Ah, Half-Life. Sadly, all we can do is look back now, thanks to the slow, withering death of the series when it was seemingly in its prime. Even now, faint glimmers of Half-Life 3 or Half-Life 2: Episode 3 flicker in the darkness, so far to no avail. It’s certainly a strong contender for the most desired sequel that never was. Still, let’s stop licking our wounds, and instead look back fondly on the groundbreaking game that was, and still is, Half-Life 2.
It’s a sequel that expanded on the original in so many ways. For teenagers like myself at the time, who couldn’t afford a PC which could run the mighty Source engine, the news that Half-Life 2 was coming to Xbox was all my prayers bring answered.
After the events of the first game, some years later you are awoken by the mysterious “G-Man”, and discover a world which is under the control of the Combine. With the help of some new and familiar allies, you set about trying to free the human race from the clutches of the alien occupants.
Generic character models from the first game were now fully fleshed out characters, such as Barney and Dr Kleiner. And by some miracle that I still do not understand, Barney managed to save your crowbar from Black Mesa and returns it to you at the start of Half-Life 2. What a guy.
Many enemies from the first game return, alongside the new Combine threat which have clearly been in full control of Earth for some time. Still, it’s not all bad as the Vortigaunts have turned ally, and now help fugitives in various ways in a sort of underground railroad setup. Walking around on the surface if you’re on the run without help is simply impossible. Especially if you’re Gordon Freeman.
Half-Life 2 is an extremely grim, dystopian take on the alien occupation of Earth scenario, and strikes a few similarities to The War of the Worlds. An example of note is the walkers the Combine have patrolling the city streets. They are your classic tripod walkers, an apparent alien/machine hybrid.
You represent humanity’s last hope, and have earned quite the reputation since Black Mesa. In fact, you’re seen as the leader of the rebellion, with many adopting the slogan “Follow Freeman”, and the Vortigaunts calling you the “Free-Man”.
As I alluded to earlier, Half-Life 2 was Valve’s first chance to show off their new “Source” game engine, and on Xbox, as on PC, it looked simply stunning. I’d go as far to say Half-Life 2 is the best looking original Xbox game of all time, and still looks brilliant today. To say it was released in 2004 for PC, and a year later for the Xbox, is astounding.
Half-Life 2 is an FPS with a pleasing range of weapons you discover as you play. Some also had alternate fire options, but king of all was the “Gravity Gun”. Given to you by Dr Kleiner, this had the ability to pick up objects and fire them off in whatever direction you liked. This freedom gave Half-Life 2 a sandbox feel in how you could interact with the environment. It felt utterly unlike anything before it. Later on, things get better still as your “Grav Gun” gets juiced, so you’re able to pick up and fire people, namely the Combine soldiers, too. The ragdoll physics made this a mouthwatering prospect, and so utterly satisfying to execute.
You aren’t on foot for your whole journey in Half-Life 2 however; you’ll also get to speed around in a few vehicles in the larger, more open world levels. I remember playing “Highway 17”, zipping around in my beach buggy and stopping at random houses by the roadside to explore for supplies. These passages of play also gave the game scope, and used what the player could see on the horizon to create a true sense of fear and foreboding. Never had I felt so immersed in the world of the game I was playing.
Half-Life 2 also had brilliant variation in its levels. A personal highlight is “We Don’t Go To Ravenholm”. This was a complete opposite to the open world feel of other levels – you’re in a nightmarish town completely taken over by alien zombies. It’s claustrophobic and bloody scary. Even now (I’m 28) on a run through I’ll have to psyche myself up before tackling this level. When you finally escape the doomed town after a thrilling last stand with a mentally unstable priest, the relief is palpable.
But that wasn’t all, Half-Life 2 had more tricks up its sleeve. In the level “Sandtraps”, you gain the ability to control the local Antlion creatures, thanks to a ball of pheromones, and can set them up to attack Combine troops. It’s a great mechanic, which is bags of fun and deepens the gameplay even further. At seemingly every turn, there was something layered on to the gameplay. The pacing was sublime.
The beauty of Half-Life 2 lies in the narrative, which is told entirely without cutscenes. Everything that happens in Half-Life 2 is fully realised in-game and makes for a truly gripping, immersive experience. You care about the characters and their connections with each other because you live and breathe it with them. Alyx and Eli Vance, need I say more?
Given all of this, the game still ends with so, so many questions. It manages to grab you from the first to the last moment, and yet not reveal all of its secrets. It’s one of those rare beasts that will end, leaving you desperate for more and you’ll spend weeks talking to your mates about it, and what might come next.
Half-Life 2 is one of the greatest games of all time. It had a huge impact on me as a young gamer, and truly raised the bar for games in general, on various fronts. To call it groundbreaking is just, and it makes it especially tragic that after more than 12 years since Half-Life 2: Episode 2 in The Orange Box, we have had nothing more. Let’s not even mention the cruel raising of hopes in Portal 2. Valve, if you’re there, please make it happen.