By CircleNine 81 Comments
[Reposting from another blog I just started. This is in response to people being shocked/upset when I say I think that the Half Life 2 series is bad and this is me finally articulating why I think its bad.]
Really. Okay, sure, maybe that’s hyperbole and I should say that I think it’s a mediocre game to be more accurate. But that’s what I really think. And let me explain why.
First off let me say that I think Half Life 2 has got some fantastic things going for it. It’s got an amazing starting section. You’re starting out in a dystopian future where the alien Combine have all but completely taken over the Earth where the only real resistance you get any sense of existing at all is waiting for the mythical Gordon Freeman to come back and save the day again. Alright, that part isn’t actually that great, but the atmosphere that the game builds in the first hour or two is really spectacular.
You’re subjected to and catch glimpses of the abuses and power of the Combine as you start out into the world. You see it in the worn spirits of the two men you’re on the train with who are uncertain of what the future holds for them, the Orwellian giant screens and speakers broadcasting Dr. Breen through the city, to the camera drones that start to watch you as soon as you step outside the train station. There’s a man trying to take what few possession he still has from a cart of suitcases and is knocked over for trying to do so, and a woman waiting for her husband to come on the next train after he was taken for questioning. You catch a glimpse of several Combine who are interrogating/beating a man, and through tutorializing you’re forced to pick up and throw away an empty pop can or be beaten after a Combine soldier knocks it on the ground.
The sense of atmosphere you get in those first few minutes of the game, before you’ve really even started to play the game is great. It’s among my favorite starting section to any game I’ve ever played and I don’t think there’ve been many games that have done it better.
But then you start to actually have some gameplay that isn’t just running from point A to point B, which means soon it’s going to start going to shit.
Barney, working undercover for the resistance posing as a Combine soldier stops you at a checkpoint under the guise of an interrogation/beating and sets you free, but the alarms have to be tripped in the process for you to get away, on a delay for Barney to cover for you as long as he can. So you escape, you start needing to book it away from the Combine, where ever that is in City 17 where there aren’t Combine.
You’re running through alleyways, witnessing more abuses of power being committed by the Combine along the way, and staying as far away from them as you can so they don’t recognize you before you make it into a rundown apartment building where a raid is happening on one apartment, before being taken in briefly by neighbors looking to keep you, a complete stranger but also a fellow human, safe from being caught up in it.
Then finally the Combine are onto you, and they begin to chase you. The game is still pretty good at this point. You’re not interacting with the world terribly much in a very game-y way, you’re mostly just running away from them, still unable to defend yourself. All the while getting help from strangers who are willing to help you, telling you where to run so you can keep going to delaying the Combine as much as they can. You’re running across roof tops being shot at from below on the streets and having more soldiers appear behind you trying to stop you. This sequence is great. Really, it’s wonderful. It keeps up the great sense of just how powerless you and the general population of City 17 are under the boot of the Combine.
Then finally you get corned, beaten, and knocked unconscious by Combine soliders. Enter Alyx Vance. She’s a pretty good character throughout the series. Very well voice acted, facial animations are exceptionally well done (especially for the time, but still hold up today), and in general just a very smart and capable character.
But things are going to get bad soon. You’re going to get a weapon and things are very quickly going to turn to shit. Anyways, you meet Dr. Kleiner and listen to him and Alyx talk before Barney stops in as well and you get your super cool Science Suit for doing sciencey things like empirically testing how many whacks with a crowbar it takes to murder a Combine and finding out just how many Manhacks can an average person kill before they just get completely fucking tired of it.
Anyways, theres some story stuff and some science mumbo jumbo that gets discussed and also Alyx’s dad is there too I guess and then you use Combine technology to teleport Alyx to the resistance’s secret base and just as you’re about to go through it, science goes wrong. Dr. Breen realizes who you are and that you’re there, you nearly drown and get eaten by a very rude fish, the de-beaked head crab tries to eat some seagulls on a beach, and then you’re basically just back where you’re started right before science went bad.
So now you’ve really got to get out of there, and shortly thereafter Barney throws you your classic crowbar, wishes you luck and tells you to be careful, and then you’re on your way.
The atmosphere still holds up here, and even for a while it’ll still be pretty good. But at this point the part of actually playing is going downhill. Briefly put, the combat in the Half Life 2 series is awful. And it’s that because of a number of reaons. The weapons you have don’t really feel like they pack any punch, with the only exception of the gravity gun which won’t generally have nearly enough things to really play through the game using primarily that for fighting and the secondary fire on the combine assault rifle. Aside from those two weapons, the weapons you have don’t feel like they’re doing anything at all. Enemies don’t react to being shot at all, the guns really don’t have a very fulfilling sound to them, and some of them feel really inaccurate. And finally most of them just aren’t very Cool. In a game where you’ll be doing a fair amount of shooting throughout, having the shooting not being very fun or fulfilling is a very bad thing.
You travel through sewers and drainageways, with a constant onslaught of Combine soldiers, helicopters, and jeep things with guns, and even when you’re not being immediately sought by Combine forces, you’re contending with the tentacle things looking to eat you as you slide down a slippery surface with little traction to avoid them, or the Combine has sent Manhacks after you. All of this is great in adding to the atmosphere of just how oppressive the world of Half Life 2 is. But little of it is actually fun. And that’s the kicker.
And soon after all of the sewer nonsense you get to the first overly long and terrible vehicle section of the game. The boat. Boat. It controls I kinda like a boat I guess in that you don’t get the really precise movements that you’d get on foot or with other vehicle types, but the weird kinda loose boat controls are the problem. It’s that the section goes on for so long that it just gets to a point where I’m always wishing it was maybe a 3-5 sequence at the absolute most, because at this point in the game, the atmosphere is really starting to be less of a thing and it’s starting to turn very quickly into a more action oriented game. And that isn’t the strength of Half Life.
And that’s really the crux of it. The actiony parts where you’re really playing the game are rarely noteworthy. They’re competently done, to be sure, but they’re not fun. Sure, there are some exceptions like Ravenholm being just batshit weird, but that’s very much the exception and not the standard.
Where Half Life 2 excels is in atmosphere and in making (more than is normal) empathetic and real feeling characters. And unfortunately most of the game isn’t focused on that. You get Alyx accompanying you for a decent chunk of the game, which certainly helps matters, and Eli is also particularly well done. But that’s so much on the periphery of actually playing the game.
And so Half Life 2 is a mediocre game (and by and large everything I said applies to the series at large), but because of the massive amount of praise that’s so frequently heaped on it as being a beacon of what gaming should strive to be, I feel like I have to say that it’s just a bad game instead to make people actually perk up and listen.