Ridley Scott’s sci-fi movie Alien was tight and terrifying, set in a claustrophobic spaceship where death awaited around every corner. In contrast, Aliens, the sequel, eschewed the horror conventions of the first film and shifted the series’ genre to a more sci-fi action/adventure feel.
More than one critic has noticed the similarities between the original Alien film and Half-Life , Valve’s 1998 sci-fi first person shooter about a theoretical physics experiment gone awry in a secret research facility and a lone physicist’s attempts to escape the facility despite an alien invasion and the attempts by the government to cover it up. Half-Life was widely praised at the time and has since gone to influence countless game developers.
Yet, while Half-Life 2 has many familiar trappings from its predecessor (the silent protagonist, the hazardous environment suit, familiar physicists from the Black Mesa Facility, and even the iconic crowbar), the genre has shifted from survival horror to action adventure. Simply, what Aliens was to Alien, Half-Life 2 is to Half-Life. It’s a great game, but the environments and atmosphere shift from the claustrophobic and doomed science facility to a wide-open (but equally doomed) dystopic future now run by the aliens that invaded in the first game. The Combine, an alien force that crossed into our world due to the “resonance cascade” in Half-Life, has taken over the world in Half-Life 2. Dr. Breen, the previously unseen Administrator of Black Mesa, is now the puppet ruler of the world.
Half-Life 2’s grim future resembles something out of The White Mountains trilogy or 1984. Instead of a survivalist, Gordon Freeman is now a freedom fighter and a symbol of hope to humanity—perhaps the only truly “Free Man” left. When you first enter the world of Half-Life 2, you watch as the gas-mask wearing Combine police herd humans like cattle while Dr. Breen prattles on the TV screen about how “our benefactors” are only protecting us from ourselves. And that is why they won’t let humanity breed. Seriously. In this dystopic future, humans can’t breed. Something, clearly, needs to be done.
The entire opening sequence is beautifully written and immediately gives you a sense of the world—after being rescued from detention by your old friend Barney, you are immediately hunted by the Combine, traversing rooftops and stumbling into apartment buildings full of frightened subjugated humans in a desperate attempt to escape. You’re unarmed, scared, and have no idea where you’re going. It’s one of the more intense sequences in gaming you’ll experience.
After blacking out, you’re rescued by Alyx, daughter of one of Gordon’s coworkers at Black Mesa. She becomes a trusted ally (and in the episodes that continue the story) demonstrates one of the best AI’s you’ll ever see. Lethal with a pistol, she is no damsel in distress.
The game then introduces (or reintroduces) you to a variety of scientists and personnel that make up the human resistance against the alien force. Your missions will usually follow a predictable pattern: get to point A or B to rescue or meet up with person X. Occasionally scripted sequences move the plot along or let you do something cool (like gun down an enemy gunship) but the amount time spent traveling and sheer distance can get grating. We appreciate that Valve took the time to give us vehicles like airboats and dune buggies, but shouldn’t we be grabbing a gun and trying to take down the evil alien force inhabiting the world?
Instead of a wrecked science facility and its surrounding badlands, you’ll traverse varied environments including the zombie-invested Ravenholm, Urban City 17, and the coastal Nova Prospekt prison. They’re all incredibly bleak, whether you’re in a haunted Germanic cemetary or taking a dune buggy along the beach, there’s a sense that the earth is a dying world. You also grow increasingly frustrated by the events that take you further and further from what you really want to do: shoot that lecturing jerk Dr. Breen and save the world.
But before you have an opportunity to storm the Citadel, you’ll have to save a bunch of people (sometimes more than once) and raise the morale of your fellow humans. The game is worthy of the epic Half-Life name and is ambitious in its scale and breath. Not only are the environments varied, but the game goes through so many genre shifts and mechanic shakeups that it’s hard to judge the game as a whole, but rather each individual level. The game starts off with you trying to survive, constantly on the run. Later, you’ll use more conventional run and gun tactics to break through zombie-infested areas. You’ll also have several tedious vehicle segments, some puzzle solving, and eventually employ squad-based tactics to lead a team of resistance fighters. You never can say Valve lacks ambition.
Not all of the shifts in genre and formula work. There’s more than one seesaw-based physics puzzle and they usually come in segments you want to run through quickly. Similarly, I spent too much time in mine shafts, dune buggies, or boats. For a creative team as talented as Valve, it’s disappointing that they couldn’t have focused their talents more on level design— having levels that play like different games of varying quality make Half-Life 2 seem bloated and scattershot. Most of what Valve throws at the wall sticks, but the lack of continuity hurts their grand vision.
Take the weapons, for example. To combat the Combine soldiers, head-crab zombies, and aliens you’ll encounter, you have a pretty standard arsenal of weapons with two notable exceptions. In addition to your trademark crowbar, you have pistols, futuristic rifles, grenades, and a rocket launcher at your disposal. You’ll also have access to an anachronistic crossbow that serves a similar function as a sniper rifle. It seems way out of place in the Half-Life universe and is rarely used; at one point you fight enemy soldiers that have actual sniper rifles (that you never get can access to) which leads to the question: why not just give us one of those?
Yet while the crossbow is a creative addition to your arsenal that doesn’t work, the gravity gun is an uncoventional weapon that is essential. Obtained fairly early in the game, the gravity gun completely changes how you interact with the environment. A click of your mouse and you can draw an object to you and another click sends it flying across the room. It’s a useful tool for getting hard to reach items, but it also makes anything you pick up a weapon. The Ravenholm level, full of saw blades, becomes a gleeful exercise in eviscerating zombies thanks to the gravity gun. While the crowbar will always be a symbol of the Half-Life series, Half-Life 2 will forever be remembered for its groundbreaking introduction of the gravity gun.
But Valve doesn’t do the best job of giving you a sandbox to test your new toy. The gravity gun is initially extremely useful and then gets put on the backburner in areas where there’s nothing to grab. It once again becomes essential in the final stages, but the game’s strange pacing and schizoid level-design makes for an up and down experience. Some levels you want to play again and again and others you never want to ever get back to. As classic as HL2 is, not every level is equally fun to play.
I first played Half-Life 2 when it came out for the PC six years ago. It’s a credit to Valve that Half-Life 2 still looks fantastic on my Core i7 iMac. There are some long load times between maps and the frames per second aren’t as high as I’d like them, but on the whole the playing experience wasn’t too dissimilar from my initial run through years ago. I did notice some slight detail loss with certain animations, especially in the beach levels, but I’m nitpicking here.
Macworld’s buying advice
Depending on your perspective, Half-Life 2 is either the most epic and ambitious title Valve has ever done, or the most bloated and unfocused. But even with its missteps, there’s a reason why Half-Life 2 appears on virtually every “best games of all time” list. It pushes the FPS genre in new and ambitious directions—the gravity gun, the physics engine, the visuals, the story, the AI, are all innovations that would carry other games. But with Valve, they’re just part of a laundry list of things they got right. Half-Life 2 is simply one of those games that can be held up as art, as something that is smarter than Halo or Gears of War while still being engrossing to play and fun to explore. If you have Steam on your Mac, you simply need to experience this colossus of game development.
[Chris Holt is a Macworld associate editor.]