Attention developers: This is how you make a sequel
After blasting my way through a recent disappointing sequel, I decided to go back and revisit one of the best in the gaming industry. Simply put Half-Life 2 is one of the best games ever made. More so however it is a perfect example of a sequel done well and how to play to the strengths of the PC platform. Even six years after its release it still stands as one of the most well designed games in the first person shooter genre and a landmark title showing that innovation can be achieved without betraying what came before it.
It wasn't that surprising that Half-Life 2 left such an impression when it was released back in 2004. The original Half-Life released six years earlier had helped propel the genre forward in its day with its unique story telling mechanic of never taking control away from the player, scripted but interactive set pieces, unparalleled detail, smart and varied enemies, simple yet clever puzzles and constantly changing game mechanics which never had the player doing the same thing for too long. Just when you felt like the game was just another Quake-clone of endlessly shooting aliens it would throw you a curve ball, like having to navigate an active tram system, or use the environment to sneak past and kill an almost invincible monster. Two separate hostile factions would attempt to stop not only you but each other producing some unforgettable combat scenarios which would later become a staple of the genre, seen in titles such as Halo and the more recent Crysis.
Half-Life 2 brought all that across with an impeccable level of polish and new gameplay mechanics which raised the bar once again. Players resumed the role of Gordon Freeman, probably the most bad-ass scientist ever to earn his PhD, one who can ridiculously operate and use all military weapons and vehicles and drop an entire army squad or alien horde without any combat training what-so-ever. In the first game you both unleashed and quelled an alien invasion which brought about the interest of the G-Man, a shadowy, human looking but undoubtedly alien entity who recruited you for future use. As he so eloquently says to you at the beginning of Half-Life 2, your time has come again and he deposits you in a dystopian world in the not too distant future where earth has been conquered by an alien menace called the Combine and mankind has been enslaved. Now you must navigate through City 17 and its surrounding locals, hook up with a small underground resistance and once again save humanity, always under the watchful eye of your mysterious benefactor.
Just like the first game Half-Life 2 is an unashamed old-school first person shooter. Your progression through the eight to ten hour campaign is completely linear, without any real exploration available. You can carry an entire platoon's worth of weapons ranging from your trusty crowbar to pistols, shotguns, machine guns and rocket launchers. You take damage from enemy attacks which require healing from health kits frequently scattered about the environment along with ammo and energy for your special Hazard Suit which acts as your amour and allows you to sprint short distances. Where this game improves upon its predecessor is in its sheer quality and polish. You can tell that every single aspect of the game has been run through rigorous testing and redesign throughout its six year development cycle to became practically faultless. Every level is well laid out and full of little details, the ratio of combat to puzzle solving is spot on, and the pacing is just right with the game constantly throwing new challenges and obstacles in your way.
The game's fifteen chapters are broken up into seven or so unique areas, each with their own gameplay nuances. After a fairly traditional FPS opening, players will find themselves navigating down canals on a hovercraft as a helicopter gunship attempts to blow you out of the water. Next you'll find yourself in a horror themed, zombie infested town using traps to conserve ammo as you find your way to safety. One extended section has you driving down a long and winding coastal road dodging Combine ambushes and traversing a huge railway bridge from underneath as it shakes around violently. Afterward you'll become pack leader to a horde of alien Ant Lions which will kill everything in the path you point them in. Later in the game you'll be fighting from block to block within City 17 itself with other survivors in a quasi-squad based unit against towering mechanized horrors called Striders which periodically blow entire sections of the city into smithereens. The best thing about all this variety is that it feels smoothly integrated into the game itself. The controls are always simple and no one element sticks out like a sore thumb.
Just like its predecessor Half-Life 2 features various enemies all with their own unique AI patterns which frequently mixes up the gameplay. Man-Hacks buzz around you trying to cut you into little pieces, Combine gunships attempt to shoot down your incoming rockets, huge Bull Ant Lions charge blindly in your direction, while the unique sounds of a Black Head Crab will have you scanning around the environment in horror trying in pin point the little bastard before he leaves you utterly defenseless. Oddly enough the AI for the human enemies, something the original Half-Life excelled in, isn't as memorable in the sequel. While far from stupid they don't exhibit the same sense of awareness as their contemporaries at the time such as in the original Halo. Still they will flush you out with grenades, take cover and come at you from various fronts. Coupled with consistently clever level design and the game provides a welcome challenge which rarely becomes frustrating.
Of course the real star of the show is the new physics system allowing players to interact with the environment in realistic ways. Every object has mass which is affected by gravity and resistance. Explosions will break objects apart and scatter them across the environment. In one great sequence you can control a giant crane with a magnetic grappling hook and throw entire cargo containers at enemies. While it wasn't the first game to introduce physics, it was the first to integrate them so well into gameplay instead of just being window dressing. Nearly every puzzle requires the use of physics to solve such as creating a makeshift bridge or teeter board to reach otherwise unreachable areas. The game even goes so far as to introduce the Gravity Gun, a weapon solely designed to attract and repel objects at high velocities. Once obtained it is possible to play through the entire game using nothing else, dispatching your enemies with anything you can find, from barrels to park benches and even saw blades with satisfying results.
All of this wrapped up in stellar presentation. Even six years later the game's graphics hold up strong. While it doesn't have the extremely detailed textures and filter effects of modern games, it more than makes up for it with smooth and clean visuals and high quality animation. Everything moves as it should and the expressive nature of the NPCs, along with the memorable dialogue and the best voice acting in the industry, will have you genuinely caring for the game's characters. These elements also help overcome the rather vague and deliberate story telling which refuses to hold the player's hand and fill them in with unnecessary details. Whilst you are always aware of what needs to be done, you'll still have to pay close attention to the finer details of the world and listen closely to characters to figure out the larger story. My only minor niggle is with Valve's continual choice to leave Gordon Freeman a voiceless, characterless vessel. This isn't some RPG in which you inhabit an uniquely designed character. Everyone in the game refers to you as Gordon Freeman and the box art even shows you what he looks like. Surely giving him a voice and realistic responses to the ongoing events wouldn't have broken the game's immersion. Even some of the other characters jokingly acknowledge this, referring to you as "A man of few words."
All in all Half-Life 2 is a crowning achievement of game design and execution. It's not only a fun and innovative game in its own right but a worthy sequel that doesn't fix what isn't broken, but instead refine everything and give the player more to do. The only thing left to say is "Where is the final chapter Valve?"