2004 Retrospective: Half Life 2

Half Life 2 turned 10 this year, though it was only 7 years ago that I first played it in The Orange Box. So, how is City 17 holding up?

Well, for a game that’s 10 years old I was still impressed by the visuals. It does some things better than even newer games, water for instance. Why does the water in Half Life 2 look better than the water in Skyrim? Some of it is visual trickery on the part of the Source Engine. According to developer commentary the water is rendered three times. 1) The reflection of everything above the water. 2) The refraction of everything below the water. 3) The player’s view of the water. Valve’s smarts keeps an old engine looking fine. Textures here and there could use an upgrade, but otherwise Half Life 2 is still a great-looking game.

Another thing that holds up is the combat. Half Life 2 lets you take on a wide variety of opponents in unique settings. Fighting Combine and Headcrab forces underneath the bridge is nerve-racking and fun. The Combine can feel bullet-spongey at times, but I never felt like the fights were unfair. As the player, it’s up to you to use your noggin at times. You have to do more than think about taking cover. It’s not like your health will just regenerate if you wait long enough. You can and will get stuck in situations where you have to think about how to survive. How to use the Gravity Gun to kill what you can, preserve ammo. The pacing of combat left me feeling exhausted – all I’m doing is fighting, fighting, fighting. Interesting encounters against airships, helicopters, antlions, zombies, and striders are welcome.

The only thing that felt unwelcome at times were puzzles. Or rather, I welcomed puzzles as a breath of fresh air, a chance to put down guns for a second – but the quality of puzzles did not stand up. Many of them just feel like tech demos, while others were like poor platformers. Maybe I liked them the first time through all those years ago – but well lets talk about “Sandtraps.” The chapter is “Tremors,” don’t touch the sand, and monsters won’t attack you. Great concept, except that the physics drives me crazy. I as a player am trying to build a bridge of objects to cross the sand. Funky controls and even less stable physics make it a much harder task than it should be. Picking up and placing objects with the Gravity Gun was just not as fun as I remembered, nor as easy.

Revisiting Half Life 2 was fun at times, and sometimes frustrating. The thing that kept driving me forward was story though, and this little trip down memory lane made me thirsty for more Half Life. The state of the world in Half Life 2 is intensely engaging. The Uprising – appropriately exciting. Most of all, the mystery of Breen, G-Man, and the Combine will keep me thinking all night. What would Half Life 2: Episode Three would have been? What’s going to happen? What will Half Life 3 be? I’m glad I revisited Half Life 2 if only because I remembered how good it is, and was able to appreciate how well it aged. In other ways, revisiting Half Life 2 has frustrated me, because oh my god – it’s been 10 years and we haven’t closed the door on City 17.


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