Updating My Resume by Beating Half-Life 2 At Last

Running a site that covers movies, television AND video games can be tough some times, and there’s a reason most places only pick one.

if you want to be a reputable critic or writer in a certain area, you need to educate yourself by being well informed about every area you cover. If you specialize in just one of those three, it’s pretty easy, but trying to do all of them?

I’ve been trying to watch a lot of “must see” movies and shows to better build my knowledge base. I’ve probably seen well over 2,000 movies, and have probably watched 200 seasons of various TV shows. It’s a lot, but I like to think that at this point, to some extent, I “know my shit.”

Now I’m realizing that I’m a bit behind in the same sort of training for video games. I grew up playing them a lot, so naturally I’m an expert, yes? Well, if I wanted to write endless posts about NBA Jam and Streets of Rage and Pokemon, sure, but as I had responsible parents, I didn’t have time to play every relevant game out at the time, or I wasn’t allowed to experience some of the more violent ones.

No violence here! (at the moment)

Because of that, I’ve missed a lot of classic titles over the years, Deus Ex, Silent Hill, every Final Fantasy game, but there is one series that I felt I really should examine lest I never be taken seriously again: Half-Life.

More specifically, Half Life 2. I understand perhaps I should have started with the first installment, but an entire game is a much bigger time commitment than say, a movie, so I figured I should skip to the one everyone hails as the greatest FPS ever made.

It was my very first Steam purchase, and I got it for measly $8 or something similar. Yes, yes, Steam vets will tell me I could have gotten the entire Orange Box for $3 if I had jumped on a particular sale, but whatever. I just wanted that one title, and man, was it ever enough to keep me occupied.

I’ve never played a PC FPS before this. I know, lambast me all you want, but by the time first person shooters were allowed in my house, I moved on to consoles, only turning to the PC for games like Starcraft and Diablo. I played Counterstrike for two weeks at computer camp in high school (yes, I am that cool), but that’s it.

F*** everything about these.

It was an interesting experience playing an FPS with a mouse and keyboard. It certainly allows for more precision shooting, and hotkeys are a lifesaver. Also, quicksaving is the greatest thing that’s ever been invented, and I was quite upset I discovered it only two hours before the end of the game. Derp-a-derp.

My previous experience with Valve has been limited to Portal, a series I, like everyone else, cannot find a fault with, and even though I’m not a Team Fortress, Counterstrike or Half-Life vet, I know Valve’s reputation for making quality games.

Half-Life 2 is indeed a masterpiece, one that has clearly inspired many trends in FPS titles, but it’s not completely without flaws.

First off, it’s long. It’s REALLY damn long. Today, most FPS campaigns are 5-6 hours tops, which generally feels like a rip-off from companies who know that multiplayer is where the real cash is located.

I started the game probably a month ago, and when all is said and done, it’s taken me about fourteen total hours to get through it. For a linear FPS, that’s MASSIVE. It’s good that so much work has been poured into it., but I think the length is just a bit too much. Areas start to feel the same and the game seems like it’s at the end multiple times before it thrusts you into another mammoth section.

This part seems like so long ago, it’s hard to believe it’s the same game.

And absolutely all of that 14 hours is gameplay. You might spend 20 hours completing Mass Effect, but half of that is mining minerals or seducing your crewmates. Valve realized that it might be a bit much, so to break up the action, they implemented physics puzzles sequences that utilize their Source engine. It’s a very necessary device to break up the endless gun battles, and it’s something that many games have tried to emulate, but very few have done it successfully.

It’s strange to play a shooter that doesn’t either have A) suction-to-wall pop-and-cover abilities or B) the ability to aim down a sight. One or both of these are standard in the genre now, but Half-Life makes you be nimble and think on your feet. Gun battles are once again about strategy rather than firepower. It reminded me a lot of Uncharted, which did have a cover system, but it was always being blown up so you could never camp out and stay still.

The weapons are a lot of fun, but I wouldn’t have minded a touch more variety. After the first hour or so, I never touched a pistol again, and only one type of SMG, assault rifle or shotgun seems kind of archaic today. However, the game does introduce the item that tops every “best video game weapons” list, the Gravity Gun. It’s mainly useful for the puzzle sequences, but can be used in combat as well, and it’s a symbol of Valve’s creativity, and they would only eventually top themselves with the Portal Gun a few years later. The end sequence where you’re stripped of your weapons and left with only a newly supercharged, soldier-tossing Gravity Gun is pure brilliance, and a great way to conclude the game.

Is that portal conductive paint I see on the wall?

Enemy variety could have used a bit of work as well. There are really three types, soldiers, headcrabs and mech. Soldiers all have relatively the same weapons, relatively the same life, and by the end of the game you’re sick of seeing them. Headcrabs and the humans they possess are best disposed of with either the shotgun, or the iconic crowbar, but I have to say by the 5,000th headcrab that took me 5 swings to connect with it, I was more than sick of that sort of combat.

Mech usually results in the most epic battles, with a laser guided rocket launcher perhaps the game’s second coolest weapon. At first you’re shooting down hunter-copters, but by the end you’ll have to fight War of the Worlds type robots who take a solid five rockets before going down. These encounters can get downright exhausting, but it feels great when you get past them.

Missing the first chapter, I felt pretty lost in the story the entire time. There’s a city that’s under some sort of totalitarian occupation (the soldiers and mech) but there’s also an alien invasion going on at the same time (the headcrabs). You’re some sort of folk hero because of the events of the first game, and you spend the duration of the game uh, moving forward.

Forgot about these things, setting them on soldiers is absolutely one of the most fun things in the game.

That’s the best way I can describe it. In any given section, I barely had any idea of where I was going, or what the significance of what I was doing, rather I was just looking for the next part of the level I was supposed to advance to. Occasionally I’d have to blow someone up, find someone who’d been kidnapped, or follow around Alyx Vance in her tight jeans. I appreciate that Valve tries to tell the story without the use of cutscenes, using only the gameplay to move the plot forward, but despite me seeing 500 sci-fi films and playing similar games, I genuinely had no idea what the hell was going on the entire game. I need to go look up the novelization of the series or something.

The level design was very interesting, and you could tell it had been playtested a LOT. This means Valve watched people play, and any time they’d get lost, they give them a hint, any time they’d be low on health or ammo, they’d give them a stash. Sometimes it’s almost TOO perfectly made, and at times it can go overboard when Alyx is gently reminding you to reload your weapon 12 hours into the game. But more often than not it just feels, right. I wanted to play through the game without once having to look up on the internet what I was supposed to do next, and each time just when I was at my breaking point, the lightbulb would go off and I’d figure it out. It’s a lot like Portal in that regard, and you can tell both are Valve titles because of it.

The fact is, this game has everything. At its core, it’s all about problem solving, whether that be how to get across a pit of radioactive waste, how to sneak past a gallery of auto-turrets or how to take down a room full of armored soldiers at 20% health. It’s a long journey, and I might not have understood what was happening around me, but in the moment, the gameplay is rock solid, and I can see why Half-Life 2 is revered as a champion of the genre.

Now, what should I play next?



  1. joe May 6, 2011
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