I will attempt to explain here why I find Half Life 2 so tremendously enjoyable and why it is one of the best video game that I ever played. For a detailed and accurate description of this game, I suggest you consult the Half Life 2 Wikipedia entry.
Immersion and fiction
Half-Life 2 logo
The lambda symbol used in the HL2 logo represents, in physics, the radioactive decay constant related to to the half-life of a radioactive isotope.
Most first person shooter (FPS)  Most FPS games, such as Max Payne, Serious Sam or Splinter Cell, will sometimes interrupt the gameplay at key points to show “cut-scenes” where movie-like scenes play-out and move the plot along. These cut-scenes are usually gorgeous and entertaining, but you remain a passive spectator for their duration.
The original Half-Life game broke the mold by never using any cut-scenes, relying instead on real-time, scripted action scenes where the player could still interact with the other characters as key events of the story unfolded. This caused a revolution in gaming and brought immersion to new heights as game finally reached the point of feeling like interactive movies. This allowed the player to stay completely immersed in the game without interruption. In fact, as we never leave our character’s point of view and that all action is in real-time, playing each Half Life installment can be like going through a very long and stressful day in the life of Gordon Freeman (a bit like the (in)famous TV series 24).
Half Life 2 manages to build on the foundations of its predecessor while delivering a truly mind-blowing experience. Thanks to improved 3D rendering technology (for 2005) and physics simulations (gravity, etc.) the game’s environment’s complexity, depth and potential for interaction has reached dramatic new heights. We can ride vehicles, pick-up, move and throw objects as well play with gravity and physics in countless and imaginative ways such as counter-balancing objects on platforms to reach inaccessible areas, use floating objects, use torque and momentum (such as in the memorable crane scene) and of course the incredible “gravity gun” that can attract, grab and repel objects with great force.
This level of achievement is also true for the surprisingly high emotional level of the game, as the complexity and humanity of the supporting characters reaches new heights of characterization and emotion (for a video game). These quirky, richly detailed characters somehow evade the usual clichés while being recognizable as perennial archetypes, each with their own distinct personality, history and motivations. Expressive and realistic facial features and movements combined with top-notch voice-acting (including the surprisingly competent French translation) and top-notch writing make this game a moving and a rare artistic achievement in gaming.
Return of the hero
You are Dr. Freeman, back from a decade-long forced hiatus in stasis by the mysterious and creepy-looking G-man. "The right man at the wrong place can make all the difference in the world" you are told as you are dropped at City 17’S train station. There you meet several other new arrivals who wait anxiously to see what will be their fate in this uncertain world, now under total domination by an army of "post-humans" controlled by the Combine, a callous alien occupation force that took control of human civilization during the “seven hour war” precipitated by the events chronicled in Half-Life 1. HL2’s first chapter allows us to witness life under armed occupation as we wait for some kind of opportunity to join the resistance and kick some alien and post-human butt.
Completely weaponless, you wander the debris-covered streets of City 17 and try not to draw the attention of the ruthless security force as rumor of your coming agitate the city’s underground resistance. Indeed, you realize that your exploits during the "Black Mesa Incident" from Half-Life have become legendary. You are now "The One Free Man", the recipient of the resistance’s hope of liberation from their alien oppressor.
I will dwell here on Half-Life 2’s first chapter (not to be confused with Episode 1, the first HL2 sequel) because it is a clear example of the thought and intelligence that were put into HL2. Playing an action game completely vulnerable and weaponless would normally be the kiss of death for any game, or at the very least, an annoyance. However, against all expectations, I found this to be one of the most thrilling chapters of the game as it forced me pay attention to every details and soak in the oppressive terror of the Combine’s occupation.
