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Talkin’ ’bout Half-Life’s generation

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.


7 responses »

  1. Interesting read! I think HL2 was just on the cusp of actually meshing the mechanics with the story. It’s alllllllmost there. It’s still essentially Quake, but soooooo close.

    I think I was really excited about the story more than anything else, and it satisfied me, but I’ve had more fun than HL2, certainly.

  2. I’d disagree strongly with the supposition that Bioshock was a better game than Half-Life 2. Though this is mired in subjective enjoyment of the game, I thought that Half-Life 2 excelled in storytelling and in the mechanics of play. Considering that I finished Half-Life 2 and its episodes after Bioshock, I can safely say it was not due to nostalgia or getting that sort of experience first. (My PC was not enough to handle Half-Life 2 at its release)

    Some things that Half-Life 2 did have aged, and poorly. Look at the Game Club that Rebel FM did on Half-Life 2, and their comments on replaying through the full release. The pacing is way off, relying too strongly on the novelty of its physics and weapons. But it did not fall into the pittraps of the later FPS releases of which you mention. The levels did not have the start-and-stop deaths that mark Call of Duty’s punishing difficulty, not Call of Duty’s almost lightgun-game-like path restrictions. Neither did it (except for one or two points) feature infinite spawning soldier closets.

    Bioshock’s failures as a game are deeply rooted in its misunderstanding of the ratio of carrot to stick, dangling a single goal in front of you, narratively-wise anyway, that isn’t resolved for six hours, putting in brick wall after brick wall to impede your progress with no reward in between. Half-Life 2 did this better, though not perfectly.The subsequent episodes improve the pacing and structure problems, leaving much less drudgery between impressive story points and climactic battles.

    But, as I said to your twitter, as much as I hate to be a fan, I am a fan of the Half-Life series. So imagine a huge grain of salt next to me, ready to be taken.

  3. HL2 feels old because it’s old. It’s five years (!) old, which is quite an eye opener to think about sometimes. But I don’t think it’s been surpassed – rather, I think Valve have very much dominated the period since its release, and that other FPS developers are still catching up with it. You point to BioShock as a superior game, whilst I’d totally agree that it’s “wonderful”, I’d take issue with all, actually, of the departments you feel it’s superior in.

    BioShock is more complex in several senses, but I’d never describe complexity as a virtue in and of itself… actually I sometimes felt it was overcomplex in some respects, with all the vending machines and plasmids and weapons. As far as storytelling goes, BioShock had some very clumsy moments which have been well documented. Its story is impressive, but the HL series has always played the long game; largely simple and derivative it may have been, HL2’s story was more fun to power through than BioShock’s, for me, especially given the latter game’s hugely unsatisfactory final quarter, which felt alarmingly rushed.

    I love Rapture, don’t get me wrong – especially the narrative ideas that drive it. But it often felt awkwardly cramped – not in an “it’s indoors” kind of way, but in a Deus Ex: Invisible War, “all the areas are oddly small and don’t feel contiguous” kind of way. City 17 is still the bar for me, given the glorious journey HL2 takes us in and around it (as opposed to BioShock’s almost Quake-like hub system-style arrangement, which feels a bit sterile). The sheer detail, variety, and Orwellian downtroddenness that every wall seeps in HL2 is brilliant.

    BioShock is a convenient comparison for me because it’s the only FPS I’ve played in the last five years which I’d even consider comparable to HL2’s quality. Modern Warfare is close, but held back by being too short, cinematic and glossy for my tastes. Half-Life’s a dynasty – a saga, and that’s why, along with Valve’s astonishing perfectionism and attention to detail, I’ve always been a devout follower.

    You ought to play HL2 again, properly. And you ought to link to my blog correctly ¬_¬

  4. Interesting case you make. I think I agree. I too revisited Half-Life 2 a couple of months ago, and found it surprisingly stale. It still has a great pacing and exemplary level design and all that, but it’s no longer as impressive and captivating as I remember it.

    I should replay Half-Life again as well and see if you turn out to be right about that too. I think with the passing of enough time, even innovators lose their spark – you’re still excited to play them because you played them when they were new and you remember how incredible they were back then, but I fear that if you’d never played Half-Life before and you tried it now, you’d find it unimpressive.

  5. I’d like to say that my Wife just started playing HL and she’s amazed at how awesome this ancient game is.

    You may all go back to making up facts.

    • Hmph! Dear sir, I said I *feared* you might not be able to see its brilliance, not that it was a certainty! I’m obviously glad to hear my fears were unfounded 🙂

  6. Personally, I don’t feel Bioshock and HL2 are comparable, as I feel they’re in different genres within the big ole’ FPS category.


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