In light of the backlash, it should be said that Half-Life 2‘s tone is what helps that game succeed, not the specifics of combat. While Half-Life is generally regarded as a great series, the overenthusiastic, almost hyperbolic, reaction of fans desperate to find any material relating to the third game has caused many journalists to become more open about their lack of interest in the franchise. That reaction may be just as hyperbolic. “Half-Life 2 was too long and unevenly paced” is the go-to byline. Let me speak pretend-authoritatively on the matter, as I recently replayed the game.
Half-Life 2 is too long and unevenly paced, but the high points are so exceptionally high that they overshadow whatever ratings we can attribute to our imaginary “perfect” video game.
When I was fifteen (“oh, you like everything when you’re fifteen”) the primary draw of Half-Life, to me, was not pacing. Unless the effect was egregious, like replaying the same level in Bebe’s Kids a thousand times over, I had no problem with the length of a hovercraft sequence. Because even while you travel on water/sand/empty roads for hours, it’s not as if the game becomes a tedious chore, and it’s not as if nothing happens. Tone must be established in all great work, and Valve always does a brilliant job of crafting it. The storyline beats in Half-Life 2 are simple and sparse, but they do not capture the imagination like the tone does. When I look at that game, I don’t remember the frustration of a few jumping puzzles, but I remember picking up that can. I remember walking around City 17 in awe of the decaying world around me, and I remember moving up as closely as possible to the grimy textures representing newspapers. I remember filling in my own blanks for what the Seven Hour War was, but not the limited number of ways to take down headcrabs. Half-Life isn’t about stretching itself thin and being all things to all people, but making what it does the best the best it can possibly be done and riding that to stay in peoples’ memories forever.
My playthrough also included Episode One, which I found myself, like many others, disappointed in. The pure content of the episodic-not-really add-on was perfectly normal Half-Life fun, but it lacked power. For all the crap the original game got for having little plot, Episode One had such crap in spades. Aside from a thrilling beginning where Dog launches you back into the citadel and the new, up-close models of horrendously modified human beings (with laser eyes!), the game was mostly vent-crawling, and the plot of “Get outta here!” never moved. It was good and nonessential, answering questions that never needed answers. “How’d they get out of the citadel?” is about the same as “When does Batman go to the bathroom?”
Of course, the one episode I’ve played (the second will be my next endeavor) continued to create that dreadful atmosphere the series has known. While the initial entry in the series, your basic ol’ 1998-ass Half-Life, put its roots in a hybrid of theoretical physics and the Waco siege, Half-Life 2 moves things nearer and dearer to my heart. It explores the unnamed territory that might as well be Eastern Europe that might as well be Soviet Russia.
If we ignore that whole terrible Otaku fantasy, I think the coldest part of Siberia would be my favorite place to visit. In reality, if I were there it’s likely I’d find nothing to do but either freeze to death or be eaten by a tiger, but Half-Life 2 scratches my espionage itch. It, along with Fallout and Metal Gear Solid, have me wanting to believe that there’s some gigantic deserted robot from the Cold War just out there, turned off but still ready to destroy the world. Hell, let’s go find the Dead Hand controls! Or someone please let me go and be killed as soon as I discover the truth behind UVB-76. There won’t be aliens, I think, and I’m not sure I’ll find any toppled citadels. However, the use of pseudo-reality always drives me to stay up late and read Wikipedia articles till I’m late for my morning class, and that’s the best possible reaction a work of art could give me.
Through all this stupid ranting, what I’m affirming is that Half-Life sure sets up one heck of a tone. It lets you breathe in this horrible world it constructed, and not enough games are so willing to take time. Other games want you in and out quickly, and they don’t give you environmental scenery set to instrumentals. Valve gives you the quiet moments, whether they’re delightful or frightening. You are allowed to look at every detail no matter how constructed or destructed it may be.