This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Half-Life 2 Update.
It was one of those troublesome weeks for finding something to review. The habitual drunkard that is the release schedule belched up the last of its latest round of rancid gut butter and has rolled over and gone back to sleep as we awkwardly hold the bucket and wait for the next tremulous stomach gurgle like a nest of baby birds.
I was gonna do Pillars of Eternity, but after I rolled a character and went through the prologue, I walked out into a meadow and was immediately slaughtered by a small group of wild piglets. I’m not sure I’m on the right wavelength for that kind of game, although I did start enjoying myself later when I was reading through some conversational text and was suddenly magically transported to a dark thorny forest, full of gigantic monster crabs. But then I realized that I’d actually fallen asleep from boredom and my face was resting on a 1970’s issue of Mayfair.
So instead, let’s do what I usually do when current releases are letting me down: Let’s Get Ret...Ro. After all, you can’t polish a turd, but you can at least reminisce about the lovely pie and chips it used to be. It’s not hard to find relevant retro games since remakes, remasters and updates are constantly raining down upon us like someone planted landmines in the graveyard.
Half Life 2 was recently updated with the imaginatively-titled Half Life 2: Update, a community-made mod that improves the graphics in such a way that you probably wouldn't notice without a side-by-side comparison. But hey, graphics are like public toilet cleaners: you know they’re doing their job properly if you never notice or think about them. The update also adds commentary, not by the original developers, but by quote, "members of the Half Life community". And forgive me if that feels a little presumptuous. Bob the stinky tramp is technically a member of the community, but I wouldn't ask him his opinions on local government.
The thing about fan commentary is that it’s pretty-much always going to be cheerleading, 'cause that’s what defines a fan, whereas the developer ten years down the line might have some interesting self-criticism with the benefit of hindsight. 99% of creators claim to loathe everything they made more than five years ago and the remaining 1% are liars. So with the occasion of the update, let’s see if Half Life 2 still holds up. Half Life 1 did the last time we rode the retro metro, but Half Life 2 isn't quite the same vent full of Space Crabs.
After escaping the research facility and defeating the leader of the alien invasion in Half Life 1, Gordon Freeman has a well-deserved lie-in for the next twenty years before finding the Earth he fought so hard to save double-backsy reconquered by an even WORSE alien race, and the struggling human resistance now considers him to be speccy Jesus. God knows why, when none of them actually saw him blow up the alien leader and most of the rest of Half Life 1 was spent gunning down American servicemen and failing to rescue scientists. Also, the leaders of the Earth resistance all used to work with Gordon at Black Mesa, as did the human overseer of the occupying aliens, which is the kind of extraordinary coincidence that could only be explained by writers trying to force continuity between what could have easily been two completely unconnected plots. But I suppose it wouldn't have been the same without Gordon Freeman, it’s not like players would have accepted any other mute personality-deficient goof, allegedly lurking behind the first-person camera.
Old games that in their day sold themselves on ground-breaking tech usually now come across as kind of quaint at best, kind of Quake II at worst. Half Life 2 (Surely it would be a Full Life, then?) was most noticeable for its ground breaking physics engine, and if there’s a single word that summarizes its approach to physics it would be “Tadaaaa!”
In this day and age when physics engines are just another old toy cluttering up the playroom of the most hideously-spoiled child to have ever existed (improved physics engines at that, where everything doesn't feel like it’s made of vulcanized rubber and characters don’t ragdollise like their bodies have spontaneously transformed into over-cooked pasta), one might reasonably wonder why we have to pause in the middle of a daring escape through enemy-infested tunnels to pile some bricks onto a see-saw and jump off it onto a ledge when we could just do a single pull-up. The exciting airboat chase has to break flow three or four times because we have to disembark and figure out a Rube Goldberg machine someone set up to activate a ramp, that could quite easily have been constructed from two planks and a fat person.
And the other new tech the game is very keen to showcase like a weirdly chippy roommate humming and skipping round the house desperately hoping you’ll ask how his date went last night is facial animation. To that end, we’re occasionally locked in a room for lengthy story sessions that just barely escape being tarred with the cutscene brush ‘cause we’re still free to climb on the furniture and jump on people. Certainly the facial animation is good and the characters are well-rounded, but there’s something kind of off about them. Maybe it’s the way they remain so weirdly chipper while the oppressive regime is murdering people next door, or how their enthusiasm never wavers no matter how many times Gordon never speaks or visibly reacts.
This was fine in Half Life 1 when the cast consisted of ninety thousand clones of the same five guys, but when there’s an emphasis on individual characters and their interactions, the silent protagonist feels weirdly out of place in the middle of it. It feels like everyone’s acting at him, y’know what I mean, like he’s a casting director at a restaurant and they’re a waiter with big ambitions. But now that faces rarely need to animate much beyond a grim, determined-frown and physics engines are largely used to make bits of grit realistically fly off of chest-high walls, don’t you think that the wonder and creative spirit the tech was intended to provoke has been lost? It wasn't just that Half Life 2 Episode 0 had physics, it was that the gameplay made it work!
The whole game is a series of showcase set-pieces linearly strung together, but at least it had something to showcase. Most action games have physics engines now, but precious few have a mechanic as simple and gratifying as the Gravity Gun to use the physics to its’ full potential and give the world a sense of true interactivity. Many admittedly have better endings, where the story doesn't just screech abruptly to a halt because its run out of set-pieces, with two more episodes bolted on after the fact that end on a cliffhanger that goes unresolved forever, thus earning a permanent benefit of the doubt. Well fucking played, Valve.
Is Half Life 3 taking so long ‘cause you need to think of another innovative thing to showcase in it? Why not start with a ladder that it’s possible to detach from without breaking both your legs!?
- Never really had a point in the first place: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Freeman isn't the best casting director but you never hear a word of complaint from him
- You try doing a pull up in fifty pounds of reinforced orange steel