Halflife 2 had big shoes to fill, for many people the original was less a game and more an event. The gaming equivalent of Woodstock. from that moment on things would never be the same. to this day, it's DNA is readily apparent in not only FPS, but genres outside of it.
Aside from astounding facial animations and highly interactive physics, Halflife 2 isn't revolutionary. What it is though, is a well executed machine that serves as a high point for the industry to aspire towards a decade on.
The game opens much like the original with exploration used to establish the world. Humanity defeated, governed by an alien occupation named The Combine. While similar to the original in design, it has a greater sense of grandeur and a intoxicating realization of 1984's vision. To open the doors to the city for the first time is to have the senses assaulted. Though imitated, never before, or since, has a game so perfectly encapsulated totalitarian oppression in quite the manner Half life 2.
People moved like cattle, disappearances, physically bullied, paranoia, intrusive identification, bloody beatings, walled off cities sickly yellow and boarded up while a giant imposing citadel fires into the sky, cool blue, modern, alien, looking down, a visual representation of hierarchy. This, working in tandem with Dr. Breens slickly upbeat, positive propaganda imprints in all but 10 minutes a masterful impression of a world being bled of dignity.
From this, the player becomes a mythical figure who's mere presence disrupts the balance, inciting both the civilization population and the Combine itself into action. Essentially much of the game is one long chase sequence with the Combine wanting Gordon Freeman dead, lest he incite mass rebellion. Eventually when it does happen, it creates a dues ex machina, returning the player to introduction of the game, but with a completely different mentality.
Underweight the surface, it's story is straight forward, told before and long after in other games and in history itself, resonating all the way back to the 13th century with William Wallace to modern day, Anonymous, Wikileaks and Donald Trump and so forth. Where it differs greatly is in execution, Valve's story telling was revolutionary in Halflife, here, it is expanded, refined and taken to a level competitors and imitators had not even approached, using those simple identifiable concepts as a means to invest the player - most likely young alienated teenagers.
Audio and visual work at the time was unprecedented. While Doom 3 had an impressive presentation of hard shadow and light, it's models and animations failed to impress, it demanded a incredibly powerful pc and relied on tight environments. Source engine, not only looked visually astounding, but was specifically designed to run on a wide range of hardware. Thanks to free updates importing models and effects from Episodic content, as well as user modified content, such as Halflife: Update which I myself use, dated aspects have been polished over. This, coupled with a excellent art direction have allowed Halflife 2 to age respectfully.
Audio work, particularly ambient sound, layers and layers subtle audio for what are in reality relatively small linear maps, give the illusion of a living breathing city consistently convincing the player of a greater sense of space. Contrary to that, rather than bombarding the player with the games terrific music score, it's used in moderation, at key events with a attitude of less is more.
Facial animation still remains impressive. Rather than realistic mo-cap other games use which can lead to uncanny valley and other unpleasant effects Valve treat the faces as more cartoon like, akin to Pixar. They emote far more than a realistic face would, while also avoiding the pitiful developers such as Quantum Dream dig up in the form of sterile, cadaver like models.
The voice work of the main cast at least, across the board is excellent. There is no poorly written dialogue here, every line of text is read with conviction, and every line written with thought be it Alyx Vance warming presence or Dr. Breens slickly rehearsed rhetoric. It's all relatively understated devoid of the caricatures early games suffered from showing a surprising amount of maturity given easily it could have swerves into sci-fi schlock.
From beginning to end, Halflife 2's gameplay is in a rhythmic state of flux, it's lengthy 9-12 hour campaign constantly changing up some aspect to keep the player engaged. Unlike many FPS, Valve integrate lengthy periods without shooting, not just for for pacing purposes but in interaction, with the player navigating and interacting with the environment closer to an adventure game than a typical shooter. This loosely homogenized approach of genre bending is one of the key reasons both it, and it's predecessor were so immersive, it extends the confines of the genre and in the process creates a new style of game-play.
This itself may not appeal to a modern gamers expectations. It's a far slower less visceral game, barring a certain Hunter Chooper and a final action packed stretch. In fact, compared to the original game, it's shooting is largely anemic and Combine Soldiers themselves complete pushovers compared to the rigorously aggressive Marines of the original game.
Thankfully, the games ingenuity largely covers up these cracks. Ground to Air battles tends to be a joy, be it taking on a hunter chopper in a duel to death, aggravating a screaming gunship, or collapsing a towering Strider. These fights are numerous, with incremental tweaks to keep them engaging throughout.
Though much of the arsenal is traditional Gun to Rocket Launcher, two weapons, most famous the gravity gun, keep things creative.
In the case of the gravity gun, it's simple premise of picking objects and throwing them can be used in versatile ways. Logical puzzles solving, crushing enemies under a car, throwing back enemy grenades, knocking over turrets and holding man-hacks (a flying razor blade) for Ant-Loins to destroy.
Ant-Loins themselves, originally an enemy triggered by ground vibration are subverted into a weapon, with the player storming a beach eventually a prison with a commanding therapod weapon as if the game had suddenly turned into Pikman, as dozens of Ant-Loins at your beckon decimate legions of Combine Soldiers.
This creative doesn't fix but rather masks a fundamental issue with the games shooting mechanics.
AI companion, the citizens of City 17 itself, ironically become dehumanized as the game goes on by none other than the player. Morphing from victimized civilians to generic fodder to used at the players disposal. The characters all look the same, usually spouting the same lines, from the same voice actors. Valve added a half-hearted command mechanic that serves no purpose.
A game like Brothers In Arms perfectly streamlines tactical games to make an approachable and engaging set of squad commands. Halflife 2's has no effect on the game, and appears (at least) to have been an idea limited rather than rightly scrapped. In comparison to how tightly and well thought out the rest of the game is, it's a mechanical misstep, that while doesn't abjectly have any profound negative effect on the game, feels out of sync.
A few set pieces can come across as trite as well, notably a section involving a Colonel Cubbage explaining the use of a rocket launcher, only for a gunship to show up immediately afterwords with no delay. Or a base to be immediately attacked after learning the mechanics of the gravity gun. Compared to the rest of the games natural ebb and flow, these unnatural shifts feel mechanically at odds.
Another arguable problem is more subjective. Depending on your viewpoint, the games ending can either be a joy, or aggravating. After finding your way through the remnants of City 17, the player enters the sterile bowls of the Citadel for the final stretch. Rather than provide the games expected stiffest challenge, the player is rewarded with a modified gravity gun that will pick up anything, including enemies. It's hugely empowering, rendering the player practically invincible, but subverts the expected crescendo of player challenge typical of a video game.
These are at best, blemishes, nitpicks in an otherwise bar setting game. When taken as a whole, arguably no single player FPS has bettered it, because no other FPS is like it. Modern first person shooters themselves, seem to have all but given up, happy to simply clone Call Of Duty or attach a largely mediocre 4 hour campaign to support a multiplayer oriented title. Or in the case of Overwatch, wholeheartedly sell an almost full price game rife with microtransactions without any single player.
It's certainly a depressing state of affairs. Not only was Halfflife 2 an astounding 12 hour campaign, it came packaged with a deathmatch mod as well as Countersrike: Source, arguably the greatest team based shooter made.
Going further from that, Halflife 2, along with it's I/II episode, as well as Portal and Team Fortress 2 - one considered the greatest single player puzzle game and the other, again, the greatest team based shooter, were all part of the later released Orange Box, an astronomical deliverance of both quality and quality - all for the standard game price.
How lowly expectations have fallen. A squalid life of mediocrity conditioned as accepted normality.
Perhaps it's time again for the one-free-man to incite some magical thinking.