Gordon Freeman was once a lumberjack.
But Valve scrapped that for a SUPER NERD.
What a dork. But the best dork. MIT graduate theoretical physicist by day, blaster of alien scum (and bad dude soldiers) by night. And also mostly day too. The original Half-Life put Valve on the map and, in many ways, totally reinvented the first person genre to how it’s seen today. Half-Life emphasised breakneck run-and-gun alongside visual storytelling through environment design and settings, immersing players in an oddly believable, tactile world under attack from interdimensional aliens and government thugs. Yes yes, Xen fucking sucked. But do you really think your Call of Duty would exist if it weren’t for Half-Life? Don’t underestimate it’s importance.
The history books prove that the fans certainly didn’t. Several years later Half-Life 2 was announced. Successor to the original, premiere of Valve’s Source engine, and spearhead for the Steam project. Many fell in love from the moment the (retrospectively somewhat faked) footage surfaced at E3 2003. And I was no different.
My earliest memory is sitting in physics class (irony) with two buddies, copy of PC PowerPlay, Hyper, or whatever the hell was the big Australian gaming mag at the time clutched in my hands, not-so-stealthily reading impressions and gawking over screenshots as the teacher (who hated me, for reasons unknown) waffled on about meaningless universal constants. ‘Scuse me Mr Egghead, but I have video games to study.
I was in awe. Masked soldiers raiding desolated prisons infested with insectoid monsters. European cities under Nineteen Eighty-Four-like lock-down. Towering, skinny-legged beasts hunting jumpsuit-garbed civilians as they ran through neglected streets.
I rushed home, cover disk in hand, to watch the reputed E3 footage. And it delivered. I remember them fondly; the first introduction to what would be Ravenholm, showcasing physics-based traps and tools. A headcrab zombie rising on a peer. Strider bursting through a wall. The scope of this game seemed unmatched, a thing of dreams. Like no shooter before it.
The wait for release was antagonising, filled with delays, drama, and lawsuits. But wait I did, until the day of release. Again, in school, sending my poor mum on a mission to who-kn0ws-where to collect my boxed collector’s edition. Gordon, Alyx, and the G-Man’s face brandished a black, rectangular monolith, within lurking a sample of Raising the Bar, a mini Prima guide, Half-Life logo brandished t-shirt (that I still have and, on special occasions, wear), and of course the game. Holy shit, I was so excited. A teenage boy adrenalin rush matched only by maybe the prospect of touching boobies. I rushed home, giddy and overwhelmed.
And then shattered when I realised I’d made my first rookie PC hardware mistake: Half-Life 2 was printed on one of those new fangeled DVDs. And I had a CD drive.
But I don’t shy away from disaster. A phone call a ride from the folks later and I was at my best mate’s house. He had a DVD drive. He wanted to see this game in all its glory. And neither of us gave a single fuck about school the next day.
Install, wait, load, update, deal with Steam’s awful launch day servers, and eventually…eventually we were in. And I played. I listened to the G-Man. I rode that train into City 17. I immersed myself in Breen’s speeches. I picked up the can, and put it in the trash. And in a single night I played through, start to finish, all of Half-Life 2.
Obviously Half-Life 2 holds a special place in my memory. But even taking off the nostalgia goggles, I play through the title (and its subsequent two episodes) annually. And each and every time, without fail, I’m sucked back into Valve’s world and blown away all over again.
I don’t want to waffle on for too much longer, or give a pseudo-intellectual analysis of the whole bloody game. I don’t want to type up a retrospective history of the entire development history. You can get all of these things elsewhere already on other sites celebrating this game’s birthday. Instead, I’ll simply leave you with this.
Half-Life 2 is, in my eyes, still a masterpiece. One of the most magnificently paced and designed first person shooters ever due to a genius balance of aesthetic/audio storytelling, environment sensibilities in play and presentation, scope and diversity of encounters and scenarios, and emotional range of settings and atmosphere. Half-Life 2 as a whole feels like every corridor, encounter, scenario, vista, staircase, and so on is completely, utterly hand tailored as its own miniaturised, memorable set piece. The game almost never (if ever) reliant on monitions corridor grinding and repetitious game systems. Back-to-back the game is constant visual and interactive stimulation, balanced highs and lows, a series of unique, playable events organically connected over hours of unbroken play time.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is the most recent game to scratch a similar itch for me, but ten years later and there still really is nothing else like Half-Life 2 (episodes aside, obviously), almost as if nobody is capable, or nobody has tried. It’s not about being flawless, or beyond criticism. But simply that Half-Life 2 is, to me, one of the most poignant representations of a timeless masterpiece in game design and production within the entire medium.
Happy Birthday, Half-Life 2.
Fuck you, I’m not done. Because Episode 3 is dead (or Half-Life 3 if that’s what you want to call it), and because Valve are monsters that refuse to continue or even fucking finish their apex franchise, here’s a list of shit that’s happened since Half-Life 2‘s release with no Episode 3 in sight.
- WWII classic Call of Duty would receive it’s first sequel. Then a whole lot more.
- Assasssin’s Creed would begin, and get eight mainline entries in with no sign of stopping
- Duke Nukem Forever became more than just vapourware (in favour of shovelware).
- The Last Guardian still doesn’t exist.
- Microsoft released their first console: the Anthony-Box. More Anthony-Boxes would come, many of them with Halos.
- I moved, like, five times. No wait, six.
- Kingdom Hearts III still hasn’t come out but unlike The Last Guardian it probably will.
- The entire Wii generation.
- Tony Abbott.
- You probably got married and had kids.
- Valve didn’t give a shit about the 10th anniversary of Half-Life 2.