It seems hard to believe, but it’s been eight years since Half-Life 2 descended upon the Earth, like the Combine of goodwill, and easily destroyed every shooter genre convention and made a fan of me. Let me explain: I wasn’t a huge a fan of the original Half-Life. In fact, I hated it. Where Valve excelled in their initial iteration was in bringing a non-stop sequence of scripted cutscenes into a shooter, but in real-time as you played it, rather than pre-rendered narrative ‘vestibules’ that separated you from the action at hand. We see their influence very easily in games like Modern Warfare 3 where you’re merely the needle bobbing to a vinyl’s groove, watching as an epic story unfolds before you like a parade march just for your senses. Then Half-Life 2 came out.
Oh, and what a game that was!
While Half-Life was revolutionary for its time, I hated its ultra-linear structure. All of the things that happened around you didn’t really amount to much. The driving narrative was thin, you had very little supporting atmosphere, and you were dragged through miles and miles of gunmetal corridors and earthen corridors and even more corridors. On top of that, it was also a long, exasperating game. By the time I reached the alien homeworld of Xen, my ambition had drained out. This was the game that had won umpteen billion Game of the Year awards from every major publication on the planet? I played through the game in 2000, so it wasn’t as if I was removed from the zeitgeist of its release, but it was a harder sell to me when Deus Ex was a few months away from winning my heart.
Hated it. Call me contrarian, but I hated it. I wanted to love Half-Life 2. And love it, I sure did.
The big shooter battle of 2004 came between three titans: Doom 3 from id software, inventors of the genre, Halo 2 from console-favoring Bungie, and Half-Life 2 from Valve, the new king of the hill. But while Carmack and Willets were interested in sending you through a beautiful game you couldn’t see with Doom 3, Valve took a different tack and revolutionized the industry. They brought the world their new in-house game engine called Source, which became the platform by which all of their games – and several outside the studio – were based on. (Somewhat ironically, the original HL was based on a heavily modified version of the original Quake engine, made by id.) Valve also used Half-Life 2 to launch Steam, which was at first a mere verification tool and online store for their releases, but soon became the gold standard by which games are acquired digitally.
And then there was the fact that Half-Life 2 was a watershed moment, one of the most pure gems of gaming’s potential that has ever been played. Playing as the null character Gordon Freeman, you were dropped into a dystopian eastern European-themed burg – City 17, to be exact – and you soon realize that you’re at the very bottom of an incredible power structure. The game was baked to perfection and allowed you to experience every facet of the resistance that fought for every tunnel and courtyard they could. When the Combine unleashed their technology on you in an epic final act, it’s a surprise the game didn’t work harder to kill you as you gawked at what Valve had achieved here. L.A. Noire may have captured facial animations supreme well, but they didn’t achieve anything near what Valve did with genuinely emotive characters like Alyx and Eli, or even the elusive G-man. Even as you jerked Freeman around from dangerous situation to further debacle, you felt like you were a part of a greater movement. And when you scale the Citadel in the game’s closing act, it feels like you’ve earned it – a better prize than most any that have been granted in a video game.
And the gravity gun? Awww man! I can’t even begin to elaborate on the things that gun did, today standing as one of the most innovative weapons in a shooter ever made. Valve released extensions of HL2’s storyline with Episode One (2006) and Episode Two (2007), which were intended to replace the need for a whole new Half-Life game. Both of these expansions pushed boundaries in physics and downloadable content, again maintaining Valve’s sturdy foundation as a revolutionary developer.
But after that, Valve stopped. Cold.
Well, maybe not entirely.
Okay, so Valve didn’t stop, but their nebulous organization is easily distracted. The original Portal launched alongside Episode Two and the want to develop a sequel came quickly behind it. Valve did two Left 4 Dead titles and is currently working pretty hard on DOTA2. They’ve teased Episode Three over the years, including a demo that featured Alyx using American Sign Language to communicate with another character, but it appears that hard work on Half-Life: Episode 3 is simply not going anywhere fast and it’s not hard to tell why.
While Portal 2 and Left 4 Dead 2 were good games, they were merely logical extensions of their predecessors. Perhaps the scope of Episode Three’s ambition grew too large and they decided to go full bore with a new game? But unless Half-Life 3 were a ground-fracturing revolution of a title, why would Valve even bother putting their time into it? Half-Life 3 will be the new high watermark of the industry if and when they decide to finally make it and they need to do more than just throw you in another clever setting with a gravity gun. Everything needs to change.
That’s why Half-Life 3 is impossible, because Valve is going to have the hardest time in the world creating it. If they even can now. You saw what happened to Duke Nukem Forever, where 3D Realms (a former captain of industry, mind you) incorporated every brand new piece of technology which ended up destroying the game when 3DR failed to keep other elements up to date. While I have far more confidence in Valve’s talent than I did in 3DR, it wouldn’t be difficult for any successful developer like them to pick a wrong direction for several years and come up with something truly awful in the end. Valve’s advantage is in their discipline.
I’ll still be there on Day One for Freeman’s Next Big Outing, but it simply doesn’t exist. It can’t.