Half-Life 2

FBT half-returns to half-life with a half-baked conspiracy theory and gets so annoyed he has a psychotic episode or two. But not three.

The Past

If I’m honest, I always had a nagging doubt that HL2 was the Avatar of gaming. Greeted orgasmicly by critics -Maximum PC gave it ‘11 out of 10’- us gamers were whipped into a rabid fury; we auto-loved it and it was gamer-suicide to say otherwise. Even now, nearly 15 years later HL2 is the God of gaming. But was it really all that?

Part of the appeal was Valve and its emperor, Gabe Newell. He put himself about as a geek like us, claiming Valve is a loose collective of developers; it wasn’t some evil mega-corp like EA or Ubisoft, it was by gamers for gamers. Never mind Valve insisted we install Steam, a more intrusive and invasive DRM platform than anything previously to play HL2; they’re geeks like us. Meanwhile we screamed the place down any time a competitor tried a similar platform. GFWL? Spam! Origin? Malware! Uplay? Ransomware! GOG-Galaxy? … okay, they’re cool. You either accepted Steam or didn’t play HL2. It was emotional blackmail but such was our desperation we sucked it up and Steam has been on our machines ever since.

I was caught up too. Overwhelmed, I contemplated a Crowbar tattoo. But after a few replays, HL2 started to feel contrived. At the time it wasn’t the insidious Steam install that made me suspect Valve’s intentions; HL2 felt like a demo for the Source engine, like playing through a showroom. It was a façade and like the emperor’s new clothes, HL2 hasn't got anything on.

You just don’t dislike Half-Life 2 though. I kept my doubts quiet and ensured no one suspected me by constantly replaying it, buying the Episodes and looking forward to HL3 like all the other sheeple. Then, the magic bullet; the more successful Steam got, the less HL3 was mentioned, until Valve stopped acknowledging Half-Life at all. It had served its purpose. But Gamers aren’t stupid - and they’re not forgiving either; one wrong sidekick and you’re into Daikatana territory. HL2 must be doing something right. It is more than just hot air?

Still a Blast?

While Xen’s invasion was contained to Black Mesa, the world is now under the control of interplanetary strip-miners the Combine. Turns out Nihilanth, the big baby baddie from HL1 was holding open the portal so the Xen lot could escape them. Instead, killing it drew their attention and the Combine rocked up and took over. Thanks, Gordon.

The world does have a grim Orwellian feel to it, with masked cops, screens displaying reassuring messages from earth’s ‘administrator’ (Breen, our unseen boss from HL1), processing areas and propaganda on the walls. This is an occupation, an oppressive hellhole that brings to mind real-world ‘internment’ camps; or at least a glimpse of post-Brexit Passport lines. I’m taken away by a guard - who offers to buy me a beer. Barney! You look a lot more detailed. Although the graphics are over a decade old, HL2 holds up insanely well, although that might be the constant updates and refreshes Source goes through. Can’t complain about that. It’s detailed, rich and real. I like HL2 so far. A solid looking game set in a compelling, tyrannical world. Time to Free it, man. I don’t last long. Trying to quietly pass through a depressed town, I seem to have become Harry Styles; we constantly hear ‘It’s Freeman!’ – that’s not helping. I get tasered, then I come around and fall in love.

Alyx Vance, daughter of a scientist we saved, has returned the favour. Alyx is both in awe of Freeman and way cooler than him. To be fair to HL2, Alex did change sidekicks and female characters in games. She’s not wearing an armoured bikini for starters and isn’t a Vasquez-clone either. She’s just a capable character and half the time we’re her sidekick. Having grown up during the occupation she’s excited to have found the man everyone expects to save the day. Freeman however, doesn’t even say thanks.

In the original, it made sense to have a silent hero; not a lot to talk about, or talk to other than the headcrabs, but HL1 did occasionally imply he spoke or at least gestured; NCPs would respond with ‘yes lets go’. But in HL2 it seems odd Freeman isn’t talking; it’s cleverly done, people chat in a way that his silence can be taken as an answer but why doesn’t he tell them where he’s been, about the G-Man? Instead, characterisation is filled in by the support cast. Besides Alyx and Barney, who has a nice line in cynical backchat, there’s absent-minded professor Kiener, who keeps Lamar, a ‘debeaked’ headcrab as a pet (“she’ll try to copulate with your head, fruitlessly”), Alyx’s dad Eli and Dr Mossman, who Alyx dislikes so we do too. They’re kind of a rebellion Gordon joins – well, he never agrees to it. But first, I’ll need a HEV suit. Wait a second, am I naked? Why did G-Man strip Gordon before placing him in status? That explains why Alyx keeps making small talk and glancing down.

