epicentre, surrounded by the utter desolation of a city that even the combine can’t control.

  3. cyrenic says:

    but on the first HL1 playthrough, my embarrassing vertigo kicked in when I was shuffling nervously along high-up cliff edges during one of the earlier outdoor escapades.

    I remember getting similar sensations when playing the first Jedi Knight game. But instead of the cliff side, they’d put you out on a tiny path in the middle of the chasm.

  4. yhancik says:

    This is one of the reasons why I love RPS. You can articulate in wonderful words what I intuitively feel about many games.

  5. Requiem says:

    Ah game induced vertigo how did you manage the alien levels I had to stop playing after leaving Black Mesa.

    What part is the second screen shot from? I don’t remember them.

    Half Life always made me feel like I was in a Dean Koontz novel, sorry I really don’t see the connection to Indy.

  6. Seniath says:

    I still have nightmares about the tapping. The incessant, never-ending tapping. It never stops. Never sleeps.

    tap tap tap

  7. The Sombrero Kid says:


  8. AlexMax says:

    THANK CHRIST someone else thinks like I do. I finished Half Life on a Pentium 133 with software rendering at 5fps and I don’t think I was ever more enthralled with a game in my life.

    On the other hand, I own HL2 and the first two episodes and the only one I’ve completely finished was HL2:E1.

  9. Dr_demento says:

    HL1 also had much, much better gunfights. Which is to say they were worse, but they were comparable with everything else at the time so they seemed fine, whereas HL2’s felt stilted, awkward and clunky compared with the shooters coming out at the same time like BF: Vietnam and Far Cry.

    The jumping puzzles were still a mistake, though.

  10. Ian says:

    There are things I actively dislike about both games. The final boss in HL1, the boat-y stuff in HL2, but I’m conflicted about which I prefer. I think there’s less stuff I like about Half-Life but I like the good stuff in Half-Life 2 more… if that makes any sense.

  11. The Klugman Revolution says:

    I remember getting similar sensations when playing the first Jedi Knight game. But instead of the cliff side, they’d put you out on a tiny path in the middle of the chasm.

    Dark Forces 2? Absolutely! Strangely like in no other game since…

  12. Dan Harris says:


    “…drums…drums in the deep. We cannot get out.”


  13. Fumarole says:

    Oh how I loathed the tentacle beast. So horrifying was that monstrosity that I had to come back to it years later, when it was old and decrepit, before I could kill it. Poor Gordon, spending years in that deathtrap, with death just a misstep and impalement away. It explains his silence perfectly. He suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.

  14. CitizenParker says:

    I thought I was the only one!

    Hopefully Left 4 Dead doesn’t get the same veneer of self-seriousness that has permeated Half-Life 2. Multiplayer tends to do away with that anyway, however.

  15. Muzman says:

    I certainly agree on the B-movie monster aspect. Antlions got old after the first ten and the Combine is just the Combine, clothing and weapon changes can’t really alter them much. They’re dull. And the infrequency of larger things like striders means they end up with boss-like resilience.
    The other thing is in 2 you’re necessarily the god like centre of the universe. In the first you’re just as guy who happened to be wearing the right suit when it all went down and you have to negotiate this three way mess that isn’t specifically about you (most of the time). That is often the sort of problem sequels face anyway though.

    They ought to have accorded System Shock and System Shock 2 the same individuality based on that logic too: generations apart, distinctive and each similarly influential. But I bet they didn’t. That’s what raw popularity buys you.
    (I’ll never get used to this ‘go write in the forum’ thing at this rate)

  16. Feet says:

    And at that, a thousand Steam accounts login and run HL:Source.

  17. Nallen says:

    I hope you’ve taken the Jurasic Park effect in to account.

    Yes, HL1 might well have had more impact and left a greater impression, but how much of that is the things you listed and how much of that is because it gave you something so far away from what you’ve seen before, at a time in your life when you’re that much more impressionable?

    Look at Halo, really pretty pants. But it gave a whole load of impressionable people something totally new and because of that, despite the warts, Halo 2 and 3 never found the same place in peoples hearts.

  18. Pace says:

    There’s also the small matter of having many extra years to become a more jaded gamer, and come to think of HL1 as an unimpeachable classic. How many people who played HL2 first, then HL1 feel that HL1 was better? I certainly don’t. (I wasn’t a gamer back then, HL2 was largely responsible for me getting into games.)

