If I were a bit more like the rest of the universe and a bit less like myself, two things would be true: One: I'd begin this article with a definition of the scientific meaning of "half-life," or Two: This article would simply never be written. Unfortunately I can neither start this article with a definition of "half-life" which would lead into the witty observation that, by all means, Half-Life 2 by definition is only half as good as the original Half-Life, nor can I ignore my burning necessity to inform the gaming masses that Half-Life 2 is not the end-all, be-all hallmark of gaming ecstasy and bliss. Do keep in mind that this is entirely an analysis of the game from a game developer's and a gamer's perspective; in short, this is not a review, but I heard you can get one of those things from other sites.
Before City 17
Let me say that I loved the original Half-Life. I played through it, and then I played through the Opposing Force expansion pack, and I do regard the game as one of the most fun and influential games to ever be released. With that game's excellence branded into my squishy brain's core by means of a combination of stamp plus hot metal, it was only natural for me to get unnaturally excited for the release of Half-Life 2. The first videos released of the Source engine tech demo (along with a few gameplay bits) from E3 2003 made me almost weep with a sense of superfluous joy and excitement. On Monday, November 15th, 2004 I did nothing except read up on Half-Life 2 articles and threads across a number of forums, the excitement for the imminent release building up inside my body until I began pissing little lambda symbols on frequent trips to the bathroom from the heavy caffeine intake required to keep me up well beyond the November 16th, 2004 3:00am unlock time. It was late at night, and I was just refreshing The Shack constantly. Twenty minutes until unlock. Fifteen. Ten. Five. One minute remaining. Ten seconds... And it's Live. I was one of the lucky few to get the game unlocked fairly fast. And then, the time had come:
And I played for two hours at that point, got a few hours of sleep, and then skipped class the next day so I could continue playing all day. And the day after that, at roughly 1:00pm, I had the game beaten. And I walked away from my computer at that point and said aloud to myself: "What a waste."
Reasons For the Hate
Half-Life 2's introduction, the first twenty-thirty minutes of the game (which I just replayed through before writing this), is probably the sole reason for my not bashing the game as a complete failure as a sequel to the legendary Half-Life. The game opens up with the mysterious G-Man from the first game, spewing such foreshadowing statements like "The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world," and the screen doing a whole bunch of special screen-ops that make the feeling conveyed to the player all the more ominous (inverse color filters are obviously a sign of pure, unadulterated evil). The player is let out of a train station, and instantly is shown a big television-like billboard with an old man speaking about City 17 and talking about "our benefactors." Oh, 1984 please hold me and don't let go. What follows is a very immersive, and incredibly well-done series of exploration and action sequences culminating in a rooftop chase from the visually and motivationally ambiguous guards that appear to be abusing all the citizens of City 17.
The first tinge of disappointment I felt with Half-Life 2 came when I was first given a gun, replacing my trusty crowbar, which let me face the combine in a toe-to-toe battle. And this gun... is a little shiny silver thing that makes a pea-shooting 9mm baretta in Resident Evil look like a damn rocket launcher. This little gun neither had a deadly feel nor a deadly sound to it, and was the first instance in the game that brought me out of City 17 and back to reality with a "What the hell was Valve thinking?" exclamation to the empty room I was playing the game in. Being given a gun was fairly disappointing on its own, because actually being able to dispatch the combine with a few bullets really made them far less scary and intimidating, ruining the excitement that had been building and building up to that point.
And the rest of the game just went downhill from there for me (sans one moment, but I'll return to that). My feeling while I was playing through the game and even now as I write this is that Half-Life 2 never had a consistent "vision" in what it really wanted to be. One of the most important aspects of a game is that all the elements combine to form one thing: a brilliant, cohesive gaming experience. The introduction to Half-Life 2 was fantastic, perhaps one of the best times I've ever had in my history of gaming, but after that, it felt like there was another "director" in charge while I was trying escape Kleiner's lab. Another "director" while I went through the incredibly repetitive Ravenholm sequence. Another for the ant-lion sequence, the prison sequence, and so on and so forth. Every hour of gameplay was like Valve was trying a different experiment with gameplay, and while this would work if Half-Life 2 were split into a variety of "episodes" or releases, it does not work when playing through a single, continuous adventure experienced through a single character in the timespan of a single day (the TV show 24 suffers a similar fate when trying to watch through all twenty-four episodes in a row, but is more acceptable when you watch all twenty-four episodes in a week-by-week progression).
