Good game but not still have little problems.
Part of me wants to say "Half Life is immersive", but that wouldn't mean anything without contextualizing the opposite of immersive. When I think of "unimmersive" games, the original Doom comes to mind. The hallways in Doom have no utilitarian function beyond a mouse maze with cheese at the end; no fictitious history beyond a special effects tech demo.
At first glance, Half Life 2's levels are almost boring. Dilapidated apartments; abandoned factories with assembly lines rusting in disuse; a marine dock towering over a dried up river littered with beached boats; a stagnant canal glistening with an iridescent oil film on the water; a crumbling concrete prison lit by flickering flourescents.
Yet the boring elements of Half Life 2's world are somehow boring enough to make me accept the alien presence intruding on the normal. More so than say, Turok (2008) or Crysis, which plunged me headfirst into a special effects drenched hellzone soaked with machine gun fire, tentacled aliens, and T-rexes within the first ten minutes. Half Life 2 paces itself. The realization that something's not quite 'right' is gradual. The human infrastructure constitutes 80% of the game's scenery – the alien vehicles, guns, and imported technology are a recent moss filming over human civilization. I liked how the humans in the game had an unnervingly blasé attitude toward the alien infrastructure clashing against their native earth, as well as the alien wildlife prowling freely in our forests and beaches – all taken for granted like it's no big deal. It made me feel like I had missed out on something and had to catch up.
Half Life 2 is completely linear. Your actions don't influence the path you'll take like Mass Effect, you can't wander all four points of the compass like Fallout 3, you can't even complete the stages in a nonlinear order like Mega Man. But the designers did a masterful job using their discretion to decide which parts of the world the player would have to see to feel as if they were actually inside of it. The interactivity is basically as on-rails as a Disneyland ride, but it works.
From the opening of the game when you're herded into City 17 like a work camp inmate, held at gunpoint by faceless Darth Vaders mumbling to each other in radio jabbereese, to watching the police beat down a civilian's apartment door and charge inside while other residents turn a blind eye, to making your rendezvous with the human 'resistance', then retreading the same City 17 you originally entered as a prisoner, except this time guns-a-blazing with your rebel friends carrying the banner of freedom – the whole experience has a elegant, deliberate consistency which served to make me feel like my quest amounted to something, even though it was a scripted illusion. It made me root for the characters and care when they triumphed over the bad guys or got hurt by setbacks.
It's this quality that makes Half Life 2 worth paying attention to. Too many games nowadays aspire to harness modern technology to do something "more" than winning the cheese at the end of Doom's mouse maze, conveying a Hollywood experience where you're actually carried along with a cast of characters not through a series of levels, but a series of scenes, with the baddies you kill amounting not to a high score, but a war you're waging.
Half Life 2 is the only game like this that I actually warmed up to.
After its release, Half Life 2 was continued with downloable "episodes" which progressed the story. I played and loved both, although unfortunately episode 3 was delayed for years on end with no word from Valve as to whether it'll come through. If they're still working on it, it'll be well worth the wait. If you haven't played Half Life 2, there's tons of copies in circulation for the XBOX 360 and Playstation 3, and for PC owners it's only $10 on Steam. I strongly recommend buying a copy.