Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Half-Life 2 (PC)

The Steam Summer Sale (2013) is still dragging on, doing it's best to tempt me into poverty, so I figured that today I'd have a quick replay of the first hour or so of the first ever game I added to my Steam library to take my mind off the deals.

Steam wasn't actually launched with Half-Life 2 back in 2004, it predates the game by a whole year in fact, but this is what pulled the mainstream to the service, kicking and screaming (and whining on forums). This was the first single-player game to require online activation and man that was a lot of fun at the time.

(Click the pics to super-size them. Warning: this article contains more than your recommended daily allowance of words.)

I'm sure you know already that I didn't make this, but I'm mentioning it anyway.
I remember getting Half-Life 2 on DVD (as was the fashion at the time) and trying to install it on my gaming PC, which didn't actually have an internet connection. I vaguely knew about the online DRM at the time, but I was hoping it wasn't so bad. Maybe it was optional, maybe it was just for updates or deathmatch, I thought. Nope, I had to unplug my PC and carry it out on an adventure, to connect it to another machine which did have internet to authenticate the single player game that I'd bought on disc. It was only then that I found out that authentication meant it had to spend the next 70 thousand hours decrypting the bloody game as well. So I played Unreal Tournament across the network I'd set up instead.

I gotta say, I was not initially endeared to Steam's service. Though I spent the next month addicted to Counter-Strike Source so I guess it didn't take me long to forgive them, and the service has gotten way better since then...

What, seriously? It's Decryption 2: Content Conversion, the long awaited second instalment in the Authentication saga. Man, I don't give a rat's ass how efficient my files are, I just want to play the game I have installed! It was fine as it was!

I suppose I'll be coming back to this in a few hours then.


Hey, the game has a level select! Well, a chapter select, almost as good.

I always appreciate it when a developer gives me the option to replay my favourite sections of a game without having to mess around with saves or replay through the entire game up to that point. It doesn't suit every game (I wouldn't expect to find it in an Elder Scrolls game for instance), but it'd be nice to see the feature turn up more often that it does.

The game starts pretty much exactly where Half-Life 1 ended, with MIT-educated action hero physicist Gordon Freeman trapped in a black void with the sinister G-Man all up in his face, after accepting his job offer. The Source engine's facial animation system was pretty impressive at the time (especially compared to the original game's simple mouth flapping), so it makes sense they'd begin by showing it off in extreme close up. Not the prettiest face they could've chosen though.

G-Man explains that Dr Freeman has been left to sleep in this place for... an unspecified non-trivial amount of time, as despite his talent for making things explode, all the effort in the world would have been wasted until now. But Freeman's time has at last come again and he's been tasked with going back into the world and doing... something. G-Man doesn't feel the inclined to tell us what the job is, he's far too amused by the idea that no one but him has a clue what's going on, but I suppose we'll know it when we see it.

He was pretty damn vague with how much we're getting paid for this too now that I think about it.

Oh, I guess the super detailed faces were only handed out to the starring roles.

Like the first game, this also starts with the player stuck on a train ride, but fortunately its considerable shorter. Over five minutes shorter in fact. Shame I can't talk to people and ask them where we are or what we're doing here though. Shame I can't talk at all in fact.

Crap, I've just realised something. Everyone here is dressed in the same blue outfit and not one person has expressed any surprise at seeing a man appear on their train wearing a bright orange shiny HEV suit. You know what that means? It means that bastard G-Man must have stripped Gordon in his sleep and swapped his clothes.

Immediately after stepping off the train it became clear that something is not quite right here. I was harassed by a hovering surveillance bot, while a man in futuristic riot gear shoved one of the other passengers over for having the audacity to bring his luggage with him.

The guy on the holographic propaganda screen seems friendly at least, as he welcomes us all to City 17, apparently 'one of our finest remaining urban centers'. Which had me worried for a second, but then he mentioned that "it's safer here" so I'm feeling a lot better now. I have to give the man credit, it is not easy to put a positive spin on the subjugation of humanity by a despotic regime, but he's really putting his heart into it.

Meanwhile I had my heart set on leaving the station and going to out into the street, but these gentlemen seem to think I should instead go left through the door marked 'Nova Prospekt', and I'm hardly in a position to refuse them.

