Firstperson shooters since Half-Life, at least on the PC, have been unsatisfying footnotes to the events of 1998. A smattering of ideas have crashlanded in the ballpark, but everyone is still playing the same game. We’ve seen better special effects, even some new material to work with, but there’s still been a sense of deflation with each new title. Nothing on PCs has quite managed to repeat the fine melody with which Half-Life was orchestrated. But firstperson shooters haven’t become outmoded, they’ve not even lost their way. They’ve simply not managed to do what we thought they could do.
Half-Life 2, on the other hand, does exactly what we thought they could do. Those unrealised visions of intensity, action, drama and relentless challenge weren’t just a figment – Valve knew that. The genre still has a way forward and the Seattle team has found it. Yes, it’s a linear shooter: a magnificent, breathtaking paragon of the form. Half-Life 2 takes the squad-based elements, the vehicles, the physics, the gorgeous good looks, the whole sedimentary block of genre conceits and carves out a masterpiece. This isn’t about doing things differently to anyone else, it’s about doing them better.
How is that possible? Well, it’s largely about timing. The set-pieces are, almost without exception, supremely effective. A giant strider tripod crashing through a building, a zombie bursting from a door, a floating-barrel counterbalance puzzle, a duel with a helicopter, a line uttered by an otherwise inconsequential character – whatever it is, it comes barrelling in, pitch perfect to the very second of delivery. And it never stops. Half-Life 2 never lets up; it’s a high-bandwidth cascade of challenges. There is no time for repetition or monotony. The sheer urgency with which the player is propelled through the game sees to that. Few games have such a qualified sense of drama. Half-Life 2 tells a story in which you are swept along without feeling helpless.
The intensity of chase scenes, the gut-wrenching loss of friends, the grim brutality of killing – all these experiences are delivered with astonishing vitality. The characters win hearts and raise suspicions. The acting, their movement, their facial expressions, all seem imbued with humanity. The city itself, awe-inspiring, oppressive and terrifying in equal measure, is flawlessly designed. You are embedded in this world.
And no, Gordon Freeman never speaks. No cut-scenes, no muttered voiceover. This seemingly sinister quirk is elegantly handled, gently transformed into a joke by the other characters. Alyx, the core female character, laughs and shakes her head, while Yoda-type aliens mutter things in their own language after informing the player, politely, that they would only ever speak in their native tongue if they wished to say something rude.
All of this brilliance takes place within a framework of sensational technical achievement. The Source engine might not have Doom 3’s fearsome lighting, but it nevertheless believably renders everything from a vast brutalist skyscraper to the peeling paint on a tenement wall. The striders, the towering tripedal robots that hunt the army of rebels along the streets, are wonderful to behold. Death occurs on numerous occasions simply from the awesome need to look and gape. Even in the large outdoor spaces, such as the high-speed journey along a temperate coastline, Source remains unfazed. There are a few examples of textures being too stretched and bland, but the naysayers who are liable to worry about that will have bigger things on their minds… such as the physics.
Finally we have a game in which physics are more than just an excuse for ragdoll deaths. Gone is the Mr Magoo effect of running around banging into things and knocking them over. This time the world is there to be grasped. Within moments of Half-Life 2’s opening scenes a vicious metrocop throws a drink can on the floor and insists that you pick it up and put it in the bin. In that moment the player is equipped with everything they need to know about the world. And these moments continue – the game constantly teaches us something and then presents a challenge to be overcome by applying what has been learned. This is never more true than in using the gravity gun.
This is the core tool, and it’s what makes Half-Life 2 simply sing with entertainment. It can be used to drag objects, pick them up and carry them about. Its second mode can be used to drop, throw or smash them away. The applications for this spread wide indeed. Initially, it’s about hurling metal discs through the bodies of encroaching zombies; later it finds an application knocking over the buggy and getting it upright, or dislodging weird sticky mines, or picking up a filing cabinet to use as a shield or a battering ram. Tearing a radiator from a wall and using it to swat a parasitic headcrab, while all the furniture in a room goes tumbling around you, is truly a gaming epiphany. This is possibly the most exquisitely crafted action game of all time.
Half-Life 2 is a firstperson shooter. But in action, storytelling, technical achievement, atmosphere and intensity it has far outdone its peers. Valve just hit the top note no other PC game developer could reach.
Half-Life 2 is one of very few games awarded an Edge 10. You can find the rest here.