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Remembering… Half-Life 2 and Episodes

Half-Life

When I went travelling in North America last summer, I decided to buy a netbook rather than an iPad for my internet requirements. Despite being a bit passé in the age of purpose-built tablets, it’s easier having a physical keyboard and the iPad games library is no match compared to the back catalogue of Windows games playable on the compact computers. A few years ago I stated the merits of netbook gaming, where playing Half-Life 2 was the absolute limit, performing poorly even with severely reduced graphics settings. Netbook gaming is less of a bloodbath nowadays thanks to some models sporting significantly better alternatives to the infamous Intel Atom chipset. My AMD powered machine served as a neat travel companion where I played through the Half-Life 2 trilogy on the long bus trips that ensued.

Even though the game’s scheduled 2003 release was delayed for over a year, it was still a technological marvel and one of the best PC game experiences yet. Half-Life 2 retains the structure of its 1998 predecessor in a linear, chapter driven adventure of scripted events. The key difference is how worlds were a lot more open and outdoor, and the underlying Source engine makes no secret of its capabilities with scarily realistic facial animations and ostentatious physics puzzles. Simple A-B tasks were replaced with gravity gun exercises designed to emphasize the ragdoll physics engine, sucking or propelling small objects. The original Half-Life ended with Gordon Freeman’s defeat of Nihilanth and being forced to work for G-Man in order to survive. This sequel occurs ten years later as Freeman wakes up from a stasis on a train bound to City 17 but is spotted by alien Combine soldiers and is soon on the run. In the unnamed Eastern European city he encounters his Black Mesa colleague Barney Calhoun, operating as an undercover Combine for the Lambda Resistance, the human organization set out to defeat the Combine species.

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Calhoun directs Freeman to Dr Kleiner’s makeshift laboratory where the scientist attempts to teleport him to the Resistance’s base in Black Mesa East. As the attempt fails, Freeman is forced to make the Black Mesa East outpost on foot. Combine soldiers litter the abandoned canal network he navigates, but eventually finds an airboat and finally meets the Resistance leader Dr Eli Vance. Another Combine invasion emerges forcing the silent protagonist to ‘escape’ to one of the most thrilling levels in history. “We don’t go to Ravenholme” Vance’s daughter Alyx says, and the passage has enough doors and ladders sealed off to emphasise this. Zombies and headcrabs are everywhere, requiring novel use of the gravity gun to slice them with disk blades, or throw explosive barrels to burn them alive. Only Father Grigori remains in the abandoned town, addressing Freeman in intervals on how to dispose of the zombies.

City 17 is distinctly Orwellian, with its citizens suppressed, brainwashed and forced to live in squalor; state propaganda existing everywhere. Sophisticated Combine architecture overshadows the existing crumbling buildings, with many force fields restricting movement throughout the world. With Freeman facing an endless battle against the Combine, reaching the Nova Prospekt prison becomes vital. The trail weaves in and out of the city; certain sections may involve combating striders the size of buildings and others take Freeman to highways and rivers. There’s no respite on these though, Combine are ever-present, ant-lions predominate the landscape and there’s a fair number of helicopters to shoot down. The dilapidated compound is a key facility for the Combine forces where rebel prisoners are processed into robots, and is one of the most sinister parts of the game. Reaching Nova Prospekt is a turning point for Freeman and The Resistance, in a story that unfolds around Freeman, while offering only vague contextual explanation.

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Rather than delivering the rest of the story in another sequel, Valve decided to incrementally drip-feed the rest in episodes to supposedly shorten waiting times. Half-Life 2: Episode One followed on with the story, as Freeman and Alyx Vance attempted to stabilize the citadel core to prevent an explosion destroying City 17. The 2006 release flagshipped the high-dynamic ranging newly implemented into Source, and served as a good example of co-operative AI with Alyx Vance frequently accompanying Freeman as a backup character, without stealing the players thunder nor acting as cannon fodder. The short expansion was a disappointment, with much of the game involving navigating dark passages with only a rechargeable flashlight. Furthermore, too much of the game focused on using the gravity gun with only a small slice of shooting action towards the end. Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode Two were varied games in terms of activities and environments. Episode One was a forgettable transition in the storyline, as Combine attempts to destroy the citadel in order to open a superportal called for an evacuation of the city.

