On June 1999, just six months after the original Half-Life‘s release became a massive success for the debuting videogame company, Valve decided to start work on a direct sequel. Their goal was both simple and incredibly ambitious for a studio with just one title—two if you count April 1999’s Team Fortress Classic—under their belt: nothing short of the best PC game of all time and a redefinition of the first-person shooter genre.
Five years later, after a protracted and troubled development period that saw multiple delays and even a high-profile theft of the game engine’s source code, Half-Life 2 finally came out on November 16, 2004, released simultaneously on retail and on Valve’s fledgling digital games delivery platform, Steam. At the time of its release, it received critical acclaim and rave reviews, cementing it as an instant classic in the genre.
Eighteen years have passed, however, and the games industry has changed a lot since then. How does Half-Life 2 hold up now, after nearly two decades and countless rivals for the throne? Can it still be called the best PC game of all time? And on a more personal note, can a review of your favorite game of all time actually be written unbiasedly? Those are the questions we are here to answer as we take a critical look back at Half-Life 2.
Rise and shine
One of the biggest changes in Half-Life 2 compared to its predecessor and its expansions was the leap in graphical fidelity, and Valve wastes no time in displaying that by focusing on its then-revolutionary facial animation technology for the very first moments of the game, literally shoving it in your face.
Half-Life 2 picks up after the events of the first Half-Life, an indeterminate amount of time later (that later official media would clarify as being nearly two decades), with Gordon Freeman being awakened from stasis by his new ’employer’, the mysterious figure known only as the G-Man. After a few vague choice words about Gordon’s role in all this, he—and by extension the player—is dropped on a train heading to a new destination: City 17.
First things first, then: the graphics. Eighteen years have gone by since the release of Half-Life 2 and many, many visually impressive games have come out since, including a beautiful, full-fledged new VR installment in the Half-Life series. Even so, for the most part, the graphics hold up, especially one of the biggest selling points of the game, the facial animation, which is still generally convincing, thanks in large part to the faces being actual scans of real-life people—I would argue that faces in subsequent Valve games that were essentially designed from scratch, such as Half-Life 2: Lost Coast’s fisherman or Half-Life: Alyx’s Russell, actually hold up worse compared to these.
Some details betray the game’s age, such as the textures and the polygon count (look at the G-Man’s image above, particularly the chin and the ears, to see what I’m talking about), but overall, it still looks great for a nearly twenty-year-old game, which can’t be said about its predecessor. This isn’t due only to the fidelity of the models, of course, but also the art direction itself; certain locations in the game, especially the coastline in the middle chapters of the game, still look absolutely stunning today. A lot of that can be credited to Viktor Antonov and the team of artists that comprised the Valve of the early ’00s, who manage to execute an original and coherent vision of this alien-controlled dystopia as far removed from clichés as possible.
After the first impactful monologue scene, the game does the by now classic Half-Life trope of dropping you in an unfamiliar, yet essentially linear, location and letting you immerse yourself. Half-Life 2’s world is drastically different from the first Half-Life’s—if it were to come out today, it would’ve upset the typically outraged and rabid fan communities of modern Internet—and this is seen from the first step you take in the train. People in identical denim garb walk sheepishly across the train station, muttering and cursing under their breath the new alien regime, as intimidating thought police (our website’s titular ‘metro cops’) push them around and threaten to beat you senseless if you come close, while ever-present screens spout propaganda under the facade of a seemingly benevolent face, whom you will later know as Doctor Wallace Breen, your former administrator at Black Mesa. The Orwellian undertones might not have been particularly original then, at least outside the scope of videogames, and are even less so today, but they’re executed flawlessly in Valve’s very own “show, don’t tell” approach.
This is also where Valve casually revolutionizes an old video game trope, the tutorial. Rather than a separate tutorial mode as in the previous games, Half-Life 2 embeds the tutorial into the game, finding convenient excuses to teach the player the mechanics of the game. The new mechanic of picking up objects, itself an innovation from the brand-new physics engine, is seamlessly taught to you not once but twice, first by Barney, your old ally from Black Mesa turned double agent in the new “Combine” regime, telling you to stack some crates to escape pursuers, and immediately after by the now iconic “pick up that can” scene, that also gives you a first choice to showcase some of the new interactivity with NPCs the game has. Rather than frontloading all the mechanics in a separate mode—a mistake the first Half-Life made with the Long Jump Module, a feature that is only relevant in the latter third of the game but is only introduced in the Hazard Course tutorial mode—, Half-Life 2 gradually teaches you the ropes as you play, and you’re still picking up new tricks by the time you reach the final chapters.
