Sci-fi FPS in which your character never speaks, we never leave his viewpoint, and no-one ever bothers to explain the plot to him. He wakes up in an Orwellian future, humanity oppressed by a collective of co-opted and modified alien species. He must help the pockets of resistance he finds to overthrow the jerks. Combat is half shooting and half physics-based, using a device that can drag objects to you and then fire them out at speed.
The gasmask moment, the crowbar moment, the Manhacks moment, the chopper fight, the dam jump, the Gravity Gun moment, playing with Dog, the sawblade moment, the fast zombie moment, the black zombie moment, the Gregory moment, the jeep jump over a gunship, the guided rocket fights, the shotgun-battle stop-offs, the Antlion assault on Nova Prospekt at dawn, Dog versus the APC, the Strider fights, inside the Citadel, the Super Gravity Gun moment, The Explosion. I had higher expectations than anyone, and each of these astonished me. I have never been so impressed by anything in my life than by Half-Life 2. In another game, though, these would be reduced to good ideas, nice touches, memorable experiences. Here, they were mind-blowing. It wasn’t about the actual events, in the end, it was about how convinced I was that they were really happening to me.
They were so detemined that it should feel right, they recreated science itself for their world. For me the only reason to hold ‘linear’ against a game is if it controls where you’ll be and what you’ll be doing in order to avoid the hard work of genuinely crafting a world. No danger of that here – this is the most physically convincing, tangible world short of the real one. Everything you do sounds and feels right, and thanks to the ability to pick things up and throw them (with your hands or the Gravity Gun), you can do an awful lot.
This ‘feel’ I won’t shut up about is only half physics – most of the rest is the absolutely perfect sound. I go around throwing grenades at things just for the sound they make when they bounce off different surfaces. The fact that it is always, always the exact right sound for a small, heavy metal canister bouncing off whichever of the hundreds of surface types I’ve chosen to toss it against, is mind-boggling to me. This is a grenade. Its purpose is to explode. Who the hell cares what the bounce sounds like? It’s going to be muffled by gunfire anyway.
Valve are the only company in the world who know just how much it matters, and have the resources and time to get it exactly right every time. It is perfection, and games have never come close before. The result for the casual player is just better immersion, which is important and everything, but the result for people like me is more profound. We play games out of a sense of adventure, to travel to places more amazing than any on this Earth. But we never expected it to feel as much like a real place as Half-Life 2 does. That’s why I keep going back.
The Essential Experience
Barney throws you your crowbar – great moment. I think for a second, then reload the autosave and do it again. This time, I step back and let the crowbar hit the ground. It clangs against the concrete and clatters to a standstill. The sound, the bounce, the feel is perfect, and yet there is absolutely no reason to account for the possibility that some idiot might jump out of the way of the crowbar just to see what sound it makes when it hits the ground. And they didn’t have to. They just went to the Herculean effort of making a world in the first place, and now every eventuality works perfectly. It can seem a subtle and merely philosophical difference, but if a crowbar falls in the concrete jungle and no-one hears it, it makes a sound. It goes CLANG.