It may be that Valve intended to build these various types of gameplay on top of each other in an effort to ease the player into the game, and eventually make the player take all this knowledge at one point and use it for the rest of the game, but this never happens. Each segment of the game does not teach the player any of the necessities for the rest of the game (other than the bit where the player got to play fetch with Dog having just gotten the gravity gun). A new segment occurs, it may be fun for a few minutes, but the game simply drags on and on until the player is tired of the segment, and then Half-Life 2 takes a completely new direction turning a blind eye to the previous one for the rest of the game. There is no better example of this than the ant-lion "weapon" that you can use to focus a small group of ant-lions on an opponent, buying time for the player to run away or do something. This technique was only usable for a brief forty-five minutes of play, and then it could never be used again. Similarly with the cool environmental physics tricks in Ravenholm; sure, you could use the gravity gun for the rest of the game, but you never got to use features of the environment (like an enemy standing on a wooden platform) again quite like you could in Ravenholm.
The original Half-Life worked because it actually felt like I was Gordon Freeman in a desperate attempt to both escape from Black Mesa and save the scientists while trying to do so. The gameplay never really got repetitive because it was kept varied through a wide variety of enemies and bosses that were constantly keeping me, as a player, trying to refine my strategy for dealing with them. Half-Life 2 had very little variety in the actual enemies, so it tried keeping the gameplay varied through far more obvious means: throwing the player into very, very different situations, and never actually letting the player decide how to do things. I was never told how to best kill enemies in Half-Life, I just had to figure things out for myself, but in Half-Life 2, certain areas could only be "passed" by using certain features of the game. I could summon ant-lions to help me get past guard towers, but I could never summon them after that to help me in a situation I thought they could be used for. I could only, really, get rid of striders by using a rocket launcher (I would've preferred a "sweet spot" where I could use the weapon of my choice and had the rocket launcher as a "fire anytime" weapon that I had to conserve ammo with). There was very little room for my input as a player in Half-Life 2, I just had to play through the game as Valve wanted me to.
And speaking of enemies, where were all of my favorite Half-Life monsters? The only enemies I ever got to see were headcrabs (plus headcrab variation #2), three differently uniformed combine, ant-lions, and striders. The original Half-Life had everything from mutated dogs, to giant fish, a big alien plant, ninjas, mercenaries, and more. And there was only one instance in Half-Life 2 where these things actually fought each other (ant-lions vs. combine). What the hell happened to all the monsters from Black Mesa? We know it was nuked, and we obviously a number of aliens and such escaped (there was a war that the Combine won), so there has to be more of them somewhere, or else things like the ant-lions simply wouldn't exist at all.
Which leads me directly into my next point: the game's story, which I felt was handled perfectly within the first half-hour of the game through detailed character interactions, random conversations heard by the player, and a really cool way to handle part of the back-story (part of the back-story; I still wanted to know more). The story that's actually presented to the player is fairly weak, and lacks the kind of "intrigue" that the first game had, such as the government forces coming in to Black Mesa to cover-up the entire event, when the player was thinking they were coming to actually help Gordon and the scientists. Instead we get a weak plot twist where one of the characters, whom Alyx disliked (wow, that wasn't a big enough of a hint), is a traitor to the rest of the good characters. I was really looking forward to a more complex and more "visible" storyline in the game, but that may just be a personal preference, so I won't belabor the idea too much. Also, I don't buy that it had a really deep storyline that I had to "pay attention closely" to understand; I'm a big fan of the "show don't tell" writing mantra, but Half-Life 2's "deeper story" simply wasn't present. I'll understand if Valve wanted the player to create their own ideas about the story, but that does not mean Valve had something specific in mind while creating the game.
Finally in this laundry list of hatred, I wanted to comment on one very sorely lacking feature of the engine that I felt Valve should have done anything to improve: the level-loading. While replaying the game's introduction, my immersion into the game simply kept getting broken up with every level load. To this day, I wonder why Valve didn't do everything in their power to try and suppress the level loads into as small a number as possible. It seems to me that this feature would've improved the overall flow of game better than the inclusion of a pretty pixel shader effect thrown in somewhere.
Basically, it just comes down to one statement: Half-Life 2 is a good experience at times, but it fails in its attempt at being a good game. It takes a lot of steps in the right direction, but the jumbled mess of gameplay ideas just isn't nearly cohesive or tight enough to form a solid gaming experience. Valve simply did not show enough restraint in the use of their technology to form an efficient game, but rather was too aroused by their own work, and threw in an entire level of only being able to use the gravity gun, an hour-long segment of nothing but strider fighting (every strider I killed after the first did nothing except diminish the accomplishment I felt the first time), "puzzles" consisting only of "clever" usage of physics, and so on. If nothing else, the one thing I want people to take away from this article is this: clever usage of barrel or crate physics does not make a game more immersive or more unique
Half-Life 2 had the potential to be an amazing game, but it just squandered it so many ways that I can only point to very specific things in particular and say "Yeah, that's cool, I hope people continue that," rather than hold up a box of the game and say "We need more of this."