If we’re talking about favourable game sequels, then ‘Half-life 2’ is up there as one of the best. A whole 6 years after the original game, Half-life returns and this time, sporting the features of a brand-new game engine developed by Valve, the ‘Source’ engine. The most recognisable feature is the physics engine which allowed for puzzles that differed from the first game.
The plot of ‘Half-life 2’ takes place approximately 20 years after the end of the first game and Gordon is brought out of stasis by the G-Man. In the intervening time, the Resonance Cascade and subsequent defeat of the supreme leader of the Xen by Gordon caught the attention of another interdimensional alien empire, the Combine. The Combine forces arrived on Earth and engaged the planet in a conflict that lasted just seven hours before Earth’s leaders declared their surrender and humanity was enslaved whilst the Combine proceeded to mine Earth of its natural resources.
Gordon arrives at City 17, a city located in Eastern Europe and governed by the Combine. In the distance, the Combine’s base of operations for Earth’s enslavement, the Citadel, shadows the city. Almost instantly, Gordon is recruited into the Resistance which is comprised of some familiar faces namely Barney Calhoun who was Chief Security Officer at Black Mesa, Former Black Mesa Scientists, Dr Isaac Kleiner and Dr Eli Vance and finally, Dr Vance’s daughter, Alyx. The story of ‘Half-life 2’ will have Gordon travel through several hazardous locations, battling the Combine and what remains of the Xen forces with the ultimate goal being to defeat the Combine to humanity can begin to rebuild.
So, what’s new?
With the Source engine, a significant advancement had been made with character animation. ‘Half-life 2’ continues the franchise trademark of immersive background storytelling but also features lengthy exposition sections with other characters. Gordon remains a silent protagonist and so has nothing to offer the conversations except to listen to all the information which would be really annoying but in true ‘Valve’ fashion, the characters are good and well rounded. The environments also held a lot more detail and overall felt a lot less ‘boxy’ that was standard for late 90’s polygon graphics.
Gameplay wise, it’s not a million mile away from the first. It’s an FPS with a wide array of weapons that give way to a strategic undercurrent but there have been some advancements. With the Source engine came the aforementioned implementation of physics puzzles and was also responsible for the series introducing possibly the most iconic weapon, ‘The Gravity Gun’. Basically, in the rare instance that a player was running out of ammunition, the Gravity Gun can be used to start flinging objects at the enemies. This is most evident in the ‘Ravenholm’ level just after the player acquires the gun from Alyx and the player has almost infinite access to circular saw blades which is bad news for the zombies. I did like the tutorial for the Gravity Gun where Alyx introduces Gordon to her pet, ‘Dog’. Turns out ‘Dog’ is a huge robot that was built by Eli to protect Alyx when she was a child but now she’s all grown up, Dog helps out the Resistance. Gordon’s challenge is to throw Dog’s ball using the gun.
There are also some new enemies. For the most part, the player will be fighting the standard Combine soldiers and the classic ‘headcrab zombies’ but there are some new enemies to contend with.
For example, Antlions are particularly annoying. Found in the ‘sandtrap’ areas and beyond, these ‘spider-like’ creatures are located underneath the sand and will sprout up at a moment’s notice to harass the player. It is annoying during sections that demand precision. Gordon is told by a random resistance leader that the Antlions are triggered when the sand is disturbed and is therefore advised to stay off the sand. However in the very next section, the player must navigate with a few physics puzzles in a wide open coastal landscape whilst also playing ‘the floor is lava’. Let me tell you, there’s nothing more annoying than trying to jump onto a thin plank of wood in first person whilst being nudged off by an Antlion which will almost certainly result in spawning more of the bastards.
What don’t I like about ‘Half-Life 2’? I really don’t like the vehicle sections. At least twice in the main campaign, the player must get into an airboat or a buggy and navigate various hazards whether it be Antlions or attack helicopters. What really doesn’t help, especially in the coastal sections is that the map is a little bit unintuitive and it’s not always obvious which way to go so combine that with various enemies chipping away at your health then it makes for a very frustrating experience.
Striders can fuck off as well. They are really scary monsters but largely, they’ll be no option to exit the area without killing them and so then the challenge becomes finding the box with the infinitely respawning rockets. The Strider battle in City 17 is a mountain of frustration. There are a lot of Striders and Combine in the area and whilst your team of resistance fighters are mercifully better than other NPC’s I’ve encountered, they don’t help with the Striders.