Here are some of the memorable moments I encountered in the first chapter of Half Life 2:
- Civil protection officers confiscating all luggage from the new arrivals at the train station;;
- Torture chambers for the “processing” of the new arrivals;
- Being reunited with Barney Calhoun, a security guard from Half-Life 1 now working undercover as a Civil Protection officer ("I’m way behind on my beatings quota.";
- A Civil Protection officer haughtily pushing off a tin can cup from a garbage bin with his stunstick and ordering Gordon to pick it up and put it back in the trash. This apparently trivial event, no more than a minute’s worth of game play, is in fact an amazingly clever way to introduce interaction with other characters, show-off the amazing physics engine, teach players that they can pick-up and drop objects and demonstrate the casual oppressions and humiliations of life under an occupation force;
- A lineup of people waiting to get their food and clothing rations from a wall-mounted distribution machine. You can join the lineup and wait for your turn to see if the machine will accept your ID and deliver some much needed supplies. One of the citizens mentions that he may have to join the Civil Protection in order to have enough to eat;
- An abandoned playground with a weather-beaten doll outside a run-down apartment building and a sobbing couple prostrated in a desolate apartment nearby, both signs of the dampening field erected by the aliens to prevent human procreation;
- The haunted looks of passersbys as they evade our requests for information for fear or reprisal.
- Civil Protection officers will spontaneously hit us with their stunstick if we loiter too long close to them;
- Being reunited with Gordon’s trusted crowbar, a gift from Barney. The crowbar, the first weapon used in the original Half-Life, has become one of the series’ icons and is now like a trusted old friend.
This prelude eventually ends with a thrilling chase across the city’s rooftops where we are eventually rescued by Alyx Vance, the daughter of Eli Vance, the head of the resistance movement. A subsequent botched attempt to teleport Gordon to the main headquarters of the resistance forces us take the long and perilous way along the ant-lion infested coast. Thankfully, a rigged dune-buggy will make the trip easier and lots of fun.
This is where the action really begins where I will stop my description of the storyline. See the Wikipedia entry for half Life 2 for a detailed synopsis.
Alyx Vance and her father, Eli Vance.
Eli’s appearance is actually based on Larry "The Count" Heard, a local man holding a sign indicating that he was looking for work. Valve found him on the corner of Highway 520 and 148th Avenue in Redmond and hired him as a model.
Valve brought characterization to new heights in Half Life 2 and Alyx is “living” proof. She is on of several characters that will accompany Gordon during his adventure. The first encounter with Alyx on the rooftops of City 17 sets the tone for the ones that will follow. This is no damsel in distress but an able companion that will help Gordon reach his goal while providing an emotional incentive to care about the enfolding drama. In fact, she is probably one of the most interesting female characters in the history of video games. This is no simple buxom babe or macho chick, but a resourceful, humble and spunky gal and the ongoing flirt between her and Gordon (with frequent teases from other resistance members) is a delight. Her role (and complexity) will later be expanded considerably during Half Life 2 Episode 1 and Half Life 2 Episode 2.
These companions are much more useful and “alive” than their predecessors from Half-Life 1. This friendly presence adds a nice dimension to the game, making the single-player mode a not-so-lonely experience. Depending on which chapter you play, you may either have to complete a mission alone, in the company of a main character, such as Alyx or Barney, or as leader of a squad of rag-tag resistance fighters.
Every major character we encounter in the game has a well developed personality and their facial features and body movements are very convincing. The realism of the models and the quality of the voice acting add to the realism and the emotion creates profoundly emotional moments on a level rarely seen in a video game. The complexity of these “non-playing characters” (NPC) also increases significantly in the Half Life 2 sequels.
A major achievement in gaming history
Some games, for various reasons, become significant milestones in a gamer’s life. They will bring about a revolution in the industry but, more importantly, they will have such a significant impact on the people that played as to make everything that came before seem to pale in comparison. This can be both a blessing and a curse: on one side, you get the thrill of a tremendous gaming experience but, on the other side, pretty much every other game become that much stale and limited by comparison. Half Life 2 is such a milestone – at least for me! After HL2, most other 3D action games I played (notably, Unreal II and Splinter Cell: Double Agent) seemed flat and incomplete.
A great deal
With a few years under its belt, the price of Half Life 2 has now become much more attractive, particularly as part of the awesome Orange Box bundle from Valve where the whole Half-Life 2 series (HL2 + Episode 1 and 2) are bundled with the amazingly entertaining and hilarious Portal game and the breakthrough multi-player game Team Fortress 2.