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Half Life 2: A Retrospective
Posted on Tuesday, June 3 2008 @ 08:36:34 PST

Continuing with our ongoing theme of originality this month, as well as living up to our high standards for featuring the best in new content (even in the most controversial), 3scapism presents theindecisivegamer's argument (or rather a few points which have been overlooked) against a game which helped define a generation. Controversy sells!

Playing through Half-Life 2 again, I suddenly realized that I had previously been taking the wrong approach. During past play sessions, I would search for some sort of cohesive world design whereby valve could express their ideas by manipulating an otherwise familiar and understandable backdrop. As is so often the case in music and painting; artists set up expectations using familiar concepts, then skilfully defy and play with them.

My main cause for frustration with Half-Life was that this sense of being in a world with which we have some grasp is never really set up. Sure the art style is pretty realistic, some of it so tangible that one can barely resist exploration. The problem is that I never really know what I'm supposed to be doing. In real life, unless you're really high on mushrooms, you always have some sort of purpose for moving about. Maybe someone tells you to travel north; you can follow your compass, or someone tells you to get from a to b on a map... that's fine. But what if you're standing in the middle of the country side and someone tells you to travel to some place you've never heard of? You don't have a clue how far it is, in what direction it lies or what it looks like. But in the world of Half-Life, there is a way to find this unheard of place. The otherwise familiar locales are contrived in such a way as to only ever offer one way of advancing. You travel, not because you believe the path to be the correct one, but because it is the only possible place to go. This approach might make sense in a game like Ico, (see my review of Ico) in which you must escape a riddle riddled castle, but Half-Life makes no such attempt of justification.

Towards the beginning of the game for example, you're instructed to get to your friends place of which you know absolutely nothing about, by a group of people who you know nothing about, and you find yourself in a rundown city which you know nothing about. Only it's not quite a city, it's just a load of connecting alleyways, train tracks and the like which give the illusion of a city while severely restricting your path. You begin following a trail of unlocked doors to find yourself in a train depot. Of course you have no idea where your supposed to be going, so you're left to wonder around cursing, as you try to find the one possible way forwards whilst being shot at. You find that a couple of the trains in the middle of the depot are open, so you make your way to the other side of the depot because it seems to be the only way to... anywhere, where you find an unlocked door. Soon after, you are confronted by an un-jumpable gap, which, luckily is quickly filled by a train. A few conveniently broken fences later and you end up knee deep in a shallow abandoned canal, confronted with a large fence with an old derailed train wagon at its feet. Still completely disorientated, I due fully climb the ladder on the wagon's side and enter via the hatchet on its roof, where I meet two bizarre creatures who seem to know me. After a while they open the wagons door to reveal a hole in the large fence and bid me a safe journey.

At this point I do not have a clue what is going on. I'm travelling through an albeit visually pleasant world with no real objective, simply following a completely unbelievably contrived path, all the while 'coincidentally' meeting people who seem to know me and think that I know what's going on and shooting (or crow barring) some bad guys. The game is not relating to me. I feel my time is being wasted.

The lack of sense only gets worse; particularly when puzzles are involved. How about the one where your boats path is blocked by a pile of junk, but just before it, in the water, lies a long wide plank of wood? Swimming under water reveals that the tip of the plank closest to the pile of junk has a downward vertical extension, with an upside-down, empty mesh container at the end. Turns out that if you fill the mesh with floating bottles, it will rise to the surface, pushing up the plank and turning it into a ramp, allowing the boat to jump the pile of garbage. Quite a nice puzzle indeed but I wonder who made it, in the games fiction I mean. What if, against all odds, this standard junk jumping device hadn't been left there? Game over?

Now I found the game very hard to get into because, for me, it failed to set up a familiar and meaningful structure, and so I could not appreciate its expression within whatever structure it does implement. Perhaps, though, this bizarre structure is in fact familiar to seasoned gamers, just as the sonata form is to classically trained musicians. Both seem rather meaningless to the unacquainted, but allow for great (or not so great) expression within these forms once familiar.

Upon playing the original Halo again, I realized that it had a rather similar form to that of Half-Life. The main difference being that it always made it completely obvious where to go instead of forcing the player to search for that single, nonsensical path. I realized that it was what was going on within that bizarre form that was of interest; namely the beautiful sci-fi environments and the exquisite combat game play.

So, bearing in mind that Half-Life is also an FPS, I decided to take a similar approach. I have always adored its environmental artwork, but to my surprise, I also found much to like in the combat game play and even more surprisingly, the path finding.

Once I stopped frantically running around, fruitlessly waiting for everything to make sense, it became a joy working with the environment in all game play aspects, and I more fully appreciated the bold expressiveness of the world's architecture. Indeed, the fun of the combat generally lies in being resourceful with the objects around. Less annoyed and more grateful I am now for that bit where you can get close enough to deal with a group of combine soldiers around a mounted machine gun by crouching behind a loaded trolley and pushing towards them while remaining under cover.

However the combat is not as masterfully designed as that of say Gears of War or Halo. Being so reliant on using the environment, I long for more options, such as being able to blind fire around cover while playing Half-Life. It is hard to shoot without getting shot back, ad this is made worse by the lack of reaction made by the combine to getting hit. One of the main strategies in the N64 game, Goldeneye, was to buy yourself time when confronted by multiple soldiers by shooting them all once, thus occupying them with their wounds and preventing them from shooting back while you dealt the next round. Firefights in Half-Life, however, often turn into wars of attrition which are sometimes near impossible when you have low health. This brings me to the main problem with health packs over regenerating health. The game designers cannot anticipate exactly how much health a player will have upon entering a combat scenario, and so cannot accordingly gear the difficulty as desired. The resultant challenges are often too easy or too hard. Finally, fighting zombies, head crabs and antlions is, hands down, not fun. Their AI is poor and repetitive and these scenarios quickly degenerate into target practice. Other problems include the weapons, almost all of which feel like pea shooters, Freeman's awkward handling of objects, the guns being so much louder then the speech that you have often to alter the volume, and the way they try to make the sound dynamic by making you barely able to hear people speaking when your standing about two meters away from them.

Back on topic though, Half-Life 2 is a rather good FPS game. Although I don't think the genre 'FPS' is accurate enough; we don't yet have a term for such an fps that expresses itself through the details of a rather intentionally loosely put together world, rather then that of say Grand Theft Auto which makes complete sense. Perhaps that's why it's so popular come to think of it, (GTA that is) because its foundations in an universally understandable structure allows those less familiar with computer games to enjoy it. Half-Life 2 on the other hand is like a sonata by Beethoven, (except no where near as good) a work of art that requires familiarity with a rather man made form in order to fully enjoy.

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