Steam beckoned with the Orange Box deal, and not only did Portal run on my new (but still not a gaming machine) laptop, so did games that I never would have tried out otherwise. Such as Half-Life 2.
Half-Life was a seminal game, raising the bar in numerous ways for not just first person shooter games, but video games in general. Half-Life 2 was ambitious, brought new innovations, and had (and has) a strong following. But it isn't quite the same shock as Half-Life was to the industry. However, when one sits down and studies it (and its predecessor, and its sequels) one discovers a great many lessons on game design that the vast majority of game developed after it failed to take notice of and learn from.
I'm going to try to cover the entire series, in some depth, and with screen shots as well. I will also be covering it from the angle of someone with a smattering of background in theory but who is not a dedicated gamer -- I'm as yet still unfamiliar with a number of the titles that get mentioned over and over, titles like Assassin's Creed or Halo.
Connected with that, I'm trying to make my explanations transparent to non-gamers as well. Some technical terminology is unavoidable but I hope I can either define it as I go or use it in a way that allows grasping of the essential idea from context.
Point of View
In one of the many Valve innovations, the situation you find yourself in, and the back story of that world, is presented as you discover it. There is no narration, no introduction, no lecture. There aren't even any cut scenes; everything you see on screen is rendered with the game engine, observed from your first-person point of view, and takes place in real time.
The designers are just that good with planning layout, managing detail, painting with light, and predicting which way the player will look and where they will naturally try to go. It almost never feels constrained or limited; it feels natural.
Of course, this is helped by the fact that the first part of the game sees you being harried by ever-growing numbers of pursuers as you try to escape City 17, and the later parts of the game see you trying to get to a specific objective. So in both of these, being guided to a specific path doesn't feel like it is limiting your choices.
(And, yes, this isn't accidental; the designers talk at length in the optional in-game commentary about how they achieved this.)
A lot of games would kill you and force you to replay from a saved game. A lot of designers seem to delight in having these "no-one will escape this unless they read a play-through before starting" moments. Valve instead rewards the player for being attentive to the game they are playing.
Valve has summed up their approach (saying as much in the in-game commentary in Portal) as illustrating a concept once in a safe context before using it in a game-critical way. Then reinforcing it with a second usage so it will stick in player's minds for a while and thus can be drawn upon again in later play.
A typical example is ramps and jumps in the airboat sequence in Half-Life 2. You encounter the first ramp in a place where you can easily steer around it, but you can also see the whole thing and be tempted to try it out. It is a low-cost experiment; nothing can go wrong if you miss the jump. The next time you see a ramp, it is necessary to use to proceed. A little later, a ramp is presented in the middle of an action sequence where the player needs to be comfortable in using that route and do it essentially by instinct.
There are a few short unobtrusive pop-ups explaining how to use the controls. Especially in two places; when Alyx teaches you how to use the Gravity Gun (by playing catch with D0g), and in a scene right near the start of the game with a bored Civil Protection.
"Pick up that can!"
Which brings us to this game's big "trick," and the signature device from it. Where Chel depends on her ASHHPD (more familiarly known to Portal players as the Portal Gun), and Commander Shepard swears by his/her N7 Valkyrie, Gordon Freeman's signature tool is that manipulator of the in-game physics engine, the "Zero Point Field Energy Manipulator" or Gravity Gun. With this tool, you can drag objects towards you, stack and place objects to make improvised stairs or barriers, and throw them with great force.
Gravity Gun prop by Harrison Krix
A good game also works to break things up so it doesn't become monotonous. Valve consciously put in platforming sections in order to "give the player a break" (their words) from the heavy combat sections. This is however an imperfect answer. I would have preferred exploration, or puzzles (perhaps even more elaborate physics puzzles). I agree with famed snarky reviewer Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, and even (the only time I'm likely to agree with him) controversial "Let's Play" creator Phillip Burnell (otherwise known as DSP Gaming); platforming in first-person perspective is a mistake. You can't see your feet, you often can't judge distances correctly, and it becomes a frustrating exercise in trying to guess where your invisible bounding box is in relation to the rendered scenery.
