The other day, I found myself thinking about why I’ve never completed Half-Life 2 more than once, even though I’ve done Half-Life plenty of times, and even though I’ve often told people Half-Life 2 is a near-perfect FPS. And then I decided it’s probably because Half-Life 2 just doesn’t work any more, conceptually. And then I shortened this to “Half-Life 2 isn’t that good any more”, posted it on Twitter, and people thought I’d gone insane.
I probably have. But here’s that idea, expanded, as briefly as possible.
Half-Life 2 was the big full stop at the end of a generation of action games. That was said by so many reviewers at the time that I almost feel dirty spouting the cliché again, but it became the cliché-of-the-moment because it’s totally true. In fact, Valve can basically be quite proud of themselves for bookending an entire action game generation. When Half-Life appeared, its storytelling techniques were unprecidented. This is a game that… well, that actually cared about its story, rather than tacking one on because it felt it had to. And while Unreal had excelled in the subtlety of its narrative approach (and told a more beautiful tale ultimately, which is why – against the grain – I still find it to be my preferred late-90s shooter), Valve’s spectacular set-pieces and cinematic approach to their game was totally a new thing for first-person shooters. It was fresh and exciting. Inexplicably, nobody copied it for about three years.
They did copy it, eventually. Medal of Honor and, later, Call of Duty both spawned series out of Half-Life’s approach. Before long, it was a standard, and became one of two main options when creating an action game (cinematic linearity vs. multilinear stuff). But Half-Life spawned it. That’s still exciting. And playing it today, it still exudes that freshness, that excitable experimentation that runs through it.
I was in America when Half-Life 2 was announced. This was when I didn’t really check the web for games news, and still relied on magazines. We all kind of knew it was going to happen. Edge had the exclusive, and the “next month” page of its magazine featured a red crowbar, lit so that the shadow turned it into a number 2. So I knew the date on which Half-Life 2 would be revealed. Miraculously, I found a hotel near Universal Studios that acutally sold British games mags. Bizarre. And pretty much as soon as I saw Half-Life 2, I knew it was going to be the end of a shooter generation.
(Brief sidetrack: Halo finds itself in a similar, yet at the same time completely opposite, position to Half-Life 2. It wasn’t as good a game, though its purely mechanistical wonder wasn’t a great way away. But it also kinda preceded Half-Life 2 for that formula: a linear shooter played out in often expansive environments, with brilliant gunplay and lovely driveable vehicles. In a way, it was Halo that begat the very specific subsection of shooters that Half-Life 2 occupied. But it still feels more last gen than either of the Half-Life games do. I suspect this is either because birthing such a tiny subsection isn’t such a momentus thing, or that, y’know, it just is really last gen.)
So yeah. Half-Life 2 came out. And it was brilliant. I think its action sequences are still some of the most astonishing in the world. I love how Valve differentiates between powerful and weaker weapons through expert use of both screen shake and noise. I love how it sets the scene. I love how it powers through its stories like no other developer.
Now, it feels old. And here’s why.
Half-Life 2 belongs to the last generation of shooters, one that, as a collective, has been surpassed. I mean, stand it next to BioShock, and you have a wonderful game that people criticised for being too simplistic that still towers over Valve’s work in terms of complexity, storytelling and setting. Half-Life 2’s from a generation of action gaming that really was action gaming; it’s cinematic blockbuster fare for the masses, and brilliant at that. But games are growing up at such a preposterous rate, and what was wonderful then simply isn’t now.
And this generational shift was, ironically, set into motion by Half-Life 2’s just being so damn good. There was simply no point in trying to create this sort of shooter any more. Okay, so it kind of evolved naturally and flowed into the new era, but basically, people don’t make (successful) games of that type any more (except Halo and Call of Duty, both of which I have very little interest in and so don’t, I suspect, damage my argument). Half-Life 2 took the subgenre, and just… did it. Did everything with it. Made it as good as it possibly could be. And as such, with no more room to move, the industry moved on into newer, exciting climes, and ultimately left it behind.
Which is why I’ll happily play Half-Life now, but struggle with its sequel. There’s something timeless about the giddy excitement of an innovator, but the refiner is doomed to a lesser fate. And when that refiner marks a noticeable shift for the better within gaming, it’s always going to be a title I struggle to return to with the same eagerness.