Half-Life 2 and the Source engine are landmarks in game design. In the sequel to Gordon Freemans similarly groundbreaking debut, Valve uses a cast of vivid characters and intricately detailed levels to tell a story in a unique way, while creating a fun, dynamic, and brilliantly designed shooter to boot. The joy of sending a sawblade spinning through a group of zombies with the gravity gun is as powerful today as it was in 2004. Its remarkable how well the game holds up to modern scrutiny.
Ten years later, and we still dont have a Half-Life 3. So while we wait patiently (sort of) to find out what happens to Gordon, Alyx, and the gang, this is the perfect time to look back at Half-Life 2 and its legacy. Echoes of the game are still being felt today, and it set benchmarks that other developers still struggle to match. Here are just a few of the ways Valves seminal sequel reshaped video games as we know them.
The advent of physics as gameplay
The Source engine boasted, at the time, incredible physics. This made Half-Life 2s levels feel much more dynamic than the static film sets of other shooters. Crates can be shattered into pieces, objects can be picked up and tossed, and explosions will cause comical chain reactions of destruction. Valve also took advantage of this by filling the game with physics puzzles, like the famous seesaw in Route Kanal.
Nowadays most game worlds are cluttered with objects that can be tossed around and knocked over. A recent example is Alien: Isolation, whose stricken space station is littered with stuff that will alert the alien hunter if you clatter into it in your trouser-troubling fear. Popular middleware like Havok means developers can easily give their games this kind of functionality. I cant wait to see what Valve does with physics in Source 2 - whenever its released.
The Gravity Gun
The zombie-infested town of Ravenholm - we dont go there - is your first real chance to see what the gravity gun is capable of. The best way to play the level is without using any weapons, instead relying on physics objects. Radiators, sawblades, and concrete blocks are as effective as the shotgun, but weaving between enemies to grab bits of scenery adds an extra layer of challenge - and you get an achievement for your troubles.
In Half-Life 2s wake, a number of games began to feature their own physics-manipulating tools and weapons. Dead Space has a Handheld Graviton Accelerator, BioShock has its telekinesis Plasmid, and theres the Grabber in Doom 3. A great many games now have some way to mess with physics-enabled objects, whether its using a dedicated , scientifically-sanctioned device like the Gravity Gun, or just by lifting and throwing a brick into a marauding crackheads face.
Half-Life 2 made Steam. Steam remade PC gaming
Today, Steam is an intrinsic part of a PC gamers life. Half-Life 2 was the first game Valve released exclusively on its distribution platform, which has now grown to be the biggest in the world. Steams first days were rocky, and it was actually fairly maligned at the time, but now it feels as standard as Windows. The idea of downloading a game and playing it without any installation process, and with automatic updates, revolutionised PC gaming.
Half-Life 2s release was notable because even if you bought the game from a shop, you still needed Steam to install it. This was met with a mixed reception, but is now pretty common practice. The popularity of the furiously anticipated sequel was pivotal in Steam becoming the gigaton industry standard it is today.
Still-unbeaten storytelling subtlety
Half-Life 2 is a masterclass in subtle storytelling. There are no cutscenes and no exposition-spouting characters. You piece together the fall of Earth to the Combine through environmental clues and dialogue. A newspaper clipping in Kleiners lab is all it takes to tell you that there was a war, and humans lost. A lesser game would have presented this information unnecessarily in a long-winded cinematic, no doubt with a plethora of furrowed brows and emoting.
This elegant approach to telling a story should have been a turning point in how narrative is relayed in games, but developers still, to this day, rely on lazy exposition and cutscenes. Half-Life 2 uses its world to tell its tale, and uncovering the mystery of the Combine invasion is a big part of the game. Smartly, you know as much as Freeman when you first step into City 17, and you learn about this grim future as he does.
Living, breathing characterisation
For a game with such minimal storytelling, and a completely mute protagonist, Half-Life 2 has a cast of colourful, believable, and likeable characters. This is thanks mainly to the facial animation, which has a remarkable amount of subtlety, even today. As Alyx argues with Mossman, you can see her twist her face in frustration. When youre reunited with her in Episode One after the Citadel falls, you can really sense her relief.
The reason these characters have held up so well is because Valve didnt chase photorealism. Their faces are exaggerated and stylised, but not to the point of caricature. While the potato-headed soldiers of Crysis will look outdated in ten years, Alyx and co. will always have the same emotive power. Tastefully restrained voice acting and natural dialogue were also crucial in bringing the characters to life.
Meticulous level design, with a progressive approach to genre
Everything else aside, Half-Life 2 is just a brilliantly designed game. There are a few missteps - Ive always felt like Route Kanal goes on slightly too long - but otherwise, the pacing and range of set-pieces is masterful. Mixing physics puzzles, combat, vehicle sections, survival horror, and even some platforming (which, to be fair, we could do without), theres an enormous amount of variety in the game.
One of Valves neatest tricks is using the environment to lead the player. You rarely get lost in Half-Life 2, because the artists use things like lighting and colour to guide you. They draw your eye to certain details, which takes you to the next area. You probably didnt notice this when you were playing, but your brain did. Look for that technique in almost any FPS since, and youll find it. And additionally, almost all of Half-Life 2s locations and set-pieces have since been riffed on by other developers. Hell, Resistance 3 is a Jive Bunny Megamix of Valves masterpiece.
A focus on atmosphere
Half-Life 2s setting couldnt be more different from that of its predecessor. Gone is the Area 51-inspired research base, replaced by a grim vision of post-apocalyptic Eastern Europe. The ruined post-Soviet City 17 gives physical form to the bleak state of Combine-occupied Earth as a whole, the looming Citadel a constant reminder that its denizens are being squished to jam under the heel of their new alien overlords. Its depressing, but its supposed to be.
In the years since, atmosphere has become a big part of crafting game worlds. STALKER, Metro, and DayZ have used similar environments to great effect. The important thing is that developers realised not all games have to be set in familiar American cities or warehouses - although there is, of course, still plenty of that going on. City 17 is still one of the most effectively stark, grim dystopian settings in gaming, and also one of the most interestingly stylised.
All the difference in the world...
As influential as Half-Life 2 is, modern games still fall into the bad habits Valve actively sought to get rid of. 10 years on, we still have far too many characters shouting exposition down radios, interspersed with lengthy, immersion-breaking cinematics. What lessons do you wish more developers would take from H-L2? And how do you want to see Valve evolve things again in Half-Life 3? Because thats going to happen. Definitely. Soon. Maybe.
And while you wait, why not check out some of our related features? To carry on the Half-Life 2 anniversary love-in, have a look at Dave's editorial analysing why it's still the greatest FPS ever made. And then have a look at our world-exclusive Half-Life 3 review. The release date is still a little while off, but they went with a really early embargo. This is 100% legit, and not an article from April this year.