Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Play It Again, Zrbo: Half Life 2


There's very few other games I would want to kick off this new series with other than Half Life 2. The game is not only widely considered one of the greatest games of the past decade, it's absolutely a contender for the best first person shooter of all time. I recently picked it up again after playing through other, lesser shooters (Bioshock Infinite *cough*) because I was yearning for a well constructed game. It did not disappoint.

Playing through Half Life 2 again I was reminded of just how much game-makers Valve got things just right. Nearly every single aspect of the game is top notch. The graphics, while far from cutting edge, are more than serviceable and hold up well for a nearly nine year old game. The level design and pacing couldn't be much better (though the final quarter drags just ever so slightly), and the character development, in a game in which the main protagonist is completely silent, is extremely well done. This playthrough I was especially impressed with the quality of the voice acting, something even most AAA titles don't get right.

If you'll recall from my old post on the opening of Half Life 2, the game finds you once again in the shoes of MIT physicist Gordon Freeman. Just like in the original Half Life, the game takes place entirely in the first person perspective, never cutting to a cinematic or pulling control away from the player. While the concept of the silent protagonist has become a conceit in modern gaming, supposedly making the player feel more "immersed" in the game world, Valve not only nails it here, but essentially sets the bar, something no other first person shooter I've played has yet to surpass.

As I mentioned, I was really taken away with the voice acting this time around. Everybody just nails it, from the suited G-Man in his completely bizarre stilted intonation (reminding me a bit of the backwards talking segments from Twin Peaks), to Doctor Kleiner's bumbling scientist in a lab coat. But I was especially impressed this go around with two voices in particular.

Dr. Breen welcomes you to City 17

The first is the voice of the main antagonist, Dr. Breen. Looking somewhat like Dennis Hopper in a turtleneck, Breen delivers several monologues throughout the game that are just delivered brilliantly. A P├ętain-like figure urging you to sympathize with the occupying Combine, Dr. Breen can be heard several times throughout the game speaking on all sorts of matters. Upon arriving in the dystopic City 17, the player is greeted with a message from Dr. Breen welcoming them to the city. I love the ever so slight weariness to his words, as if you can tell that deep inside he wishes it didn't have to be this way either. Listen to the opening speech here (the first 45 seconds or so, though I urge you to stick around and listen to the second speech as well, which begins immediately after). He pulls it off perfectly, and I especially love that little pause he often gives before referring to the alien Combine as "our benefactors". Later on in the game, in an increasingly agitated set of speeches (beginning at 5:03), he chastises the Combine forces for being unable to capture Gordon Freeman. You can just hear the exasperated frustration in his voice as he refers to Freeman as "an ordinary man". Kudos to the late Robert Culp for such a terrific performance.

The other great voice is that of Ellen McLain. Known better as the voice of the HAL-like GlaDOS from the Portal games (and as a voice in the new Pacific Rim film), McLain voices what's generally referred to as the Overwatch Voice. A female voice heard over the radio of the masked "Civil Protection" units that Gordon Freeman regularly encounters, the Overwatch Voice is this eerie police radio dispatch voice mixed with words that describe human activities as if they were viral outbreaks, all delivered in a disjointed, completely flat, clinical tone. The Half Life wiki describes it as "medically-inspired Newspeak to describe resistance activity in the context of a bacterial infection and treatment". The Wiki also says the voice is inspired from various films such as an announcer in the film version of 1984 and Farenheit 451. Whatever the influence, it's really well done, you can listen to clips here.

The infamous bridge crossing

The game as a whole has a great sense of pacing and place. Short physics-based puzzles are often placed between enemy encounters, lending a sense of relief while giving the player something to do. Then there's all the great locations the game takes you to. Any of these places will be instantly recognizable to anyone who's played the game: the red barn, the horror-tinged Ravenholm, the bridge crossing (possibly my favorite sequence in the entire game), the invasion of Nova Prospekt on the beach during sunset, the interior of the Citadel. And those areas further highlight the brilliant structure of the entire game itself. For about two thirds of the game you are fleeing the Combine, trying to put distance between you and your pursuers, and then without ever drawing attention to it, you find yourself  invading them. It's really well done. I do have to say however that near the end when you're fighting through the streets of City 17 that I found the game to drag ever so slightly and was relieved when I finally made it to those Citadel walls.

Half Life 2 continues on in episodes 1 and 2, an attempt at "episodic gaming" that didn't quite work out as Valve planned. Both episodes continue the strong level design and character development, and the ending of episode 2 is so sudden and shocking that it leaves the player somewhat dazed (and terribly sad), but to this date we're still awaiting the resolution in a fabled Half Life 3 (which Valve won't acknowledge it's something they're even working on). We've had our Star Wars and our Empire Strikes Back, now we need the resolution.

Half Life 2 is a great game. It's definitely smart, well-paced, and has characters that you really care about. I would even recommend it those who aren't normally drawn to gaming. Now just give us Half Life 3, Valve... please??

1 comment:

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