At least the end boss is mercifully more forgiving than the Nihilanth. Basically, Alyx and Eli are captured by the Combine and taken to the Citadel where Dr Wallace Breen, Former Black Mesa Administrator and Current Human Representative of the Combine on Earth attempts to flee the approaching Resistance by using a teleporter installed by the Combine. The player must stop Breen by racing him to the top of the tower and destroying the Dark Fusion reactor which explodes and causes Breen to fall to his death.
‘Half-life 2’ was released in 2004 and was a massive success. Questions were subsequently raised about a sequel since the ending left the fate of its main protagonists ambiguous. Valve responded by announcing a series of episodic games that would continue from where ‘Half-life 2’ ended. Two years after ‘Half-life 2’, ‘Half-Life 2: Episode One’ was released.
When Episode 1 starts, Dog digs Gordon out of the wreckage and is met with Alyx. The two were saved by Vortigaunts who are friendly NPC’s in the second game. They seem to be fine with the fact that Gordon slaughtered their kind by the hundreds in the last game, but the Combine and the Xen are enemies, so the enemy of my enemy is my friend? That doesn’t matter now, they have work to do. The Citadel has been disrupted due to Gordon’s actions in destroying the Dark Matter reactor will cause an imminent meltdown that will destroy City 17. It’s up to Gordon and Alyx to re-enter the Citadel and shut down the Citadel Core which will buy them some time to evacuate the City.
At the start of each Half-life game, it’s necessary to start from scratch ‘weapon wise’. Alyx still has her pistol but Gordon is stuck with the Gravity gun which is enhanced inside the Citadel but on the outside, it’s largely useless. Until Gordon gets a gun which is about an hour in, his only recourse is to aim his torch at the approaching zombie and wait for Alyx to shoot it which she can usually be trusted to do.
One other thing that I did notice (and this happens in ‘Half-life 2’ also), Gordon gets dragged into a lot of dangerous situations. It’s doesn’t feel like a case of Gordon having to do something for the benefit of the Resistance but more like he’s been ordered to do something that seems like certain death. Towards the end of Episode One when Gordon and Alyx meet up with Barney Calhoun in City 17 to evacuate survivors, they have attracted the attention of the Combine and Alyz volunteers herself and Gordon as bait to draw the Combine away so Barney can start the evacuation. Gordon doesn’t get to protest because he’s a silent protagonist. It feels like a girlfriend volunteering her reluctant boyfriend to do odd jobs for her parents and he can’t refuse because that would result in her being all huffy for the evening. She also volunteers Gordon to escort refugees
The Strider battle at the end is one of particular annoyance and took many tries. Once again, it’s a case of finding the box with the rockets and do you know where it is? At the top of a ladder on the opposite end of the train station with more than a couple of Combine soldiers and a pissed off Strider in the way so good luck having any health by the end.
Episode One ends with Gordon and Alyx on board the last train out of City 17. In the distance, the reactor reaches critical and the Citadel explodes, the resulting shockwave derails the train and the Episode ends.
Whilst the events of ‘Episode One’ were largely praised by the fans and reviewers, one big criticism was the game’s length. After two years of waiting, players were subjected to a game length that was a mere fraction compared to its predecessor. I can’t speak for other gamers but Steam tells me that I finished ‘Half-life 2’ in 14 hours (I died a lot) and ‘Episode One’ in just 3 hours.
Another year goes by and Valve released ‘The Orange Box’ which was a compilation of three games namely ‘Team Fortress 2’, the sequel to the multiplayer classic, ‘Portal’, a relatively short puzzle/platform game where the player is put through a series of by a mysterious and sadistic computer. The player must solve the puzzle to move onto the next area using a portable ‘portal gun’. Portal was instantly successful and quickly gained a fanbase. After much speculation and many rumours, Valve confirmed that ‘Portal’ was set in the ‘Half-life’ universe. The last game in the bundle was of course ‘Half Life 2: Episode 2’.
The story continues almost directly after the train crash. Gordon and Alyx begin their journey to the White Forest base to deliver the message from Dr Judith Mossman who is a colleague of Eli and Kleiner and was at first was thought to be a traitor and then wasn’t. As they bypass a locked gate, Alyx is attacked and severely wounded by a Combine Hunter but is then counter-attacked and destroyed by a Vortigaunt. The Vortigaunt takes Alyx and Gordon to more Vortigaunts so Alyx can be healed and after traversing through an Antlion Guardian’s hive to retrieve some slime that will make her better, the Vortigaunt joins Alyx and Gordon on their journey until an entirely unwanted vehicle section.