Still, it gets the job done. Half-Life 2 ranges from sniper duels to driving sections to managing a squad during a large-scale combat to close-in hand-to-hand against zombies. With a few dialog and exploration and clambering around scenes to give a breather from the action (the later, however, has some of the most seat-of-the-pants tension. Such as using the Gravity Gun to maneuver boards and other debris to allow you to cross an expanse of sand without triggering the sensitive antlions.)
From Survivor to Savior
You end by striking a major blow for humanity's freedom. But this shark is jumped in such slow motion there is never a clear moment at which you see a motorcycle ramp set up next to the fish tank.
You begin as Gordon Freeman, a recent MIT grad who apparently was working at the highly classified Black Mesa project in the Arizona desert. Things went wrong, and at the end of it all (that is, the end of the first game) you were snatched up by a mysterious entity known by fans of the game as the "G-Man."
Not that anyone sits you down and explains any of this to you. In fact, you never even see your own face. You grasp all of this about your character and history from how people react to you and what they say about and to you.
Instead, the Resistance seems interested in you because they are pinning their hopes on developing scientific counters to the alien Combine who have invaded and taken over Earth, and the core group of those Resistance scientists are oddly enough from Black Mesa. It doesn't explain why they think their one-time lab assistant is going to be a big help to them, though. Perhaps MIT graduates are really rare in the future.
In any case, the Quisling who runs the planet for the aliens also recognizes you. And I have to think he knows something, because he mobilizes everything to find you. So your escape is an ever-escalating effort by the enemy to stop you -- and in the process the long-established Underground Railway (yes, they call it that) of the Resistance gives its all and is essentially wiped out.
You make it to Eli's lab intact, but that is where the story begins to change. He is taken by the Combine in a raid, and for some reason you are pressed into an increasingly quixotic attempt to rescue him.
There is another of those change-ups in play here; following the attack on Isaac's lab you go through a sequence that is essentially survival horror -- up to and including the limited flashlight (the better to let enemies sneak up on you in the dark). This is also, however, an extended tutorial on getting the most out of the Gravity Gun. Because Ravenholm functions as what has become an increasingly popular chapter in certain style of game; the chapter where all your weapons are taken away from you.
In some ways Ravenholm is the most fun sequence for replay, as you are forced to conserve your limited ammunition, and are required to make use of an increasingly imaginative array of improvised weapons -- basically anything you can hurl at the oncoming enemy with your Gravity Gun.
Once free of Ravenholm you head across country again, this time in a near-indestructible dune-buggy. And through the journey, as you battle larger and larger Combine forces who are closing in on the Resistance, you also become a key figure in several successful responses.
You are in short gaining a reputation. But a large part of it is un-earned in game play. Because the Vortigaunts, alien antagonists from the first game, are now allies, and they have a limited prescience born of a shared telepathic awareness between all Vortigaunts, and, well, basically you are the Chosen One of Prophecy. It's a little subtler than that, and better done, but still...!
So the Vorts give you your first squad, consisting of the antlion's you've become all-too-familiar with through your journey up the coast. And your journey has changed from pure escape, to a dangerous scouting mission in hopes of finding a way to stage a rescue, to an armed assault on a Combine stronghold.
Indeed, Director Breen (the sell-out himself, and fond indeed of the sound of his own voice) lampshades this during your one-man (and many large bug) invasion of Nova Prospekt: that you are not some super-soldier, not some legendary figure, just a young graduate whose major accomplishment in the world of physics was working as a lab assistant.
The last third of the game finds the Resistance (and general resistance from the population) rising in response to the damage you did at Nova Prospekt, and takes you back to City 17. This is street-to-street fighting, now against signature Half-Life 2 enemies like the Strider (a war tripod a la H.G. Well's War of the Worlds, but cyborg animal instead of machine). And for some reason you've become legendary; people are choosing to form up behind you, meaning through most of these sequences you have a small squad of Resistance fighters to control in addition to your own weapons.
They also get killed in job lots. This is a dark universe indeed, almost black humor in places.
