Half Life 2 — A very late review

I didn’t want to play Half-Life 2 when it first came out. I found the demo to be an glorified tech demo, bland and predictable. On the other hand, Team Fortress 2 with its siren call of competitive and cooperative game play is something I’ve been meaning to check out. With a choice between the Orange Box (giving me many games for one low price) and purchasing TF2 solo (this was a couple of months back before it went free to play) I chose the more economic option and became a proud owner of HL2.

Simply put, Half-Life 2 tries hard to be an excellent game. It looks good, the controls are easy to use, and there is a lot of world-building to see. But that’s the problem. All I ever got to do was look at the world, I never got to explore it. The limitations artificially foisted are numerous and varied.

For one, there is the story. All by itself, it might have sufficed to be a short novel perhaps. But as part of an interactive medium, the story suffers in its inability to let the player be the hero. In giving no quarter, no choice to the player, the story of Half-Life 2 becomes a bland background. This is incredibly jarring since NPCs constantly say that the player will think of something and lead them to victory. But no thinking is required on behalf of the player. Just follow the primrose path laid before them. How then is the player motivated? There is absolutely no reason to save the world because there is nothing at stake. There are no worthwhile failure conditions. And it doesn’t matter what the player may want or do, the world will be saved because that is what the story says will happen. For as much choice Half-Life 2 gives the player, you might as well be playing a high-res version of pong.

Second, there is the actual game itself. Only at its very end, did Half-Life 2 resemble anything like an actual game. And that was more an homage to the old arcade Tron game.

Otherwise, Half-Life 2 is best described as a series of in-game cut scenes punctuated by an occasional puzzle or fight. This really makes it no different than any other FPS released in the last decade. Most of the puzzles and fights are very easy. But there are a rare few which jumps so far up the difficulty curve as to be completely separate from the rest of the game. And while this is a fantasy game dressed in the guise of science fiction, there are more than one puzzle or fight which defies the rules of their world. Almost every enemy could see through walls, there were enemies which never faltered in their aim, and enemies immune to all attacks.

I think that the designers of the game were not so interested in what the player can achieve but were far more engaged in celebrating their own creation. Like some four year old holding up their crayon art for praise, Half-Life 2 wants you to be impressed with itself and not the experience that it brings to you.

This attitude is endemic in the video game world. We hear that the game creators want to engage Players through story and consequences, but Half-Life 2 gives no control over either to the player. Where this discontinuity originates, I have no idea. All I can see is that there is no trust in the player to be the hero, there is no trust in the player to choose the righteous path. I am not asking for an AI game master to  improvise at the player’s whim, but something far simpler. To start, failure should be an option and it should not end the game. Right or left should be meaningful options. At the very least I should be able to chart out the plot as per Robin’s Law of good gamemastering and have it be a straight line.

Games like Half-Life 2 that attempt to dazzle to distract from their flatness do a disservice to all games.

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  • Jonathan Shields

    While I agree with some of the points you make, honestly you are expecting too much out of the medium of a video game.  HL2 is great for what it is, which is what you described.  No there aren’t branching paths or meaningful dialogue, but it’s not that kind of game.  Developers, even Valve, only have a limited amount of time and money to put out a product, and they decided to focus on (like you said) building a cool world and having some compelling action setpieces.  Any story was just gravy.

    It is much more difficult to have ‘meaningful choices’ in a video game than it is to have them in a book (choose your own adventure I guess?) or a PnP RPG.  Even if as a game master you don’t improvise at all, and you have every single choice written down before a campaign (which is honestly nearly impossible to begin with due to players throwing curve balls), that’s all you need.  To have it written down.  A couple paragraphs describing what will happen.  In a video game, they would need to have environments built, textures created, models put together, animations, new voice acting, and then even after that it would have to (ideally) go through months of QA to make sure it wasn’t broken.  Just that one scene.If you want to play a game more like you describe in the end, I would strongly suggest you play Alpha Protocol, a game that was sadly overlooked by many.  It has its fair share of flaws, but it’s the closest example I can think of of a video game that attempts to do what you request.  It really is a fantastic game that has tons of player choice and flat out requires multiple plays to see all of the content.  However, if you are like the many that were put off by the so-so combat and weird animations, just remember that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    ~Johan

  • Perhaps I am all to eager to see the medium mature to the point where the player is taken seriously as part-owner of the story. For it to fulfill the promise of having a flat holodeck in my living room.