Your buggy, which is really just a loose frame of welded pipes with an engine and wheels strapped to it, reduces the oncoming beach bugs to squishy messes easily. It doesn’t seem like it should at all, especially since those beach bugs (antlions) have a lot of sharp corners that would surely shred your body as they went right through the buggy’s frame. It’s an acceptable trade of believability when you realize how well balanced Valve made this game. Modern gamers know Left 4 Dead and Portal, but those games couldn’t have existed if Half-Life 2, now seven years old, hadn’t changed shooters. I’ve already gushed about it when I said that Half-Life 3 was going to be nearly impossible to back up, but what’s it like to visit City 17 and its violent suburbs after a while? Let’s go on a trip in a buggy…
All that stuff before.
The first time I played through Half-Life 2 was on my brother’s not-modern machine in February 2005. I had to tone down a number of the details to get it to run, as I also had to do with Doom 3 months earlier. I bought both games on the ego of the franchises alone as both were, in a time when consoles were getting all the limelight (especially with the record-breaking release of Halo 2 in late 2004), going to show off the power of PC. I beat the game, but when I built my own computer a few months later, I played through it again with all the details cranked.
It was transcendental.
The world that Valve built was glorious. When you step out of the train depot and you hear the squeaks and chirps of the camerabot before it flashes you, it feels like you’re somewhere else entirely. If you’re reading this, you’ve already played through it before, but coming back was a more humbling experience.
All that stuff now.
For this playthrough, I decided to play the Xbox 360 version on the Orange Box, which was Valve’s first real attempt to bring Half-Life 2 to consoles. They’d actually ported it to the original Xbox a few years earlier, and I had played it at E3 where it chugged along like a chunky train with plenty of omissions and downgrades, but these days, it’s hard for me to play such a game because this version wasn’t great. Aside from the passage of time, the fidelity here was simply not as high as the PC I built not long after the game released. While the game doesn’t hold up as well anymore, the density of the universe they created here is still the star.
Taking place in a dystopian future where an alien collective known as the Combine have arrived in what appears to be central Europe and planted a massive spire (the Citadel) that controls all kinds of stuff, you arrive as the storied hero Gordon Freeman. As you plow through picturesque levels, there’s an incredible mise en scene about the whole thing as many of the textures are really just manipulated photographs. This means it still looks amazing at spots where it’s dressed up well and it looks aged when viewed with scrutiny. Booting the game up briefly on the PC at 1080p with full details on made me nostalgic for when I created my fire-breathing rig all those years ago. To be fair to the Xbox 360 version, the game wasn’t the best looking game when it released, Doom 3 won on technical specs, but this makes up for it by creating an organic world.
Spilling from that is the game’s organic level design. Each chunk of the game was built by a different cabal, which was an internal team at Valve that took their little slice of the action and went from there. In a way, it feels like a playable anthology like Heavy Metal, but you actually shoot the people and stuff. You don’t get arrows to point you along, the game is smart enough to leave some intuitive notion as to where you need to go next. You’re never stuck for very long when you go ‘hey, let me just try this out’ and voila, that’s exactly the thing you needed to do. That’s not to say the game’s pace is perfect. While I wasn’t a big fan of the stop and go action of the game’s lengthy boat sequence, in which you would arrive in a new zone, battle your way through a riverside facility, and eliminate the obstacle so you can backtrack to your boat and continue on your way, there are plenty of times where I felt like I was genuinely exploring this strange, new world. (I read a horror story when the game released that a player had spent hours going through that entire sequence on foot because he had missed the boat. Brutal.)
The revelatory element of this game wasn’t just how great it looked, it was how it played. This was greatly enhanced by the addition of physics-based gameplay, which was still a neat distraction at the time (watching bodies ragdoll in Unreal Tournament 2k3 was pretty cool!), but Half-Life 2 actually made it real. With the acquisition of the gravity gun, you could manipulate objects, throw them at people, toss saw blades at zombies, and in a clever-at-the-time segment, required you to place cinder blocks at the end of a large plank so you could use it to scale a ledge like a teeter-totter. Time has not been kind as bodies still fly around like weightless entities as explosions go off, or logs will bounce off like balloons from a truck bed when a rocket strikes them. Ditto for body parts and beach bugs bouncing off your buggy. It’s more a nitpick as far as the presentation goes, but all of the physics-oriented gameplay still holds up well.
The game didn’t make it over to the Xbox 360’s controller perfectly as the controls are still floaty here. The game defies a lot of console conventions when it comes to button layout, so playing for the first time coming from a game like Modern Warfare 3 or Halo: Reach will find it a bit jarring, but it’s nothing that can’t be surmounted. Unfortunately, the vehicle controls are awful. Playing with vehicles should be better on a controller than a keyboard/mouse combo, but somehow it feels worse here. One huge win all around is the sound design. From the radio hustle of the Combine soldiers and the high-pitched beep they make when you dispatch them to the electronic noises over the interface that carried up from the original game, everything sounds just right here. Aliens sound alien, all the guns at least sound meaty, even if they’re your crappy pistol, and you feel as if you could just close your eyes at any point and just be somewhere else… if only trouble weren’t just around the corner.
If you’ve never played Half-Life 2 before, you need to. It’s probably the best shooter of the past decade (Deus Ex is twelve years old, for those keeping score at home) and it’s a massive experience. Don’t buy it on your console, buy it on your PC through Steam. Any modern PC can run it fully cranked. This is a game you play with your nose parked six inches from your screen, not ten feet away on a couch. I’m warning you.