  19. Dexton says:

    I found HL2 really impressive, the first look at the graphics, physics and atmosphere in City 17 were truely breathtaking. More so that anything I saw in HL1. However I agree completely that HL1 was more fun, it was the game I couldn’t wait to get home from school to play and it was the game I completed three times on all the three difficulty levels.

  20. teo says:

    I think you’re right but I think you’re over analyzing it
    HL1 is still fun today because it has fun gameplay, it feels good, the guns pack a punch, the enemies are great.

    HL2 is too contemplated and the combat sucks. It wowed everyone with its presentation when it came out, but all that’s left now is something that feels overly linear and scripted.

    I want tripmines, satchel charges, real grenades and Snarks!! HL1 is a much more original game than HL2. EP2 is way better than HL2 though

  21. qrter says:

    Nope, I still prefer HL2. I mean, I love HL1, I’ve replayed for the umpteenth time a couple of months ago, but I still find HL2 much more entertaining.

    HL1 does have fantastic setpieces but so does HL2, really. HL1 also has the Xen levels which are just plain awful and irritating.

  22. Turin Turambar says:

    HL1 was so much better than HL2. In HL2 they tried really hard, but in the end i don’t think they made a game as good as the first one.

    In fact, there are some sections in HL2 where they tried to replicate the empty but tense spaces from HL1, but they didn’t get it right and the rythm of the game suffered. I think one of the key issues is how HL1 was all a cohesive enviroment, and in HL2 you had a little desert and a city and a prison and some mines and the fucking Ravenholm, all together. And of course the feeling of danger, the better marine AI, the more varied encounters, better weapons, was a longer game, the less annoying sidekicks, the minimalist plot where it had sense a hero who doesn’t open the mouth, etc etc.

  23. teo says:

    I forgot one thing
    I want gibs too! Where are they? I hate the feel of the source engine. I tried replaying HL2 after having replayed HL1 and I stopped because I got so bored. Shoot the red barrel gordon!

  24. Feet says:

    For the record, I believe Halflife 1 was a far greater game, had a far greater impact and will still be remembered when HL2 is long forgotten. Infact I always thought HL2 was over-rated, and that there are far better examples of the modern FPS than it.

  25. Andy F says:

    I’m kinda torn here too. On the one hand, when it came out HL1 was amazing, and so unlike anything else.

    However, after playing through HL2 (and the Eps) a couple of times, then going back to HL1, it just doesn’t hold up for me. The difficulty spikes, the Xen levels, the on-rails bit – it felt frustrating. HL2, on the other hand, feels better paced and just plain more fun.

  26. Theory says:

    When you sit down and think about it, the weaponry in HL2 is almost identical to HL1’s. Only some of the more outlandish alien stuff is absent: the Combine rifle is the Guass Gun, the super gravity gun is the Egon, Bugbait is the Snarks (pushing it a little there, but only a little)…

  27. Lacobus says:

    Boss article. I agree about the atmosphere and contained level design being better in HL1, but for me, HL2 needed to become more expansive in terms of game-world and tone to make as much an impression as the first game did. If Valve had just made the same b-movie game as the first one I think HL2 would not have been as astounding as it was.

  28. Obdicut says:

    The final level of Halflife really, really ruined it for me. After this cool adventure, with, as you say, wonderful atmospherity (not a word) and a sense of growing into your own power, you go to– magic jumpy land to defeat Giant Baby. The only parts of that I liked were in the tunnels, where it most resembled the rest of HL.

    It was such a goddamn let-down, that when I replay HL, I normally stop before the end.

    In the end, I preferred HL2– right up until the point I got the magic kill’em-all gun.

    So, next time, Valve: Don’t screw up the end. I swear to god, you guys are the Neil Stephenson of game-making. You’re the fucking best, but you can’t end something to save your lives.

  29. kikito says:

    The tentacle monster clearly inspired certain other game

  30. Monkfish says:

    Half-Life 2, while I love it dearly, takes itself so much more seriously than Half-Life and, I think, loses something in the process.

    Black Mesa, as a setting, is far superior to City 17 in that it’s somewhere I could never experience myself. I mean, I can (relatively) easily pop over to Eastern Europe and view the sights that inspired Valve’s vision of City 17, yet I’m pretty sure I’ll never get the chance to explore a sprawling, underground, top-secret research facility outside of a videogame. For me, Black Mesa just hits all the right escapism buttons.

    That said, Half-Life 2 did add the most realistic characterisations I’ve ever seen in a game. The interaction between Alyx and Eli in particular, were ultra-convincing and actually moving. And I even felt a tinge of nostalgia during HL2:Episode 2 whilst exploring the missile silo – it was very reminiscent of Black Mesa. In fact, I think that Episode 2 managed to capture the essence of the original Half-Life far better than its predecessors.

