Monday, February 4, 2008

The Half-Life 2 Wrapup  

Finally laid Half-Life 2 to rest last night by finishing Episode 2.

All told, the ride provided by The Orange Box (Half-Life 2, HL2: Ep1, HL2: Ep 2, Portal, Team Fortress 2) was a great one, and the game was indeed one of the best values to ever be offered to people who buy new software. I paid full price for this one ( a rarity for me) and wasn't disappointed. But I digress...

So, Half-Life 2.

The first thing that hit me in the face about the game was that there was a major storytelling disconnect between HL and HL2. The game makes no effort to explain what happened between the two titles, and in all honesty, I think players would be better served story-wise if they skipped the original altogether. In my mind at least, HL2 has a better dramatic arc on its own when viewed completely apart from the events that had gone before. Obviously someone at Valve must have had a major brainstorm after they wrapped HL1 and wanted to jump ahead into the good stuff instead of trying to tie it together for those who played their earlier effort. I can admire the energy and the jump in direction, but it wouldn't have killed anyone to make the gap in continuity a little less Grand Canyon-ish.

Besides the plot, Half-Life 2 itself felt very bloated and scattered. The playing time ran far too long, and there were many segments that would have been better at half, or even a third of their actual length. Setpieces felt cobbled together, and I felt as though there were three or four "big ideas" fighting for dominance over what was happening at any given time. For example, the boating sequence felt like it dragged on forever, and the headcrab-infested town of Ravenholm and its Romero-esque zombie tones felt obscenely out of place with the rest of HL2's Sci-Fi slant. I can appreciate that it was a great way to showcase the Gravity Gun's ability to fling sawblades violently, but the concept was out of step with the game as a whole and was one instance where a director should have stepped in to reinforce a unified vision. Experiment all you want, but don't sacrifice the cohesiveness of a game by cramming things that don't really fit into a finished product.

Episodes 1 and 2 were leaps and bounds better, primarily because they were shorter. Because there was less fat, the action was tighter and segments were over before they had a chance to feel boring or stale. The focus of these installments also felt tighter, and although neither of the had the scope or range as HL2, I actually think they were both better for it.

Those issues aside, I do want to both praise and scold Valve for its storytelling. On the one hand, they have one of the best female characters in the history of gaming, Alyx Vance. Strong, independent, believable and wearing sensible clothing, Alyx is a true rarity in that she's extremely well-written and handled in the most mature fashion possible. Most of the supporting cast is nearly as good, and their behavior and dialogue are some of the best in the industry. The voice acting in particular is outstanding, the roles delivered by Robert Guillaume and Robert Culp being notables.

So what's the scolding? Main character Gordon Freeman should never have been a silent protagonist. Personally, I don't think the SP approach EVER works, but in a game like HL where so much of the story is superbly accomplished and so many of the characters are believable and natural, it makes NO SENSE to have the hero interact with people, lead a rebellion, and save the planet without ever uttering a word. Instead of being one of the most memorable characters in history, Gordon is simply a mute hand holding a gun and nothing more. This is a missed opportunity of the highest magnitude, and I sincerely wish that Valve would see the error of their ways for their future projects. With their talent for writing and indeed, for creating such a convincing post-apocalyptic world, such a weak, outdated choice is inconceivable.

That said, I will give credit where credit is due and say that the Half-Life arc succeeds far more often than it fails. Although it has issues here and there (an overenthusiasm for wonky PC physics and a sick fondness for mine shafts, for starters) the majority of what it offers is certainly in the top tier of gaming today. I look forward to Episode 3, and the conclusion of one of the most interesting sagas I've played through.... Here's hoping that the hints of including a Portal gun will turn out to be true. Flinging sawblades at zombies with pinpoint gravity control is all well and good, but I'd much rather open holes in reality's fabric and drop them into a dark well of spatial nothingness.

What next?

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