We deal in retrospective coverage quite a lot, and as a result I've grown fairly philosophical about precisely what it means to write about "classic" games (read: old games) that hail from a time when I was already not precisely young. Still, every once in a while we ding an anniversary that sets my sense of mortality screaming to life. And here's one of them: Half-Life 2 turns 10 this week.
I've been trying to figure out what exactly it is about Half-Life 2 hitting the decade mark that reminds me that we're nothing but brief, shriveling bags of meat clinging to a wet ball of rock as it hurtles around an ageless nuclear explosion. I think part of the problem is that, 10 years later, there's still no Half-Life 3... and that particular unicorn seems even less likely at this point to materialize into being than The Last Guardian.
Things like Assassin's Creed being seven years old? Sure, I can buy that; its sequels (like the descendent of Abraham) number greater than the sands upon the beach. But Half-Life 2, wow, weren't we just playing that the other day? Have we really spent a decade waiting in growing frustration for Valve to get on with its cliffhanger? Did the most recent chapter of Half-Life, HL2 Episode Two, actually debut a mere month before the aforementioned Assassin's Creed. Damn.
On this most terrifying of anniversaries, I decided to spend some time trying to reconcile my feelings about Half-Life as a whole. I can't think of a game that creates a more complex mix of emotions for me. Every time I think of Half-Life, my memories come wrapped in the warm cotton wool of happiness as I remember the series' atmosphere, its unique weapons, its evocative environments, its immersive plotting. In the crystalline suspension of the past, Half-Life 2 brings nothing but happiness.
But god almighty, I sure do hate playing the games.
What's up with that?
Well, it's possible you hate playing Half-Life 2 because its ten-year anniversary reminds you of our not-too-distant futures as a worm banquet, but I'm guessing it's a little more complicated than that.
I'm no Half-Life fanboy or anything, so I can see where you're coming from: It's by no means a flawless game. I don't necessarily agree with the most common complaints, but I will say it's waaay too long, and, despite the well-crafted atmosphere, playing through Ravenholm is the absolute pits for me—I can't get into a level seemingly built around jump-scares. (I'm also a massive baby.) The common complaint about the vehicle sections being long stretches of nothing makes sense to me, but I guess it boils down to a matter of taste: Cruising around in a boat or dune buggy gave me a view of Half-Life 2's world outside of the cramped City 17, and I loved investigating the dilapidated houses and other bite-sized attractions dotting the landscape. Even if most of them had one of those poison headcrab zombies hidden within.
Despite how much it advanced the genre, Half-Life 2's game play still keeps many aspects of the late '90s PC shooter, which may be where your frustration comes in. Halo introduced recharging health three years prior, so having to save-scum your way through Half-Life 2 always felt a little unnecessary to me. I'm not saying they had to borrow Halo's mechanic directly, but, by 2004, quick-saving and loading my way through Gordon Freeman's second adventure felt pretty antiquated. I guess I could just be better at the game, but Half-Life 2 feels as if it's designed around the save-scum mechanic so the player can rapidly prototype many different approaches to any given situation.
So yeah, the game isn't perfect. But can you name anything specifically that rubs you the wrong way?
It's funny, because none of the stuff you mention seems particularly egregious to me. The vehicle sections come off as kind of boring compared to something like Halo or Tribes, but they're hardly indefensible. Ravenholm is no worse or better than any other section of the game that focuses heavily on combat, and it makes great use of audio cues to build tension — I find it pretty low on pure jump scares, because you can hear the distinctive rattle of one of those damnable poison headcrabs long before you see it. I don't even mind the save structure.
I guess my problem is that Half-Life 2 always looks best from the outside. As a whole, it's an interesting journey through a bleak world, and many of its key story elements are only ever hinted at… but never in a "buy the supplemental novel" sense. But the game kind of breaks down at the moment-to-moment level, because what you're doing at any given moment is rarely much fun. Sometimes it's impossibly far-removed from fun, in fact.
When I think about Half-Life 2, I think about how evocative the whole thing is. When I play it, I'm stuck doing dumb crap like putting sheets of plywood and metal across the sand, meticulously, one by one, to prevent worms from eating me. I'm doing dumb physics "puzzles" to build a ramp or whatever — gotta show off that Havoc engine! I'm setting up turrets in a prison for an awful precursor to the tower defense genre. I'm doing dopey jumping puzzles in a museum for some stupid reason. For every cool moment in the game, like slicing open headcrabs by using saw blades and paint cans as makeshift weapons, there are several parts that just make me close my eyes and sigh in annoyance.
I feel like the Half-Life games rely way too much on trial-and-error, and unfortunately the episodes only made it worse. That part with the ant lion underground was possibly the most annoying exercise in blind guesswork and rote memorization I've played in the past generation. And I suppose that style of game isn't inherently bad or wrong, but it's so antithetical to how Valve and fans alike present Half-Life. It's supposed to be this dynamic, wonderful, reactive, super-smart shooter with brilliant AI and stuff, but in practice it really feels like a dry run for the "roller coaster" style of shooter Call of Duty has honed to a Hollywood edge. Probably not coincidentally, Modern Warfare launched at the same as Half-Life 2 Episode Two and Assassin's Creed, and I kind of wonder if one reason we haven't seen more Half-Life is because Valve is having a hard time coming up with something that won't seem overtly Call of Duty-like while still remaining true to the spirit of Half-Life.
I admit, maybe the problem has to do with my expectations, but I feel like Half-Life 2 was a fairly tedious shooter dressed up in wonderful, imaginative clothes. I always feel angry when I play it, not happy. I do frickin' love that rebar crossbow, though.
