By Atlas 51 Comments
It's a dreary Sunday in September, a typical autumnal day in London. NFL football starts in just over an hour, but for now I've got some stuff on my mind. It's been a while since I've blogged on a regular basis, so maybe this will be the start of a new thing, or just a one-off airing of thoughts. Regardless, I certainly appreciate anyone taking the time to read anything I have to write, and even though I don't write stuff like this with an audience in mind - I write it purely to get the words out of my brain - I'd still be interested in hearing any feedback.
I don't remember the exact sequence of events that led to me playing this game, which is now nine years old, by the way. I think the first seed of the idea was planted on Unprofessional Friday a few weeks ago, when Jeff played Garry's Mod; just getting to hear the weapon and enemy noises, see the guns and items, triggered a nostalgic centre of my brain. I'm not usually a very nostalgic person - I think that in many ways, video games are better now than they ever have been - but some games were so formative and so important to me that I can't help but think of them in the fondest possible light.
Half-Life 2 is one of those games. I don't remember how I came to acquire the game - I wasn't really "into" the internet video game community in 2004, but maybe I read a magazine, or a friend recommended it - and I hadn't played a lot of PC shooters before then. But I was instantly hooked on it, and probably played it upwards of a dozen times. Whenever an excuse to dust it off presented itself, I leapt at the opportunity - I even played through the game on the Xbox 360 when I rented The Orange Box. However, around 2007 my gaming habits changed; I would play only a handful of games, but I would play them obsessively (this is how I ended up playing TES4: Oblivion for well over 1,000 hours over the course of a few years), then I started acquiring and playing more games and favoured newer experiences over repeating the same ones ad nauseum. This new behaviour continued and intensified, and now I rarely play the same game twice, even ones I loved - I'm also playing a lot more games that don't have narratives, such as strategy games. So with all that in mind, it's probably been a good four or five years since I last played through Half-Life 2.
I jumped back in, and it was like putting on an old glove and finding it still fits perfectly. It's a strange thing to come back to a game that you've played through multiple times after a prolonged absence from said game, but honestly I was surprised by just how much of the game I remembered, from map layouts to enemy placements to puzzle solutions. To balance out this knowledge advantage, I'm playing the game on hard, so I've at least got a stiff combat challenge.
Half-Life 2 has aged extremely well. It was a brilliant, atmospheric, fully engrossing shooter when it was released, and while some of the textures now look a little grungy, while the once impressive NPC faces now look merely pedestrian, while it's now weird to play a game in which you don't use the RMB to aim down the sights of a gun, it's still been a ton of fun to play. Some things don't age, such as fantastic level designing, an immaculate attention to detail, brilliant sound effects, and a compelling world. The game's physics engine is also just as impressive as it was in 2004, although there have now been a number of games that have attempted to emulate Valve's technology.
I've played through quite a few single player shooters in the past few years (BioShock 1, 2 + Infinite, RAGE, Borderlands, Far Cry 3 etc.) and I still think that there hasn't been a game where I've derived more satisfaction from shooting than Half-Life 2. The guns are just so much fun to shoot, partly due to the tight controls and partly due to the world-class audio design; the firing noises for all the guns is exceptional, with the exception of the pea-shooter pistol, but the magnum, the shotgun, the crossbow, and the Combine rifle still stand out as the best.
So if it's been a while since you've played through Half-Life 2, or if you've not yet played this seminal game in the FPS genre, I highly recommend you give it a go. It's a game that, in my opinion, everybody should experience. This is just my view, but gamers should play this game to develop a better appreciation for the medium, and all game designers should be required to play it so they can learn from the masters of creating intricately crafted, superbly designed, utterly immersive games.
Alternatively, if you don't want to jump into the game yourself, it's obviously a popular game among Let's Players, and one that I can particularly recommend is Day's Day Off: Half-Life 2, in which Sean Plott aka Day, a StarCraft community luminary and an all-around swell guy plays through Half-Life 2 for the first time. Funnily enough, he started this let's play only a couple of days after I fired up HL2. Great minds and all that. Not only is it entertaining, but Plott is a smart guy and demonstrates some of the reasons why HL2's game designs shines through, such as how they made a mostly restrictive and entirely linear world feel expansive and lived-in. It's also very entertaining, and there are a lot of great moments but around episode five he runs into one of the game's first real jump scares, and...well, like I said it's well worth your time.
I don't know if I'll jump into Episode One and Two after beating the game - both the episodes are enjoyable, but Half-Life 2 is a tight and satisfying experience in itself, while the episodes are merely a reminder of the good work that Valve has left unfinished. To end Episode Two with a dramatic moment and a cliffhanger, onto to then not release another episode after six damn years is just mean. I've really enjoyed a lot of the games Valve has release since The Orange Box, such as Left 4 Dead 2 and Portal 2, but I still really want more Half-Life. Screw your DOTA and your living room box; I need more Gordon Freeman in my life.
Final note: even after all this time, I still find that no video game enemy terrifies me more than the poison headcrab in HL2, and by extension the poison zombie. They still creep me the fuck out. Even when I know one is lurking around the corner, I still feel some sense of cold dread; perhaps that's a part of my brain remembering playing the game as a 15-year-old, remembers the utter terror of not knowing that a poison headcrab/zombie is around the corner. There is something primordially terrifying about the poison headcrab. Part of it is how they look, and how they scuttle around the floor, and part of it is the terrific audio design; the poison headcrab looks like a big black hairy spider but sounds like a combination of a rattlesnake and a hissing cobra, and the poison zombie makes pained barely audible huffs and scratches, even cackles when it dies, and walks around with four poison headcrabs swarming around its body, which he'll chuck right in your face. It's fucking creepy. Not to mention that they can also be super lethal in gameplay; when bitten by a poison headcrab, it immediately drops your health to 1HP, and you have to wait for your HEV suit to inject antivenon into your body, recovering your health 10HP at a time. Poison headcrabs are not so lethal by themselves, but with a faster enemy nearby they are extremely dangerous, as after a bite you're one hit away from death. It's the worst.