There was a time when controls for PC first-person shooters were restricted to the keyboard, where the player could only move forward, backward, and turn. There was a time where such games did not have a story beyond exploring a bunch of rooms and killing a bunch of mooks. There was a time when such games were purely static experiences. The death animations were the same, the enemies incredibly predictable, and cardboard boxes would somehow remain intact and in mint condition no matter how close to an explosion they were.
There was a time before a group of ex-Microsoft employees set off to form a game company called Valve. They developed a revolutionary project that would later be known as Half Life. The game, released in 1998, was not only critically acclaimed for its scripted events, incredible graphics, engaging plot, and intelligent AI, it was hailed as one of the greatest games of all time, if not the greatest game of all time.
Five years later, Valve dazzled the gaming community yet again, showcasing a demo of Half Life 2. The demo kicked off with a visually updated G-Man, whose features were realistic all the way down to the muscles in his face. So realistic, his facial movement would not only accompany him speaking English, but other languages such as Mandarin Chinese. The character showed off a wide range of emotion, ranging from jubilant, to angry, to scheming.
It then moved on to showcasing the physics. Objects would respond in a manner more similar to real life. If something look like wood, it would sound like wood, scrape like wood, and if the player took a crowbar to it, fragment like wood. Destroying a supporting beam in Half Life 2 would have the same effect that it would in real life, causing whatever structure it was supporting to collapse.
Instead of standing still and falling forward on their knees, enemies would die in a dynamic fashion, whether it was flying through the air from a grenade explosion or a forceful push against the wall after a hail of bullets. To fully take advantage of the engine, dubbed Source, the player was given a gravity gun to freely manipulate the game’s objects.
There were other revolutionary features, such as lighting. The glint on a character’s eyes, or a shiny object, would change based on their positioning.
AI was improved greatly, not just for the enemies, but for allies as well. Squad-based gameplay was intelligent, where the squad mates could easily respond to the player’s commands and deal with threats accordingly.
Moreover, there was Alyx Vance, a companion that could easily hold her own and provided assistance and genuine companionship. This writer believes that characters such as Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite would have not been possible without Alyx.
After a strong showing in E3, where it won several ‘best in show’ awards, the game was originally slated to release on September, 2003, but a leak in the source code kept the game away from the public’s eager hands.
More than a year later, on the 16th of November, 2004, Half Life 2 was finally released to critical acclaim, and acclaim that was well justified.
This writer has gotten hyped for many games showcased at E3, only to find experiences that fell just a hair short of expectation at best, or complete and utter disappointment at worst. Many developers often overhype their projects with pre-rendered demos (e.g.: Killzone 3), exciting sequences that never make it into the final product (e.g.: Halo 2), or by simply talking up every little feature out of proportion (e.g.: anything made by Peter Molyneux). There are some games that fall short of expectation and still manage to be great, but it is rather unfortunate that most games never seem to live up to overblown hype.
Thankfully, Half Life 2 was an incredibly rare instance where it fully delivered on most, if not all, of its promises. The revolutionary physics were not only there, but were vital to the gameplay, featuring in puzzles that would challenge the player to be clever. The gravity gun gave the player an unprecedented amount of freedom, allowing him the ability to weaponise barrels, radiators, and even toilets. If that was not enough, the player could install a program called G-Mod where he would be free to mess around the world vis-à-vis Minecraft.
The story was not told, it was shown to the player as he dug deeper into the interactive world around him, which ranged from dystopic City 17 to the horror-inspired, claustrophobic Ravenholm. While most games patronise their players, either through drab, predictable linearity, or explicit hand-holding, Half Life 2 held the gamer in high esteem.
It spearheaded yet another revolution in gaming. Its Source engine would become the basis for other games such as Left 4 Dead, Portal, Team Fortress 2, and even non-Valve efforts such as Dear Esther and Titanfall. The fact that the latter was just released earlier this year gives testament to the engine’s longevity. While Source is beginning to show its age, it has done so after seeing several other engines come and go.
Owners of Half Life 2 had to register the game with Steam, a digital distribution service that would go on to set the standard for digital rights management, dominating the PC gaming industry. In fact, many gamers often use ‘Steam’ to refer to the PC gaming platform as a whole.
It might be hard for some to see why Half Life 2 is such an important milestone in gaming history. But they should know that it is the reason why most of today’s games feature photorealistic graphics, dynamic environments, intelligent AI, and ragdoll physics. The game not only rewrote the book on first person shooters, but games in general.
Happy tenth anniversary, Half Life 2! Maybe Valve could mark this momentous occasion with the announcement of another Half Life game, something long overdue.