(Author’s note: This article is essentially a giant spoiler for Half-Life 2. If you haven’t played it by now, skip this article. Get on Steam and drop the $10. Better yet, buy a copy of The Orange Box – also available for consoles – and get Half-Life 2, its two small sequels, and Portal, which is worthy of its own article. Trust me on this.)
Twelve years have passed since Half-Life 2 took the gaming world by storm. Its combination of tight gunplay, immersive universe, and innovative physics made it an overnight sensation.
Before I go much further, I’m aware there’s no multiplayer – and for many of you, that will cause immediate disagreement. That’s your opinion; this is mine. It all comes down to design. Half-Life 2 is a model of perfect game design, and it’s designed for a single player experience. The areas you play through were never designed for multidirectional player battles back and forth across a map. I hope we can agree to disagree on this point.
The art design of Half-Life 2 is crucial to its success. Artist Viktor Antonov contributed a lot of the concept art for the game, and is credited with placing the game in an unspecified yet vaguely Eastern European environment. The now-iconic City 17 was originally a more generic “American” style city, with square city blocks. Antonov’s design gave us the sloping European rooftops, with traversable attics, and stairwells with caged elevators.
City 17 feels immediately real, even if the player really only sees a small portion of it. That’s the beauty of the design. As you run to escape your pursuers, you’ll be looking down into zig-zagging streets, crossing to adjoining buildings of differing styles, and finally into a small industrial area.
Beyond City 17, the design remains coherent. From the subterranean “Route Kanal” section to the airboat-piloting river sequences, that Eastern European feel is all around you. You can’t interact with it, but it’s been very carefully designed and put into place. It’s simply perfect.
And that’s only the first third of the game. There’s the medieval village of Ravenholm, the beaches and highways, the nightmarish prison of Nova Prospekt – it’s all been designed with a remarkable attention to detail. But it’s never monotonous.
The highway route alone is worth exploring in a little more detail. In theory, it’s a strictly linear game level, not allowing for much – if any – deviation from the designated route. But it never feels that way. You feel like you’re out on the open road, driving that buggy for all its worth. It’s a combination of good technology and great design. You’re trapped on a linear road from point A to point B, but you feel a sense of freedom, speed, and lack of restraint. You’ve just got to be on the lookout for gunships and magnetic mines. The rest will work itself out.
It’s nothing if not a game, right? How many games, though, are so confident in their storytelling and design that you don’t even acquire a pistol until after the first 15 minutes of fully interactive gameplay? And once you do get that pistol, ammo is characteristically scarce. You immediately find yourself playing cat-and-mouse with enemies from across a railway, where you can’t scavenge more ammo.
But that pistol gunplay is tight and focused, the aiming feels accurate and precise. With boards breaking all around you, it’s a mad dash between the cargo containers and into the canals. Your pistol and iconic crowbar are all you have for a good portion of the early game. You’ve got to use the environment around you – offensively and defensively – in order to survive.
After an exhausting and nerve-wracking series of gunfights through the canals, the gameplay suddenly changes. You’re now piloting the airboat, streaking through the rivers and sludge pools, with almost no gunplay whatsoever. You’ll make soaring jumps over piles of debris, splashing down and roaring forward. Enemy soldiers appear, rappelling from bridges, but they can be simply run over. Or dodged. It’s up to you. I find it much more satisfying to run them down whenever I can.
You’ll make a handful of stops along the way, to open floodgates or otherwise unblock your route through the water. One non-combat pause adds a cannon to your airboat, so now you’re back on the offense. And your enemies respond accordingly.
But you’ll finally be able to take out the helicopter. Did I not mention the helicopter until now? I’m sure you can all picture it. Weaving and dodging between cover to avoid its ruthless and unstoppable fire. In my opinion, the Half-Life 2 helicopter ranks among the great videogame enemies of all time. It’s a menacing, faceless, unstoppable machine hell-bent on your destruction. And it’s not going to stop until the final showdown. And if you didn’t wipe your brow and pump your first the first time you took down that helicopter, you’ve got no soul. That thing was a demon, and seeing it explode into pieces and fall into the lake is beyond satisfying.
And now you’ve earned a break – your arrival at Black Mesa East. It’s a brief and reasonably light-hearted sequence, but serves as an important intermission. Pacing plays an important role in Half-Life 2’s gameplay, be it your stop at Black Mesa East, or an uninterrupted drive down the coastal highway. Notice that no one calls attention to it - it’s just a natural part of the game’s flow.
That constant ebb and flow of combat and rest, battle and exploration, are another part of what make Half-Life 2 such a great game. It isn’t nonstop slaughter, nor does the combat feel feel episodic or piecemeal. Each part flows naturally into the next with effortless grace.
I first heard the term “player training” while playing Portal with the developer commentary turned on. The developers and designers discussed how they use the game and its environments to teach players how to play the game, without an explicit tutorial.
When Half-Life 2 arrived, movable and destructible objects were relatively new additions to the gaming landscape. We quickly learn how to stack objects to climb over obstacles, how to pick up junk and throw it in the trash (or at a police officer). The rare tutorial pop-ups only tell us what the controls are. They don't tell us how we're supposed to use the items to solve a problem, just how the mechanics work. That's all we need to know. We can have fun figuring the rest out for ourselves. We're given that freedom, to think and to learn.
The first time we encounter barnacles, their tentacles are hanging at the bottom of a slick slope. Handily, there are some barrels at the edge of the slope that can be easily (even accidentally) nudged downhill and into the waiting trap. We now know how this passive enemy operates and how to deal with it. Once again, we’ve learned how without a tutorial.
