So, well, yeah… I’ve never played Half-Life 2 before today. I did play the original Half-Life and both expansion packs, Opposing Force and Blue Shift1, and I guess when Half-Life 2 came out my computer was so woefully out of date to even think about running it.

There’s a lot of acclaim for Half-Life 2 and I didn’t intend to skip it, I just never got around to play it. So when I spotted The Orange Box for the low price of 9,90 euros the other day I decided it was finally time to invest into this piece of gaming history. I already got Portal free through Steam in spring and I don’t know anyone who would play TF2 so the 20-30 euros was a bit steep for the whole thing. So, getting HL2 and both Episodes 1 and 2 for 10 bucks sounded good.2

The Orange Box cover
I think we can all agree it would be much more cooler if the Heavy was the lead character in both Half-Life 2 and Portal.

So, now I got the lot. It was a good time, too, because now they run on Mac OS X, which means I can sneak a short gaming session here and there without booting to Windows.

Screenshot of Half-Life 2
So, where are all the guns? Or is this Mirror's Edge?

I’ve been told the story will be amazing. There will be scary parts. I will cry by the end of Episode 2. Afterwards, I can’t wait for Episode 3 to arrive.

Let’s see what emotional roller-coaster awaits me..

When the game starts I remember that I have actually seen the first 15 minutes of this game before, but for the life of me can’t figure out where. The first half hour is mostly trains, intro to the fascist regime, meeting the old buddies, an experiment gone a bit wrong and reacquaintance with the crowbar.

But the graphics look pretty good, even today. Sounds are not that much all there. Points for getting me scared and forcing me to think in the first half hour. Yet, I’m still waiting the game to actually begin. Hopefully that happens the next time I have time to play.

A week or so later: Wow, just got a semiautomatic gun in HL2. This could actually mean that the game could actually start sometime soon. The gun progression really has been quite predictable in FPS games since Wolfenstein 3D.

Route Kanal on Half-Life 2
Sure, I'm a sucker for these tests, but playing HL2 today after Portal does make things feel a bit… different

I think it’s easy to see in HL2 why modern FPSs have thrown away the medikit item and rely on regeneration instead. There are medikits all over the place here, and always after a “scene”. This reminds me a bit of Portal. I know Portal can be seen as an allegory for games, and how levels represented the Platonic ideal of challenges games throw at gamers.

So far the structure is similar in HL2, which isn’t exactly surprising given they’re both Valve games. However, I think HL2 could’ve benefited from a regenerative health mechanic instead of medikits, if the game anyway throws you medikits after difficult spots. But if the design is such that it leaves the player with small amount of health and the danger of running out health, not knowing when to get more, then strategically put medikits serve a purpose.

However, if HL2 is based on these scenes that I need to survive, throwing a bunch of medikits out of nowhere does break the immersion; there is a god, or more accurately a designer, who just loves Gordon Freeman and hopes he’ll complete his quest.

After a couple of months break, I played some more Half-Life 2 and I’m now somewhere with my trusty airboat.

Screenshot of Half-Life 2
The Red Barn

I have started to rethink what I wrote earlier about health packs vs. regenerative health. I had a discussion about the same issue at work, where a work colleague pointed out that for him the whole health pack/survival thing is the key. He had previously played Dead Space and denied ever playing a game with the Call of Duty-style health mechanic.

And, yeah, he’s right. I remember the joy of surviving on very little health, but those memories are now shrouded in mists by the hours spent playing Call of Duty and its likes. Regenerative health has made the games in some respects easier, but the biggest change is in the pacing. In Half-Life 2 it’s not about storming into a fight and relying on heavy weapon force to silence the opposition before your health goes down, because you have to survive for an unknown period of time after that too.

Previously I wrote that the medikit approach was better suited for scene-based action, but you could just as easily make the argument that regenerative health is much better suited for that.

There was a nice write-up on how the health thing in modern FPSs (post-Doom) is mostly due to the enemies having fast projectile weapons (ie. assault rifles) instead of slow-moving balls of fire. This is why the players in modern FPSes need to be damage sponges, they are more likely to get hit by the enemies3.

Screenshot of Half-Life 2
About that survival thing... beat the hunter-chopper with just 1 health point left. You don’t really get this feeling with the regenerative health system.

Fast forward some time and I’m somewhere around Ravenholm, you know, the place *they don’t go to anymore.*

Screenshot of Half-Life 2
It's really starting to feel like Left 4 Dead right now...

Zombie thingies, fire, sawblades, limited ammunition and finally, shotgun. It is a bit scary in the “do I really want to play this game anymore?”, tedious way. I think one part of that feeling is based on the fact that I’m just trying to finish this game but I’m failing to get into it.

I think I remember that I felt this kind of fatigue to hit in in the original Half-Life as well. It was a room after room and I had probably already forgotten why I was where I was in the first place.

My Half-Life playing is quite similar to watching a “great” film you never saw when it was relevant. You know it should be good because it’s number 13 on IMDb, but on the other hand it’s over 3 hours long and in black and white and you still haven’t watched Inception.

Couple of months pass and I am suddenly somewhere in Episode 2 and look back to the previous installments.

Screenshot of Half-Life 2: Episode Two
Ooh... shiny blue thingy

I guess the developers intended the player to feel for Alyx and she and her shotgun were handy in the hospital scene in HL2E1 killing all the zombies. However, I’m getting a bit tired of her in Episode Two. Warning: The next paragraph will include spoilers, skip it if you are even more behind the curve than I am.

Sure, it was unavoidable that at some point in the story she’d get wounded by the enemy. But seriously, shouldn’t Gordon leave the Vortigaunts do their stuff and head off to save the world? Also, the Vortigaunts seemed to have no problem fighting against all the antlions so why do they have to send off the puny human to get some fucking antlion bit? I mean, it’s not like the data stolen from the Citadel is in her head or anything. So yeah, I would have left her 4 dead.

So, anyway, back to the non-spoilerific part. In essence, due to some disagreements with the narrative, I’m again having a tiny motivational problem with the game though I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed the Episodes more than I anticipated. I think I was just a bit tired of the original Half-Life 2 and was not really looking for more of the same. At least the first episode offered much more tighter scenes and enjoyable experiences. So far, the cave dwelling in HL2E2 hasn’t been my cup of tea but at least the first crescendo4 against the antlions was quite nice. It was only at the end of the antlion defense that I was feeling that the antlions are beginning to overrun the place - probably just as the developers had intended. The way Valve has been able to combine action and story-telling and balance the learning and difficulty of the scenes is great.

It’s however hard to top the hospital scene in Episode One with the zombies and I guess the level end gunship fight at the attic would have blown my socks off back in 2007.

And then I went and completed Episode 2 as well, but didn’t write more about it.

This article was compiled from a bunch of Half-Life 2 related posts on my previous blog, first of which was published on August 8th, 2010.

  1. Although, I don’t remember playing through Blue Shift. Being a security guard is boring, even in a game.

  2. Like it was about the money, even though the 60 euro price tags on new games do horrify me. I do still try to live by The Secret of Monkey Island’s most important teaching of “not paying more than 20 dollars for a computer game”. In today’s money that would be about $32.80 or 25,50€.

  3. Come to think of it, one of the last games where you could dodge enemy fire was probably Max Payne.

  4. To borrow a term from Left 4 Dead level design.