I managed to avoid playing any of the Half-Life games in the past: I’ve been almost exclusively a console gamer since 1998, and the few computer games I’ve played since then are ones that can be played with a touchpad (my hands and mice really don’t get along), which pretty much means that PC FPSes are right out. And, frankly, I’m kind of burned out on FPSes; I played and enjoyed some in the mid 90s, but even then there were aspects that I didn’t like so much, and I have so many more gaming options now that my quality bar is pretty high.

Having said that, I knew that I’d missed something important by not playing Half-Life and its sequels, so while I primarily bought The Orange Box because of Portal, I also saw it as a reason to get to know the Half-Life series better. So I was very happy to give Half-Life 2 a try.

I was pretty impressed by the start of the game. I liked the fact that you begin completely without weapons, and how you make your way from resistance cell to resistance cell. I thought the initial weapon introduction was well done: first you get the crowbar, which is really a tool rather than a weapon, then you get to spend a bit of quality time with your pistol, then you move up to the machine gun, all at a nice pace. I enjoyed the level design: linear while giving you a few nooks to poke your nose into, a coherent art style by section without being too monotonous. And the quite short levels at the beginning were a welcome surprise: no interminable wandering through corridors or mowing down countless hordes of enemies, you instead moved briskly from plot point to plot point, learning new techniques relatively frequently.

This initial infatuation lasted for about two and a half levels. By the time I was halfway through the third level, I was definitely seeing traditional single-player FPS aspects that weren’t my favorite: yet another corridor, yet another corner for me to carefully stick my nose around looking for enemies, yet another room to enter, to back out of, to wait for enemies to come into view so I could kill them. I realize that it’s a bit silly to complain about that in an FPS: that’s the core mechanics of the genre, I’m no more surprised by that than I am by battles on a separate screen against wandering monsters in a JRPG. But just because I’m not surprised by that doesn’t mean that I have to actively like it, especially when I’m also seeing hints of gameplay that I rather prefer.

Having said that, given that style of gameplay, it was carried out in a manner that I enjoyed. I played at normal difficulty, not even needing to go down to easy, and I still was rarely in danger of dying. There were a few environmental puzzles sprinkled about, giving some pleasant challenges of a different nature. Ammo and health were plentiful, and spaced appropriately to give a bit of tension in the big battles without turning the game into a resource management chore. My temperament encourages me to save rather more often than is healthy; the game let me do so at any time, and the save functionality was reasonably fast.

The fourth level was also long, but at least they mixed things up by giving you a boat to ride, and (halfway through) a gun on your boat. Then another short plot level introducing that most fabulous of weapons, the gravity gun, followed by a long level, going rather heavier on the horror aspects of the game while letting you use your gravity gun to great effect to slice them in half with sawblades. And then Highway 17: drive along dunes in your buggy, periodically encountering buildings where you have to fight enemies.

At this point, I was seven levels into the game; while I wasn’t actually regretting playing the game, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the second half of the game. I’d seen many things that I liked, but I’d also spent rather too much time time going around corners looking for enemies and then dropping back and spraying them with bullets. So, on the whole, I got the feeling that, at the core, it was an FPS much like many other FPSes that I’d played, I could guess how the plot would turn out, and I’d seen what new there was to be seen in the game.

And then things started getting a whole lot better. I first perked up when I killed the antlion queen, and got the ability to control antlions (and use them to attack my enemies): the game suddenly changed from a first-person shooter to a first-person bug-wrangler, which was certainly an interesting change of pace! That lasted for significant chunks of two levels; even when that was over, there were still new gameplay twists, e.g. the turret management in later prison battles, the strider battles. (And, to be fair, the earlier sections also changed up the gameplay once or twice a level as well.) I wasn’t too into the gameplay aspects of the squad play of later levels, but it was nice at least to have some people around who were glad to see me instead of more masked enemy hordes.

And then I reached the last two levels, which were thoroughly delightful. I loved the long scene where you were carried on a track through no end of corridors; a perfect way to take a break from the game, to give you a chance to look around and appreciate the wonderful world that Valve created. And then they threw away all your weapons and gave you only a souped-up gravity gun (and, to boot, made health stations so plentiful as to make health almost irrelevant): for the (pleasantly short) length of those two levels: the game was saying to me, “yes, we’re a shooter, but we’ll spend a few minutes showing you what makes this game different and special, not what makes it the same as a hundred other shooters”.

Also, looking back at the last half of the game, while I wasn’t thrilled with the corridor grind, I thought the set piece battles were extremely well done: the bridge battle on Highway 17, the approach to the prison, the turret fights, the generator plaza fight, the three generators that you had to disable, the strider battles were all loads of fun.

I’m perhaps not as enamored of the plot (either in its substance or presentation) as some people are: while it beats the crap out of Doom in that regard, that’s not exactly a high barrier, and I have fonder memories of the stories in Marathon and System Shock than I do of this game. And, for that matter, I’m not sure the plot here was all that much better than, say, the plot in Dark Forces or Halo, though the presentation of the plot was more interesting. Still, in general I’ll count the plot as a definite positive aspect of the game, and I was always happy to see Alyx.

So, having come to the end, I really do think this is a great game. Don’t get me wrong: I stand by my complaints above, and think it could be significantly improved. If they’d just cut all of the long levels in half (or all but one, for variation’s sake: maybe leave Ravenholm intact?) while leaving in all the weapon transitions and major battles as they stand, I think the game would have been significantly tighter while losing nothing. But I’m very glad to have played it; I’ll certainly play its two sequels, and I may well go back and play the first game, if I can find a copy that runs on a system that I have access to.

But I won’t play the sequels quite yet. (Warning: this is the part where I switch from game discussion to navel-gazing queue-management strategy minutia.) When I bought my Xbox 360, the games I most wanted to play were Portal and Mass Effect; third on the list, however, was BioShock. That game, however, falls squarely into the category of “games I’m not going to play with Miranda around”, and I move through that category rather slowly.

And, when I finished Mass Effect (my previous game in that category), I thought “I’ve already started The Orange Box; why not give the other games in there a try?” So I played this game. Which was great, but in retrospect clearly the wrong choice: I shouldn’t let inventory cloud my judgment of what I most want to play at a given moment. In particular, if I follow that logic through, then I’d next have to play the two mini-sequels to Half-Life 2, and it would be a miracle if I weren’t too burned out on FPSes after that to really enjoy BioShock.

So I’ve learned my lesson, and am putting the Half-Life series on a brief hiatus. (Actually, it may or may not be brief, depending on when I get around to GTA4.) In fact, I think I’ll probably change genres briefly before diving into BioShock: perhaps the Penny Arcade game would be a good brief palate cleanser? I’m not sure; for the next couple of weeks, I’m planning to spend my time when Miranda is in bed doing stuff like catching up on my blogging and getting started on the memory project, instead of playing video games. But I’m very much looking forward to both that game and the remaining games in this series.

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