Half-Life 2 has my favorite moment in any game. It’s this:
I never played the original Half-Life, so I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on in Half-Life 2’s opening minutes. Half-Life 2 makes it clear from the get-go that something is wrong: your sudden appearance on the train after G-Man’s eerie monologue, Dr. Breen’s nervous introduction to City 17, the totalitarian anxiety that seeps from the civilians in the train station. The scanners and Barney’s clandestine operations clued me in that we weren’t in any usual rendition of Earth, but it wasn’t until I turned that corner and saw that Strider lumber by that I knew I was distinctly somewhere else. This kind of moment is one of my favorite things in games—that combination delight/horror of asking “What the hell is that?”
This was also my first encounter with this feeling. Half-Life 2 is the first shooter I ever played all by myself. I picked it up after watching a partner play Portal, intrigued by the hints to the world of Half-Life Valve peppered the Aperture labs with. My partner had had no interest in Half-Life 2 or in any game involving shooting, now one of my favorite genres. He had also recently dumped me, so playing it, even though I’d never played an FPS before, felt like some kind of escapist middle finger, or at least something to do besides cry.
In the intervening years I’ve approached 100 hours with the game, played countless other shooters, and even wrote my library school Master’s thesis about Half-Life 2 and ‘affective information behavior.’ But it’s still hard for me to look at Half-Life 2 as anything other than where I learned video games, where I first encountered all of the things that have become a core part of how I find pleasure in the world: navigating a first-person perspective with a mouse, switching weapons with the number keys or the mouse wheel, jumping with the space bar. These automatic actions belong to Half-Life 2 for me, or it’s the game that gave them to me; I will always see Half-Life 2 as a place more than a game.
There was this part, early on:
I fell off this roof so many times. I didn’t understand first-person platforming; I didn’t know where to look, where my body was in space. I screamed as Civil Protection shot at me (I still do this), and I plummeted to the pavement, over and over and over. In subsequent replays I’ve blazed through it, and I’ve since crossed bridges much more precarious than this so many times I can’t even remember them. But whenever I come back to Half-Life 2 I’m always dogged by the ghost of that first time. The opening chase still makes my heart pound, still draws my attention to the things I have to do with my hands to enter the world of a video game, so simple now but so foreign at the time.
The opening chase that initially stymied me sets the tone for the game’s brilliant first half, a pace that feels uniquely Half-Life 2. Coming back to it now, the game’s early hours remain eminently playable. Half-Life 2 excels at imparting information. Enemies, allies, and supplies are consistently marked through visual design or audio clues. You get a crowbar and then are immediately introduced to the kinds of boards it can break, one example of the game’s consistent visual language. Later weapons are tutorialized in similar ways: a new concept is introduced in its ideal circumstance, you have a chance to practice it, then you get to experiment with it and scaffold it onto the skills you already have. It creates a player who is in control, who can effortlessly navigate the game world to do what they want to do, who feels confident and empowered and all the words games trip over themselves to promise us now.
It also creates a world that’s easily legible, even when it’s foreign. You know exactly which kind of headcrab is hiding behind those boxes based on its unique chitter, or that a boss battle is coming from the distinctive infinite ammo crate squeezed in the shelter of a tellingly open area. The way you’re meant to go is signposted so naturally that it’s all but impossible to get lost or even realize you’re navigating at all, from the first moment stepping off the train all through the sewers and the canals. These early chapters remain tonally consistent in their pace, ceaseless pursuit punctuated by sudden quiet moments. You dodge Civil Protection through the sewers, pausing to solve small puzzles, a pattern that repeats during the scout car journey along the coast. During the airboat chase, along with ramps that have to be dropped and locks that have to be lifted, there’s a small camp off in a side area with dead bodies, mattresses, and an abandoned bicycle; in the silence, you can hear windchimes banging. These sections pound and dip like a heartbeat, pushing you forward without being overly frantic, giving you small moments of respite.
Many of these pauses involve physics puzzles, Half-Life 2’s claim to fame. These don’t feel as revelatory as they perhaps once did, especially now that I’ve played so many other games. Coming back for this review, I was strangely relieved to find the vehicles still difficult to navigate, little bumps stopping my airboat as if I’d smacked head first into a wall. The X-number-of-counterweights-to-move-Y-object is fumbly and repetitive at times. The guns feel similarly underwhelming—the machine gun may as well be a peashooter, the pulse rifle’s main fire oddly underpowered for its sound effects.
