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Replay Zone: Why Half-Life 2 Still Matters

What has time revealed about Half-Life 2?  Valve’s highly anticipated follow-up to their 1996 hit PC game sold 12 million copies and received 39 Game of the Year Awards following it’s release in 2004. Of course, almost a decade has passed since then. Two console lifecycles later, gamers now have three Uncharted titles, two more Elder Scrolls games, a trilogy of Mass Effects, three Bioshocks, and The Last of Us filed under their list of achievements. Games like Crysis, Red Faction and Battlefield: Bad Company took destructible environments to the next level. Among these and several other new classics, where does the now-geriatric second entry in the flagship FPS series stand? Is it still playable ten years and dozens of exciting new franchises later?

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Yes. Yes it is.

And even sans Garry’s Mod, Valve’s classic action/adventure/shooter hybrid holds up well and stands as one of the video game industry’s landmark examples of how inventive gameplay and bar-raising presentation can be carefully balanced to create unforgettable entertainment.

We often spend hours playing video games – both fun and bland – that have design philosophies leaning either more towards the “video” or more towards the “game”.  Rez, Metal Gear Solid 4, Shadow of the Colossus, and most survival horror franchises might be considered games that put more emphasis on visual presentation.  Nintendo, on the other hand, invoked the latter philosophy entirely when they designed the original Wii console, ambitiously striving to revitalize the way both developers and gamers interact with those virtual paracosms displayed on the screen.

But many developers and gamers tend to seek an in-between – those games that expanded our understanding of how a fun merging of interactive art and goal-oriented tasks can – and often, should – be designed.  Somehow, in 2004, Valve managed to create a visual feast of a game that also broadened the scope of how interactivity, as a concept, was understood by designers and gamers alike. The graphics were gorgeously rendered (and arguably still are), and the way physics were hyper-realistically integrated with the game’s environment was widely considered among the gaming industry/community to be a revolutionary idea.  Basically, Valve found that sweet spot where both “video” and “game” (immersive art and fun) were given equal importance and pushed to point break, as some of us with less-that-suitable graphics cards discovered in 2004.

Narrative in HL2 plays an important role. The plot centers on Gordon Freeman’s quest to liberate the oppressed humans of City 17 and, in the process, redeem himself for having a hand in creating an inter-dimensional tear (see: the events of the first Half-Life) that served as transportation for bad dudes from other worlds who tend to like taking over new ones.  City 17 is a place where sinister leaders broadcast 1984-esque rhetoric on huge screens displayed in public places.  Mysterious troops – possibly human, possibly something else – keep things in “order” with the help of giant death machines taken straight out of an H.G. Welles novel.  All the while, an ominous citadel built by humanity’s new “benefactors” towers above, never quite out of sight.

On paper, HL2′s story isn’t exactly unique, as it liberally appropriates ideas from existing sci-fi movies and literature. Yet, instead of passively digesting this homage to classic sci-fi films, the player is an active participant in a narrative that constantly requires their input.  The result is a movie/game/ride experience in which the often thrilling scenarios you play are injected with gravitas that might not be there otherwise.  By interacting with the often dangerous sights as Gordon Freeman, it’s hard to not feel a greater sense of engagement in his plight to be humanity’s savior.  Especially when you’re trapped in a room filled with fifty parasitic Headcrabs, of which each one’s sole biological drive is to jump on your face, kill you, and turn your body into a means for them to kill anything else that isn’t a parasitic Headcrab.

Few pieces of interactive entertainment feature gameplay that embodies the word “interactive” the way Half-Life 2 does.  Pretty much anything that isn’t either a part of the earth’s crust, a wall, or a heavy object bolted to said wall can be moved, picked up, fucked up, and/or thrown. Almost everything you see over the course of your adventures through post-apocalyptic Europe accords to the Laws of Physics and the level of depth one can have in combating the enemies in City 17 is, for the most part, only restricted by those laws and the player’s creativity.  At the time, it was a massively different take on action gaming, and even today it remains kind of its own thing.

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“Now Stand Still…”

Shooting in Half-Life 2 remains the primary way of interacting with the environment, so it’s fortunate that firing a gun feels so…satisfying. The timing of the shot after pressing the trigger button is something that Valve seems to have mastered. It may not be something you actively notice… but your brain does. Everything from the loud and cathartic *POP* of a pistol to the rapid sequence of bassy *THUNK THUNK THUNK’s* of a combine machine gun all seem to have just the right level of volume and a feel that massages the eyes and ears. Replicating that feeling of “release” that causes some people to become addicted to firing real guns was likely a top priority for Valve’s development team. This goes twofold for explosions in the game, which still surprise you with the variety of ways soldiers can be forced into the air and smashed into stuff.

Is it unreasonable to praise the sound design in HL2 as some of the most memorable in the last decade of gaming? Who can forget the wet crunch Gordon’s body makes after a 50-foot drop? Or that iconic *bloop* that chimes in at the exact moment you pick up health and armor items – like the save room music in Resident Evil 2 and Super Metroid, the sound becomes almost synonymous with relief.  Also, the noises your enemies make – be it the garbled intercom speech of the Combine or the guttural howl of a once-human Headcrab Zombie – stick with you enough that you can often identify with your ears what might be lurking around the corner before it takes you by surprise.  That is, unless the game wants to surprise you (and there are some “jump-out-of-your-seat” moments to be sure).

