This video made in association with Gather Your Party.
Most people like Half Life 2. I like Half Life 2. When I ask myself “Was it well designed?” I only see a blur of car and boat segments, nice set pieces and some in game story scenes that are a popular convention of modern games. Despite my best efforts all that really stood out were those exciting scripted scenes. It never felt very difficult or terribly easy.
If I arrive at an answer that surprises you, that makes two of us. I guess I need to go back to City 17.
Chapter 1. Point Insertion. The player gets the basics of movement, interaction and simple physics object manipulation. The player get chased through an apartment building and does some platforming before a cutscene takes over.
Chapter 2. A Red Letter Day. The player is forced to wait through a cutscene that introduces them to Barney, Kleiner and the road trip that will make up Gordon’s journey. After a teleporter mishap the player is sent into another chase with the civic protection armed only with a crowbar. This section serves mostly as platforming practice and navigating non-obvious areas and using the crowbar to open up spaces.
Chapter 3. Route Kanal. This chapter starts with a brilliant little piece of game design. One of two civilians is shouting for help as they’re attacked by Civil Protection and the player, is encouraged to rush the CP and bludgeon them with the crowbar. This is where the player gets their first firearm but also foreshadows at how the game clumsily handles gun combat.
Regardless this opening does a great job at emotionally motivating us into overcoming the obstacle.
After that the player navigates sewer and drainage tunnels and is introduced to manhacks and barnacles. A scripted scene shows the player they can use physics objects to trick the barnacles and the manhacks develop on the player’s awareness of the engine’s physics by destroying nearby props. One of the first encounter with the manhacks is behind a gate, which allows the player a safe way to observe their behavior.
When the player isn’t running into civil protection and finding alternate routes on pipes they are forced to run between cover as an attack chopper sprays them with bullets.
With the overall linear design of Route Kanal’s level the player encounters multiple events that will test necessary skills for later in the game.
Chapter 4. Water Hazard. This section has a lot of scripted events and vehicle filler. These segments feel like filler because there’s little to motivate the player.
It’s broken up with puzzles and set pieces, like raisings gates and fighting the chopper.
The closest it comes to developing a skill is introducing the player to grenades by giving them a supply crate and a few waves of enemies to fight.
Chapter 5. Black Mesa East. This section does not have much gameplay other than learning to use the gravity gun. Most of it is a matter of standing around and being a passive audience to the story.
Chapter 6. Ravenholm. You just got the gravity gun and now you have to make good use of it. Ammo is scarce to encourage the player to rely on the Gravity Gun and physics projectiles as well as environmental elements like traps.
The problem with Ravenholm is that there is lots of trial and error. Some of theses traps have never been encountered before and there are a lot of blind hazards, such as ambushes or explosive barrels that get punted at you.
It can make for a good trial by fire that teaches the player to use the gravity gun; parts of the Ravenholm are lacking in good physics objects to defend yourself with. Otherwise the player is tethered to their saw blade or cinder blocks.
While it might be good for the player to explore this level cautiously, this is ultimately contradictory to the overall play style of the game. The player is taught to run into battle and tank damage with Gordon’s HEV suit.
The game usually keeps puzzles and combat separate, but with a focus on the gravity gun the two skills are merged ineffectively
Around half way through the player is given a shotgun from Father Gregori to combat the fast zombies, but ammo is still rare and it’s somewhat impractical as it is a slow weapon. It works in the final encounter where the player has plenty of time to anticipate the attack but not elsewhere.
This previously mentioned fast zombies also conflict with the gravity gun. Ranged combat with the gravity gun means slow, methodical combat shooting off physics objects that’s ill suited for quick targets.
Chapter 7. Highway 17. Lots of driving. Lots and lots of driving. This section is mostly filler. The player is given the rocket launcher and taught how to use it by fighting Combine gunships. There’s a trick to timing and guiding the rockets so that they aren’t shot down. The player does this two more times this level.
There’s three or four mandatory stops with laser walls and then the crane segment. Besides the crane segment which might vague memory, the most notable part of Chapter 7 is platforming across broken cat walks under the bridge. This is a great scene and it gets even more intense when you fight a dropship on the way back!
Chapter 8. Sandtraps. More driving, more unnecessary stops and more gates that slow down the game. There’s the car battery puzzle and then one more rocket launcher fight against a Combine Dropship in a lighthouse. This, of course, comes after several waves of Combine soldiers. None of these encounters develop the current skills any further.
Then the real nightmare begins. Welcome to the Antlion infested sand traps.
I’m not even going to go into detail about this area. All you need to know is that it’s awful and slow and Antlions attack you constantly and there’s another physics puzzle based on seesaws.
