Second Opinion Takes On The Most Critically-Acclaimed FPS Of All Time
This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.
It won 39 game of the year awards. The Guardian called it the best game of the decade. It holds the Guinness World Record for “highest rated shooter.” And yet, for the life of me, I have never understood why everyone has so much love for Half Life 2. Often when we cover old games, we do so from a comfortable perspective of “oh, sure, this game was remarkable at the time, but it hasn’t aged well and doesn’t hold up decades later”, but I don’t think even that’s true of this game. At least the first Half Life, for all its faults, was truly groundbreaking, something that redefined the genre. Half Life 2 is a competent, middle-of-the-road, seven-out-of-ten-at-best shooter that for some reason causes game critics to go into a trance and start comparing it to European art films.
Well, not this game critic. I don’t care how many people say it’s a gaming masterpiece. I don’t care about all of the hateful comments I’m going to get from people who read the title and didn’t even bother to read the article. Second Opinion is a show about challenging narratives, and it’s time for us all to take a good long look back at Half Life 2 and see it for what it really is.
Ah, but where to even begin? Why don’t we begin where the game begins – with those legendary opening lines. “The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world. So, wake up, Mr. Freeman. Wake up and smell the ashes.” Genuinely great stuff, don’t get me wrong. Is it any wonder that one of the main things people praise Half Life 2 for is its amazing story? Well, yes. Yes it is. Oh, sure, the game has well-written dialogue, memorable lines that stick with you, but people mistake the fact that the characters say interesting and/or funny things for actual character development.
A good test for how well-developed a character is is to try to think of things you can say about that character other than their physical appearance. Just to rub it in, I’m gonna use an example from DOOM 2016, a game that wasn’t even trying to have a good story. In that game, we know that Samuel Hayden is a ruthless businessman who truly wants to do the best for humanity, but doesn’t consider the ramifications of his actions, partially because he’s shortsighted, but mostly because the consequences don’t apply to him, and he’s not willing to completely set aside his own personal gain for his altruistic goals, as shown by the fact that he doesn’t want to destroy his expensive facility even after it’s made clear that that’s the only way to truly stop the demon invasion. He also has a need not only to be powerful, but to be seen as powerful, shown both in his interactions with uppity scientist Olivia Pierce and the fact that he made the crank that turns on the hell portal something that literally no one other than him is physically able to pull. He respects the Doom Slayer as a necessary force of salvation, but distrusts their power and disagrees with their belief that the only way to stop the demons is total destruction. A well-rounded, interesting character with a lot of personality traits and even goals that seem to conflict with each other, just like the goals of real people.
Compare that with beloved characters like Dr. Isaac Kleiner, a nerdy scientist who…uh…is a nerd and also a scientist. Or Barney Calhoun, the wisecracking security guard who cracks wise and guards people. Alyx Vance often gets held up as an example of a strong female character in gaming but (A) that’s an awful lot of ass shots for such a strong female character and (B) other than being kind of a generic badass, how much character does she really have? She doesn’t really do anything in the story other than use her magic butt zapper to open doors and then disappear in control rooms while you do all the actual fighting. Most of her “personality” section on the Half Life wiki is dedicated to her proficiency with weapons and gadgets, with a little bit of room at the end reserved for the fact that she cares about her Dad and is upset when people die, neither of which I would call particularly ground-breaking and exciting character traits.
I could go on about how Wallace Breen is practically a parody of himself who sounds like he was written by someone who read the Wikipedia summary of 1984 but didn’t actually bother to grasp the nuance of the book, or how Eli Vance’s utter lack of characterization makes his death in Episode 2 feel meaningless and trite (because, hey, no other videogame has ever thought about killing the main character’s dad), but I think you get the idea.
Another thing that really hurts all of the characters is that their primary motivation doesn’t make any sense. You see, good stories typically have a protagonist. Half Life 2 has Gordon Freeman, a character who regularly makes it onto “best videogame characters of all time” lists despite literally having no character whatsoever. Everyone treats Freeman as this legendary hero, despite the fact that (A) none of these characters existed in Half Life 1 even though they pretend they did, (B) there’s no reasonable way that he could’ve become famous off the back of his secret actions trying to escape a completely closed-off facility, after which he disappeared for 20 years, and (C) my Gordon Freeman is a crowbar-wielding psychopath who runs over NPCs for giggles. And you can’t tell me that that’s not canon, because the whole point of the silent protagonist is that the player can project themselves onto the character.
