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Blast From The Past
Blast From The Past: Half-Life 2

What with the rumours of a Half-Life 3 floating around the place, and Gabe’s little knife photo, it seems only fitting to look at the game that redefined how we viewed an entire genre. Many may think that this isn’t quite old enough to be counted in a Blast From The Past but, although it launched on current generation consoles in The Orange Box back in 2007, its original release came three years prior in 2004, and it was ported to the original Xbox in 2005. It’s hard to admit, but Half-Life 2 is last generation gaming – at least on the surface – but when you remove that crust you’ll find a game deeper than your modern day shooter, puzzler or adventure game, Half-Life 2 was industry defining for a reason.
 
 

 

Valve’s magnum opus is what it is because of the risks they took with gameplay design. Under the bonnet is an incredibly linear game, but at no point do you feel that you’re being forced in any direction, nor being held by the hand. Valve structure the environments so you are drawn into the right path, something catches your eye and you want to explore; from a distance it seems like an inconsequential piece of environment, but upon arrival you realise it’s crucial in moving the story forward. Environments like these keep you engaged, and keep you entertained, in what could have otherwise been an incredibly straightforward adventure. Valve would pepper details around their world, and would allude to the human struggle against the Combine invaders though dead bodies, newspaper clippings, abandoned settlements, and interactions between NPCs

For many games the opening moments are crucial, this is no different for Half-Life 2, however unlike many modern shooters – where the action comes thick and fast and continues to ramp up – Valves title starts off slow and then thrusts you into an intense rooftop chase. This model is continued throughout the game with slow moments capped off with intense set pieces; if it were in any other shooter this model would infuriate, but Half-Life 2 uses it to draw you deeper into its narrative. Stepping off the train at City 17 station and being greeted by Dr. Breen’s wry voice welcoming you to one of the “finest remaining urban centres”, shortly afterwards you’re given free reign to explore the city but Valve cleverly entice you down the route they want you to take. Without even realising, you’ve transitioned from the free form and ambling the intro offers, and you’ve burst into an unarmed roof chase. Arguably this could be seen as peaking a little bit too early on, as few moments feel quite as tense as that interaction, but thanks to the changing environments Valve manage to return to such high octane thrills in different ways.
 
 

 

One stage that no fan could forget was Ravenholm. It’s derelict streets and abandoned homes were sparsely populated by leering headcrab zombies and horrifying fast zombies that would scream from the rooftops; if that wasn’t surreal enough, the only living inhabitant was an arguably psychotic – yet very helpful – man of God, Father Grigori. It wasn’t the setting though that cemented it into players minds, although the hanging pair of legs next to a swing at the start probably had something to do with it, it was how Valve created an eerie playground for you to experiment within. Like many survival horror games, Valve placed little ammo and weaponry inside Ravenholm, instead they tempted you to pick up and use your newly acquired Zero Point Energy Gun (or Gravity Gun if you’re not pompous) by placing lethal objects strategically around the levels. Be it circular saw blades, explosive canisters, or a tin of paint, you could launch the objects with deadly force into the oncoming hoards of headcrab zombies. What made it even more pleasurable was when a zombie would continue to crawl towards you even wen you separated its legs from its torso. Ravenholm was a perfect example of how level design should be made, indeed if many shooters of todays ilk had levels so well constructed we would be eternally spoilt for choice.

It wasn’t just level design that Half-Life 2 managed to raise the bar on either. It’s character design was incredible for 2004, and is still impressive by todays standards. Without even uttering a single word the games protagonist, Gordon Freeman, had more personality in his trigger finger than almost any other character from a FPS game. Valved managed this by placing him inside a cast of talented voice actors and created characters that really made you connect with the world. Barney, a previous Black Mesa security guard now Civil Protection officer, cracks jokes and aids Gordon; Dr. Eli Vance and Dr. Isaac Kliner also bring their charms on board with their quirky and amusing actions; Dr. Wallace Breen plays the role of the big bad guy, but honestly he’s so naïve to whats going on that in the frantic citadel chase towards the end his crazed actions show you how grounded Gordon Freeman actually is. Even the NPC actions of the resistance fighters and their blind faith in following “The one true free man” paint Gordon as a saviour, a figurehead, a strong leader of a man – despite the fact he’s clearly just been thrown into it all at once. Most importantly is the inclusion and interaction f Eli Vance’s daughter, Alyx. The way she looked at you, or more importantly Gordon, and her actions throughout the game all suggested she cared for him in a deeper level. That pseudo emotional connection humanised Gordon Freeman in a way that very few games have ever managed to do with a computer game protagonist. 
 

 

If that wasn’t enough, Half-Life 2 really pushed the boat out with computer visuals for the time. It was truly a beautiful game, and thanks to the Source Engine’s capabilities it still can look impressive today when tweaked correctly. It was suitably glossy to look new and advanced, yet still gave environments the dusty and downtrodden look that they needed to effectively convey the dystopian universe that had spawned from the events of Half-Life. Coupled with excellent audio design, Valve managed to create a powerful world for players to delve into and play through. The universe only grew when they released Episode 1 and Episode 2 into the wilds of their game delivery service, Steam. These additions continued the scale and pace that the game deserved, and even though they brought about different environments for players to explore, they still managed to deliver the same high standards.

It isn’t hard to see why there are crowbar wielding mobs knocking on the doors of Valve and demanding to be told what is going on with the Half-Life series. It’s a title that is every bit deserving of the praise it’s given, and it still challenges developers today as one of the greatest titles available. If you haven’t had the chance to play through such an incredible game, you should stop whatever you’re doing right now (which is most likely reading this), and go play it.

 

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