Memory Card: Half-Life 2

Gerry Hart showers praise on one of videogaming’s most treasured FPS titles of all time

Gerry Hart
20th February 2017
Image Credit: NinjaFatGuy

If last month’s leaks are to be believed, it would seem the most anticipated video game this century is, in fact, not happening. The rumours that Valve isn’t working on Half-Life 3 are disappointing but understandable, provided they’re true.

For years, the internet has been whipping itself into a collective frenzy over the prospect of a third game so it’s not hard to see why Valve feared it would taint its franchise’s legacy by not living up to expectations. And, let’s face it, when you’re following Half-Life 2, you’ve a lot to live up to.

Let’s start with the level design, by far HL2’s greatest strength. Though less common now, there’s still this notion within gaming that states that linearity is inherently bad thanks to the litany of lead-by-the-balls modern military FPSs that plagued the turn of the decade but HL2 proves that this isn’t necessarily the case. Instead, HL2 demonstrates that linearity doesn’t necessitate sacrificing challenge and complexity. Many levels contain puzzles that the player must solve in order to continue and whilst many of them centre on HL2’s bizarre physics engine they still provide an additional challenge and each level contains enough diversity both in gameplay and visual design not only to prevent them from overstaying their welcome but to also provide for some incredibly memorable experiences. I’ve heard the game described as a road trip, and I feel it’s a truly apt description. HL2’s linearity provides a level of succinctness and structure that wouldn’t be achieved in a more open-ended experience and the results are incredible.

This brings me onto the story. Whereas HL1’s plot is often compared to a 1950s sci-fi B-Movie, HL2 feels decidedly more surreal. On the surface the game takes place 25 years after its predecessor in an Eastern European city dubbed “City 17”, where following the events of the first game an extra-dimensional Empire known as “The Combine” conquered Earth, establishing a brutal, Orwellian puppet regime but there’s more going on under the surface, with an enigmatic figure in a blue suit in particular hinting at multiple interpretations of the game’s events.

Half-Life 2 is in many ways Valve’s Magnum Opus”

But what I like about HL2’s story is how sublimely it intersects with the level design. Exposition is rare and usually limited to the start and ending of levels. Rather, the big moments of HL2’s story are the setpieces the player interacts with in the levels. Then there are the characters, many of whom have become gaming icons (Alyx Vance in particular still remains wonderfully engaging and expressive 13 years on).

HL2 is in many ways Valve’s magnum opus, even if it was arguably following in the footsteps of its predecessor. Half Life revolutionised storytelling in video games chiefly by demonstrating that FPSs could tell decent stories by making gameplay and narrative synonymous. And whilst many might argue that HL2 merely builds upon its predecessor’s legacy, it does so in a far more engaging, accessible and coherent manner than the first game was even capable of. Its just a shame we may never see this venerable franchise get the conclusion it deserves.

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