1998’s Half-Life not only established the credentials of Valve Software as being a developer of the highest calibre but helped set a high benchmark in narrative driven shooters. Set in the Black Mesa research facility, you took on the role of silent protagonist Gordon Freeman as he is caught up in an accident that leads to an interdimensional invasion that it seems only he has the ability to stop.
It was by no means perfect – the end game moved a little too far into generic shooter territory – but the game had a real flair for bringing your character into the narrative and finished with a small hint of possibility that Gordon might one day return.
And so it was in 2004 after years of rumour, speculation and even theft that the sequel finally arrived – Half-Life 2 not only improved on the successes of the first game but delivered a technical leap forwards in the form of its new Source Engine tools which included new lighting and physics solutions that helped make the world even more immersive.
Once again the player returns as Gordon Freeman. Kicking off years from the first game’s ending, you’re woken up from stasis by the mysterious G-Man who deposits you in a ramshackle train that is just arriving at City 17. The world has fallen under the control of the Combine and humanity is caught in its iron grip. The introductory sequence helps reinforce the dystopian future as you watch others getting on the wrong side of Combine soldiers and you too are even forced to clean up litter that doubles as a neat introduction to the game’s object physics.
Soon enough, you come across an old friend from Black Mesa who helps to get you on your way and the iconic crowbar becomes the first item in your possession. What soon becomes clear is that the scope of what is possible goes much, much further than Half-Life was ever able to do. The addition of vehicles to some sections even provide new challenges to solve that you may not have encountered if you were spending the whole game stomping around.
But the first thing that will impress you is the graphics. Though time and better technologies have caught up and surpassed it, the Source Engine that powered the game created at the time a detailed, vivid world with some really clever features that are still pretty amazing to see in action even now. The best of those has to be the characters models – though they may not be incredibly detailed overall, the work done on the faces is still quite incredible. Their ability to emote so well during conversations is still an incredible achievement.
Your first exposure to it is via Barney (he of the crowbar giving) and later Alyx who you spend a great deal of the adventure with and I firmly believe is one of the greatest NPCs to ever inhabit a video game. She not only is great support for Gordon but also helps drive the story forward through her actions and communicating directly to you – that pioneering method of replacing cutscenes with scripted in game events is still in effect here but the greater detail in characters really helps with the immersion.
There is perhaps one location in the game though that outdoes the marvellous characters and that is the town of Ravenholm from the chapter “We don’t go to Ravenholm…”. The town has been overrun with headcrabs and zombies and Gordon is forced to not only deal with them but the traps laid by local Father Grigori. It’s a stark departure from the rest of the game that plays out more like survival horror than shooter as you navigate the corpse riddled town. It also forces you to lean on your new toy, the Gravity Gun, as you pick up saw blades and other items to use as dangerous projectiles.
The Gravity Gun would quickly become a showcase of what was possible with the Havok physics engine within the game as you could easily pick up a myriad of items and see how they would interact with other things in the world as you launch them at crazy velocities. It’d seem like a game tester’s worst nightmare but it was implemented remarkably well and deserves a spot near the top of any list of best FPS weapons.
Valve’s technical innovations didn’t stop with the Source Engine. The game became the very first PC title to require their (then new) Steam service to be installed so that the game could be activated for use. Now that would not have been so bad nowadays with broadband Internet but imagine trying to do so on a 56K dial up modem from Australia and it becomes a different matter. After buying the deluxe edition of the game I literally had to wait more than a day for the game to be activated. Luckily I was rewarded for my patience with a great game.
My initial experience with the game was via the PC version but I revisited it again while also experiencing the episodes via the Xbox 360 version of The Orange Box: a compilation containing all the Half-Life 2 games, Team Fortress 2 and Portal. Even years after its release, the amount of content Valve put together onto a single disc (at least 30 hours of single player campaigns) helped make The Orange Box one of the best value titles ever on the platform.
After the game was released there was much anticipation towards another sequel; the ending all but guaranteed that there were more stories to tell. After much toing and frying from Valve the follow up games would take the form of episodic content with the intent for more to be released over time. The first, Half-Life 2: Episode One arrived in 2006 and followed on immediately after the events of the game while Half-Life 2: Episode Two appeared a year later. In what turned out to be a major disappointment, Episode Two ends on a massive cliff-hanger that clearly implies there was at least another chapter to go in the game’s story but unfortunately Valve never got around to producing it and doesn’t seem interested anymore.
It’s a massive shame that Valve feels indifferent to closing out the series – it’s just short of a decade since the last episode and it seems there is at least one or two rumours a year about a new game that still gets fans fired up, hoping to see more of the adventures of Gordon Freeman. With 2018 marking the 20th anniversary of the series, here’s hoping it happens.
Greatest Games is a feature where we highlight our favourite games from the past and try to explain what we think makes them great and worth searching out to play again. If you’ve got your own thoughts on the subject, please feel free to share them in the comments below.