Ravenholm or bust!

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This scene would be more exciting if I hadn’t shot all the bad guys first. Soz.

It won’t come as any surprise to readers here that I tend to play most games at a distance of several years from everyone else. Having an out of date PC until last year “helped” in that regard and replacing it has opened me up to the joys (and problems) of modern gaming. So, keeping to a theme, this article is going to be about Half Life 2, originally released in 2004.

I have my issues with the Half Life series. The original game, whilst undoubtably great fun, is largely the reason FPS titles moved away from the exploration and level-based gameplay that Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake had used and towards a more linear, continuous and (*sigh*) narrative-based structure. In short, Half Life is responsible for the modern phenomenon of the game as interactive movie, where the player’s role becomes travelling along what is basically a well-disguised rail in order to see more and more of a usually poorly-written B-Movie class narrative.

At first, Half Life 2 depressingly conforms to this structure. We open in an atmospheric, apparently open environment where it quickly becomes clear there is little game to play, for now at least, nor real exploring to be done in the matter of open-world games. There is a lot of tiresome moving around and setting-up of the narrative. What is striking, though, is how good everything looks. For a game that’s nearly ten years old, HL2 still looks absolutely stunning, helped no doubt by a variable set of graphic settings that were clearly supposed to help its longevity by taking advantage of pretty-much everything that graphics cards could do back then.

Eventually the game starts and our mute hero, Gordon Freeman, gets his famous crowbar and we can actually start playing rather than merely interacting.

And things get better pretty quickly. Yes, it’s linear, and sometimes comically so with planks and ramps showing the route the player is supposed to take in a manner that undermines the realist atmosphere the game clearly wants to create. And yet it still manages to have secret areas, hidden weapons caches and even, later on, whole buildings which can be optionally explored to grab more ammo, health or charge for Gordon’s suit.

Which key lets me choose the giant fucking fly swatter?

It also manages to mix genres nicely. A shooting gallery for much of the time, HL2 also occasionally presents the player with simple puzzles, often physics-based to take advantage of the then-new Havoc engine the game runs in. What really stuck me about these is the fact the game doesn’t offer hints as to what the player needs to do in most instances, preferring to let the player work things out for themselves. For this reason, although none of the puzzles I’ve encountered are especially brain-twisting, there’s a sense of achievement felt when they’re solved which many newer games, with their hand-holding approach to pacify a market of spoiled gamers who don’t want to try against their games, completely lack.

Credit also ought to go to the game’s art. The visuals, as I’ve said, are stunning on a technical level but the atmosphere created is exceptional. HL2 invokes a world in decay, specifically the feel of the moribund Leninist regimes in Eastern Europe circa 1989. Everywhere buildings are crumbling, paint is peeling, cars are rusting or burnt-out; the only signs of efficiency and proper maintenance are the tools of the ruling Combine dictatorship with its gunship helicopters, sleek black armoured cars and masked combat troops; it’s Stalker combined with THX 1138. Music is used particularly well, being occasional and therefore effective and memorable rather than pure background. A perfect example of the atmosphere the game is capable of creating is the infamous stage ‘We Don’t Go To Ravenholm’ which is still, for many gamers, a benchmark in terms of the sense of fear a videogame can create. The story, as far as I’ve seen anyway, is pretty basic: human resistance fights alien overlords guff. But the art that accompanies Half Life 2 is not about the story so much as the environment and the feel.

There’s also a real sense of danger in HL2. Although this game was published three years after Halo gave the world the recharging energy bar, it sticks to the old school system of health that stays down until you replenish it (although there are some nasty headcrabs which poison Gordon meaning his health drops to 1 and then grows slowly back up to its pre-attack level as the suit administers antidote). Although health packs are a regular find in HL2, it’s still possible for the player to find themselves in a dangerous environment with a small amount of health remaining and no idea where the next health pack will be. This is something videogames have abandoned in favour of the “hide and recharge” mechanic, an obvious sop again to spoiled gamers who don’t want to have to try too hard.

Throw in varied levels, different vehicles, lots of different enemies requiring different tactics and the fucking brilliant gravity gun and it won’t be a surprise to learn that I really like Half Life 2. It has its faults – the linearity of much of the game, the semi-regular interruptions of the gameplay so that characters can chatter the game’s B-movie plot at you. This might be a game that shows how the industry was moving towards interactive movies where plot and atmosphere takes presendence over gameplay and moaning kids don’t have to worry about having to work to beat a stage or think to beat a puzzle but at the end of the day it is still, at heart, a videogame. For that we should be thankful.

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One Response to “Ravenholm or bust!”

  1. druellanPsy Says:

    Nice review Mat. About your commentary on the occasional puzzles, listening to the devs commentary on the later packs and episodes, you learn how the pace of the game was carefully crafted to avoid the feeling of linearity and “shooting gallery”. There are many situations that are there just as “introduction” to a later high adrenaline sequence, so, yes, I think HF2 is the ultimate example for a good game design and implementation.
    BTW: I’m not tired to recomend Goosegoose’s epic review of the game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJ7vcY-b5kg

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