Half Life 2
By now you have no doubt already read countless reviews of Half Life 2, given that it was released in late 2004. Coverage of the game is just as applicable as it was a year ago, though – not just because we’re completists here at sffworld, but because the game is still developing via its controversial online distribution system ‘Steam’.
Rewinding the clock
First things first, though. Let us presume, for one unlikely moment, that there are a handful of people reading this review that may never have stumbled across the Half Life series.
Sequel to the 1998 first person shooter classic, Half Life 2 drops players into the story 10 years after the cataclysmic events of the first game, leading the player through a 1984-influenced fight against the oppressive and authoritarian ‘Combine’ government while aiding the rebel underground forces in their desperate struggle for freedom.
The graphics are remarkable, even a year after release, with many of the design concepts instantly iconic, avoiding the usual genre clichés. The scifi-styled Combine architecture is fascinating, contrasting brilliantly with the surrounding classic European city. Having the primary location be evocative of former Soviet countries rather than the normal Big City America lends the game a striking atmosphere all its own, visually setting it apart from the competition. The result looks more like a movie lit by a professional cinematographer than the extravagant 70s disco appearance seen in many games of the genre.
Sound is similarly refined, with restrained music and dialogue written and delivered convincingly by a charismatic cast. Tying everything together is the first truly successful application of physics in a game, with every object able to be moved, wielded and thrown around the place.
Chances are you already know most of the above – it didn’t win over 40 Game of the Year awards for nothing. You may also have heard a few grumbles about the plot: “But there aren’t any cutscenes!” “It’s entirely linear!” “There’s hardly any plot twists!” “Not very much actually happens!” All true, but I would argue that those are precisely its strengths.
Half Life 2’s narrative isn’t pretending to be a movie, or a novel, or a comic book, or a TV show. It is a computer game and it is well aware of that fact. Its method of storytelling absolutely would not work in any other medium: the writers have developed a method of linear narrative that relies entirely on interactivity, without being detrimental to that experience.
All too often, game stories are told by pausing the gameplay to blithely insert a short movie sequence, creating an odd mixture of game and film. More often than not it is an uneasy marriage, not helped by most cutscenes being of comparable quality to the worst kind of straight-to-video b-movie.
Breaking the mould
Half Life 2 takes a subtler approach. From the moment the game begins you are viewing the world through Gordon Freeman’s eyes, all the way to the end credits. The story unfolds around you, often appearing as almost subliminal clues in the architecture, posters, snippets of dialogue and general level design. The game presents a wholly convincing world for you to explore, leaving you to work out the story and history yourself. Every room and every person resonates and has relevance to the setting. It is a superbly immersive and visceral experience that can only really be rivalled by some of the more innovative and involved RPGs.
Plot is minimal, mainly consisting of an extended circular chase/road trip, but lack of a complex plot should not be presumed to mean lack of a story. Keeping the plot bare allows the player to lose themselves in the world without being distracted by unlikely events desperately warped to fit precisely around the single player protagonist. The story evolves from the world around you, building layer upon layer of background narrative that gives your actions true importance. The sense of natural occurrence, rather than an orchestrated plot, is aided by a general lack of distinct ‘levels’ and enforced ‘boss fights’. Everything feels fluid, serving the reality of the world rather than forced game conventions.
Art is never finished…
Possibly the best news is that Half Life 2 itself is only the beginning. Coming soon are additional chapters to the Half Life story, with Lost Coast doubling as an advanced tech demo and Aftermath functioning as a full expansion. Aftermath is set to improve upon the story mechanics, with a focus on improving interaction with Alyx, the lead female. Also coming to Steam are a selection of unrelated episodic games that have the potential to revolutionise everything about how games tell a good story, something often hindered by the necessities of retail distribution. It's entirely possible that the best is yet to come.
Verdict: A milestone in gaming narrative, Half Life 2 moves away from the game industry’s pulpy, b-movie roots towards something more rewarding and sophisticated, while its technological superiority puts most other games in the FPS genre to shame. As a bonus, it also happens to be jolly good fun. 95%
Review by Simon 'Tarn' Jones