Half-Life. To this day the series stands as an iconic and fairly revolutionary gaming release that’s legacy commands all the attention of the industry press whenever there’s a whisper of its third iteration. The original Half-Life was released to much critical acclaim and remains a classic in the eyes of gaming history, albeit not one that was ever released for OS X.
While the 1998 game was indeed never introduced on the Mac, the 2004 sequel, Half-Life 2, was released alongside Steam’s debut on the platform. Half-Life 2 and its subsequent episode takes a familiar gameplay setup and key characters while throwing them into a significantly developed storyline and new environment. As we begin to wrap up our coverage of the state of OS X gaming, its time to dedicate some time to one of gaming’s most iconic products and take a history lesson in the Half-Life universe.
Back to Black Mesa?
The original Half-Life introduces the player to the so-called Half-Life universe — used to describe the fictitious world in which the Half-Life and Portal series both take place — specifically the series’ main protagonist, Gordon Freeman, an MIT graduate in Theoretical Physics. The original Half-Life game takes place in Black Mesa, a scientific research facility in New Mexico and leads Gordon Freeman to cause a Resonance Cascade that formed the Black Mesa Incident.
The Black Mesa Incident lead to the destruction of Black Mesa and gave the ability for extraterrestrials to teleport to Earth. In the original Half-Life, the player explores the facility and eventually fights for their life when its revealed witnesses of the Black Mesa Incident are being “silenced” by the US Government.
The original Half-Life game — unfortunately never released for OS X — takes place primarily in the Black Mesa facility and on the planet Xen, who’s creatures are being able to teleport to Earth. After killing a boss of sorts at the end of the game, the mysterious G-Man (who appears in the distance at varying points in the game, including giving Black Mesa the material that causes the Black Mesa incident) praises Freeman’s work and puts him into stasis to be re-employed in the future.
Welcome to City 17
Half-Life 2 sees the reawakening of Gordon Freeman but not in an environment he’s visited before. Half-Life 2, much like its predecessor, kicks off with a rail journey that promptly introduces the player to City 17, an Eastern-European city under control by an alien species called the Combine.
The Combine control Earth after success in the Seven Hour War, a conflict between the species and Earth that was prompted after the events of Half-Life caught the attention of the former. After a surrender was negotiated, Earth was put under the control of the Combine and Half-Life 2 kicks off after this has been accepted as the norm.
However, a group, the Resistance, exist to combat the Combine rule. The player allies with this group and navigates a vast environment, fighting enemies and obstacles until they can confront the corrupt administrator of Earth, Dr Breen, and consequentially put events in motion that lead to the destruction of the Combine’s headquarters of the Earth administration.
Half-Life 2 features some of the same characters as in Half-Life — with a few extra thrown in — but the environment is completely different and the storyline, while a consequence of the events in the original game, stands alone so much that it doesn’t feel like an episodic sequel. While I definitely encourage you to play the original Half-Life, you don’t need to in order to enjoy the story of its sequel and playing Half-Life afterwards as a prequel is certainly an option should you know have a copy of Windows to hand.
Something that becomes evident after you’ve played a few of Valve’s titles is the sheer scale of the environments in which the games take place. Black Mesa was not a small facility and the game even dedicated a fair few minutes to riding an automated subway through the facility to build up a sense of how big the place was, and to encourage the player to really explore the world around them.
Half-Life 2 really take this to another level. City 17 is a big place and you spend a large chunk of the game in the streets of the metropolis. However, the game isn’t confined to just one place (which still has you visiting everywhere from an underground network of tunnels to the rooftop of apartment buildings; you’ll take a boat ride through canals to the outskirts of the city and eventually end up far from main civilisation driving around the coast. In fact, the game really pushes its detailed environment on you by simply turning your experience into a driving simulator sans all but a few infrequent enemies and the requirement to flick a switch every now and then.
But Half-Life 2 is a game made up of a diverse set of enviroments. In addition to exploring the city and the coast, you’ll spend a portion of the game in the horrific, zombie-infested town of Ravenholm and the eerie yet deadly prison that is Nova Prospekt. One minute you’re on foot and fighting a constant supply of Combine with a pistol and the next driving around a somewhat-peaceful coastal route taking time to take in the detailed, dystopian world. And then there’s the random shift to night and introduction of hoards of zombies in a completely unexpected turn of events.
Valve has a knack for creating environments that are an absolute joy to explore and Half-Life 2 stitches together a whole bunch of them into one experience.
