Game * Valve Corporation * Alien Dystopia * 2004
What a puzzling game. What a puzzling series! Everything about, well, everything doesn’t make immediate sense, but still manages to be engaging. I remember playing the first Half-Life in anticipation of this game. The preview coverage of Half-Life 2 was of a dark, dystopian world which of course peaked my interest of the game. In order to prepare myself story-wise, I played the first game on my PS2 (shut up) and never finished it. Turns out that game gets hard. Sometime later I either watched the ending online or cheated my way through, in any case it turns out the ending to the original game is enigmatic at best. When I finally got my hands on Half-Life 2, I found that I could have saved my time (although to be fair, I remember the first game being fun until I got sucked into some kind weird alternate dimension made up primarily of strangely colored platforms and gross creatures). This is all the background you really need: once you were a scientist at a place called Black Mesa, something something inter-dimensional rift, turns out you’re real good at shooting aliens. There. Oh, and there’s this mysterious X-Files lookin’ motherfucker who is known as G-Man and has taken an acute interest in you. The sequel begins at an indeterminate time in the future, in a dystopian world that is seemingly out of a different place and time than the first game.
If you pay close attention during the slow-moving introduction, listening to overheard conversations and examining details, snippets of story emerge to make sense of the game world. As you move through the world, it quickly becomes apparent that once again you, Gordon Freeman, are the center of attention. Some of your allies from the first game are back here, and they attempt to fill you in on what has transpired in the last 20 years or so. Thing is, they do a fairly poor job of it. Too much is happening to propel the game along – and honestly the game is a little plodding already – to really get in quality exposition. There are a few important things to be gleaned in the first few hours of the game. One: the world has essentially surrendered to an alien menace which calls itself The Combine. They are so-named because their whole deal is mashing up their own DNA with that of conquered species. The Combine have genocided a good deal of humanity, herding the survivors into a series of dystopic cities governed by a massive alien structure known as The Citadel. Humanity is kept in check in three ways. The first is by suppressing reproduction. The second is by introducing a chemical into the water that forces people to forget the past. The third is good old-fashioned repression by the Combine Overwatch (the alien police). It’s bad times for Earth.
The game plops you into the middle of all this, and then has its various characters tell you repeatedly that you’re here to start a revolution. With a crowbar. Never mind that you’ve been in stasis for 20 years and have no idea what’s happening, get to work. This applies to the player as well, I should add. None of the story is explicitly stated, and I either missed the information or forgot it. Lucky for me, the Internet exists so I could use handy sites like this to fill in the various blanks. Without this information, the player must take the action as it comes to them. Also, since this game came out in 2004 as a follow-up to the 1998 original, Freeman is a silent protagonist. Look, I understand the limitations of the time. It’s just more than a little jarring to have people look straight at you and be totally okay with you never responding in any way. Anyway, the story is unfolding for the player as it is for Freeman the “character.” Most of the game is lots of shooting creepy dystopian police and various aliens in gritty, dilapidated environments without having a really concrete reason why.
When this game came out, I was truly enamored with it. This was largely due to the aesthetic, which still holds up pretty well. Sure, graphically it’s a little dated because it’s twelve years old and all. The art direction is still solid, however, and the nightmare world of City 17 and its environments still reads as a grim, depopulated dystopia. If I have a knock, it’s that the world seems a little empty, although I recognize this as a technological limitation. As someone who plays a lot of games, I’m used to traversing virtual worlds that are supposed to represent cities or other populated areas and having them seem rather empty. It takes a lot of processing power to represent realistic crowds! Still, as the game opens into what should be an upsetting, police-state processing center there are only like five sad citizens grumbling around, which takes some of the edge off.
As for the moment-to-moment playing of the game, you shoot a lot of things. Half-Life 2 tries to break up the would-be monotony of continuous (totally justified) xenocide with vehicle segments and by mixing up environments, but the experience still feels padded out. That said, the art throughout is on point, and above all the sound direction is incredible and iconic. My favorite are the gross alien tripods (taken right out of War of the Worlds) which, while totally shooting you with a goddamn minigun, still make upsetting biological sounds when you hit them. And then unleash this horrible elephanty squall when they finally die. The whole package is suitably otherworldy and brilliant. I just wish it was easier to play nowadays. While Half-Life 2 did a bunch of groundbreaking shit involving physics and the openness of the game world back in ’04, much of it doesn’t necessarily hold up twelve years later.
There’s also the slight issue of not having an ending. The game ends with Freeman and Alyx (which is a borderline offensive spelling of an otherwise delightful name) blowing up The Citadel and striking a blow for humanity against The Combine. Then everything freezes, G-Man pops up and spouts some cryptic nonsense, then credits. That’s… frustrating. After the release of Half-Life 2, Valve released two mini-sequels with Half-Life 2, Episodes 1&2. I’ll probably take a look at those, but be warned that Episode 2 ends on a similar cliff-hanger that has yet to be resolved. The way Valve works, it likely never will be resolved. And if it does, it’ll be some weird fucking VR project that only runs on a Linux based Vive or something.
Taking all of this into account, if you’ve never played Half-Life 2 it’s worth a look. It’s an important game that while perhaps not as groundbreaking as its predecessor still managed to introduce new systems to games in general and continued to evolve the medium. Beyond that, it’s one of the first proper dystopias in games that I can remember playing (while Deus Ex flirts with the concept, that game isn’t interested in a true, central oppressive power structure). While the narrative itself isn’t expressed very clearly, the world of Half-Life 2 speaks volumes about the state of humanity at the hands of the inter-dimensional alien menace. It’s a shame that Gordon Freeman is such a non-character and is merely a cipher for the player, because I think that an engaged central character that reacted to the environment would have helped immensely with what story is here. Instead we get Alyx making moon-eyes at you for no reason (you literally never communicate with her other than shooting things near her) and every single citizen combatant exclaiming “wow, Gordon Freeman!” every time you enter a new area. Again, limitations of the technology, but I can’t help but wish Half-Life 2 had a little more to offer years after release than some appealing background art and cool sound effects.