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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.

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