Subtly guided by the game as a stranger in a strange land, you inevitably end up being chased across an apartment complex and the City 17 rooftops in what is a thrilling chase in your first few playthroughs, until you finally meet the most important character in the game (and in the franchise moving forward), Alyx Vance, a rebellious woman in her mid-twenties who will end up becoming your companion and the face that humanizes many of the subsequent events. While in Half-Life 1 non-playable characters are little more than cannon fodder or occasional exposition spouters, Half-Life 2 invests in characters to tell a bigger story, and this is where the aforementioned revolution in facial animation pays off. While you lose the freedom to become an absolute psychopath as in the first Half-Life, you trade that relative immaturity for immediately iconic and memorable characters such as Doctors Isaac Kleiner and Eli Vance, your old-new pal Barney Calhoun and Alyx herself, which would later develop into the more impactful storytelling of subsequent games of the series, especially the unforgettable and crushing ending of Half-Life 2: Episode Two and the twists of Half-Life: Alyx. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For now, the first two chapters of the game take their time in introducing the world and its cast—players with a less patient temperament will tend to rank this lower if they’re just looking for things to shoot—, then finally throws you a bone (or rather, a crowbar) and lets you loose from the third chapter, Route Kanal, onwards. Which is where, finally, we get to the gameplay.
Don’t forget to reload, Doctor Freeman
It’s as good a time as any to talk about the shooting in Half-Life 2, so let’s dive in.
Compared to Half-Life, as well as pretty much the entirety of the pre-2004 first-person shooter genre, Half-Life 2’s gunplay is, for lack of a better term, weightier. While expert players and speedrunners have found ways of bunny-hopping through levels anyway, the gameplay is generally less jumpy and comparatively slower than the previous Doom and Quake descendants. It’s not Call of Duty or anything, mind you, but you’ll often be less mobile and more often trying to take cover in shootouts.
As for your arsenal, it’s far more limited compared to Half-Life’s, although whether that is a bad or a good thing is debatable. You certainly have less variety, but what you lose in somewhat gimmicky alien weaponry like the Hivehand and the Snarks, you gain in a more clearly defined and balanced selection of weapons. The pistol soon loses relevance after the first few chapters as the submachine gun shares the same ammo reserves and is overall more useful, but otherwise most weapons have some use throughout the game—the pulse rifle, for instance, is generally an improvement over the aforementioned SMG, but its very limited ammunition, coupled with its fast rate of fire, means you’ll end up reserving it for tougher situations and stick to the submachine gun and its more plentiful ammo for most of your fast-firing needs. The crossbow, which I seldom used on my first playthroughs, has grown into a personal favorite due to its capability to angle and ricochet your projectiles for creative and cool kills, but the scarcity of its ammo means I end up reserving it for usage over longer distances more often than not. The shotgun, of course, is still a shotgun, meaning it’s insanely powerful at close distances, an impact that’s boosted by the physics engine that sends the ragdolls comically flying back over a faceful of buckshot.
One can’t talk about the weaponry without discussing the weapon of Half-Life 2, of course: the Gravity Gun (you can call it the Zero-Point Energy Field Manipulator if you really want to). Half-Life 2 was one of the games pioneering the usage of physics engines and Valve was clever enough to turn the physics themselves into a gameplay mechanic, by giving you a weapon which you can use to punt, pick up and toss small and larger objects in the game. The Gravity Gun not only fits the scientific background of the series, but changes a lot of how you interact with the environment, being able to turn most anything around you into a weapon.
It’s completely game-changing and something that sets Half-Life 2 apart from the competition to this day. Sure, other games have tried to rip it off (looking at you, Doom 3 expansion pack), but none succeeded in quite the same way as Half-Life 2. The playfulness interaction of the physics was so revolutionary a massive game in its own right, Garry’s Mod, spawned from it! Still, in Half-Life 2, it changes how you play, but thankfully doesn’t make any of the other guns obsolete, quite the contrary; the Gravity Gun works best as a makeshift melee weapon and for tossing explosives over long distances (as well as a Combine soldier’s frag grenade back to them), meaning that the rest of the weaponry still sees plenty of use in many other situations.
Enemy variety is another point where Valve, after experimenting wildly during development, wisely opted to narrow the rogue’s gallery to a smaller but stronger selection.