Now suited up and set free, I’m off to reach Eli and help take down the Combine using a mix of shooter and adventure experiences. We make our way through decrepit buildings and sewers which give way to a barren countryside and receding seas, all of it layered with Combine machinery and industry as they tear apart earth for resources. It all looks very real. Between us and Eli are dozens of Headcrabs, now a Combine bio-weapon. There’s a more skittish version that grows into the Xenomorph-like Fast-Zombie, or as Alyx might say, a Fambie. Those spindly things go. Spotting them leaping across buildings headed for you is exhilarating stuff. Then there’s their poisonous siblings – the rattle-hiss signifying one’s about is so terrifying; a bite reduces your health to 1, which is a brilliant/evil trick. We also meet poor, horrible, groaning victims who are covered in them. Those things really get under my skin with their pitiful, pained calls as they’re eaten alive and I waste valuable grenades making sure they’re out of their misery as soon as possible.

The Combine are out in force looking for Freeman - they are scripted and samey but as far as human-type villains go, they do the job. They also have machinery-infused creatures, including a gunship that can shoot your missiles out of the sky – being tactical with an RPG is a nice touch – and Striders, War of the Worlds Tripods. We also deal with ‘Antlions’, the bugs from Starship Troopers which are swarming pains. So HL2 looks good and fights well; what was I bitching about? After we escape the slums, Freeman gets an airboat to cut across country. This is what I was bitching about.

The boat sequence is all fine and dandy, but it fast becomes filler. It goes on for ages, and we only have Source’s rendering for company. It just feels like it’s showing off, demonstrating different abilities; I have to dive into a pond and place a load of floating barrels to make a ramp so I can jump a wall. It’s just a Source buoyancy showcase. Later I have to swing a girder to knock open a floodgate. During the similar go-kart level, I stop to use a magnet crane to move the kart. It works, but it just feels like I’m playing a demo. And it’s incredibly linear, so those moments feel like I’m at some tech-convention moving between booths; pause to get harassed by magnetic beach-balls that don’t do anything, try to balance cinder-blocks to reach higher levels, look at this magnifying glass; the puzzles, the physics, the locations - those are key to any game but in HL2 it just somehow feels like we’re pausing for a word from our sponsors.

There are standouts to be sure –Ravenholm is still a creepy, horrible, brilliant place while Nova Prospekt, the prison we try to recover Eli from and a suspension bridge we need to clear are great set-pieces, as is the final push to the Citadel, guarded by the huge Striders. There are more subtle elements worth applauding too; Alyx, who is a work of art in every way possible isn’t the only notable character; Ravenholm’s last (human) resident, Father Gregori is an insane change from the usual support acts and his presumed fate is horrible and brings home what’s happening to earth. We get to turn the Antlions into manic soldiers we can order about too, they’re great fun and like Gregori, should have been around for a lot longer. The lolloping Vortigaunts are our pals now, having been oppressed by the giant baby it turns out, while the Human resistance is very believable. But the real stand-out is D0g.

D0g is a great side-kick’s side-kick. Scripted to be adorable and heroic, it’s a huge Gorilla-like mech bodyguard for Alyx and even better than I remembered. The scene where we get the gravity gun and ‘play’ with D0g is the best hidden tutorial of all time. His scripted sequences, leaping onto Combine vehicles and knocking the shit out of the troops are great, but it’s his undying love for Alyx and somehow emotive face that stays with you. Good boy.

But as always, every time HL2 convinces me it’s all that, I see through the lies. For every drainpipe ominously rattling in Ravenholm there’s a moment that feels forced. The gravity gun; critics wet themselves over it, like it was gamer sliced bread. It’s shit. I barely used it first time and this time I’m determined to unlock its secrets. Still shit. The amount of times I try to attract a Buzzsaw blade to eviscerate a zombie only to grab a coffee mug instead. It’s great, if you’re looking to showcase your physics engine; lots of smugly-clever physics puzzles pop up once you get it. Man, Source is cool yeah?

Eventually, we’re inside the Citadel gunning for Breen. Except we had all our guns taken off us. But the G-Gun can now grab and fling Combine soldiers about like ragdolls – all right I get it, Source can ace physics. And to ensure we don’t Skip the Ad, the Citadel vaporises the Combines weapons too. What happens if a soldier puts theirs down? It’s just too convenient. When we finally reach Breen, we stop him escaping by … playing Pong. What the hell is this? This is heroic, flinging balls at a tower? I miss the giant floating baby of HL1. But it’s not over, Freeman’s about to have an episode or two.

Episode One picks up as the Citadel explodes - and it’s about to explode more. So Freeman caused an invasion that decimated humankind and then triggered a blast large enough to finish the rest? Why is this guy our hero?

