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 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...
I suppose I'll be coming back to this in a few hours then.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ONE SMALL DISASTER LATER.
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.
Hang on, I just heard someone yelling for help.
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...
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.
SOME WADING THROUGH BAD WATER AND CAPPING FOOLS LATER.
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.
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.
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.
SEVERAL FIREFIGHTS LATER.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
BUT THEN, AFTER I GOT BACK ONTO MY BOAT.
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.
MUCH MUCH LATER.
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.
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.)
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...
This handy handheld
- 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.
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!