Silent protagonists are great, but not if you’re gonna have the whole story focus around the actions and personality of said protagonist. That’s a decision that just really doesn’t work here. And you know what else doesn’t work that well in this game? Using scripted sequences instead of cutscenes. Oh, occasionally they’re used well, like when you’re ordered to pick up the can in City 17, but most of the time it just means that a cutscene that could have dynamic and interesting lighting or cinematography (or any emoting whatsoever from the principal character) instead becomes a bunch of NPCs standing stock-still reciting dialogue like they’re at a high school debate tournament. They just spout exposition at you while you stand there, not reacting in any way or, if you’re like me, dicking around trying to hit stuff with the crowbar, because holy crap do these scenes drag on, especially in the beginning.
I mean, come on. Did nobody else laugh when Breen’s delivering what should be a dramatic speech and asks you “What is it, exactly, that you have created? Can you name even one thing?”, waits a moment, and then melodramatically says “I thought not”, as though you actually had any choice in how you responded.
And speaking of the melodrama, good lord does Half Life 2 lay it on pretty thick sometimes. “We don’t go to Ravenholm anymore.” Oh, we’re going to Ravenholm? No kidding. And why doesn’t Dr. Mossman just wear a T-shirt that says “double agent” on it? At least then you could feel like the complete non-reveal of her betrayal was meant to be tongue-in-cheek.
Oh, and you know what else good stories have? An ending. Sure, the G-Man is a compelling, interesting figure whose story hints at something greater, but we’ll never actually know, will we? We’ll never know his history with Eli Vance or why he interfered with Alyx’s life or what, if anything, Aperture Science has to do with any of this. Now I’m not one of those die-hard deluded Half Life 3 fanboys who thinks that that game’s ever going to come out, or that it would even be good if it did, but it would be nice to know that Valve actually had a story behind all this hinting and hand-waving. Pretty convenient that they just forgot to finish the part of storytelling that’s actually difficult, huh? That is: delivering on the promises of the narrative. As it is, there’s no emotional or plot resolution, especially in the base game. Half Life 2 ends on an anticlimactic cliffhanger, a wet fart of an ending that doesn’t do anything to help what’s already a really weak story.
Enough about the story. As overrated as it is, I’ve played and enjoyed plenty of games with far worse stories than Half Life 2’s, which isn’t so much bad as it is mediocre. And a mediocre story can be saved with great gameplay! Unfortunately, this is the biggest problem with Half Life 2 – for a first-person shooter, especially one that a lot of people seem to think should define the genre, it has some of the least enjoyable shooting I’ve ever experienced. This is a science fiction game – a science fiction game set in a world where aliens have been controlling the Earth for years now. So how come all your weapons are the standard loadout of shotgun, sniper rifle, machine gun, crossbow – wait, crossbow? Crossbow? Unless that thing shoots lasers, get it the heck out of my sight. The first Half Life game had the Gluon Gun, the Tau Cannon, that…weird…bug grenade thing. And as crap as most of those were mechanically, at least it was trying to be interesting! How do the designers of this game look themselves in the eye knowing that they made an alien pulse rifle that shoots regular bullets. Bullets! Not to mention the thing has such limited ammo capacity that it’s not worth using unless you’re out of…sigh…crossbow bolts.
And that’s the problem. Half Life 2 thinks it’s a power fantasy, a world that completely revolves around you. But none of the guns are even remotely satisfying to use – they pack no punch, and enemies don’t react to getting shot, and they’re all a bit crap, saddled with lousy ammo capacity and often really inaccurate if you’re trying to mow enemies down Rambo-style. This might seem like nitpicking, but it’s something we talked about last week with Quake – when your main mechanic amounts to little more than “click on the man ‘til the man falls down”, clicking on that man had better feel really fun. Plus, Gordon Freeman, supposedly the butt-kicking name-taking hero of the rebellion, ends up moving slowly and cautiously to conserve ammo and only firing short bursts of his worthless crappy pulse rifle. This, again, detracts from what might have been a good and interesting story if every other aspect of the game wasn’t working against it.
Oh, and I should probably talk about how boring the enemies you fight are, too. Unfortunately, there just isn’t much to say – if there was, they wouldn’t be boring. You’ve got six different types of antlion, three different types of headcrab, a couple of zombies, assorted guys with guns, it’s just…eh. Go back and read my Doom 1 Second Opinion where I talk about the importance of having enemies that serve lots of different roles, forcing you to think of lots of different strategies, and then just realize that Half Life 2 has none of that. There’s monsters that hit you from close up and monsters that hit you from far away and that’s pretty much it.
