The year was 2006, I was a fresh-faced 15-year-old, and PC gaming had already long captured my heart. As a perennial subscriber to the illustrious PC Gamer magazine, I was frequently excited by the latest and greatest that the gaming industry had to offer. Though I didn’t often actually have the opportunity to play all of the newest releases, I still greatly enjoyed poring over every detail of the next best thing. One game in particular, however, caught my eye two years before and never stopped tugging at my interest.
Half-Life 2 exploded onto the scene in the fall of 2004, following a six year hiatus after the release of the highly acclaimed original. At this time, I was largely unaware of the magnitude that was the Half-Life franchise; I only knew that everyone was talking about it. Half-Life 2 featured the shiny new Source engine that promised an extremely realistic physics system coupled with characters that possessed unparalleled visual fidelity. My jaw dropped as this was the most eye-popping form of video game entertainment I had ever encountered. It had everything: Incredible graphics, engaging and challenging gameplay, believable characters, and a deep and nuanced story. Unfortunately, it also had some other elements that I had not yet encountered in a video game to a great degree: gratuitous violence.
Though not unfamiliar with visceral bloodshed and violence (I am a huge fan of war films and was especially enraptured with the classic Saving Private Ryan. Additionally, I grew up on a small farm – death and violence were a daily part of life), I was not accustomed to being the instigator of wanton destruction, even within a digital environment. Sure, I played plenty of games that involved destroying countless waves of evil robots or slaying giant dragons, but I had not yet ventured into the realm of tearing humanoid villains to shreds with a machine gun. I had seen plenty of gameplay videos that fully displayed this violence, and while the level of intense action was awe-inspiring, the digital damage was troubling. What would my mother think? Did I really want to indulge in something of this nature? Even at that age, I fully understood that violence was sometimes necessary and indeed, this was just a game after all. Still, it was enough to give me pause.
Finally, though, I decided that, given my parents’ permission, I would dive into unexplored territory. My mother was sympathetic toward my mixed feelings, but graciously allowed me to make the decision myself. This may all sound trite, but it was a big step in my own personal journey, and not just in the realm of video games. It felt like a coming-of-age, of sorts. I was free and excited. Nothing, however, could have properly prepared me for the incredible masterpiece that is Valve’s Half-Life 2.
I distinctly remember the feeling of shaking with anticipation as I booted up the game for the first time. Greeted by Valve’s odd valve-in-head logo and iconic opening jingle, I clicked through the living menu (the first I had seen of its kind – only a small taste of what was to come), pressed New Game and was thrust into the silent persona of scientist Gordon Freeman. I was immediately presented with the floating face of the G-Man, a ghostly visage that spouted dramatic nonsense. Having come into this game blind, I was very confused but shrugged it off, willing to embrace the game as it was. I found myself on a drab and lonely train going to who-knows-where, accompanied by a few downcast passengers.
Finally pulling into the station, I stepped off, only to be talked at once again by another mysterious character, this time the enigmatic Dr. Breen. His face loomed large on a bright television screen, welcoming me to City 17, a locale that looked just as dreary as the train. Moving forward, I discovered more people wandering aimlessly around a quarantined area. Immediately, I was impressed with how realistically these characters evoked a sense of despondency and hopelessness. I genuinely felt sorry for them.
That empathy quickly changed to alarm, however, when I met my first Combine Soldier. Faces shrouded in alien-like masks, these soldiers spoke with distorted voices and corralled everyone through security gates and various rooms for questioning. Things ramped up quickly from here. Led into a small room with an empty chair and a blood soaked floor, I felt for the first time a semblance of the fear this game could project. It was thrilling.
The soldier left to interrogate me turned out to be a friend and helped me escape through a window, leaving me to flee for my life (though at this point, I still wasn’t sure what I was running from). This escape quickly escalated into a heart-pounding chase through twisting corridors and over rooftops, intensified by a pulsing and electric soundtrack. My adrenaline was through the roof. Despite daring moves and clever turns, I didn’t quite escape the grasp of my pursuers and found myself in quite a bind. I needed rescuing. Enter Alyx Vance.
The detail infused into the body language and facial expressions of the few characters I had met so far had already impressed me, but things were about to reach a new level. Alyx, the daughter of renowned Black Mesa scientist Dr. Eli Vance, fully embodied everything that Valve tried to achieve in regards to heightened character realism in the Source Engine. After rescuing Gordon from the pursuing Combine, you can see … feel … the concern in her eyes and she lifts you up from the ground. Her emotion is fully captured with subtle smirks, glancing eyes, and physical mannerisms that hold real weight.