    I’m really hoping that Episode 3 will continue that trend – it’s a pity it can’t be here in time for Half-Life’s 10th anniversary in November.

  31. Fringe says:

    I have to agree with absolutely everything you’ve said there.

    But I would also like to add that the HLDM multiplayer side is absolutely brilliant, we still play it now. Every weapon has it’s use in every situation, there are laughs aplenty, and our favourite map just happens to be one I created. Woot.

  32. Ginger Yellow says:

    I’m in two minds, basically in the same situation as Dexton and Andy F. HL1 was truly amazing for its time gameplay wise. The narrative and its expression through gameplay was unmatched in FPS land (indeed, it’s hard to think of anything else with similar ambitions at the time, let alone that succeeded). The in-engine intro. The first time you fought against the soldiers with their grenades and flanking. The tentacle monster.

    And yet…

    I was much more sucked into HL2. Whether it was the facial animations, Alyx and Dog, the physics, the little glimpses of life in City 17, it was just a more believable and intriguing world. HL1 was, as you say, “a construct of tunnels and ducts”. Atmosphere-wise, nothing really lived up to the opening sequence, even if the gameplay itself was more exciting in the original (judged versus contemporaries). So for the purposes of a PCG style list, it’s a really tricky call for me. Undoubtedly I enjoy HL2 more when I play them now, but HL1 was far more important and impressive at the time.

  33. Suraj says:

    The thing I remember most vividly about HL1 is coming out of the tunnel & seeing a fighter plane fly *below* you. That was the moment I wanted to garb something just to steady myself. Up to Xen I vividly remember each level of HL1 with HL2 I seem to have forgotten most of the game.

  34. Butler` says:

    I couldn’t agree more, especially about the underground-ness excusing the linearity somewhat.

    On that note, RELEASE FAR CRY 2 ALREADY.

  35. Mark-P says:

    Great article! I much preferred Black Mesa as an enivronment to City 17. It’s flat-out more fun to run around that massive old cold-war bunker complex filled with monorails, teleporters and particle accelerators than the dank, dull, miserable dystopian slum of the second game.

    I squealed with joy near the end of Episode 2 when Alyx finally buggered off and I was left to run around the White Forest complex alone. Just me, a crowbar and several miles of bunkers, rockets and machinery crawling with badguys. It was like being in Half Life 1 again and it was blissful.

  36. Mark-P says:

    … and Monkfish beat me too it. Totally agree. :D

  37. Death by Toast says:

    I must say, HL1 will always and forever hold a special place in my heart, playing it though when I was 8. haha, my first fps, and a great one it was. In comparison, HL2 never really lived up to my expectations, nor did EP1, but EP2 came very very close mostly because it was so well written.

    In my opinion, the biggest place that HL2 is lacking compared to HL1 is the gunfights. Fighting the grunts in HL1 was hard, they were smart, used grenades well, flanked you, and in HL2, all I had to do was sprint up to the combine with a shotgun and blast their faces away while they stared at me. The grunts would start meleeing me if I did that…

    And I miss the snarks.

  38. The Hammer says:

    I don’t really have a favourite, I don’t think. Half Life 1 had the better AI, the more challenging enemies, and the, yeah, more appealing tone and setting, but it was also a game with an oft-times terrible sense of pacing, and the quality was not consistent. There were some rubbish bits in amongst the gaming excellence, and it felt far less approachable as a game. But, it was far more wide. More enemies, more weapons, and it felt even more like a survival. You were always just in one place (until horrid, horrid Xen), and you saw that place gradually getting torn apart. It felt more nerdy, too, which was nice. It was set in a scientific lab. It had enemies such as those dead cute hounds that I’ve forgotten the name of, and those big blue and, yes, crudely designed Doom rejects.

    But, Half Life 2… despite its simplistic AI, unsatisfying weapons and combat, and promise that ultimately wasn’t entirely fulfilled, is just a much better made game. Its quality keeps up throughout the brilliantly told story – a story that involves the player much more, and has a far deeper sense of character than anything the original offered. The variety of places visited was breath-taking, with some truly iconic locales. THAT bridge. THAT lighthouse. THAT prison. THAT municipal building. THAT citadel. And what pace! There is never a chance to feel like you’re getting bored of what you’re doing. The buggy and boat sections added even more variety, and a sense of speed, too.