Fortunately one of the goons turned out to be my old friend Barney in disguise, one of the security guards who helped me out back during the Black Mesa incident in the first game, and he brings me through to an interrogation room where we can talk safely. This plays out just like a Half Life 1 cutscene, with Gordon being locked in the room until the talking is over, except now the characters are capable of expressing emotion with their face and body movement.

Actually now that the relevant brain cells have had a chance to warm up, I think I remember the Blue Shift expansion establishing that Barney was actually the guy you see out of the train window right at the start and never meet in game.

But anyway, I have finally been given a purpose in life! My task is to escape the station out of the window and meet up with my old college Dr Kleiner in his lab nearby. We're in a bit of a rush though, so I'm basically shoved out of the room before anyone can give me a map or even point me in the right direction.

City 17 doesn't actually look as bad as I would've expected from a nightmarish future metropolis. The sun's out, the air seems pretty clear, the buildings are intact and there are even some plants around. There's only one giant oppressive skyscraper on the skyline and it's not even covered in adverts or spitting out fire. You know if it wasn't for the tanks patrolling the streets, the high-tech checkpoint barriers, and the armed goons beating up civilians, this would be a reasonably pleasant Eastern European town. Though it's pretty disturbing that everyone here seems to be American (and I don't just mean they have American accents). This is the capital city of Earth right now and if everyone's being moved here, that must mean the original occupants aren't around anymore, and there aren't many of us left.

The man on the holo screen in the station earlier mentioned that 'our benefactors' have put up a suppression field to prevent reproduction, and this empty playground hammers that home. Plus it also gives me an opportunity to try to catapult a creepy doll across the yard by throwing bricks at a see-saw! Yay!

After coming to terms with the fact that I'd never be able to launch the thing further than a meter, I gave up and carried on with my walk, trusting in fate to guide me to Kleiner's lab. Well that and the fact that there's only ever one path or door for me to take. In this case, that door leading inside that building in front of me.

Looks like those Civil Protection goons are raiding somebody's apartment, but who cares about that, take a look at this door on the right! Forget advanced facial animation and real time physics, that effect on the glass is the most impressive thing I've seen in the game so far. That and the subtle orange gleam coming off the wallpaper. It's mesmerising.
Oh hey guys, sorry for breaking into your apartment, but I had literally nowhere else in the world to go.

Crap, I started shaking your TV around for a bit and now smoke's coming out of it. Would it be okay if I threw it at that tank outside? It's just that I have a real urge to take that guy's smug face and launch it somewhere. Oh don't mind the fact that my hands are invisible, it's a condition I have. I don't have any legs either.

I get the feeling I might have taken a wrong turn somewhere, as this doesn't look like the path to anyone's lab. Also Civil Protection don't seem to appreciate my daredevil rooftop leaping skills and have started opening fire from the streets below, which is a bit of a concern as I'm not currently equipped with my iconic suit of bullet resistant powered armour.

But it would drain all the tension out of this thrilling escape scene if new players found themselves repeatedly shot dead in a single hit, so Valve came up with an interesting new mechanic for this section: if I take damage the screen momentary turns red, and gets more saturated with each successive hit until Freeman is dead. Ducking out to safety for a few seconds returns the screen to normal.

Yep the Half-Life franchise had regenerating health a whole year before the Call of Duty series did. They could've used it for the whole game, but chose not to. Instead they packaged it up and shipped it over to Chell in the Portal games instead, who found she was a much better fit for it.

Sadly Gordon Freeman's thrilling escape had an undignified ending, as he wandered aimlessly for a while, fell down some stairs and then got himself knocked out by Civil Protection. Fortunately Alyx Vance, the daughter of one of his Black Mesa colleges, was conveniently close by and rushed to his to his rescue. Then she led him to Dr Kleiner's lab, which turned out by pure coincidence to be hidden inside the very building we'd blindly ran towards. Funny that.

By the way, the DR>BREENS PRIVATE RESERVE machines have always confused me, as there's no way it can be a typo, it's too obvious, but why else would it be written like that? Well it turns out that the cans just have ">B" printed on them, so it's actually the logo for the drink. So that mystery is at last solved.

Oh incidentally, these achievements were added around five years after the game's release I believe, so that's how I'm earning them now despite having played all this before. This particular one seems to be unlocked after I find 45 different secret caches? Yeah I don't think I'll be getting my hopes up.