After snatching Gordon from the jaws of death, the pacing of the game once again slows as Alyx leads players to a secret laboratory that is run by the ever spastic Dr. Kleiner. This sequence highlighted less restrained and more intimate human interactions within the game and began to peel away the initial layers of confusion that I had been presented with. Eli Vance is leading the Resistance against the Combine and desires to recruit Gordon to aid in the endeavor. It is here that I was presented with the famous H.E.V. (Hazardous EnVironment) suit which provides Freeman with an increased measure of defense and made me feel just a bit less helpless.
Up to this point, the experience was primarily cinematic and narrative and it was all I could do to soak everything in. Quickly, however, the pacing evolved once again into intense action as I was thrust through a teleporter and, due to a malfunction, left alone to fend for myself. Equipped with the high-tech suit and my trusty crowbar, I felt more confident this time around and pressed on confidently (sort of). It wasn’t long until I again came face-to-face with a couple of Combine soldiers, but this time I could actually do something about it. They noticed me immediately and started firing pistols rapidly. I swung the crowbar madly, desperate to get in a few hits before I was riddled with bullets. Miraculously, I swiftly closed the distance to the enemies and struck both on the side of the head, dispatching them into a bloody heap.
And there it was, my first experience with personally inflicted brutal violence. Watching the Combine soldiers crumple to the ground in a lifeless pile was sobering, but it was not without purpose. These were bad individuals and I was fighting for my very life, for the lives of those in the Resistance. This game was gritty and I liked that. Picking up one of the Combine pistols, I moved forward with renewed confidence. I soon encountered a few more soldiers and engaged in tense ranged combat, popping in and out behind cover as I carefully maneuvered through a winding railyard. Quickly, I became almost comfortable with this kind of action as was able to advance without much difficulty. I soon discovered, however, that the game was not content to let players traipse through this adventure without frequent challenge.
Rounding a corner, I was presented with an area that was much more open that those I had previously run through. A series of shoddy looking walkways were assembled precariously over dank and murky water, and a bridge loomed large overhead. After running and gunning, everything felt eerily silent. I was tentative, but pressed forward nonetheless. Suddenly, Combine soldiers popped up from all sides on the surrounding walls the bridge before me. Not too distressed, I took aim and began firing, using my previous tactics of dodge and shoot. Without warning, however, one of the soldiers pushed a barrel of gasoline toward the edge of the bridge and kicked it down towards me, setting it on fire. It exploded on impact and I was killed instantly.
I sat at my computer stunned, having been completely caught off guard. I tried again, this time armed with new knowledge. Once again, the soldiers ambushed me and attempted to drop flaming barrels on my head, but this time I fired first and caused a chain reaction of explosions that sent the Combine flying limply in all directions. I was ecstatic. It was moments like these that made the gameplay of Half-Life 2 constantly compelling. Just when I thought that I had figured out how a segment of the game “worked,” I would be thrown a tactical curveball and forced to rethink my strategy. It was a constant game of cat and mouse that ebbed and flowed, displaying Half-Life’s wonderful pacing throughout.
It made emergent and creative gameplay feel organic and natural, and enhanced my immersion. I could play my way, while still enjoying the engrossing and ever evolving story. Certainly, other games have since done this better (the Bioshock series being a strong example), but for me at that time, it was a game-changer. I loved it. The gameplay constantly changed (often in subtle ways), yet never felt like anything other than Half-Life. One moment I would be creeping through tunnels shooting at Combine, the next I am sprinting away from a gigantic helicopter raining down hellfire.
Throughout its 14-hour adventure, Half-Life 2 constantly kept me on my toes, forcing me to observe and adapt at every turn. The game was challenging in a satisfying way, and I rarely felt frustrated (the one glaring exception to this being a segment near the middle of the story that involved a few too many enemies and automated machine gun turrets in a confined space. It was needlessly tedious). Its combination of run-and-gun action, intuitive physics-based puzzles, and excellent story kept me begging for me. Several hours in and I was completely hooked. Truly, if the game continued its final half in much the same way as the beginning, I would have been quite happy. Pushing the envelope is the Valve way, however, and there was much more in store for me that I did not anticipate.
Finally given a moment to breathe, I was introduced to a few more characters, all of which continued to display incredible human emotion and realism. The most notable newcomer, however, was not human at all. Dog, a large robot designed by Eli Vance as a companion for his daughter Alyx, is incredible to behold. Lacking any facial features or even humanoid physical appearance, this character felt ALIVE and real. I was in awe at how well it moved about the environment. It felt weighty, fluid and purposeful, and was a joy to interact with.
Coinciding with this introduction was the revealing of the fabled Gravity Gun. Still one of my favorite video game weapons to this day, the Gravity Gun allows players to manipulate physical objects by grabbing, lifting, and shooting. This allowed for new ways to solve puzzles, attack enemies, or just have fun with the wonderfully realistic physics engine. One way of having “fun” with the gun was by playing “catch” with Dog, who tossed a Combine Rollermine at me and expected a return. I complied. It was delightful. The fun would soon end, however, as the Combine imminently attacked.