When we acquire that crowd favorite, the Gravity Gun, we spend some time in a literal playground, pulling in and throwing objects with no deadline or time limit. Once we start playing catch with Dog, however, the story once again rolls into action and we’re forced back into the fray. But by now, we’re near expert with the Gravity Gun, using it to pick up and throw objects with precision. We’ve been trained. We’ve gone through a tutorial that no one bothered to point out was a tutorial.
Where better to use these new skills? Why, Ravenholm, of course. There’s no reason you can’t fight your way through Ravenholm without using the Gravity Gun to its fullest potential, but rusty saw blades and exploding barrels are everywhere, begging to be launched. Put your player training to use. There’s a reason for the achievement/trophy for completing the Ravenholm chapter using nothing but the Gravity Gun – it’s that much fun. It’s a challenge, but it’s exceptionally satisfying.
This use of player training - tutorials that blend seamlessly with the rest of the game - are another point in Half-Life 2's favor when deciding on the greatest shooter of all time.
Day Turns To Night
Have you noticed that the Ravenholm sequence takes place in the dead of night, while other sequences are set in broad daylight? Pay close attention. There’s a careful and well-crafted transition from day to night and back again which is a masterpiece of design.
By the time you’re arriving at Black Mesa East, it’s dusk. The skies are purple and orange; you can almost feel the shadows lengthening. While you’re out playing with the Gravity Gun, you barely notice it’s become evening. Your arrival in Ravenholm is destined to happen in the middle of the night, when the horror can be on its fullest display.
You complete Ravenholm and have to navigate a mine to reach the surface once again. You exit through a tunnel that literally blinds you with daylight (the screen goes pure white during a brief loading sequence). You’ll fight for another full day, from the docks, along the beach, over the railroad bridge, down the highway, and onto the beach leading to Nova Prospekt. By the time you’ve reached that beachhead, it’s once again dusk, foreshadowing the darkness and danger inside the notorious prison. After escaping Nova Prospekt, the night has passed and you’re once again in City 17, back in daylight.
In theory, Half-Life 2 takes place over the series of about two and a half days. Again, what makes this game great is that there’s no clock on screen, no NPCs remark on the day to night change… it just happens.
Although we now take realistic physics for granted, this wasn’t always the case. Half-Life 2 took the Havok physics engine – relatively new at the time – and designed puzzles and portions of the game around it. The Gravity Gun alone is almost a Havok demonstration reel item. You can pick up objects from the environment and launch them with terrifying velocity. Gamers had never seen anything like quite it before, and we loved it.
You're not forced to use the Gravity Gun; all your other weapons are still at your disposal. But Ravenholm is a veritable sandbox of launchable items, some lethal, some just for fun. Have you picked up the paint cans and fired them at walls? Whether you're chopping zombies in half with saw blades or just blasting them with hunks of metal, it's all there for your entertainment.
The various traps set up around Ravenholm are further demonstrations of Havok in action. Chopping zombies apart with makeshift saw blades or crushing them under rusted car hulks is endlessly satisfying, and all of it's powered by the Havok engine. When we first saw them, our jaws dropped. These weren't pre-created gimmicks or scripted events - they actually happened within the game world. You can continue to lift and drop that car trap as many times as you like. As for those whirling zombie choppers? They play fair - they'll chop you in half just as easily if you're not careful
Beyond the traps and machinery, Havok powered the ragdolls that controlled the multiple types of enemies you encounter throughout the game. Human characters fall limp and tumble down stairs when killed. Explosions throw antlions into ragged piles of limbs and mandibles.
Again, this is par for the course in 2016, with Havok and its competitors pushing the boundaries of realistic physics farther and farther with each new release. Looking back now, some critics mock the simple physics puzzles in Half-Life 2. Yet you have to remember that in 2004, this stuff was remarkable. And if you look at it with the right eyes, it still is. Those ragdolls still fall realistically and the explosions make you duck. Yet another thing that makes Half-Life 2 such a great game – even 12-year-old physics technology is still effective and used to perfect potential.
Half-Life 2 runs on the highly flexible Source engine, and Valve allowed players to modify and expand the game. Multiplayer was added. New maps were added. Entire remakes were undertaken. The Source engine is being used by a team of fan volunteers who are rebuilding the entirety of the original Half-Life in the new engine. Another group of fan developers have been developing the Cinematic Mod, where all the low-resolution original textures are replaced with brand-new high-resolution textures. The changes are stunning to behold.
What all this means is that we’ve got a game that is loved, not just by me, but by countless fans around the world. If you don't believe me, do a quick Google search for "Half-Life 3". The endlessly awaited sequel has become a running gag throughout the gaming world. Will we ever see it? Does it matter?
Many shooters now aim for and claim to be "cinematic" in nature. What does that mean? It means there's a story, an epic scale, a sense of time and place. In other words, what Half-Life 2 did to perfection twelve long years ago. And, you'll notice, without a single cutscene to be found. The cinematic story doesn't have to be played as a movie; you're living it. There have been some very, very good shooters released in the decade-plus since Half-Life 2 hit the scene, but none have equalled or outdone the original cinematic shooter.
Why is Half-Life 2 the greatest first-person shooter ever made? For all the above reasons, and more. Every inch of the game drips with attention to detail, every enemy encounter is perfectly planned. The gunplay is rock-solid, on par with the modern generation of military shooters.
Beyond all that, though, it’s got soul. The people who worked on it loved it. It was a work of passion. Valve allowed the team five full years (enormous at the time) to work on the game, iterating over every item endlessly, until it was perfect. The game holds up to this day. Sure, the character models are rough and not photorealistic, there's no multiplayer leveling, but there’s a story, a musical score, an attention to art, architecture, and design… all done to an exceptional level.
And that’s why I stand by my claim: Half-Life 2 is the best first-person shooter ever made.