The new enemy faction, the Combine, take center stage for most of the game, their officers and soldiers replacing the human grunts that popped up throughout Half-Life’s Black Mesa section. The apparent cleverness is admittedly lost in translation somewhat; by all intents and purposes, the Combine infantry are smarter than the old grunts, being able to squad up, coordinate and flush you out, but in practice you’ll often find them standing out of cover shooting at you, a common criticism lobbied at Half-Life 2. The HL1 grunts’ ingenuity was mostly AI smoke and mirrors, of course, but the feeling is more important than reality here.
Still, the Combine are fun to fight, particularly as the game progresses and the somewhat (intentionally) dumb Civil Protection officers of the early game make way for the more ruthless Combine soldiers, particularly the lethal shotgun soldiers that rush at you and quickly dispose of most of your health if you’re not careful.
Of course, the Combine aren’t relegated to simply (trans)human forces. This time around, a variety of biomechanical enemies, the so-called Synths, are here to make your life miserable. The most iconic is without a doubt the tall, tripod-esque Striders, although fighting them in the late game is mostly down to shooting them full of rockets and ducking into cover. The gunships, on the other hand, are far more entertaining, able to actually shoot down rockets from the sky, making your attempts at downing them a constant game of cat-and-mouse where you’re alternatively the cat and the mouse. Smaller robotic enemies also pester you throughout your journey, most notably the manhacks, which prove a particular annoyance until you get the Gravity Gun, making them far easier to deal with.
It wouldn’t be Half-Life without hostile alien fauna, however, and Half-Life 2 brings a plethora of Xen creatures both old and new to the table. Gone are the houndeyes and bullsquids of the first game, but the headcrabs were simply too iconic to cut, and they come with two new varieties (and the corresponding horrifying zombie variants) to add some spice to the old headhumpers. Barnacles also make a reappearance, playing the same role as before of stopping you in your tracks, but smarter this time around and able to physically interact with objects.
The big new addition to the alien creatures are the antlions, large bug-like things that infest the coastline in the middle parts of the game. They spawn infinitely and can quickly overwhelm the player, but are also fairly fragile, except for the larger, miniboss-like Antlion Guards that can put up quite a fight. However, the antlions are used inventively throughout the game in ways that I wouldn’t dare spoil, and are a good representation of Half-Life 2’s creativity and willingness to play with the tropes of the genre.
We are coterminous
Not all aliens are enemies this time around, however. The alien slaves of the previous games, the vortigaunts, return, but this time as allies to Humanity, after Gordon Freeman released them from their shackles in the first game. They share no love for the Combine and will therefore help you on your way, albeit, sadly, their presence is somewhat reduced, something the forthcoming episodes try to correct.
In general, you get a lot more help, too, when compared to the relative solitude of the first game. The ever-present citizens at first try to avoid you like the plague, but more rebel-minded refugees soon start providing some help as you get along and eventually join you in the fight against the Combine as the game progresses. If you prefer the survival horror-esque atmosphere of the original game, you might see this as a negative, but Half-Life 2 still has plenty of solitary and scary moments regardless to keep you satisfied.
Your NPC companions are also much smarter than the scientists and security guards of the first game, although they do have a (oft-mocked) tendency to stick too closely and get in your way as you reach the intense firefights of the latter chapters. They still fulfill essentially the same roles, but medics now carry multiple medpacks that they’ll happily give you (or other NPCs) when the need arises during a shootout, and rebels overall are better shooters than the old Barneys of Black Mesa and can scavenge better weapons from fallen enemies, further increasing their usefulness in a fight. They also get their fair share of iconic lines to make them as endearingly quirky as their predecessors (who can forget “Sometimes I dream about cheese”?).
A great deal in a small timespan
A stark difference from Half-Life is the way the story is structured to keep you moving through new locales, bringing new gameplay ideas at every turn in the process. Whereas Half-Life was mostly relegated to the dark underground of the Black Mesa research facility until the last few chapters with the occasional trek topside, Half-Life 2 introduces City 17 and its ominous Citadel only to quickly lead you away from it, leading you to the alien-infested and Combine-raided canals, an old mining town for a night of terror, the Eastern European coast where the effects of the Combine’s drainage of resources are most keenly felt and a Combine prison, before shooting you back into the city for a final push.
Half-Life 2 is therefore a journey, far removed from the confines of a laboratory, which understandably is not to every fan of the original’s taste. However, on its own merits, what a journey it is—Valve takes a Nintendo-like approach to the gameplay, throwing in new ideas into every chapter only to quickly discard them before they get old. The main (and most divisive) one is the vehicle segments, which drastically switch up the gameplay from a first-person shooter into a driving section with eventually some shooting involved. Apparently, going by the endless online debates, you either hate them or you love them, but there’s no denying they break from the norm enough to present some diversity from simply running and gunning.
