Published by Valve, Half-Life 2 is the 2004 sequel to the first Half-Life that came out way back in 1998. Half-Life 2 carries on the narrative thread of the first game, making it perfect for hardcore fans. In this first-person shooter, you play as protagonist Gordon Freeman, who wakes from stasis after 20 years and must battle the evil alien Combine that has taken over Earth.
Even though Half-Life 2 is over 15 years old, it remains relevant and worthwhile today. Named “Game of the Decade” by Spike TV in 2012, here’s why Half-Life 2 is still worth your time.
The first thing that I need to say about Half-Life 2 is that it’s a beautiful game.
When you imagine firing up a game from 2004, you might think you’ll be wading through a bunch of ugly and low-res textures. However, this game looks absolutely amazing, and even the most basic modern PCs will make it run as smooth as butter.
A large part of this beauty comes from how cinematic it is. The game makes great use of light and shadow, and you’ll be forgiven for thinking some of this is pretty enough to be a cutscene.
However, the game doesn’t really do cutscenes: everything uses the in-game engine, and you watch it all from the POV of your character.
The end result is a game that is breathtakingly beautiful, even when it’s being absolutely terrifying.
One thing that may seem refreshing to modern players is the setting. Specifically, this game takes place in a future dystopia that is different from most games.
For instance, many “dark future” type games imagine something more apocalyptic. For example, games such as 2016’s Doom posit that you are one man stuck in a world that has gone (rather literally) to hell.
By contrast, Half-Life 2 is more of a classic sci-fi dystopia. You are not alone at all: you inhabit a world filled with allies like Alyx and countless fellow humans who may or may not be good guys. And that makes the dystopia more in the vein of an Orwellian nightmare: those in power are already evil and compromised, and those who find out about it don’t always know what to do.
It’s a matter of taste, but I find this brand of “one man against the world” narrative much more engrossing than a game where you just shoot mindless bad guys one after another.
A Thinker and a Shooter
Speaking of shooting, you do a fair amount of that in Half-Life 2. Fortunately, it’s not all that you do!
This game is basically a thinking person’s shooter. I say that because it is filled with puzzles where you have to use your head in-between rounds of combat where you must rely on your fast reflexes.
In some cases, even the combat is more cerebral than you might expect. A basic knowledge of physics can help with puzzles and fights alike. And such a knowledge will give you a jumpstart on success if you ever play Portal, a game based on this same engine.
A Seamless World
One of my favorite aspects of this game is that it feels large and often seamless. Many shooters from this era feel very small: you fight in one small box of a level, get to the end, and then access the next small box of a level.
In Half-Life 2, the levels are large, smooth, and seamless. Places like City 17 feel like real places instead of just video game maps. And that goes a long way towards making the game feel as immersive as possible.
That seamless immersion applies to smaller touches like the position of the sun as well. Rather than all levels being lit exactly the same way, the sun acts as a constant reminder of time passing. This bumps up the realism while making the lighting look even more beautiful on various objects, places, and characters.
I alluded to this earlier, but it’s worth emphasizing that this game is filled with characters that feel very real.
They aren’t just random NPC allies lazily thrown into the narrative. Instead, characters like Alyx have realistic reactions to everything. That helps humanize them while adding genuine texture to this universe.
Your own character, Gordan Freeman, is a bit more of a blank slate. However, this is by design: like many classic games, the main character’s reactions are minimized so that you can provide your own. In this way, every player walks away feeling like they know who Gordan Freeman really is.
I should give props to the enemies as well. Not only is there a wide variety of foes, but many of the villains seemingly have their own compelling motivations for evil. It may seem simple now, but characters like Dr. Breen having their own personality and motivation made defeating them seem that much more satisfying.
Different Ways to Play
If you are interested in picking up Half-Life 2, you should know there are multiple options to do so.
First, you can always wait for a bundle on Steam. It’s not uncommon that this game is sold in bundles along with its spin-offs (Episodes One and Two, respectively).
You can also pick it up as part of the Orange Box. This package includes Half-Life 2, the two episodes mentioned above, and copies of Portal and Team Fortress 2 (though that last one has now become a free-to-play game).
Even 15 years later, there aren’t many other games that combine the shooter and puzzle elements, so Half-Life 2 gameplay remains very unique. And there are few characters as compelling as Gordan Freeman and his bizarre adventures.
I can only hope that enough new people buying Half-Life 2 means Valve will finally give us Half-Life 3. Any day now, right?