The second episode didn’t appear until 15 months later in late 2007. Least it wasn’t as bad as the wait for Team Fortress 2, which arrived in the same Orange Box package despite being announced in 1996. The third new title in the Orange Box was Portal, intended as an ‘experiment’ with the other two flagship titles. The puzzle game had the player shooting portals to transfer them to another part of the room, and was set in the Aperture Science Facility, a rival to Black Mesa. The puzzle-orientated game was a success and even saw a sequel in 2011, and Team Fortress 2 was an excellent multiplayer-only game with a cartoon twist. The two-team multi-player placed strong emphasis on character roles, each having their own strengths and weaknesses, and having to complete various objectives. The Orange Box saw Source reach the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 for the first time, but infuriatingly there was no bundle with just the new games, with the Orange Box also including Half-Life 2 and Episode One.

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At least Episode Two was more like a new title than an incremental addition, truer to the original Half-Life 2. The series up to this point thrived on keeping the player in narrow defined areas. Sporting the variation of Half-Life 2 with far more open worlds, it was set in the rural areas encompassing the now-apocalyptic ruins of City 17. The superportal resulting from the City’s destruction would allow Combine forces to call reinforcements from their homeworld and destroy any resistance, but a communications blackout meant Freeman was in a race against time to provide code for a rocket that will destroy the portal. Plenty of new enemies were added and Vortigaunts at last got a more thorough explanation and proved a useful ally for Freeman. The final battle is one of the more enthralling, using the gravity gun to fire bombs at 10-metre high striders, racing back and forth to stop each one. Moments were rarely dull in the 8-hour adventure, with always a battle round the corner from a dialogue sequence. Certain sections in Half-Life 2 involved cruising for extended periods on a river or a highway with an occasional smattering of Combine. Episode Two reinstated the buggy, but driving on the rocky roads here didn’t last without some obstacle or battle.

Far from just being a pretty benchmark engine in 2004, Source left room for new features to be added in seven years worth of games. Each new episode to Half-Life 2 bought in improvements to keep up with the pace; Episode One saw the usage of HDR and improved facial animations. Episode Two saw more new features such as soft particle effects, additional lighting effects, improved foliage rendering, motion-blurring as well as multi-core support to give the ailing Source a better footing with Unreal and Crysis. Source could scale down details and effects for a variety of specifications as well. Intel integrated graphics chipsets in pre-2000 office computers could run it, with a port even being squeezed onto the original Xbox. The Half-Life 2 series and Source does show obvious signs in its age however, most notably in the original where Combine soldiers are far too common, environments look a little polygonal, textures a little flat, and the gravity gun’s novelty value having long gone. But not many games can still look and play acceptably eight years on; whilst having its game engine, albeit modified, still widely used.

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Valve didn’t only create great games with Half-Life; they created legacies. Half-Life’s GoldSrc engine helped mod creation easy to develop for third parties. The highly successful Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Team Fortress started off as independent multi-player mods that became huge in the pre-broadband online gaming era. Their success saw their development teams joining forces with Valve, prompting commercial releases. Source was a modern solution, with the aforementioned classics remade for Source and oversaw new franchises from Valve, Portal and Left 4 Dead, as well as many third-party mods such as the Half-Life remake Black Mesa, Goldeneye: Source and the Half-Life 2 sandbox Garry’s Mod. Third-party games using Source such as Dystopia and The Ship, were released commercially. The Steam client, released in anticipation for Half-Life 2, succeeded the World Online Network as Valve’s online games hub in 2004. Its digital download store helped succeed traditional CD’s, and since getting third party publishers on board, it became the digital distributor for Windows gaming.

The Half-Life story was an incredible one, and its open source engine meant simple bedroom mods like Counter-Strike could become one of the biggest and influential multi-player games. Half-Life 2 was another revolution for the 21st century, overseeing modern refits for franchises as well as new ones, and it helped pave the way in digital distribution. The series has aged eight years on, its subsequent episodes a little less so, but the Half-Life 2 set is a stonking series nonetheless. But when will we see Half-Life 2: Episode Three? Penciled in for Christmas 2007, we are still waiting for an announcement five years later. The wait is probably going to be worth it, but Valve have become so evasive on any mention that fans are becoming restless. Some rumours state an arctic setting and a new Source engine. However it comes about, it will be interesting to see how one of the definitive computer series concludes. In the meantime these are always worth another play through.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2009.

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