It should also be mentioned that, unlike most modern games, music in HL2 is sparse. This helps strengthen the immersion factor  - especially in situations where you are on 5% health and need to listen past the sound of the wind and ocean waves for something with claws and teeth waiting behind that suspicious-looking abandoned shed (abandoned buildings are a frequent source of supplies). The dynamic contrast between the serene sounds of nature and the violent encounters with intimidating foes is a large part of why playing HL2, to many, yields one of the more memorable campaign experiences in the FPS genre. And when there is music, it always seems to kick in at the right time to punctuate the mood of the intense set-piece you’re playing.

When Half-Life 2 was originally released on PC in 2004, it stood as the benchmark of graphical prowess in the industry; perhaps it says something about Valve’s talent that the engine used to make its visuals (the Source engine) is still the core foundation that some current-gen developers build their games upon now. The Orange Box version of Half-Life 2 (and its two mini-sequels) still looks awesome, especially with the addition of a couple new special effects (a subtle motion blur was added and flashlights cast shadows).  Overall, though, the game’s striking art style still looks very much like it did straight-out-of-the-box on release day and it’s hard to think of even a few 2004 games that hold up as well, visually. Be it the smooth shadows and shading on objects, the hyper realistic reflection of light on various surfaces, the tasteful use of fog, or the gorgeous water effects, somehow you still can’t help but statically hold the controller (or mouse) and stare in awe at the screen – even during a 2014 play-through.

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“It’s so beautif- OH DEAR GOD.”

Perhaps more impressive than anything else, though, is how, ten years and dozens of awards later, HL2′s gameplay still offers a unique experience. The way it morphs and evolves by opening doors to entirely new and fun ways to interact with its world is something that games rarely do, and even fewer do them consistently over the course of 20 hours.

The first 30-45 minutes feel like you are playing a cinematic adventure game without puzzles - the goal is simply to explore City 17, interact with objects in the environment, and meet the characters you’ll be spending the remaining 19 hours with.  Once guns are aquired it becomes a shooter for several hours. After gaining access to an airboat and a go-kart, you’re playing something that feels almost like a Halo-esque shooter/vehicle experience. And when you finally obtain that Gravity Gun about five hours in, you have a tool that lets you transform the environment into your biggest weapon: anything from explosive barrels, to trash, to saw blades, to (eventually) mines and even enemies themselves, can be hurled at your foes. Most developers would stop at the guns and vehicles, and many AAA games would reach a creative plateau once a unique item like the gravity gun is given to the player. Thankfully, Valve is not like most developers.

An example of one experience you can find only in HL2: about twelve hours in (with roughly eight more to go), there’s a set piece directly inspired by the movie Tremors in which you are required to avoid stepping on the sand at this seemingly deserted beach by jumping on rocks and using your gravity gun to move junk and decomposing wood in front of you, forming a safe path to walk on. It gets you from Point A to Point “not getting torn to shreds by a swarm of bloodthirsty subterranean creatures that don’t like people walking on their sand”. After this inventive sequence, you finally face the queen of these insect-like aliens, and once the battle ends, you are given access to her organs (that spill out of her lifeless body). You now carry with you an endless supply of her egg pods that help fool her soldiers into thinking you are now their queen. With these pods thrown in any direction, you can command your newly-recruited army of badass alien creatures from hell to wage battle with other enemies at any location where loose soil is below your feet.

Turning the tables in your battle with the Combine and various deadly fauna is always fun, and much of the entertainment in the game derives from anticipating what creative item the developers will allow you to wield next.

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“You work for me now”.

These unique items, vehicles, and various inventive set pieces that make-up HL2 could have easily been divided up and sorted out into a handful of unique games, and, yes, each of them might have been considered “AAA masterpieces” among the gaming community.  However, Valve generously found a way to compact and weave them into the tapestry of a single 20-hour, sprawling, replay-friendly (again, even without Garry’s Mod) experience at a brisk and sinuous pace.

Now, all gushing aside, are there ways in which the game has NOT aged well?  Absolutely.  Textures that were mind-blowing in 2004 are muddy today.  Details on character models pale in comparison to what you see in some of the big franchises now.  The Orange Box versions of the game – especially the PS3 version – are known to glitch now and then.  HL2, like all games, is not perfect (though in many ways, Nintendo often seem to be ahead in the chase with their simple yet immaculately designed work).  Some might also argue that the experience of playing HL2 is too linear, as though they could feel the developers physically guiding them throughout the game.  I feel like that isn’t always a bad thing, though, and even if it is, then it’s something most recent action/adventure games without sandbox gameplay are guilty of too (Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite, etc).

That said, the list of games made by developers who shared or surpassed Valve’s ambition seems rather short, doesn’t it?  Why is it that ten years later, HL2 still seems to be one of a handful of games which primarily focuses on the player’s ability to toy with their environment as much as possible? Is it not a common urge among most gamers to want the main feature that separates our entertainment of choice from graphic novels and movies – interactivity – to be an essential point of interest for developers?  Some of 2014′s most, progressive, awe-striking games are about how our actions shape our realities.  Does their gameplay reflect that theme as much as Half-Life 2′s does?

Late this year, Valve will release their first mass-produced gaming hardware (known as the Steam Machine right now), and it could potentially compete with the PS4 and Xbox One.  The classic sequel to the game they are most known for will also be up for a ten-year anniversary.  It’s taken a decade so far to produce a follow-up that could potentially, once more, cause aftershocks that ripple throughout the gaming industry.  Will Valve release a Half-Life 3 megaton to celebrate?

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Valve President or Santa Claus? Both.

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Nick Taylor (@NickTaylorGFX) is currently pursuing an advertising degree at the University of North Texas.  He is passionate about video games, movies and cheeseburgers and writes when he isn’t struggling to make a living as a freelance illustrator or shamelessly plugging his Redbubble merch store

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