Not every example of creativity is as stark as the vehicles, however. From chapter to chapter, you may find yourself, in no particular order: solving physics puzzles; clearing out minefields; tossing ragdolls around; scavenging for hidden batteries to unlock a gate; directing a swarm of aliens during a prison break; escaping another trash compactor sequence; playing fetch; running around avoiding a deadly laser from the skies; playing a lethal game of “the floor is lava”; and commanding troops during all-out war. And these are just some of the ideas the game throws at you for its 10-or-so-hours’ playtime.
Variety wouldn’t mean much if these were poorly executed, but Valve’s winning strategy of using playtesting in order to refine their games pays dividends. Half-Life 2 is consistently fun and, while personal taste will always play a part in people’s preferences for certain sections—some people grow bored to death of the story segments where characters talk around you, others hate the aforementioned vehicle segments with a passion—, it has to be said that not a single moment of the game is done haphazardly and it has plenty of surprises in store. That it does all of this without breaking Half-Life’s cardinal rule of keeping you always in control and seeing things for Gordon Freeman’s perspective is nothing short of masterful.
Not only is the pacing great, though, but it also never repeats the one mistake dragging the original Half-Life down: namely, Half-Life drops the ball in its final chapters, rushed by a deadline and losing what made it special in the first place. There is no moment where the same thing happens to Half-Life 2—in fact, if I didn’t know the development of the game had been troublesome, I never could have guessed by the end result. The game impressively keeps its momentum going, jumping from strength to strength, letting you catch your breath after every big setpiece with a rewarding story beat or calmer moment, only to crescendo once again to some brilliant new development.
That’s not to say Half-Life 2 is absolutely perfect, however. Boss fights in the original Half-Life weren’t particularly impressive, so it’s not a big loss that there are no real boss fights in this game, but their miniboss-like challenges, such as the Antlion Guard and the gunships, are perhaps repeated a bit too much. The final “boss battle”, if you can call it that, is also a bit underwhelming considering everything that came before it, not to mention somewhat poorly telegraphed, and it ends very similarly to the original Half-Life, which is to say, suddenly and with little explanation, which is worse now considering you grow to care for the characters’ fates and are left with little resolution (at least, until the episodic continuation).
The best PC game of all time?
With all of that being said, let’s go back to the opening question: is Half-Life 2 still “the best PC game of all time”?
Perhaps this is where an admitted bias comes into play, but I would argue: yes, very much so. Naturally, looking at the parts of the game, they have all, in some way, been surpassed by newer games—that’s only natural considering twenty years have passed and both technology and game design have evolved.
While I’d argue it still looks beautiful, the increasingly photorealistic modern game engines have produced more impressive works of art, and Valve’s choice of making the game somewhat realistic, unlike later stylized efforts such as Team Fortress 2, means that, the more time passes, the less convincing their human facsimiles are. Gameplay-wise, shooters have been further refined, to the point younger players complain of Half-Life 2’s supposed awkwardness, used to a different style of first-person shooter that’s more focused on aiming down sights and quick reflexes. And the storytelling, once groundbreaking, helped usher even more creative and daring stories in games, some even by the hands of its former developers (Dishonored, also conceptualized by Viktor Antonov, comes to mind).
However, Half-Life 2, much like all the best creative works, is more than the sum of its parts. Other games may have pieces that are better than its own, but arguably none are as strong as its whole. Like its predecessor, it revolutionized the genre once more, but unlike the first Half-Life, none has managed to accomplish its feats again, let alone better—not even Valve itself, though we’ll be looking at its following efforts to put them to that test. Half-Life 2 is special from the moment you step foot outside the train and soak in its atmosphere up until the end credits and their own special little post-credits surprise.
There is no game like Half-Life 2. Rather than doing a by-the-numbers sequel, Valve took massive risks with its sophomore effort and the results, despite what the incessant “beta” community would have you believe, are better than what any fan at the time could have imagined. Even today, it stands the test of time and provides the same thrills it did in 2004. And as great as Half-Life was and still is, Half-Life 2 is more polished, more daring and ultimately more rewarding to play through. It still deserves all its accolades and then some; look at any other twenty-year-old game, then in twenty years look at the games of today, and try and tell me otherwise.
Half-Life 2 is available for purchase on Steam.