Largely, ‘Episode Two’ should be played for the gameplay rather than the story because any ‘story advancements’ happen at the beginning and at the end. Don’t get me wrong, I think ‘Episode 2’ is vastly better than ‘Episode One’ gameplay wise but it’s all sections that we’ve seen before.
Having said that, one section that I would happily retcon from my mind is the end battle with the Hunters and the Striders. Basically, Dr Arne Magnusson (also formerly of Black Mesa), Kleiner and Vance plan on launching a rocket that will close the Combine super portal and essentially cut off all communication between the Combine soldiers on Earth and their Supreme Leaders elsewhere in space. This advantage would give the Resistance a fighting chance to get rid of the Combine once and for all.
However, the Combine are planning an attack on the silo using about a dozen Striders and several dozen hunters. Gordon is sent out with the ‘Magnusson Device’, a sticky bomb designed by Magnusson to destroy Striders when fired with the Gravity Gun and yes it is, but only after about 10 attempts because the fucking Hunters keep blowing it up. You have to get rid of the Hunters before going for the Strider, I know but those things are absolute bullet sponges and by the time I had dispatched the two Hunters guarding the Strider, either another Strider/Hunter combo had joined the party or the Strider they were protecting was dangerously near the base… or both. It doesn’t help that the sticky bombs aren’t ‘to hand’ as it were. The dispensers are dotted around the area and it’s a long run or drive to get another one. Frankly, I’m not a fan of the final battle but once it’s over, there’s no more combat.
The rocket launch is a success and the portal is closed. To set up ‘Episode 3’, Alyx and Gordon prepare to travel to the ‘Borealis’ which is a container ship that is rumoured to contain a dangerous secret that the Combine are searching for. Since the ship is owned by ‘Aperture Science’, the same corporation from the ‘Portal’ games and the ‘Half-life’ games mess around with teleportation, it’s generally assumed that the ‘dangerous secret’ is the ‘portal gun’.
However, before the two board a chopper bound the Borealis, they are attacked by a Combine Advisor that subdues Gordon and Alyx before killing Eli by reading his brain and learning all the information about the Borealis. The Advisors are fought off by Dog and ‘Episode Two’ ends with Alyx crying over her father’s body.
Although still short, ‘Episode Two’ was a little bit longer as I completed it in five hours and was received critically about as well as the others. Just like ‘Episode One’, it’s sequel ended on a cliffhanger with the fans eagerly waiting for the conclusion to this story.
Knowing what I know now, it’s funny to read that ‘Episode Three’ was set for a Christmas 2007 release because that never happened. No ‘Episode Three’ was ever released. The story of ‘Half-life 2’ would remain unfinished until this year when ‘Half-life: Alyx’ was released in March 2020.
I’m about to massively spoil the ending to ‘Half-life: Alyx’ now so if you don’t want to know, then look away. Although the game is a prequel set five years before the events of ‘Half-life 2’, ‘Half-life: Alyx’ completely retcons the ending of ‘Episode Two’ as the G-Man transports Alyx to the point mere moments before the Advisors storm the White Forest base and kill Eli. Alyx destroys the Advisors and saves her father but the G-Man takes her away and traps her in stasis. The post credits sequence shows Eli addressing Gordon by giving him his signature crowbar and informing him that they have work to do, thus again setting up the conclusion to the story.
Just like it’s predecessors, ‘Half-life: Alyx’ has received amazing reviews so although Valve haven’t confirmed anything (they should know better at this point) it is likely that there will be a sequel and the fans will possibly finally see an end to the ‘Half-life 2’ story.
As a fan of ‘Half-Life’, I would love to play ‘Half-life: Alyx’ but unfortunately, it’s VR exclusive with no desktop port in sight. My PC could possibly run a VR game without melting my poor abused graphics card and spoiling my carpet but I don’t own a VR headset because I have to be careful with my money and it’s a big investment for a technological leap that 1) has a market that isn’t very well saturated and 2) is still in its early stages.
In doing a bit of research, Valve’s own VR headset, ‘Valve Index’ retails at £919 for a full set and the cheapest headset that I’ve found that will support ‘Half-life: Alyx’ is the ‘Oculus Rift S’ that currently retails at around £400. That’s the VR version of ‘cheap’.
To close, I do love the ‘Half-life’ games. I love the story and the characters and the gameplay and the puzzles and although there are some frustrating bits, they don’t dampen the experience. I can only hope that any possible future instalments will get a standard PC release so this poor person can be in on all the excitement.
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