What is worth knowing is that at the end of your suffering you get one of the best weapons in the game: The Pheropod, aka the Bug bait.
It wraps up by having the player make the trek to Nova Prospekt. The beach leading up to the cliff side is covered with Combine bunkers that will slow you down. The Antlions can be used as a distraction but they’re more effective to lay siege on the Combine strongholds. Irritatingly the thumpers have to be turned off which means the player has to run out of cover to hit the switches.
After that just scale the cliffside and fight yet another gun ship in the courtyard leading into Nova Prospekt.
Chapter 9. Nova Prospekt. This section is very heavy on gun combat. It starts off with the player navigating through empty neglected sections of the prison that have holes in the wall, broken walkways and malfunctioning doors. Most of the early conflict is between the player and sentry guns. Grenades will work at knocking them over but marking them with the bug bait is a lot more efficient.
The bugbait becomes less viable as the Antlion spawns get further spaced out and some of the level set up will place them against a wall of sentry fire.
After fighting a bull Antlion and doing some physics puzzles the player starts to face off against the Combine. It’s a bit of a wash though as the Antlions are now highly situational and the player is better off using the grenades since the Combine will be grouped with sentries.
The player has to push through waves of Combine in various areas of the prison and go through one more Antlion bull fight.
Chapter 9a. Entanglement. The player treks through structures of Nova Prospekt that are being converted by the Combine’s crushing machines when they run into Alyx who will enlist Gordon’s help to look for Eli.
Once Alyx splits from the player, there’s a little bit more gun combat and a number of physics puzzles as well as sentry stand off. Just like with the Antlions this section is set up to give you a sense of power when you take control of something you were previously fighting.
Alyx pops up again to throw more story at the player before disappearing and sending Gordon into some back halls and a flooded room that mixes platforming and physics puzzles.
The player is given one more chance to turn the tables as they attempt another holdout against the Combine with more sentries, after which Alyx shows up again to open a prison gate to drag the player into dimly lit series of back tunnels.
The story pops up once more to reveal a betrayal and the player is given a larger set of sentries for one last big sentry defense. These sentries defenses aren’t that difficult.
Chapter 10. Anticitizen One. The player is introduced to the squad mechanic with resistance soldiers that seem contradictory to interacting with Alyx in the previous chapter. She was completely autonomous and her death was an immediate game over. The resistance soldiers are highly disposable and take basic directions. While the addition of control is nice, just like Alyx they will get in the way and their previously mentioned disposability means there won’t be any punishment to discourage poor squad tactics.
Weapon use doesn’t seem planned out as the player is given Hoppers, which are a defensive item that used with the Gravity Gun, in a linear spaces that require the player to push forward through combat. The player should use a number of Gordon’s weapons to adapt to the situation but this falls flat given the nature of Half Life 2’s gun combat. The chapter drags when Gordon has to stomp through cramped apartments and try to wrestle the dim witted resistance soldiers out of doorways.
There’s a brief toxic water platforming segment in a flooded tunnel to break things up and bring the Zombies into play. After this it’s back to stumbling around in narrow tunnels and bumping into the human resistance.
It will become very noticeable to players how underdeveloped the games gun combat is once Alyx joins back up and they have to defend her twice, the last of which as she hacks a Combine laser shield.
Once the player agonizes through this hold out, a scripted event puts Gordon on his own to work through some zombies and manhacks in a sewer tunnel that will lead into a warehouse with a lot of vertically layered combat.
Chapter 11. “Follow Freeman!” This chapter is more squad combat, but before the player can be paired up with Barney they have to run from Sniper fire and practice lobbing grenades through windows into the Sniper nests.
Once inside the museum the player has to throw around grenades as their best counter against a heavy attack by the Combine while they try to disable three generators and take down a shield or something.
After a drop ship fight on the roof Gordon is sent crawling through the crumbling city into a frustrating encounter against some Striders, a demolished building and scripted events that tears it apart with more Strider lasers. At the top the player finds several more Striders and a rocket launcher ammo crate, which makes an obvious “boss fight” of sorts.
Once that’s over, get the hell out of there and find Barney and Dog on the street for your one way ticket to the next chapter.
Chapter 12. Our Benefactors. After a little platforming Gordon finds his way into the Citadel where the player is lead around with several scripted events. There’s lots of nice environmental storytelling but not much in the way of gameplay until all of Gordon’s guns are removed and the Gravity Gun is supercharged.