Hang on, the Combine’s guns are still dissolving, why doesn’t Alyx’s gun? While escaping the Citadel and the G-Gun shenanigans, Alyx uncovers a message about Combine reinforcements leading them into a running firefight with Combine as well as a Ravenholm-style sequence with Zombies, Xen critters and Antlions as we try to escape the city. Ep1 is a quick and clean race once we’re out of the Citadel and a nice little set up Episode Two, where we rejoin Alyx and Freeman freed of the city and lost the countryside. And it does look beautiful. But then Alyx is maimed by new villain, the imaginatively titled ‘hunter’. It’s basically an evil D0g. Thankfully a Vortigaunt is on hand to react more emotionally than Freeman does. We’re then sent into an Antlion nest to evade a marauding Antlion solider until we can reach their ambrosia, which the Vortigaunts need to resuscitate Alyx. It is a beautiful underground labyrinth and a refreshing change in both look and play-style, playing hide and seek with the solider, but it’s followed by a wave battle against now pissed off Antlion drones that feels really dated (there was a similar one at the end of E1). Never fear though, G-Man appears to imply some greater galaxy-wide conspiracy without explaining anything. It’s like one of those middle-management meetings where you realise nothing’s getting done and everyone’s just saying stuff to justify the meeting.

After using the gravity gun to rebalance a swaying bridge (‘Sponsored by Source, for all your gaming needs’) we’re in what looks like the car from Driver. Alyx and I go on a lovely tour of Source’s environmental rendering and blunder into Combine traps before a fantastic scripted moment when D0g puts in a surprise appearance just as we’re about to get stomped on. Finally we reach Eli and the resistance and it all gets really annoying. Hot on our heels are the Hunters and they brought their dads; Striders. Now this should be exhilarating but … it’s an irritating chore.

In order to take down the Striders we have to use a ‘Magnusson Device’ which requires you to drive to Device points, get out, grab it with the G-Gun, load it in the boot, drive to the Strider, get out, pick it up with the G-Gun, fire, swap to weapon, hit and explode the Strider. Now, repeat. If you miss or a Hunter hits the device you start again, while keeping up with the Striders before they reach the base. It’s not a race against time it’s a race against the save button, incrementally improving your odds as you watch in awe at all the physics going on. And why has Alex decided to stay behind? Now she chooses to catch up with Dad?

So we discover Episode 3 (slated for a December 2007 release date, can’t wait!) is going to take place in the Artic, but a Combine Advisor (another steal from Starship Troopers) rocks up and leaves us on a heart-breaking cliff-hanger. I may have been largely unimpressed with the game, but I loved the characters and that is affecting. I want to see it through. I want Episode Three. Goddamn Valve. Good guys my ass.

I’m conflicted. HL2 does have some genuinely great moments. D0g, the headcrab victims, the decaying world and misery of those surviving in it but Freeman’s silent act dates it and it all feels at arms-length because he’s not involved. I feel like an observer and it’s frustrating, because it’s a believable world you want to save from the Combine. It’s like having Star Wars toys you don’t take out of the packaging. Alyx is a quantum leap in companions; she’s not a follower – we’re a team. And she’s such a fangirl. Anything remotely heroic triggers a coo’ing comment and you often catch her glancing at you, smiling. But why? Who is Freeman really? He’s not much of a hero in HL2 – In HL1 he was a regular guy but why did G-Man defrost Freeman for this? He doesn’t do anything in HL2 that required a theoretical scientist and he has no personal part to play. G-Man should have unleashed Shepard. Plus there’s the confusion between HL1 and 2, the neatness of it all, that feeling that HL2 just kinda sails along. Nothing actually happens, nothing is resolved, the Combine aren’t exposed and we don’t get anywhere. It’s a really vague game that at best is setting up for a finale we didn’t get. Arguably it doesn’t even really get going until the end of Episode 2, where we prepare to take the fight to the Combine. Let’s do this! Oh.

I’m not conflicted. HL2 is style over substance and all about Source. It’s as epic as it is empty and it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But I’m still desperate to know how it ends and it’s insanely frustrating that Valve couldn’t see their way to ending it. It’s a huge betrayal of the fans that made Valve what it is. HL2 certainly made enough money to justify HL3 or at least Ep3 (or both, given Gabe occasionally claims the Episodes are HL3; he just wants shot of it). Come on Gabe -the G-Man- give us back our Freeman. Just one more moment with Alyx.

But it won’t happen. The lack of Ep3/HL3 despite HL2’s success proves Valve just didn’t care – if ever. It might have been all about Source, but in the end it’s all about Steam. I’ll never get over the way Steam was forced on us but now I live on it, and until I and the millions of other gamers log off, until we stop Steam accounting for 75% of all digital gaming, Valve will have no reason to resurrect Freeman. But we won’t. I can begrudgingly live without Freeman but I can’t live without Steam. It keeps prices low(ish), there’s support and links and forums; it’s a gamer community. I have over 250 games knocking about in there; I don’t have that kind of shelf space. The best thing about Half-Life 2 was Steam.

Half-Life 2 - 2004 | Episode One - 2006 | Episode Two - 2007

Developer/Publisher Valve Corporation Win/Steam, PS3, X360

#FPS #scifi #vaporware #freeman #action #blastfromthepast #sequel #FBT