It’s over ten years since Half-Life 2 was released. The other day I found myself arguing that there still hadn’t been a first-person shooter released that was better. Then wondered if I was talking out of my hat. In an effort to learn whether Half-Life 2 is as great – nay, as perfect – as the version in my head, I’ve replayed it, and realised there’s so much I’d forgotten.
“Gordon Freeman? You mean the guy who came into our apartment carrying that creepy broken doll, then threw all our furniture out the windows? He’s your hero?”
I’d love to see an action movie where the main character behaves like I do in FPS games.
“Quick, Sam Fists, you have to get to the roof to switch off the nuclear missle!”
“Okay, sure, but first let me see if I can balance this bin on your head.”
It’s weird to remember that Half-Life 2 was one of the first times such behaviour felt so realistic. Sure, we’d all balanced plant pots on people’s heads in Deus Ex a few years earlier, but HL2 made ignoring the urgency of your peril feel real.
Returning to the game ten and a half years later, I feel that, if anything, I’ve gotten naughtier in this regard. I’ve replayed HL2 in the intervening decade, I think at least twice more, but I’d say it’s been about five years since. Enough time to make returning a swirling mix of nostalgia, and constant surprise at details I’d forgotten. Of course I remembered the train station as Gordon arrives in City 17, but I’d completely forgotten I could (mutely) speak to the other people milling about. I remembered I could throw cans at the heads of the grumpy guards, but I’d forgotten this leads to hooting as I run away, trying to avoid the wrath of their sparky batons. In fact, there’s a lot that I’d forgotten.
I’d forgotten that the teleporter that appears as soon as Gordon arrives at Dr Kleiner’s lab looks an enormous amount like GLaDOS:
I’d forgotten how primitive the shooting feels.
Weapons come without scopes, there’s no ironsights, and headshots absolutely do not offer instant kills. In fact, the whole approach to combat feels bizarre ten years on, where your bullet sponge suit is intended to get shot at, you’re supposed to see your health go down. That’s perhaps the most striking difference, actually.
Obviously over the last decade we’ve seen the FPS switch from metered health and health packs to mystically recharging shallow pools. I think, over the years, I’ve concluded the result of this is FPSs getting easier, letting you just crouch to get better. But going back to HL2, it’s maybe the other way around. A modern FPS gives you an extremely small amount of damage before you’re deaded, as a direct result of your magic insta-healing. But in Half-Life 2, you can just stand out in the open, getting shot at, as you clumsily pick off distant enemies with your pistol. There’ll definitely be a pile of health packs around the next corner, so so what if your health drops to 4%?
It’s odd to adjust back to it, realising I don’t need to incessantly crouch behind objects, but just rather embrace the harmless shooting gallery for what it was.
I’d forgotten just how good the game looks.
At coming up for eleven years old, it’s very reasonable that a lot Half-Life 2 is looking old. But it still looks utterly wonderful. Lots of sharp edges, boxy designs, and square rooms really do attach the game’s design ethos more to the ‘90s than the ‘00s. It feels much closer to Half-Life than it does to Episode 2. Or Portal. Of course, at the time, it was utterly groundbreaking spectacle, and it’s really hard to remember that when even the clumsiest freebie Unity game is constructed with a much more sophisticated set of tools. But wow, little is constructed so incredibly well as Half-Life 2. The tech may have aged, but the artistry has not.
The Citadel at the end captures this better than anywhere else, even those beautiful stretches of beach villages, or the spooky abandoned streets. It is the most emblematic of the creative brilliance overriding the clunky and out-of-date presentation. The volume of activity on screen, the little vignettes of horror as you pass them by, the vast sense of scale, all overcomes the silly non-rails on which you hang, or peculiar shadows falling on the wrong surfaces. It’s masterful.
I’d forgotten that the hovercraft sequence goes on about three times too long.
Oh good grief, what were they thinking? The “air car” or whatever ridiculous name it has occupies about seventeen months of the game. And every time you think it’s finally done, nope, you get right back in and bash-crash your way down yet another 450 mile corridor.
I’m sure I remember enjoying it before. I’m also sure I remember its lasting about ten minutes, not the majority of my adult life. I certainly don’t remember its being so tiresome to control. Clipping on things, randomly flipping upside down in reaction to seemingly nothing, spinning itself, and veering off to the left or right as you line up for the eighty-fourth ramp in a row, it’s completely horrible to drive.
The repetition is deeply surprising too. I suppose if you’d asked me to describe Half-Life 2 based on my memories, I’d have said it was one of the most precisely constructed games ever made – hewed to perfection. I’m really not sure this is true. The flow is often still utterly absorbing, but other sections start to feel bloated, over-long. Especially the bloody hovercraft. Good gracious. Do I have to get off and make another ramp accessible again? OH GOOD.
I’d forgotten how incredibly terrible the music can be.
Bombastic, cheap dance music is really not what suits Half-Life. Its deeply peculiar intermittent appearances only make it more incongruous to the experience, as for some reason this particular section of a level requires the soundtrack to a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie to play in for a minute or two.
I’d forgotten how long it is until you get the Gravity Gun.
I’d forgotten how gruesomely macabre it is.
When I think back on Half-Life, I really don’t remember the gore. But wow, there’s so much of it. Brutal, horrendous human carcases, trees strewn with twisted, mutilated corpses, charred remains prostrate in homes, haunting screams forever etched into the remains of their faces.
I’d forgotten that Ravenhold isn’t very scary.
I’m sure it was. I’m sure it was one of the scariest sections in any game, and would make top seven lists of that sort of thing. There are still abandoned playgrounds, urban decay, lonely streets filled with a fresh array of fast-paced monstrous mutants, but not a moment of it caused me a tremble nor quiver.
And I’m not brave. I’m the sort who has to pause games like Amnesia, Thief: TDP, etc, to get my breath back. Here I was calmly shooting stuff while the completely ridiculous Father Grigori jabbers away merrily in the background. The closest I’d get to scared was lost, because I’d end up going around in circles, looking for whichever ladder I’d missed.
I’d forgotten this scene:
On page two: physics, antlions, striders, sidekicks.