Despite how many times I’ve played Half-Life 2, my latest playthrough for this review was only the second time I’ve been to Ravenholm. Back when I didn’t know how to play shooters this level terrified me, and to be honest it still does. The sudden dramatic shift makes everything more frightening—that steady forward momentum shifts to dead-ends and backtracking, punctuated by jump scares and zombie hordes. We’ve seen headcrab zombies once or twice in previous levels, but after Ravenholm they spill out into the rest of the game, creeping along the hills by the bridge or fighting Combine troops back in City 17. The game suggests the Combine created them, or, with their rockets full of headcrabs, at least deploys them intentionally, but they steadily overtake both you and your enemies.
This subtle touch—zombies fighting Combine—illustrates the broader movements of Half-Life 2’s world, the machinations you move alongside but aren’t entirely responsible for. Gordon Freeman isn’t single-handedly bringing down the Combine, despite what NPCs seem to suggest when they marvel at your presence.
In the years Gordon’s been in stasis since the events of the first Half-Life, the Combine have taken over the Earth. This initial surge was effortless, according to the newspaper clippings you can find around, but things don’t look so good now. It’s never entirely clear where you are in the world, or how this particular country fits into the larger hierarchy of the Combine’s rule over humanity.
If Doctor Breen is the entire Earth’s Administrator, however little power that title actually affords him, the Combine have centered humanity’s power in an unideal location. You aren’t in an urban center; you’re in some Eastern European backwater country whose scope, given your journey, is difficult to fully map. City 17 is falling apart, and there aren’t any towns after it; the City gives way to nothing but countryside. Combine ambush Gordon from outposts in shattered houses and abandoned petrol stations set along broken highways. Nova Prospekt, the base of operations for the Combine’s transhumanist experiments, is in inexcusable disrepair for such a central stronghold. Though the game throws countless soldiers at you when you arrive in the prison, you find them hiding behind old bed frames and flimsy turrets, jumping down from collapsed floors and falling to the antlion infestation that was clearly well in progress before you and your bug bait brought more of the beasts in. When you return to City 17 to foment the uprising, everything has fallen apart. This collapse seems structural as much as to do with the citizens, those mindless ducklings who block doorways and seem to do little before you arrive. The Combine itself, whatever it is, may be absolute, but its ground troops are on the losing end of some kind of long, badly-planned battle.
I’ve never been clear on what exactly the Combine is. The design of their architecture is unique and strikingly alien, from the way the Citadel rises up violently above City 17’s skyline to the black, angular outposts along the coast on your way to Nova Prospekt. It’s hard to say what Combine buildings are made of: the material looks shiny and impenetrable where it’s frankly jammed into the existing space, but at the same time the edges are caked in weeping water stains. The Combine’s distinctive blue barriers are powered by unwieldy plugs that run on Earth electricity; they flop ridiculously on thick cords like a prop in an underfunded school play. Combine soldiers huddle around pounding thumpers or stand guard in uncomfortable, exposed towers, as out of place in their own architecture as humans are.
None of this was meant for living things to inhabit; bodies are a problem for the Combine in some unspecified, disturbing way. You can see it in the pod that carries Eli Vance, or the knife-like shape of the transport trains, or the vertiginous interior of the Citadel threaded with narrow glass walkways and uselessly jumbled cables in unserviceable shafts. The actual Combine—something other than the soldiers or the larval boss Doctor Breen meets with or Civil Protection or the snipers—is some kind of force completely removed from the bodies that carry out its will. The Combine is an idea, forced on its agents as callously and violently as it’s forcing itself onto Earth.
Half-Life 2 makes it hard to tell if something is alive or not. Combine objects behave like people; the scanners, manhacks, and rollermines move of their own volition, with sound effects and behaviors that reflect real personalities. The gunships move like swordfish, or whales; the dropships alight like indecisive insects, some combination of living and mechanical that is all part of the Combine’s increasingly ill-fated plan.
