Time is not kind to interactive entertainment, but Half-Life 2 has aged remarkably well. Even twelve years after the release of Valve’s magnum opus, there’s something ceremonial about feeding the disc into your tray. From the opening menu to the famous iconography splashed across the jet-black screen with the unmistakable lambda symbol front and centre, it’s hard not to catch your breath as the G-Man appears, coaxing you into action. Like all great games, books and films, there’s a sense of occasion as you boot this classic title to life. The passing of time only confirms what a frightening achievement it it is, and just how badly we need Half-Life 3.
And so it begins. You’re Gordon Freeman, scientist and unlikely hero, put into stasis by the mysterious G-Man and freed from captivity twenty years later. Your destination? The crumbling eastern bloc stronghold of City 17.
The G-Man has a new plan for you and Valve plays travel guide, showing off a world rich in detail and stuffed with backstory. Orwellian menace hangs in the air. There’s a mysterious alien gestapo called the Combine patrolling the city, eager to marshal you into line at the end of a stun gun. Looking around, City 17 is beautiful, even today. Just look at the water! The faces of your allies! The lighting! Or how about the first time the electric pop of your pistol sends a Combine guard tumbling to the floor in a ball of static?
Gordon is a mercenary, but the game is in no hurry to foist weapons on you. Progress is deliciously well paced, beginning with slow passage through a Combine-controlled train station before a madcap escape through the canals, set to the backdrop of oncoming gunfire. Then you arm yourself with a gun — and fire back.
This opening salvo ends on open water as you man a hovercraft in search of the hideout of one Eli Vance. Suddenly you’re not running and gunning but alternating between land and the high seas as you chart a course through muddy waters. Here, Half-Life 2 demonstrates a willingness to tackle new ground with its levels, serving up a map of size and scope impressive by even today’s standards. The route to Black Mesa East is dotted with hideouts off the beaten track. Whether you choose to inspect these buildings or ignore them is up to to you, but lesser developers wouldn’t even have afforded the freedom.
Then comes the Gravity Gun, and with it, Half-Life 2 goes to the next level. The Gravity Gun is a thing of beauty, capable of pulling objects into its forcefield, then ejecting them at speed. It takes a starring turn in Ravenholm, an hour-long segue through an abandoned mining town crawling with zombies. The Gravity Gun transforms a level laden with horror tropes into a veritable playground. Buzzaws drip blood, red barrels lie in wait and just then, over the horizon, a zombie shambles into a view. The first time you realize what the buzzsaw is useful for, the cruel brilliance of it snaps sharply into focus.
The genius of Half-Life 2 is that it’s a heavily scripted shooter without ever feeling like one. The pacing is perfect, and you’re never doing the same thing twice. Plus, there are so many opportunities to play with the world that the next objective is never a blinking waypoint in view.
Take Highway 17, a jaunt along the City 17 coastline in a dune buggy. Like the hovercraft bits, Highway 17 is dotted with on-foot encounters off the beaten track, many involving quick gunfights, which are staccato flashes of violence. Within minutes you’ve left the road behind completely and are making the perilous trek along a sky-high bridge, culminating in a boss fight against a Combine spacecraft. And then you’re beside the beach on foot, avoiding the sand lest you awaken antlions, gloriously-named bugs that lurch from the sandy earth and flap their wings into life. One minute you’ve been throttling a dune buggy, now you’re picking your way across the beachfront using your Gravity Gun to build a makeshift bridge to safety.
Making things go boom is easy, it turns out, and Half-Life 2 is interested in what happens when lead stops flying. Valve understands better than anyone that the journey should be as much about the sense of adventure as the numbers you mow down.
That’s especially relevant today, as games are becoming more tightly orchestrated all the time. Only earlier this month, I put the finishing touches to my review of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, a game of absurd excess and forced spectacle. Next to Half-Life 2, it feels positively simian. Valve cleverly metes out concussive blows alongside a series of jabs to the temple which ask that you engage your brain. In recent memory, only Uncharted 4 gets close to achieving a similar level of pacing, balance and careful perfection.
Ironically, when Half-Life 2 stumbles, it’s because it’s trying too hard to be a shooter in the Call of Duty mold, and towards the end of the story, Valve abandons the one-man-against-the-world motif for a squad-based shooter that feels like a Michael Bay flick. Suddenly you’re assigned a squad of nameless soldiers to fight beside you. It’s supposed to be a stirring assault on the streets of this oppressed city, but with a wooden supporting cast, it falls flat. Also, why is every doorway so narrow? And why do your teammates insist on getting stuck in front of you?
The rest of it is pure brilliance, though, and culminates in a breathless — solo — romp through the Citadel, the Combine’s stronghold. Armed only with a supercharged Gravity Gun, Valve caps off a campaign of peaks, troughs and incredible variety. From the concussive blast of the shotgun to the satisfying thwack of the crossbow and the sound of the pulse rifle reloading with a pneumatic swallow, Half-Life 2 nails the fun of shooting. But where it stands out is in its level design, its pacing, its careful world building; all those incidental details that must have taken weeks to build.
Half-Life 2 is a gargantuan big budget shooter, but one that lets you take a breath. In a day and age of overcrowded HUDs and blinking waypoints, Valve doesn’t mind you getting lost. Sixteen years is an eternity in video games, but I can’t believe Half-Life 2 has aged as well as it has. This was legitimately the best shooter of its time when it was first released. All those years later? I can’t say anything has come along to better it. But what’s truly amazing is that so few games have even tried.