I understand your complaints, and I think a lot of them have to do with elements of the game design that feel more at home in the Clinton era than George W. Bush's America. The trial-and-error stuff stems from Valve's history as a PC developer, and this approach isn't only limited to Half-Life 2 alone (as you mentioned). I think the ability to save and reload instantly makes it much easier to keep throwing yourself at a problem until you figure out what works, but I realize that's not the kindest way to treat players. It's a very of-the-era mindset, and whenever I dip back into something from this generation, I have to remind myself that I'm in control of this strange meta-system that most games have incorporated into their design by now (Halo's recharging health, BioShock's regeneration pods, etc.).
On that note, whoever played Half-Life 2 on a console must have had an absolutely miserable experience. I have to imagine those quick-saves and loads were anything but.
The things you identified as your biggest issues with the game, though, are actually some of my favorite parts. Half-Life 2 does overstay its welcome a bit, but I genuinely appreciate how Valve constantly introduces new kinds of challenges—one thing the many FPSes to follow have completely ignored. Some of them don't work as well as intended, but I think these bits break up the action nicely and force you to use your brain in different ways. Sure, the appeal of Havoc physics is long gone, but I still love that Episode 2 puzzle where you're tasked with building a ramp by aligning abandoned cars on the right end of a teetering bridge. It's extremely satisfying when you get it right, and Valve's hands-off approach means you have to figure out what to do on your own.
And while those episodes may leave a bad taste in peoples' mouth for leaving us on a cliffhanger that's lasted for nearly a decade, they feel like the logical conclusion to the kind of PC FPS Valve popularized—another reason why I don't think we'll ever see an Episode 3. Valve's light touch managed to keep me interested in the story—meaning I wasn't wishing characters would shut up—but, to be completely honest, I'm not interested in a definitive conclusion. Like a lot of good sci-fi stories, a lot of it seems best left up to interpretation. Obviously, Valve had plans to wrap things up after killing off a major character in Episode 2, but maybe hearing answers to the series underlying mysteries would just leave us disappointed in the end—especially after we've been left hanging for so long. I dunno.
Hm, I don't think that's exactly it. I still really enjoy a lot of ‘90s-vintage shooters — DOOM, Marathon, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces. I don't mind their limitations, and in a lot of ways find their save systems and mechanics a lot more engrossing than today's frictionless shooters. I loved Wolfenstein: The New Order for being, in part, a deliberate throwback to the '90s. I think the original Half-Life suffers from a lot of bad design standards of that decade, but I don't take away that sensation from Half-Life 2. (And, for the record, even though I normally game on consoles, I originally reviewed Half-Life 2 on Windows, where I was apparently the only person on earth not to have a frustrating experience with Steam.)
I also don't really care about the unresolved cliffhanger of Episode Two, because the story of Gordon Freeman stopped working for me midway through Half-Life 2. The silent hero thing worked when you were crowbarring headcrabs and helpless scientists, but not so much when dudes are jawing at you at length or a smart, capable young woman is getting all jelly-kneed about Gordon's studly heroism while you're spending your few tender moments together silently trying to jump on top of her head and smash up pieces of the scenery as she gushes about your manliness.
I suppose maybe the problem isn't that Half-Life 2 feels like a deeply ‘90s shooter (which, to me, it doesn't) so much as the way it carries certain elements from its ‘90s predecessor and tries to make them work in a different context — not always with success. Along with Halo, I consider Half-Life 2 sort of the ur-HD generation shooter, one of the formative works that got the genre to where it is today… both for better and for worse. It was easier to forgive the things that frustrated me at the time (and there were plenty; I wish my original review were still online) because of all the things it did that no other game had ever done, or at least not with such panache. Now, though, the shininess has worn off and the flaws are harder to overlook.
Like I said, I have a lot of fond feelings about the game, so long as I never actually play it. I suppose some things are best left as memories.
It sounds like you're somewhat haunted by the lingering influence of Half-Life 2—and I'm kind of the same way. For as much as the modern FPS borrows from Valve's playbook, they've forgotten the essential qualities that make their inspiration so special: namely, the way Valve's games make you feel smart. (Or at least try to.) So while, in our modern age, we have no shortage of imaginative set pieces and tram-ride style openings that establish the world before dropping you directly into conflict, we've been without the "thinking man's FPS" outside of rare releases like 2012's Dishonored.
And Half-Life's story never mattered that much to me, which is why I'm glad Valve didn't make it the focus. You're only locked in rooms and forced to absorb exposition a mercifully few number of times, which was just the right amount. Gordon Freeman's existence is improbable enough without needless attempts to explain or justify it, something a writer like Metal Gear's Hideo Kojima definitely would have done. Really, Valve tells stories best through environments, and Half-Life 2 excels at doing just this. Even though the game released in 2004 and its 3D graphics look somewhat primitive today, Valve managed to make its dystopian setting evocative in a way that still rings true all these years later. There's no shortage of dystopias in video games, of course, but Half-Life 2's still manages to feel special.
In the end, though, I'll agree that Half-Life 2 makes for a hard game to revisit, especially with the improvements found in the two Episodes that followed. Like I said, I'm not in love with the game—in fact, I don't think I played through the whole thing until 2008. Still, even with its flaws, Half-Life 2 makes me wish we had more FPSes with the Valve touch, because it's a genre I've mostly left behind in the last decade. But who knows? Maybe Half-Life 3 will reinvent the FPS once again, inspiring a new generation of FPSes to copy something else for another decade. It's only the second or third most unlikely thing to ever happen.