Ah, but Half Life 2 isn’t really about shooting, is it? No, it’s all about the setpieces. Now let me tell you guys about something which game designers call immersion and psychologists call cognitive flow. I know a thing or two about this because I published a paper on it. In a very basic, overly-simplified sense, cognitive flow is the state you enter when you get so immersed in an activity that continuing the activity becomes the only justification you need to continue it. When you keep playing “just one more turn” of Civilization only to look up and realize it’s four in the morning? Cognitive flow. Those addictive mobile or flash games that interfere with your work? Cognitive flow. Stopping the shooting every twenty minutes to drive a boat or walk slowly across a creaking bridge? Not cognitive flow. The opposite of cognitive flow.
Even the setpieces that are pretty cool, like driving the car or using pheropods interrupt this cognitive flow (or what little the crappy shooting creates.) As fun as it is to throw bugbait to get the antlions to fight for you, you still have to stand there and wait for them to actually finish the fight (and that’s assuming they’re actually bothering to attack what you want them to attack.) Plus, these interruptions interrupt themselves with something I’m going to talk about in a moment.
But the setpieces that aren’t fun? Like sloooowly walking across a creaking metal bridge in a section that is far more difficult and goes on for far longer than it has any right to? Or the horrible boat controls? Or slowly building bridges across the sand for what feels like eight and a half years of playtime? Or the terrible, awful, no-good, very bad, frustrating, infuriating, poorly-programmed, stupidly unintuitive, mind-bogglingly miserable squad section? Those are absolutely unforgivable. You play through that squad section once, then you save so you can skip it on later playthroughs, assuming you haven’t just destroyed your computer in a fit of “why can’t you dumbasses go through a door one at a time”-induced rage.
I’m gonna come back to that ending. The one thing Half Life 2 does really well is its pacing – it starts slow (arguably too slow), but builds faster and faster, gets more and more exciting, until it suddenly comes screeching to a halt for no good reason. Or, rather, because Valve realized they might actually have to write an ending and panicked. Absolutely destroys cognitive flow, leaves a horrible taste in your mouth as you exit the game, and they couldn’t even put in a good boss battle, though I’m sure if they had it would be the same as every other boss battle in the game – i.e., find the infinite rocket stash and sit there shooting for 15 minutes you’ll never get back.
Ah, but Half Life 2 isn’t really about setpieces, is it? No, it’s all about the physics. Half Life 2 boasted one of the first really robust physics engines, and while I’m tempted to make a comment about how when you play it in 2017 it feels like everything’s made out of rubber, I remember how it was a big deal when it came out. And what did they do with this incredible technology? Well, you can build bridges over dangerous terrain, put some cinderblocks on a ramp, and THAT’S IT, THAT’S ALL YOU DO. Cut the check, boys, we came up with a whole two things. Two things that you have to do four hundred thousand times, hurting the game’s flow even more. I don’t like the airboat section very much but I might like it more if I didn’t have to stop every couple of feet to mess around with some Black Mesa reject’s Rube Goldberg machine.
Oh, and I guess occasionally you can use it to break barriers, the same thing the crowbar can do only less satisfying. You know what? I’m gonna say it. The Doom 3 gravity gun was better than this, because at least with that you could grab enemy projectiles and even enemy Lost Souls and chuck them at enemies. That gun complimented the shooting sections. Half Life 2’s ruins its shooting sections.
In the interest of fairness, I will point out the two parts of the game that are genuinely fun. The first is Ravenholm, a survival horror section featuring a mad priest that deserves the praise it gets. Why? Because the writing is tight and doesn’t get stuck up its own butt, and most importantly, the shooting is just fun, with no gimmicks necessary. Ravenholm focuses on doing one thing and therefore does it well, somehow feeling like the most cohesive part of the game even though there’s technically no real reason for Half Life 2 to have this weird Resident Evil knockoff in the middle of it. And the second part is the end of Episode 2, a challenging and exciting fight against towering Hunters and Stalkers with substantially improved AI from the base game who come in waves, making the whole thing feel almost like an endless survival mode. It’s genuinely awesome, though I’m not sure it makes up for Episode 1, a mind-numbingly boring copy-paste of the base game, except that it goes backwards and everything is somehow even less fun.
The thing is, I play those two sections and I think: this is what Half Life 2 could have been. This is what it should have been. If Valve had concentrated on making the game one thing: a shooter, a setpiece-oriented action adventure, a psychics-based puzzle game, maybe it could have been something deserving of all the praise it got. In fact, Valve did make a couple of physics-based puzzle games, and they’re hands-down two of the absolute best videogames that will ever exist. Portal works because everything in the game – its story, its presentation, its gameplay – are all focused on doing one thing, creating one type of cognitive flow. Half Life 2, on the other hand, is dedicated only to not being dedicated, and the result is a disjointed game that’s good at a few things but not great at anything, all wrapped up in a half-assed story about a mute and his one-dimensional friends.
And that’s my professional opinion.