This segment is really there just to build up the player at the end of the game so it wraps on a high note. On hard there was one difficult part where the player has to survive waves of Overwatch on an elevator where there is little cover and vertically layered combat. I was able to get around this by ripping a computer off the wall and using it as cover for the duration of the very long elevator ride.
Light platforming elements are sprinkled through this area and will lead up to the final boss in Chapter 13.
Chapter 13. Dark Energy. Some more story happens with scripted events and the player has to platform up a tower and a little more gravity gun fighting as they chase Breen in his dimensional bubble ascension.
After that it’s a fairly simple boss fight against Breen and a couple drop ships where the player uses fusions cores as their projectile.
There are three main skills the player must use to advance in Half Life 2. They are gun combat, platforming and physics based puzzle solving. Valve’s use of the gravity gun merges the gun combat with the puzzles to a degree and they mix the the physics puzzles and platforming in various spots. What the game fails to do is develop any of these skills in a way that meaningfully builds the players competency. Unfortunately even more attention is taken off these things when the player is introduced to the boat and the buggy which take front and center as the players necessary skill.
What’s notable about how Half Life 2 teaches the player is that it’s done mostly through positive reinforcement. When a subject receives positive stimulus, like say a treat, the motivation becomes a sense of benefit to the subject, or in this case, the player. I believe this is how Valve achieves their sense of immersion.
When the player makes a mistaken they aren’t punished much. Instead they’re rewarded for good actions and negatively reinforce the bad behavior by removing the reward. When Gordon dies the player is loaded quickly back to a checkpoint. This is why Alyx’s deaths are so frustrating.
By not punishing the player, they are never made to feel too uncomfortable. As a result the player feels immersed and the story, varied gameplay and segments that make the player feel powerful keep things from getting dull. Though the novelty of these things can be short lived.
The physics puzzles are the best developed skill in the game as the physics was a big part of what the Source engine was shown to do. The game was likely designed around this and the platforming and gun combat were probably after thoughts. With none of the physics puzzles being mind bendingly hard they were mostly intuitive and usually meant some trial and error before the player got it right.
The platforming is competent and does not really get that much more challenging short of having enemy distractions and scripted hazards. The skill ramp for this plateaus early and really only changes up with the overlap of the other skills.
The gun combat is the weakest of the three primary skills and it greatly affects the game. Gun combat in all games is about two things, managing player damage and using your weapons effectively. The gun combat is successful when the player can balance the two parts, using the guns to neutralize the threat to prevent further damage to the player character.
In Half Life 2 most of the guns are inaccurate outside of the Revolver and Crossbow. Even the crossbow has a slight arc to it that the player must compensate for. Whereas the various automatic weapons have a heavy spread when firing. The player can’t even control the accuracy in short bursts.
Managing damage in Half Life 2 is about tanking through bullets and explosives with Gordon’s HEV suit. On Hard, Gordon takes more damage and enemies are more lethal but the development of managing damage does not go any further than running between bullet spray and sort of hiding behind cover. There’s no real depth to absorbing damage and the player still has to limp around looking for the next battery and health cache. The offset would be managing threats through combat but there is no meaningful way to do this considering the weapon accuracy. The game tries to counter it by giving the player lots of grenades to hopefully blast through the waves of Combine soldiers but it’s not very effective.
With a mechanic that encourages the player to take damage this typically means the player gets an increase in health while being exposed to a growing range of enemy damage. This way it becomes a matter of the player learning to budget how much damage they can take by identifying the level of danger each enemy poses. Half Life 2 does not really do this outside isolated situations like poison headcrabs which are specifically made to drop Gordon to 1 HP or the end segment where his suit is supercharge to create a sense of awe in the player.
As I would normally not like to discuss story in By Design it is absolutely relevant for Half Life 2 to consider. The story is a driving force as the environment will inevitably blur into each other. This makes the boat and buggy sequences feel like filler and slows things down when the player has to go on detours.
On later playthroughs there is a noticeable lack of motivation since the story has already been experienced and repetitive or narrative driven areas will feel like they drag on. If the motivation was the challenge or dynamic experiences this would be less likely to happen. Valve is one of the best storytellers in the games industry, but a story that’s not layered will not offer much replay value. The in characters cut scenes will make the game feel like it’s come to a halt and the nicely detailed areas will wear thin.
So is Half Life 2 a good game? As a whole, it’s decent.. As an interactive fiction with game elements, it’s great. It is an incredible product of its time but so much of what it did is so commonplace that it can seem lackluster now.The real value of Half Life 2 is its story but in terms of formal game design, it jumps from easy, to moments of abruptly challenging on an uneven tone.
I think I’ve made peace with the fate of Half Life 3.
Until next time.