words: Brady Fiechter
There’s a sequence midgame in Half-Life 2, where MIT-graduate/silent-hero/man-on-the-run-badass Gordon Freeman exits his flimsy buggy to scale the trusses of a massive bridge that towers over the ocean below. Many great moments have come before this, and many are to follow, but it is in this journey to find a switch and open a gate that I felt something I’ve never quite experienced in a game: a real sense of persistent vertigo.
I’m blown away by this scene, from its setup to visual presence to bold originality to frustrating and exciting conclusion. But it’s not the fear of heights Half-Life 2 brings to the table that defines its unparalleled accomplishments. Nearly every corner of its incredibly realized world is populated with some grand stroke of design that I don’t think any game has touched on since—or at least has nailed with such confidence and effortless instinct. All the moments I found myself involved on a genuinely epic, film-like scale, all the moments I was given something I’ve always wished for in a game, I can see why the lucky ones on PC were emphatic enough to herald Half-Life 2 as one of the greats. Never mind that it’s so massive in scope that there’s so much room for difficult mistakes, inconsistencies and obvious sacrifices. Someone will come along sooner than later and make a better Half-Life, but for now, there’s something awesome and respectable to behold here.
Much has already been said about the game’s marvelous use of physics, the integration of logical puzzles and inventive level interaction. In purely technical terms, the model is impressive for sure, and on a more abstract level, developer Valve demonstrates a keen understanding on how to use those physics for important immersion; the gravity gun, of course, is the cornerstone to the tactile magic. For a game that’s around the three year mark, you’d never know it: visually and mechanically, Half-Life 2 stands tall with the best of this year, and when you mix in Episodes One and Two the entire package is spectacularly satisfying and certainly unattainable by any other first-person shooter this year in size and sustained quality for the single-player.
Perhaps less praised and a big part of the subtle effect that elevates Half-Life 2 is the bond that’s continually built with the lovely Alyx Vance. Valve avoids the sexual caricature that marks and diminishes so many games, and they bless her with an emotional core that is expressed more through circumstance and presence than strings of dialogue; there is power here that only a video game can tap into. (Also note how well the mechanical Dog is given life and a real buddy quality.) It’s a shame, though, when Alyx is diminished to vomiting insipid one-liners throughout Episode 1. Apparently Valve got overly inspired by the need for the chatty template, and lost their quietly powerful way from where they began.
We live in the real world where Big Brother looms as big as ever. In some direct and indirect ways, there’s a part of Half-Life 2 that breeds fear and political consequence within its alien apocalypse. There are many reasons to praise Half-Life 2 that reach well beyond the surface of its gameplay and into the expression of its complete world of fantasy. In all the areas I imagined room for improvement and wanted even more, I also saw why I believe in video games.
This cooly sci-fi puzzle game integrates the idea of a gun becoming a tool to open up rifts in space; hence, Portal. Blast a hole in strategic areas in the room, jump in and fall through to the other side to set up a path toward the exit, or establish traps to dispose of threats. The mind is taxed hard and often in this fantastic addition to the Orange Box.
Team Fortress 2
How is this long awaited multiplayer action game possibly included in this package? Team Fortress 2 contains too much under the hood for me to comment properly on given my limited play with a small team of players, but I will say the Thief rocks; there was something devilishly satisfying stalking the other team while cloaked, launching a surprise attack with the quick slash of my knife. And disguising as the enemy brought plenty of delicious curses from the opponent. One instantly appreciated note: the bright, clean, easily distinguishable landscapes maintained clear focus on the action.