Up to this point, I had seen and felt intimately the evils that the Combine had inflicted on the remnants of humanity, and was fully committed to fighting for the cause of the Resistance. Half-Life 2 does an incredible job of conveying the villainy of the oppressors and the struggle for survival of the oppressed. Now, however, I was about to witness the rawness of chaotic and wanton destruction.
Earlier, small crab-like alien creatures were introduced, and while a bit creepy, they were initially fairly innocuous. The (aptly named) Headcrabs would launch themselves toward the head of their victims in an attempt to latch on and devour the brain. Gross, but they could be easily dispatched with a crowbar or pistol. At least, this was true at first. When encountered in greater numbers, they became harder to defeat and could easily overwhelm. If they did succeed in latching on to a target, something fearsome and horrid occurred. The once human victim would transform into a grisly and terrifying zombie, controlled by the gnawing Headcrab.
I was terrified when I first saw this, but also experienced a surprising thrill during my initial encounter. Headcrabs seemed to have no concrete purpose other than to devour, and this provided a new level of chaotic fear. The Combine attempted to weaponize them by filling pods with live Crabs that would then be launched into Resistance camps. This was devastatingly effective and I remember gasping in awe when I first set foot into a desecrated base. Things got quickly out of hand, however, as was fully exemplified in the small mining town of Ravenholm.
“We don’t go to Ravenholm.”
Cryptically referenced by Alyx in this moment of reprieve, the one-time stronghold of the Resistance was now completely overrun by Headcrabs after the Combine became overzealous in their attack. Alyx shudders as she mentions it, producing a level of fear and mystery. Inevitably, I was forced to escape through this town after the surprise Combine attack. It is here that Valve showed its mastery in administering pure and unadulterated sci-fi horror. Flames from broken and charred buildings illuminated the night and the moans of shambling zombies echoed in my ears as I surveyed bloody and horrible destruction. It was the stuff of nightmares, and I discovered that I loved it.
Not only did I get to experience a new twist on the Half-Life world, I also got to use my shiny new Gravity Gun. The zombies proved themselves to be incredibly tough enemies, and while they could be killed with conventional means, it wasn’t easy and ammo was sparse. This provided the perfect scenario for the Gravity Gun, and so I immediately began to pick up everything in sight and launch them at the fetid creatures as they lurched towards me. My first attempt involved a large can of paint, which splattered the zombies in white from head to toe. While hilarious, this proved to be completely ineffective. Fortunately, I soon discovered circular saw blades hanging from the wall of an abandoned shed. I grabbed one and fired it off quickly toward an incoming monster, sawing it completely in two.
This was my reaction throughout my entire playthrough of Ravenholm, an experience that I found tantalizing and wholly unique. It even further pushed the boundaries of my gaming world and allowed me to dip my toes into the wild horror genre. My time in Ravenholm was fast and furious, and though I would encounter plenty of fights with many more zombies before my journey’s end, this chapter stood alone as one of the most memorable. Finally escaping that pit of despair (and delightful terror), I breathed deeply in relief. After a moment’s rest, I was ready to press on.
From this point on, the action and ferocity intensified exponentially, and did not let up until the credits rolled. I encountered battles with Striders, massive insect-like robots that required quick vehicular maneuvering and several rockets to the face; I was exposed to Antlions, large and voracious insects that I learned to control and turn against my enemies. Most excitingly for me, my gravity gun unexpectedly received an incredible upgrade that allowed me to not only fire bolts of energy into my enemies, but also to lift and manipulate organic matter, meaning I could zap and toss combine soldiers like ragdolls. After many hours of suffering at the hands of these baddies, this was immensely satisfying.
When I finally reached the end of my wild adventure, I was relieved, elated, and just a little bit sad that it was all over. I had grown so attached to all of the characters and felt very much a part of the Half-Life world, that I had a very hard time realizing I was actually done (sure, I had the additions of Episodes 1 and 2 to look forward to, but this was sobering nonetheless). As I watched the names of the creators of this glorious gem scroll up my screen, I spent a few minutes reflecting.
Half-Life 2 had secured its position as #1 on my list of favorite games by delivering the whole package. It was a game that, at the time, I thought I would never get a chance to experience, but here I was, grateful for the opportunity. I learned what true storytelling could be like in the space of video games, and that, while sometimes gritty in nature, games like this could be powerful tools in sparking imagination and wonder.
I have played many great and jaw-dropping games since Half-Life 2, but few have given me the sense of awe that I experienced when I first booted up Valve’s masterpiece. For me, it serves as the standard for excellence in video games, and I feel that even 15 years after its release, it is something that all gamers should experience, appreciate, and savor.
Thank you, Valve.