    But… no. I can’t come to a decision. Both have their strong points, and both deserve to be celebrated as the pinnacle of PC FPS gaming.

  39. simonkaye says:

    Half Life 2 for me. Not that it matters; Episode 2 is more or less THE definitive statement of FPS gaming since Wolf3d.

  40. hoohoo says:

    interesting. i always think of hl2 as 1 giant tentacle beast level. in the case of hl2, the citadel itself is the tentacle beast. the ultimate boss. you cant fight it, you cant kill it directly, its presence is almost always there. i thought they captured the feeling of that level very well.

  41. maxmcg says:

    To HL1 fans: Stupid bouncy alien levels.

    HL2 is vastly superior. It has a gravity gun and atmosphere.

  42. K says:

    I’ve always felt bitter towards Half-Life. The reason is, while everybody was playing it, I was trying to convince them Thief was a better game. But, typically, I was ignored, and they ignored Thief. And now they’re all missing.

  43. faelnor says:

    Disagree with you Alec. Despite being told and built differently, both games have the same consistency and are equally immersive to me. I’m just in the middle of my n.th HL series marathon, at the beginning of HL2 and enjoying it as immensely as I enjoyed HL1

  44. Mr Pink says:

    HL1 > HL2, I have always felt this and it’s nice to see that I’m not the only one. Admittedly it loses pace once you get to Xen, but I have always felt HL2 is vastly overrated. In fact, I am yet to finish HL2:Ep2. The HL2 games have just never gripped me the way that HL1 did. I think you’ve articulated why this is so.

  45. cHeal says:

    Half Life 1. No question. The effect this game had on the industry is still being felt a decade later. It was genuinely innovative, perfectly tempered and in every way well ahead of the game. The fact remains that it took other mainstream FPS games up to 5 years to replicate the intelligent level design, interaction and flow of Half Life.

    Half Life 2 was a great game, polished, enjoyably varied and beautiful but it had absolutely no gameplay innovations (provided one considers the gravity gun a gimmick, which I do). It was more linear, but more criminally it felt far more linear, it felt far more on the rails, like moving slowly through movie sets. It was more cinematic and exciting but it lacked the genuine revolutions of Half Life and the reserved nature of the first.

    I think the singular defining characteristic has already been pointed to. Half Life revolutionised the FPS genre by removing the “one man army” feeling prevalent before and for a long time after (something noted often in pcgamer). Half Life 2 returns that tone, you are a one man army, on a mission, not just a man on his own, trying to survive. This was the single biggest problem with the sequel.

    Apart from that, Episode 1 was an awful game, easily worse than the Xen levels (unless you fancied Alyx) and Episode 2 was still only good, it wasn’t as good as Half-Life 2 or its precursor.

  46. chopsnsauce says:

    I TOTALLY disagree with this article!
    For me, HL2 improved on HL in almost every area. The variations in gameplay, environments, the structure of the story (HL didn’t really have one), the characterisation, the weapons; were ALL improvements on the original.

    And how can you say HL2 didn’t have the contrasts of the original. For me, fighting your way through Ravenholm at night, down into the claustrophobic mine, to emerge into the open air and sunlight is one of THE. BEST. GAMING. MOMENTS. EVER!

  47. RichPowers says:

    @Monkfish: Well said.

    HL2 is more polished and intricate in its design (especially the voice acting), but HL1 has more character. That’s how I boil it down. Throughout HL2, I asked myself, “So, when does it get interesting?” A world populated by antlions and dickhead Combine is not the most interesting.

    This is not to say that loathe HL2; I just think a lot of the design effort was misplaced.

    I really enjoy Portal because it doesn’t take itself too seriously and hearkens back to the “research facility gone to hell” theme of HL1. Maybe the introduction of Aperture Science and the Borealis means Ep3 will be more HL1-like?

  48. HidesHisEyes says:

    couldn’t agree more. HL2 is a good game as a good game, HL1 was art. There’s nothing that appeals to me more in an FPS than a genuine reluctance for the protaganist to be involved at all. The pang of guilt you feel as you enjoy killing the last of the first bunch of marines is worth the entire physics engine to me.

  49. rez says:

    HL1 is it for me for a combination of everyone’s aforementioned reasons. ESPECIALLY the firefights with the grunts. Nothing since has made me tense up like that, with the exception of the early levels of FEAR. “Less is more” in action.

    Xen was shit, though.

  50. MacBeth says:

    Dammit, now I have to fit in completing HL: Source to my already hectic gaming schedule…