The original Half-Life helped establish the location-based set piece shooter which would eventually take over the FPS genre, but Half-Life 2 was the perfected form. Few worlds had felt so detailed and alive. Like Super Mario Bros. 3 with the platformer, Half-Life 2 stands as the ideal form. Later FPS games would follow its lead, but nothing has ever outright replaced what Half-Life 2 offers.
Half-Life 2 exchanges the original game’s unending laboratories for a distinctly Eastern European setting. Where that first game could be sterile and blocky, every inch of this new environment is covered in little details. Gordon Freeman’s trip inside City 17 begins with an uneasy peace. Awakened on a train after years under the G-Man’s stasis, he finds the world has been taken over by an alien race as a result of the first game’s experiments. Any rebellion has been apparently quashed, and Gordon is led through checkpoints under the surveillance of a brutal police force. Being unarmed and surrounded by future enemies is a tense experience, which is a recurring atmosphere throughout. Any time this game gives the player just enough to feel capable, some new threat emerges to reduce all confidence.
This game is loaded with strangely memorable little moments. One of the first involves an abusive officer knocking over a can while blocking the path. He commands you to pick it up and throw it in the trash. You can do so and he’ll let you pass through. Or you can throw it in his face. He’ll chase you down, which just so happens to leave the route unblocked once you maneuver around him. Then there are the physics puzzles, such as loading one side of a plank with cinder blocks so you can jump to a ledge from the other side. These moments are largely cheesy excuses to show off the physics engine, but they are effective in doing so.
Half-Life 2 really ramps up once Gordon received the gravity gun. Seemingly meaningless small objects have been scattered throughout this land as trash. With the gravity gun, all of these items can be picked up and turned into makeshift ammo. After receiving this gun, the game throws you into what just might be the greatest level in any FPS – Ravenholm, a town long-abandoned after a headcrab infestation. Set in the darkness of night, the game temporarily becomes a zombie nightmare as Gordon must largely rely on his surroundings. Some previous survivor has set traps, which Gordon must set off without getting himself decapitated while doing so. But the easiest method of survival involves grabbing one of the scattered saw blades and chopping these headcrab zombies in half. The lead tension of the gravity gun is it’s only as powerful as your surroundings. This forces the player to keep their eyes on whatever they just shot. You do not want to lose the only saw blade in the immediate area while being swarmed. With the way it combines an inventive new combat method with an absolutely terrifying location, this section alone would be enough to call Half-Life 2 a masterpiece.
But the game just keeps being fantastic. Another level finds Gordon playing the floor is lava. While on a beach, any step directly on the sand results in being swarmed by antlions. With the trusty new gravity gun, this area can be traversed by building a moving path of stray parts. And then there’s the finale, where you lose everything but the gravity gun, which somehow becomes supercharged and suddenly starts working on organic matter. This is when the game finally gives the player a break and lets them feel all-powerful.
This game does have some notorious interruptions – while avoiding cutscenes, it instead locks Gordon into rooms while other characters talk at him. Later games would improve on this by having conversations occur while the player can still meaningfully explore. This is Half-Life 2’s one negative trait, a strong idea but poorly implemented. But this game does have some expert storytelling, and that’s all through its environment. Just seeing the state of the world after the end of the first game says so much, and you can tell the stories of each of these locations simply by looking around. Half-Life 2 set a new standard in narrative immersion.
There are a few obvious leaps forward as one looks through the history of gaming. Pong led to Pac-Man led to Super Mario Bros. led to Super Mario 64. Half-Life 2 was the final step into the modern era, the game which signified all tools being made available. There’s never going to be another vertical shift across the board on this level; graphics and physics engines will keep on improving, but Half-Life 2 signaled the end of objective technological leaps involving game design itself. Any game beyond this point had to prove its worth not by technological innovation but by making the best use of those available tools. But no game holds up merely through technical showmanship – Half-Life 2 is an unforgettable experience through and through, with its focus on in-game physics not just a gimmick but central to the entire experience.