I can’t pretend I knew it was the tenth anniversary of Half-Life 2. Well, I can pretend – that would be really easy. I’d just go, like, “Pfft… I totally knew it was the tenth anniversary of Half-Life 2”, and you wouldn’t be any the wiser. But I’m not going to. Many thanks to Kotaku, Games Radar, and that, for alerting me to this important date.
Weirdly, despite being oblivious, it was only last week that a mate asked me what my favourite game was. “Half-Life 2” I erupted, in a bizarre, shrill, squawk, before going on to bore him with its merits. Aside from Super Mario World, it’s the only game I’ve played through more than twice.
There was something magic about it. Something that went beyond the in-your-face genius of the gravity gun, or Dog. It was years ahead of the curve in terms of characterisation and world building. It was immersive in a way that no other game ever really has been. There was a sublime consistency. An eerie quiet. A confidence.
You can see its influence today in the The Last of Us – how similar are those opening scenes to wandering around City 17? Answer: very similar, right down to the locked doors of the abandoned tenements, and over-zealous militia. It was also there in the moments of heavy silence, where the game trusts the player not to need something to shoot at every ten seconds. Where it just allowed the experience to breathe.
And yet, much as I love The Last of Us – and it’s in my top five – you’re given everything. Your character. The story. The world. Half-Life 2 held back, and let the player fill in the gaps, while assaulting them with one clever idea after another. It wasn’t a game of Michael Bay’s Whack-A-Mole, as so many shooters are these days, but instead cautiously rationed out the action.
When was the last time you played a first-person shooter that balanced shooting, puzzle-solving and physics, and placed it within an utterly convincing and compelling universe? For a game set so clearly outside of the real world, there was a convincing weight to it. It felt real.
Take Destiny as a comparison. It’s not exactly comparing like for like – lest we forget, Destiny is an “MMO”, apparently – but I’ve found it to be a hollow, tedious experience. I can't stand how artificial its world feels. It’s unquestionably a beautiful game, but more like a theme park ride with guns than anything else – like wandering around Pirates of the Caribbean, shooting at the animatronic pirates with an infra-red flintlock. Nothing feels like it has any consequence, because you know that the second you disappear around the corner your defeated enemies will just pop up again to rattle their cutlasses at the next guests on the boat ride.
I get slightly annoyed by games that kind of unnaturally graft a single player campaign onto what is essentially a multiplayer proposition. If you can’t be bothered, why go to the effort of hiring Peter Dinklage to phone-in a voice-over? It feels a bit like an insult. Like ordering a Big Mac Meal, and only getting three chips, and the guy behind the counter shrugging and saying “We never said how many chips it came with… And yeah, I did fart on them, but nowhere did it say I wouldn’t fart on them”.
Titanfall steps into a similar trap, trying to pass off deathmatches-with-bots as some sort of single-player experience. But I think Titanfall manages a better job of balancing it out. There’s just no sense of consequence to Destiny’s gameplay, even if you do feel there’s scant parallel between it and Half-Life 2.
So. Yeah. I still love it, as much as I did ten years ago. I never stopped loving those hours spent discovering its strangeness, unwrapping its otherness. I love how grown-up it all still feels. I love that it managed to package a sandbox inside a linear experience.
I also love the fact we're still waiting on a sequel. We can only speculate as to whether Half-Life 3 is any closer to release than it was ten years ago. But if they can't better it, or catch lightning in a net all over again, then I want them to leave the series be.
Some things should be left to nostalgia, blooming like flowers on a grave.