Inside the secret lab, Dr Kleiner, Alyx and Barney all meet up to explain how they're going to use science to teleport me to yet another secret lab. I've got no choice but to wait the cutscene out, but fortunately I've been given a toy to play with to keep me occupied: a little mini teleporter!

In fact I kinda ran out of cutscene a while ago and now the other characters are getting impatient for me to hurry up and put my HEV suit on. Well I'm sorry guys, but I'm not quite finished jamming CRT computer monitors into this teleporter and watching them spring out across the room from the other pad, so it looks like YOU'RE going to have to stand there and wait for a bit for once yourselves.

Incidentally there's no clumsy exposition to fill in the backstory here. They haven't explained a thing about what happened to put the world into this sorry state, as it seems they have no idea I didn't live through it like they did and it's not like I can tell them otherwise.


Half-Life 2 HEV suit Kleiner's lab
Okay fine, let's put this thing on so my associates can stop whining and move onto the next bit of cutscene. So what do they want me to do here anyway? It'd better not involve standing dangerously close to a spinning piece of high voltage super-science hardware while arcs of energy flicker and dance and rip a new hole in the fabric of space/time around me, because everyone present should know better than that by now.


Well the good news is that everyone survived. The bad news is that I'm going to have to go the long way to the other lab now, and the giant blue tower in the middle of town just opened up to spit out about a billion little flying enemies into the sky to hunt me down.

On the plus side, I've just got my crowbar back (time to crowbar: 20 minutes). Now I'm actually capable of fighting back against these assholes!

Okay then, my own personal goal for the game now shall be to play it long enough to reach this other lab. Only then will I have my permission to turn it off.

Aww shit, they're shooting at me from the top of trains! I can't do a damn thing here but stick my tail between my legs, run away and cower behind a wall. I'm still just as useless as ever. Also my regenerating health has been revoked and replaced with a classic health meter, so I really need to get out of the open and back onto the right path.

Hang on, I just heard someone yelling for help.

I came running down the corridor, only to find that these two had already beaten a man to death. And now they've noticed me.

You could accuse the game of having a slow start, but after 25 minutes of helplessly watching these assholes torturing people, assaulting them, and raiding their houses in support of an oppressive occupying force determined to drive humanity to extinction, well I'm feeling properly motivated now to hammer my left mouse button until they're nothing but a bloody stain on the floor.

Oh shit, I just realised the guy on the left is carrying a pistol...

I love pistols! Especially when I can headshot someone in two hits and recieve a satisfying 'beeeeep' from their radio as a reward (plus a kill confirmation). That's one big change from the first game that I can fully support.

Gordon still can't aim down sights, but he's superhumanly accurate so he doesn't really need to. If I'm standing still anything in my crosshairs is going to lose their head.

Oh c'mon, don't tell me I have to go in the murky brown water! I don't care how pretty it is, it's still only going to be taking me one place and that's a bloody sewer level. Though it is surprisingly pretty for its age; look at all those reflections!


Hey, this isn't a sewer. It looks more like... a physics puzzle (i.e. a 'move all the bricks into one place' mini-game.) But like with the facial animation, they made the effort with the tech, so it's only fair that they get to show it off.

This kind of physics technology was nothing new even in 2004, it's based on the popular Havok engine and Jurassic Park: Trespasser was doing the same thing six years earlier, but you couldn't say it was common either. Probably because Trespasser was a total disaster and developers didn't see the point in implementing such an awkward feature when no one had demonstrated yet how it could be used to benefit gameplay.

Being able to stack bricks on a plank wasn't exactly hailed the revolutionary next step in game design at the time, but fortunately it's just a warm up for what comes later. Much later.

This game really mixes up its gameplay at a breakneck pace, sending me through combat zones, obstacle courses and simple puzzles rooms, as I sprint from one scripted event to another. I'm never stuck doing one thing for long. For example: a minute ago I was stacking up bricks and now I'm getting hunted down by an invulnerable assault gunship helicopter that likes to shredding my cover into shrapnel.

I actually suffered my first death in the game here, as I was caught out in the open with absolutely no clue where to go. Despite the level designer's efforts to make me to stop right here for a moment, it never even occurred to me that I could open that blue door on the left to escape. Nine times out of ten, doors in this are part of the wallpaper.

