When you get off the tram in the original game, a security guard by the name of Barney greets you. Among the many things he says in his short appearance, he mentions something about buying you a beer after when the shift’s over. But, as we all know, the day soon takes an unexpected turn via the cataclysmic resonance cascade and sets in motion the raison d’etre of Half-Life proper; thus Barney and his proposal is all but forgotten. The friendly guard quickly becomes a distant and unimportant memory the more you progressive into the game, until comes a point where you cannot remember him unless reminded so – at which your face takes on the expression of someone lost in an ancestral memory.
Now, in Half-Life 2, as soon as you get off the train you’re taken to an interrogation room where a Combine soldier is waiting for you. When the soldier closes the door to the room and turns off the CCTV cameras, he then takes off his headgear and, while revealing himself to be Barney, reminds you of his long-due promise of the beer he owes you. The mere mention of the word ‘beer’ brings back the nostalgic memory of meeting him for the very first time. Seeing him again is like running into an old, dear friend, and given the context it could not be more fitting and relieving. While this brief surprise is rather nondescript in front of the bleak and terrorizing world you get to witness, it is precisely because of this that his unexpected appearance makes you want to venture on with renewed confidence… and appreciate the game just a little more for staying true to its larger than life approach to the Half-Life universe. Just because we never get to see Barney for the remainder of the original game doesn’t mean he met with the inevitable cliché. Valve’s intent was to make believable, realistic characters, and Barney was one. Anything could’ve happened to him, and out of all the scenarios that come to mind, this one – that he survived – is the one I like best.
You are in City 17. You arrive here from an unknown location with two other passengers, and with the mysterious G-Man and his cryptic sentences once again in the picture, you know it’s going to be yet another strange day at the office. Once you step off the train and witness a Combine soldier harassing a citizen (and then later you), you realize that the two ends of the spectrum have successfully balanced out. In the original you were a respectable scientist who was the cause of the trouble; now you’re the victim of it, reduced to the lowest common denominator. In this introductory level, the signs are all but clear: an Orwellian nightmare has froze over and there’s nothing you can publicly do about it. You must plan your moves in the shadows and move with caution. Right from the outset – with the Combine bullying you, with them forcefully breaking into citizen’s dwelling areas and ram shackling it – the game masterfully conjures up a deafening silence before the storm.
The second you open the double doors to the majestic looking center of City 17, you just know you stepped into something both philosophically and literally bigger than yourself. The tightly packed tenements are a mix of different era Eastern European architecture and they palpably invoke a sense of Orwellian society – which is not far from the truth, given the numerous flying scanners and Dr. Breen’s Big Brother-esque ubiquity over the City. Citizens with frightened expressions and hunched shoulders slowly make their way to their destinations while several Combine soldiers stand uprooted menacingly. Approaching them alerts their awareness of you. Stay in their line of sight slightly too long and you’ll receive a smack on the head with their electric probes. Since you’re not armed, you cannot hit back – and this marks as prove of the game’s unmatched realism and tangibility. City 17 is easily one of the most impressive locations in a video game ever. The use of mute colors (ie: brown) brilliantly accentuate the desolation, forlornness and trapped nature of the city and its denizens. Never before have I entered a location and felt exactly like the habitants and have had this euphoric phenomena called fernweh – where a person becomes homesick for a place he’s never been to. This is great work on Valve’s part, and possible madness on mine!
Right from the outset this game tells you that it will be providing a much bigger playground to traverse in than the one you were used to in the original. While Half-Life 2 does have its claustrophobic moments, the larger areas never feel like they’re being replaced nor do they lose their touch. The only complaint I have regarding the size of the locations is how vulnerable you suddenly become to enemy attack. Whenever you emerge from, let’s say, a house or underground dwelling, to a more open landscape you’re exposed to enemy attack like an exposed nerve – because they appear from multiple directions and often-times one of them would be in a difficult position. This “invisible shooter” has been a thorn on my side from the Ravenholm chapter onward, and the number one cause of unfair death and/or ungodly level of low health.
The primary gameplay remains the same. You make your way through various locations – and from it – battling enemy forces and occasionally encountering a rebel hideout. The latter is a new feature in the game, and through it further portions of the backstory get uncovered. In the original you had scared-stiff scientists and lone security guards; here now you get groups of rebel fighters who are more than capable of holding the fort all by themselves. This is an interesting change of pace, as it makes the in-game world a little more alive and varied than it already is. The shooting aspect is now more refined and aggressive. Compared to the first game, the guns and hitting power feel more heavy and weighted – but they still have a slight “floaty” feel to them that makes them far from robust. While the subtle technicalities make for a better playing experience the second time around, nothing expresses the power of freedom more explosively than the driving aspects of the game.
As still one of the few first-person shooters to include driving sequences from a first-person perspective (others tend to switch to third-person), the driving parts, though executed in a nice way, have me sharply divided. You see the game uses the same physics mechanic for driving as it does for the characters, and the translation doesn’t go over too well. In fact they feel too uncomfortable, uncontrollable and awkward. The mudskipper (water boat) sequence is fine, no serious complaints there, but it is when you man the dune buggy that you acquire in the Highway 17 chapter that the trouble starts. The physics engine is so sensitive that any bump with a rock or an Antlion sends it flying across the screen, losing viable health and time along the way. Just a few minutes into the buggy and already I had begun loathing it. When I finally had enough of turning it over via the Gravity Gun – of which you’ll have to do constantly – I ditched it and continued the adventure on foot. Imagine my anger (the one I usually reserve for the 30 second ads before every YouTube video) when I found out that in order to proceed to the next area I had to be on the friggin’ buggy. Since I had ditched it a long way back, I had to travel all the way back to retrieve it, all four minutes of it. Bringing it to the close-off point took longer than making coffee. Had it had better physics model, who knows I might be crying about lack of more driving sequences; but since there aren’t many, all I can say is Good Riddance!!
Graphically the game is beyond awesome looking, even to this day. Many of the locales look absolutely gorgeous – even if they aren’t gorgeous in the traditional sense, they do invoke a sense associated with the word. The entire Ravenholm chapter not only stands as testament to the graphical prowess of the game, but is also perhaps one of the most intimidating and creepiest areas ever designed for a video game. To sum it up Ravenholm is a negative copy of City 17. While the latter isn’t exactly flowers and sunshine, it is well maintained and horrors contained. Ravenholm is like a living carcass, a rejected Silent Hill location. Crawling to the brim with even darker versions of zombies and headcrabs, Ravenholm effectively conjures up a feeling of palpable dread and insecurity only matched by a certain few, like Doom 3 and F.E.A.R. The heavy use of grotesque props – such as mutilated bodies and large pools of blood – only add to the already scary atmosphere. Really, I could go on and on about this particular chapter but such praise will go pointless if you don’t (or won’t) experience it for yourself. It will be like you stepped into another different game altogether.
The voice acting is simply amazing and definitely an improvement over its predecessor. Not to say the first game didn’t had good voice overs (it did actually) it’s just this time around they’ve definitely gotten richer and rounded. The tigress’ share of the adulation obviously goes to Merle Dandridge for her masterful and iconic portrayal of Alyx Vance, the first female protagonist of the Half-Life universe, as well as the first fully fledged supporting character. Merle did such an excellent job that she forever ensured Alyx’s position in the annals of the video game industry as a legendary character. A job finely done, I must say. The rest of the supporting cast, major and minor, also provide various shades of appropriate realistic emotions and tones and they’re all worthy of two thumbs up. Half-Life 2 may very well be one of the very few video games to have great voice-acting from virtually everyone – something I last noticed in Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars and its third sequel, Angel of Death.