Genre: First-person shooter
The difficult second album. Valve set to work just six short months on a sequel to, what is commonly referred to as, the best PC game of all time, Half‑Life – a first-person shooter that took the rudimentary template of Id Software’s Doom and imbued it with an emotional edge and cinematic charisma.
Director and Valve co-founder Gabe Newell was not content with just rolling out a quick and dirty sequel that would capitalise on the huge success of the original. Instead, he set out to not only design a follow-up that would honour the values of the original but further push the genre forward, inventing and pioneering mechanics while other developers continued to cower in their comfort zones.
Half-Life 2 would establish Valve’s tradition of unscrupulous refinement: major design overhauls mid-development, scrapped levels and characters, and huge innovations in the form of the Source Engine that would power subsequent titles from the studio. It would also establish Valve’s other tradition: massive delays. By the time it reached PC gamers in fervent anticipation, it took a team of 84 artists six years to create what is, by far, the quintessence of the first-person shooter.
Who said a first-person shooter just had to be about pulling the trigger? That’s the beating pulse that thumps beneath the surface of Half-Life. Oh, and what a surface it is. Theoretical-physicist-cum-elite-solider Gordon Freeman is dropped into the oppressive suburbs of City 17, a dystopian setting fully fleshed almost by mere suggestion. Poke your nose around any corner and you’ll find some indication of the bigger picture, one that paints desecration and inevitable ruin across the land. Whether it’s a simple act of graffiti, the ominous snap of a hovering City Scanner, or even the burning bodies that hang lifelessly from the highway, the game is a triumph in environmental narrative without ever forcing the player’s gaze.
What’s magnificent about Half-Life 2’s direction isn’t the pathway by which the game directs you to walk, but where the eye draws you to drag you away from it. The use of abject imagery – particularly of alien architecture invading a very human world – is striking, but the sight of a towering Strider asserts the game’s ambitions beyond story and offers a hint at the big things to come. Because, let’s face it, Half-Life 2 ain’t no slouch in the action department.
Valve creates a veritable playpen of mischief and mayhem and does so with such effortless ease that it never suggests grandstanding on the developer’s part, rather just logic: a series of circumstances that culminate in the most punchy and gratifying action sequences in the medium. There are the big moments – a giant robotic dog tackling a helicopter in mid-air; taking on the aforementioned Strider in the city hub; exploring the creepy locale that is Ravenholm – but the smaller ones echo the triumphs of the action and combat just as effectively. It might be something as simple as a flaming red barrel rolling towards a unit of Combine soldiers and sending them skyward on explosion, the ragdoll physics twirling limp bodies across the sky; using organic lures to send alien insects fighting against human adversaries while you sneak around the bloody carnage; or, most likely, it’s that first time you got the Gravity Gun, removing that buzzsaw from a wall and sending it flying towards a zombie, slicing it in two. Either way, the versatility and ingenuity is as ever-present and makes it a joy to return to years after it was first released.
It’s a game that refused to confine itself to one genre, not sidelining its narrative goals to better suit the shooting, nor did it simply glide over areas that other games simply ignored, such as characterisation – Freeman might be an empty vessel but Alyx, Eli and even Dog are lovingly conceived and become characters you truly care about. Valve didn’t just create a memorable game, but an unforgettable one. And given the wide-sweeping impact it has had on games in the ensuring years, it doesn’t look like the industry will be forgetting about it anytime soon.
Why It’s A Future Classic
Half-Life 2 is worthy of many accolades, and some might cite its ties with Steam, the method with which it innovated in-game physics using the Gravity Gun, or the advancements in enemy AI. But while those are all testaments to the lasting impact and legacy of the game, it misses the mark when trying to pinpoint why it’s such a seminal piece of work.
Whereas a game like BioShock may have a couple of choice moments – the opening descent into Rapture or the sight of the Big Daddy arriving on the scene – Half-Life 2 is crammed full of ‘em. It’s a parade of memorable set-pieces, immersive storytelling, and places and people that resonate long after the credits have rolled. It refused to be pigeonholed as just a shooter. But, when you do finally pull the trigger…well, that’s pretty spectacular too. Simply unforgettable.