Now on the other hand if they'd added that awesome window effect to the door, then it would've had my complete attention, gunship or not.

See, this is what I meant by 'scripted event' earlier. Not a cutscene for me to sit through, or a QTE, or some bullshit like that. Just... an event.

The exploding barrels in this game are amazing by the way. They don't explode into fireballs, they POP with enough force to send the other barrel that's inevitably next to it flying right at me. I love that these Combine troops are often actively trying to use the red barrels against me instead of hiding behind them like most video game enemies, and I love that it always backfires on them anyway.


Well it appears that by pure fluke I've been travelling down the Underground Railroad, a series of stations used by the Resistance to smuggle refugees through the canals and out of the city under the nose of the Combine. Of course I ruined all that by bringing down the wrath of Civil Protection down upon them, but they're not holding it against me. In fact I'm pretty much a hero to them for sorting out that Black Mesa issue in the first game (they even use my Lambda symbol as their logo), and they want me to take their boat to get to the second lab.

I don't have the heart to tell her that this is a first person shooter and I can't actually drive vehicles. I don't have the voice to tell her either now that I think about it.

Freeman can drive the boat! He doesn't seem to be using his hands (or legs for that matter), but the boat is being driven by sheer force of will regardless.

I was expecting this thing to be sluggish and handle like a brick, but it's actually pretty nimble. Also this game tends to look fantastic whenever I get near water (see above), so I get the feeling this is going to be one of the prettier chapters.

But then I barely manage to take my hovercraft around a corner or two before I'm back indoors again, looking for a way to open up a gate. The game's made up of mini levels, stitched together with loading screens (so many loading screens), each presenting a slightly different challenge from the last. Much the same as Half-Life 1, in fact.

In the this case the challenge is 'oh look a bunch of enemies just spawned when you left the safety of cover to walk up those stairs and now they're all shooting you!', and I just failed it. My second death in the game. These guys mostly just stand still and shoot at me so a confrontation like this isn't exactly an epic battle of wits, but at the same time I can't really outsmart a spray of incoming bullets or survive them for long either, so running right at the bastards probably wasn't the ideal tactic.

Then it loads the last checkpoint save and I have to suffer the indignity of having to replay the last 5 seconds of the level again (somehow I think I'll get over it though.)

It's always nice to reach the health and armour wall machines, it's like I've reached a goal and I can stop and take a breath for a couple of seconds.

And then that bastard helicopter comes back to shoot its weird negative lasers at me again and ruins my moment. Such a weird effect, it's like it's firing anti-light at me. Whatever it is, it bloody hurts. A lot of games around this time used helicopters for boss fights, but I'd be an idiot if I tried to fight back against this thing. I need to make my way around to this gate switch using the shipping crates for cover and then get back to my boat where I'm safer.


I think it's starting to get dark out now.

Crap, there are two tanks up there firing missiles at me and I have no idea where to go next. It seems there's a path behind those pillars leading around to a jump, but there's no way to get in there.

I've had a gun attached to my hovercraft with recharging ammo but I get the feeling that facing off again a pair of tanks is going to leave me worse off, so I'll just keep circling while I try to figure this out.

Well, it was worth a try. The other container is a dead end, plus it's too small to get the boat inside anyway. I am really genuinely stuck here, and it doesn't help that those two tanks are still shooting pieces off my boat.


After three or four deaths I managed to get the boat inside in the end by jumping off a pile of trash, but it wasn't easy. So I went off looking for the proper way in and look, there are explosive barrels to blow the bloody doors off the shipping container sitting inside. Sure would have been nice to have some clue about their existence earlier so I would've known to squeeze between the logs on foot and detonate them with my pistol.

So let me work this out, so far that's:
  • 1 death to that helicopter because I didn't know I could open a door.
  • 2 deaths to Civil Protection troops because I tried running at a group of them after they appeared instead of getting my ass back into cover.
  • 4 deaths to figure out this puzzle.
It's not a very challenging game so far. At least not on medium difficulty.

Oh, seems I spoke too soon about the helicopter not being a boss fight. It's back again and this time it's either him or me, and he's using impossible alien bomb storage technology against me. Yeah I know it's a bit unfair that I can carry like 10 different weapons on my back simultaneously (plus grenades!), but the amount of bombs he's spraying out is on a whole other level.