And of course the final chapter is completely different again. The one NPC who has fought at your side without getting killed, Alyx, daughter of one of the Black Mesa scientists, is also taken by the Combine and you chose to attempt your one-man raid of their heavily fortified Citadel.
Which is all alien, weird metal and geometric shapes and so forth and very different in look from anything else in the game. So is game play. All your weapons are taken from you but the Gravity Gun gets super-charged. Good thing you practiced so much with it in Ravenholm, then!
The game ends on a typical Valve downer, with the Citadel blowing up and you and Alyx at Ground Zero. Of course, there is (sort of) a Half-Life 3...
There is a certain disinclination to become emotionally involved; you begin to treat the minor characters as puppets, because they get killed off so easily and there doesn't seem to be any way you can actually protect them through your own actions. The artificial intelligence is so bad (or at least the design intents are so bad) that you will in fact find yourself wanting to shoot them yourself at times; they keep blundering into things, friendly fire included.
And as far as enemies go -- the game doesn't exactly encourage sadism, but there is a certain delight in killing a Combine soldier by throwing a toilet at him. And the Headcrab Zombies are just so hilarious (in a very, very black humor way) when you set fire to them, and the game gives you far too many opportunities.
There isn't a way to explore the universe more deeply. You can chose to listen to the "Breen-Casts," or you can tune them out. Or even throw the Orwellian always-on, always lecturing televisions out the windows when you encounter them!
You can at least chose to bypass enemies. Especially in the vehicle sections, driving fast is perfectly legitimate, and pretty much as safe as slowing down enough to engage them properly. Unlike some games, it doesn't force you; it doesn't even force you to complete the puzzles its way (there's a spot where you can fight your way through an entire building -- or shoot an explosive barrel from the safety of the canal and open the lock doors that way instead.)
It also isn't Half-Life. The comparison is quite a bit like Alien versus Aliens; the former game is a self-contained saga of personal survival in claustrophobic surroundings, and the sequel is pretty much "This time we take the battle to them." So for all the excellent gameplay, the much better graphics, and the growing friendship with Alyx (developed much more in the following games), it becomes a less focused game -- and a less intense experience.
And it is a pity more isn't done with Gordon Freeman himself, other than being a really lucky guy with a crowbar and a really good (high-tech equivalent of) ballistic vest, the HEV suit he was wearing in the Test Chamber at Black Mesa. Like the Tomb Raider games, most of the time Lara Croft could as just well be a botanist or a metallurgist for all that archaeology is important in the actual game play. Gordon's physics background, as much as it may have motivated the efforts to help you escape the city in the early parts of the game, essentially plays no part in the action.
And this is a pity for another reason. In an genre where thick-necked gravel-voiced heroes are the norm, and white-guy-with-short-brown-hair-and-stubble is so much the pattern you could swap the box art of one game for another without much effort, more should be made of a hero who wears glasses, got a degree in the hard sciences, and is only picking up a gun because there was no other option.
He does, at least, explore some other options in the games -- even if those options are more along the line of exploding barrels.
Barney provides the handy lamp shade
Like the camcorder and the cheap editing software, it is debatable whether there is a minimal bar of graphics et al for a "good" game, but it does seem to be easier to grab and hold an audience if you can look reasonably good. The story and ideas are what are important, but shoddy production values can stand in the way of their appreciation. In all, Source makes it just that much more possible for ideas to find their way into games that a major studio with teams of hundreds and budgets of millions of dollars wouldn't dare.
Of course Valve does. Portal was, however, considered a minor effort, a b-side cut, and the original Orange Box release was practically to fill the open space on the disk; they didn't think it would do well. So even with Valve there is a struggle for a game to test too hard the expectations and trends of the AAA market.
(And a word has to be said for "Half Life, Full Life Consequences," especially the animated Dramatic Readings thereof.)
Oh, yes, and there are the remaining games. Of which the last part of the third game, or a complete third game, is likely never to arrive. Which is perhaps a better way to end a popular series; ending without a clear conclusion, ending where the fans can debate and every individual player can construct their own head canon about what eventually happens.
Because as an alternative, you might have Mass Effect 3.