Even the Combine troops aren’t entirely people. Their heads don’t make sense, the shape of their helmets and their multiple breathing holes and misplaced bug eyes. The later troops have one red visor to see from, unnervingly centered. It’s obvious some kind of experimentation is going on, but, judging from Breen’s warnings as Gordon Freeman wreaks his havoc, it’s still in the early stages; the Combine could still pull the plug if humanity can’t get itself up to snuff. Civil Protection officers occasionally display a personality (the “shit” before they’re blown up by a grenade remains a lovely, subtle touch) but if the Combine is attempting to merge with humanity, it isn’t doing a very good job. Even the Combine logo is confused, a cross between a building and a human, like the Combine apparatus isn’t quite sure what humans are for.
The thing is, Half-Life 2, as a game, isn’t quite sure what humans are for either. What I love it for—the clarity of how its information is presented; the long, natural tutorializing that Valve excels at in all of their games; the uncluttered flow of its momentum—are things that have nothing to do with character, motivation, or emotion. While many people hold up Alyx Vance as some pinnacle of game characterization, I’ve never found her compelling. She is so enamored of Gordon so quickly, but you hardly know her, and I’ve always found her admiration uncomfortable and undeserved.
The people around Gordon have complex relationships with each other, ones that unfold through well-scripted moments and wonderful voice acting, but you’re always outside of them, a needlessly silent observer. Gordon is shuttled from place to place for reasons that are never his own, flipping switches and shooting guns and being lauded at every turn, all while never once making his own choice as to where to go. It’s suggested that the G-Man is part of this, orchestrating things from behind the scenes; having control snatched away from you in the game’s final moments hammers this suggestion home, but Half-Life 2 doesn’t try to say too much about agency or power. Held up to more recent games, ones that go out of their way to give you motivation even when it’s shoehorned or flimsy, Half-Life 2 doesn’t seem to care at all if you care about why you’re doing the things you do. It funnels you ahead unceasingly, lauding you awkwardly for doing what it tells you to.
It’s how everyone says your name—Gordon Freeman!—that feels ridiculous, the laziest kind of player praise that it doesn’t need given the tools it provides you with for feeling competent. That disconnect was present for me the first time I played, because I was so mystified by the game; it remains present for me now, how the entire world has just been waiting for you and only you to arrive. I’ve never read the game as a power fantasy like other shooters; it seems too understated for that somehow, too polite, but it seems to fall to that end of the spectrum nevertheless, like power fantasies are obligatory, like that’s what it thinks I want. Half-Life 2 gives so much care to being played that it fails to consider, or at least isn’t concerned with, who is actually playing it.
After Ravenholm, the game goes full-out on this angle. The back end of Half-Life 2 is all bombast, all shooting and shooting and shooting. After Nova Prospekt it’s never quiet, and you shoot waves and waves of enemies during increasingly repetitive tasks. Disable three generators; go to the roof just to go back down just to go back up just to go back down; take down Striders in the courtyard and then take down some more in the rest of the City. Even those Striders, those magnificent monsters that took my breath away, become tedious as the end of the game plays out.
Most of the Citadel is an on-rails power fantasy. The blue Gravity Gun is awesome, but it removes any possibility of stakes or challenge. You blast through the Citadel like any old action hero, given no opportunity to examine it like one would assume a scientist like Gordon Freeman would want to. The final battle has hard-to-read platforming and obvious solutions; it’s almost a complete throwaway after the long journey to get there. You’re held immobile as NPCs have emotions in front of you, your silent observation making it difficult to engage or care. There’s no heart to the game’s end, or indeed the entire game. It’s one of my favorites, but I’m love with my experience with it, more than I’m in love with it on its own.
“You destroyed so much,” Doctor Breen tells you in the end. “What have you created?” The modern FPS genre owes itself to Half-Life 2, for better or for worse. It’s easy to hold it up against its own children, and this last time through I even found myself thinking longingly of Wolfenstein: The New Order, of Dishonored, of Spec Ops: The Line. I know games now, the way I didn’t then. The bridge section, which felt so epic when I first played, now seems flimsy and padded-out, its platforming finicky, the enemies who appear predictable. But I’m only aware of the bridge’s shortcomings because Half-Life 2 gave me bridges. It’s got some pacing issues, sure, but it’s still a pretty good bridge.