Fortunately I still had that gun bolted on the side of my boat, so this time I was able to give him a taste of his own anti-light lasers (they taste like revenge.)

Vortigaunt kitchen Judith Mossman
And with the boss fight over I was able to drive right up to the second lab in peace! Actually no there was another section after the helicopter, but I'm skipping ahead so I can finish this off.

Hey look, they've got Vortigaunt chefs in their kitchen. Turns out the three-armed aliens are pretty decent blokes when you get to know them (and after they've been freed from their mind controlled slavery). Makes me feel a bit guilty about the whole 'beating hundreds of them to death with a crowbar' thing that I did in Half-Life 1.

I'm joking obviously. I always used the shotgun against Vortigaunts.

Anyway that's as far as I'm going with Half-Life 2. I mean I have to stop somewhere and this seems a sensible enough place, before the plot kicks in again and sends me somewhere else. I think I've seen enough of the game now to get a good idea of how it plays anyway, I mean it's not likely to be dropping any game-changing concepts on me any time soon...

Oh dammit.

This handy handheld Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator Gravity Gun I picked up from the lab is the true showcase for the physics engine in this game, as it's able to carry and fire off almost anything around me. In fact it has a number of functions that change how combat plays out.
  • It can fire a saw blade at zombies to surgically remove the headcrab parasite attached to their cranium (along with everything else above the waist).
  • It can fire barrels into more barrels, which can then go on to blow up an entire room full of zombies.
  • It can flip tables. And then fire them at zombies.
  • It can send me on a mad heroic dash through a horde of zombies whenever I run out of blades/furniture on a desperate quest to find more sharp things, despite having a perfectly good stash of bullets to fire at them.
But the game didn't give me the achievement for sticking with the device exclusively throughout the entire Ravenholm town, so I really am turning this off now. In protest.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Half-Life 2 as it's been almost a decade since I finished it last and games have moved on a bit since then, but it quickly latched on to me and pulled me right back in, like one of those barnacle creatures with the tongue that likes to lurk on dark ceilings. I gave the game ample chance to piss me off and aside from that confusion with the shipping container doors it has utterly failed so far to do so. My biggest complaint with it really is that it inspired me to write all these words and I can't play the game and type this up simultaneously.

The graphics have dated quite a bit, with the flat textures doing nothing to hide how boxy the levels can be. It's apparently lacking the normal mapping magic that made Doom 3 look so incredible the same year. But the art design hasn't aged even slightly so it still looks great. It has good sound too: the music and the effects. One thing I noticed this time around is how you can locate each enemy by their own distinct sound: Civil Protection from their radio chatter, the Manhacks from their high pitched whine, the Poison Headcrabs by the rattlesnake sound etc. Man I hate that sound.

In fact I think the thing that dates the game most compared to modern shooters is just the lack of iron sights. It's a fast paced rollercoaster ride down a narrow linear path broken up into set pieces and bite-sized chucks of various varieties of first person shooter gameplay with dumb AI, smart level design and just enough freedom provided to allow you to tackle situations using your own tactics. So pretty much a sequel to Half-Life then.

Recommended, basically. Even if you've played it before.

Well that's Half-Life 2 out of the way then, finally. Maybe now Valve will relent and give me Half-Life 3 to play. Or perhaps Gabe Newell's simply waiting to see what comments you guys leave in the message box below before making his final decision on whether the world is ready for more Half-Life. You can't prove that he's not!


  1. Nah, half life 3? Pffft. Tell Gaben To NOT make it.

    (Thousands of people beat me to death with crowbars)

  2. Hey, Ray, have you played Bioshock Infinite? It's probably the best story-driven shooter since Half-Life 2. I'm sure you'll like it if you're a fan of the second HL game.

    1. And yeah, Infinite feels kinda like HL2 while it's predecessors were more like System Shock + HL1 mix.

    2. I have played Bioshock Infinite and I was very impressed... when it wasn't killing me with turrets, making me fight ghosts, or giving me a game over every time I failed to defend that glowing blue column from a fleet of airships. To be honest it's mostly faded from my memory now, but yeah I think it'd be fair to say it's a student of the Half-Life 2 school of game design. I mean it's literally on rails at times.

  3. I've said the same things about Steam! (look on Amazon on my review of Fallout: New Vegas and what I said about Steam under Robert Kiehn btw).


Semi-Random Game Box