Commenting on the actual gameplay of Half-Life 2 is an interesting task. Its difficult to classify the game into one genre, even though most would jump to call it a first-person shooter.
Half-Life 2 kind of does it’s own thing. It certainly has many aspects of a first-person shooter but its a pretty simple way. There’s multiple weapons which are “unlocked” as you play through the game, and even an upgrade to one in particular, the Gravity Gun, later in the game. However, weapons aren’t classified by the same metrics as other first-person shooters and you don’t get any substantial recognition if you kill masses of enemies versus only a few.
Without weapons, Gordon Freeman would probably die before he got out of City 17 so combat is important to progression in the game. However, the focus is away from the combat as it plays only one role in the overall gameplay.
Half-Life had an annoying ability to let you get “stuck” in situations that left you to either try to pass an obstacle with no little than a bunch of attempts or to load an earlier version of your current campaign. The sparse availability of heath replenishment meant that if you let your health drop to single digits before a significant obstacle, it’d take a frustrating amount of attempts to pass. Fortunately, medical kits and stations are pleasingly frequent in Half-Life 2 to an extent that gameplay remains challenging but not in the least bit frustrating.
In comparison to its predecessor, Half-Life 2’s graphical presentation is fantastic. The Source engine does a fine job of portraying Valve’s sprawling environments and with more detail comes more immersion, down to the detail in a zombie’s exposed chest. Even by today’s standards, the game isn’t bad even though a clear, albeit not massively significant, development has been made with the engine in use with modern titles like Portal 2.
Audio-wise, Half-Life 2 is great and much more detailed than the original Half-Life 2. The game sees more characters appear and a resulting increase in dialogue which is well presented. The OST for the game also has some superb tracks featured.
Half-Life 2 was followed by two episodic sequels which continue the story after events are frozen by the mysterious G-Man just as the Combine Citadel in City 17 is about to explode.
Half Life 2: Episode One sees Gordon Freeman and his accomplice, Alyx Vance, try to escape the destabilising City 17 after first trying to slow down the meltdown of the Citadel’s reactor. Episode One expands on the on-foot exploration of City 17 and, even with the impending disaster, the Combine are still out to get you.
Episode One introduces a real sense of urgency to your actions although its less about the developing storyline and more about combat. Its perhaps the less satisfying of all the Half-Life games but is still worth playing if not for mere continuity. (Individual rating: 8/10)
Half-Life 2: Episode Two, which remains the latest instalment of the series if Portal 2 is considered in its own, sees the player leave City 17 for good and make their way to the White Forest base of the Lambda Resistance. Episode Two continues the story but actually adds a fair chunk of content, including new enemies to battle, specifically more variants of the Combine. (Individual rating: 9/10)
From there, we don’t know what happens. Episode Two introduces the player to a new segment of the story featuring the Borealis — an Aperture Science vessel said to contain significant technology that both the Resistance and the Combine want — but the only transmission to include information about this is cut off. Portal 2 didn’t address the storyline of Half-Life 2 (although they exist in the same universe, Portal and Half-Life haven’t really crossed over aside from the odd mention) but a hidden area of the Aperture Science facility showed the location of the Borealis before it mysteriously disappeared.
Half-Life 2: Episode Three (or, perhaps, Half-Life 3) has become the industry’s most notable case of vapourware. The episodic sequels to the original Half-Life 2 game were planned to exist as a trilogy, but Valve has never discussed the third game, even though its been nearly five years since the release of Episode Two.
We’ll be looking at Half-Life 3 rumours and speculation of the future of the franchise in a future article!
The entire Half-Life franchise is something you should not pass up playing, even now, years after even the latest instalment. It received positive reviews when released because it continued Half-Life’s legacy as a revolutionary release. That has perhaps faded slightly with time, but its still a series that you really play. Alongside modern titles, it becomes evident that aspects of Half-Life 2 aren’t fantastically well executed or paced although they are in the minority.
I didn’t play any of the series until recently, after being introduced to Portal 2 by a friend shortly after release, yet I still loved it. I’m really excited for the future of the franchise, especially if a speculated further cross with the world of Portal exists. I’m just now getting round to playing Half-Life, though, but fortunately its storyline allows a player to enjoy it before or after Half-Life 2.
Simply put, if you haven’t played Half-Life, what are you waiting for? Not that I wish to imply you have been sleeping on the job.