Friday, October 20, 2017

Why Half-Life 2 is one of my favourite games


Hey hey folks, and welcome to another installment of Dave’s Favourite Games. This time around, Half-life 2. This video will be an exploration of my history with the game, and the reasons I love it to this day. Hopefully it will inspire those who have not played the game to try it, and for those who have to find new appreciation of it. Let’s continue.

As these episodes usually begin with a story, let’s do that. Half-life 2 is the subject of one of the first pieces of critical game writing on my old blog. I’ll put a link in the description and as you can see, I’m showing the article itself onscreen. I must have changed the background to the blog at some point and the text didn’t change along with it. Black on deep blue? Yeesh. Anyways, the article was about how every chapter in game shifts the gameplay in distinct ways and you’re never quite doing the same thing twice. I thought about this piece of writing a lot during this play of Half-Life 2, and while I still kind of agree with it, the shifts in gameplay are even more nuanced than originally written. Also at the end of that article I mention, and I quote, “...the upcoming Episode 3…”. Ah, so naive.

So let’s dive into what I love so much about this game. Replaying it, I was struck by the fragility of Gordon Freeman. Just like my memories of playing through Half-life, I spent a lot of the game on low health and if I had any suit power left, it was a luxury. The combine’s weapons can quickly tear you to shreds, and while the headcrabs and the monsters they turn people into are less damaging, you don’t want one in your face wailing on you. This turned many firefights into an exhilarating experience as I tried to make use of cover, and the environment for tactical advantage.

Alongside changing the gameplay from chapter to chapter, Half-life 2 is full of set pieces. Those who have played it will likely remember the airboat (especially the sections with the helicopter chasing you), crossing the bridge, the shootout with the Striders on top of the ruined building, and of course making your way through the Citadel. The boat and the buggy are cases where Half-life 2 shows off the pros and cons of its physics engine. My guess is they were very proud of it, as so many sections of gameplay revolve around using it to get around the world, attack enemies, or solve rudimentary puzzles.

Oh, I have to talk about the sound design. The word iconic gets thrown around a lot today (thanks Ubisoft), but to me, so many of the sound effects of Half-life 2 are iconic. There’s the sound when you pick up a health pack. When you pick up a suit recharge. The flatline of killing a combine soldier. The dispensaries. The scream of a headcrab as it’s charging at you. The meaty thunk of the magnum. The foont of the crossbow. These sounds breed familiarity. You spend the game with them, and so many are tied to positive or negative emotions (such as my blood curdling when I heard the shuffling of the dreaded black headcrab).

And since I have already mentioned set pieces and the black headcrab, I think it’s time to talk about Ravenholm. Arguably the most memorable section of the entire game. Ravenholm is both playful and terrifying. It’s playful because it’s your first real testing ground for the what the gravity gun can do. The early sections of Ravenholm are littered with saw blades, oxygen containers and all sorts of debris that you can suck up and shoot at all the zombies shuffling aimlessly around the town. Father Gregory is playful too. One of the more enjoyable personalities you’ll meet in the game alongside Alyx. And then the new headcrabs get introduced.

My memories of Ravenholm were predominantly about the terror of the black headcrab and their neurotoxin, so when the spindly legged headcrabs are introduced, I thought they were the dreaded black monstrosities. They filled me with dread. It’s also the way the monkey ones move that is sufficiently creepier than a normal headcrab, and this plus the sound are what make the black ones unsettling on top of their ability to momentarily take away all your health. To reinforce how unnerving they are and how the game knows it, when you finally make it out of Ravenholm, you come across a hole leading to an underground area with walkways above it. On the floor of this cavern, dozens of all three types of headcrabs are skittering about. Just when I thought I was away from the terror of Ravenholm, the game throws this on me. It’s clever, because the few moments in the rest of my playthrough where I came across the black headcrab and the lumbering blobs that throw them, it was a reminder of how effectively the designers had taught me to fear this one particular enemy. The monkeys are just an annoyance in comparison.

And while it’s not technically a set piece, I have to mention the Antlions. In the initial section with the buggy they can be an annoyance. Then they become a real threat once you have to cross the sand. You have to play around with the physics to create bridges to cross long stretches without setting the hive off, and thumpers, the large machines sending vibrations into the ground are your friends as they keep the Antlions away. Then you fight and kill an Antlion guardian. You gain the ability to control the swarm. You assault Nova Prospekt, the combine prison with an army of Antlions in tow. It’s a marvelous change in dynamic, especially how thumpers are now the enemy, because they stop the Antlions following you. I was kind of put off by how many of them I sent to be slaughtered before I made my way back to City 17. It must have been in the hundreds at least. I wonder if a similar thought weighs on the mind of military generals.

After a lot of fighting in the streets, you make it to the Citadel. It’s a great way to end the game, not just because of how difficult it was to get there, and the sheer size of the structure, but your weapons get taken away, and the process turns your gravity gun into a superweapon. You also get extended suit power. You’re not invincible as two specific areas of the Citadel reminded me, but blasting your way through combine soldiers with the greatest of ease is a nice change of pace. There’s also two sections where you hop into a motorised restraint and spend some time just travelling through the mammoth structure, taking in the sights. It’s sort of like a callback to the train ride at the start of Half-life.

Now before I started this channel, if a game had difficulty selection, I would choose the easiest difficulty available. I wanted to experience games with the least frustration as possible. I actually appreciated games with no difficulty selection over this choice. When I started this channel, my thought was that I should play everything on the default difficulty as that’s the baseline experience the developers intended. This playthrough of Half-life 2 was my first on normal difficulty, and I think it soured my experience more than I would have liked. All the enemies were a lot more difficult to take down and ammo and health were of a greater concern. I mentioned Gordon Freeman’s fragility, and while that’s always been the case, even on easy, it was a lot more pronounced on this playthrough.

It led me to think that perhaps I should always play my favourite games the way I’ve always experienced them, but similar to how I finally played Doom properly last year, I think there’s also a benefit in revisiting a favourite in a new way. Yes the game was more frustrating, but as the majority of this video points out, there was still loads to love, and the game is still a favourite of mine for all these reasons. What are your thoughts? What sections of Half-life 2 do you remember fondly, or not so fondly? Do you regard it as a great game? Why or why not? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Thanks for watching. If you enjoyed this video, please like, share, and subscribe, and I hope you’re having a wonderful day.

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