Super-Gordon vs Dr Breen
Valve uses a design process called the "Cabal" in which small think tanks of designers, writers and programmers come together to cook up new game concepts and ideas. I can vividly imagine such a meeting taking place soon after Half-Life's completion. A big, empty white board and one huge question in the room: What should Half-Life 2 be like?
Well, of course Gordon Freeman and his HEV suit have to make a comeback. The iconic crowbar must be included, too. Then the mysterious G-Man should be part of the story. And let's not forget about Barney, the security guard...
At one point this list of "must-haves" had to be hundreds of items long, since most of Half-Life's most famous weapons and enemies can be found in the sequel at some point. But something was missing. All those things are nice, but if you look back to see _why_ the first game has been such a legendary title, it is not just because of the smart enemy AI or a laser-guided rocket launcher... no, Half-Life was such an outstanding achievement, because every single enemy, weapon and gameplay idea was new! Fresh and exciting, something that had never been seen in game before! You couldn't possibly recreate that feeling just by importing old ideas with better graphics (although, admittedly, the beautiful water-shaders helped...).
Valve tackled this problem from mainly two angles: First, the story and setting. City 17, an Eastern European metropolis overrun by an extraterrestrial force called the "Combine" was a stark contrast, compared to the Black Mesa desert. While in the first part, friendly NPCs have been nothing but nameless, talking heads, Valve's star writer Marc Laidlaw could run free with new, more lively characters and a more epic storyline. Not least because of the new animation system which allowed in-game actors to actually _act_ on a level that has hardly been seen before in FPSs or games in general.
The second pillar of Half-Life 2 is a major gameplay innovation: Physics. The Havok physics engine licensed for Valve's new Source engine allowed an eerily realistic simulation of real-world objects. While other companies had already discovered physics in the years before Half-Life 2, it was this game that invented the gravity gun. A weapon idea so radically different from everything we've seen in games before, it basically carried the entire gameplay. Suddenly every in-game object became a shield, a projectile and... a toy. All at the same time.
Some of the best new enemy ideas are built upon this kind of physics gameplay: Turrets can now be knocked over or even be reprogrammed to be friendly and placed freely in the level by the player. "Manhacks", small flying rotors with saw blades can be picked up in mid-air and held in front of you as impromptu chainsaws. Majestic, 5-story high "Striders" now roam the streets, elegantly moving their long, spidery legs around even the most complicated terrain. Zombies now fling objects towards you (and if quick enough to catch them in mid-air, you can fling them right back at them). Throw in a few physics puzzles and a giant, magnetic crane that allows you to drag around heavy freight containers as they were made of Styrofoam and you have countless physics-related moments that are breathtaking and memorable.
One more enemy worth mentioning is the antlion, a creature nearly identical to the "bugs" in the Starship Trooper movie. Antlions arrive in huge packs and later in the game, you get the ability to command a never-ending horde of them to fight on your side. It's ridiculous amounts of fun, and probably the most all-round well-designed creature in the game.
There are two things, however, that make me think of Half Life 2 as inferior compared to its predecessor.
First there is weapon and enemy variety.
You will notice quickly, that a vast majority of Half Life 2 enemies are just variations of enemies from the first game. There are 3 types of headcrabs, 3 types of zombies, 2 types of helicopters and 3 types of soldiers. Some are faster, some are stronger, have different weapons... but ultimately, you will fight nothing but variations of the same type of enemy for entire chapters. The improvements do not really make up for the lack of originality compared to the colorful armies of completely new and fresh enemies found in Half Life 1. I was especially disappointed when I read that the "assassin" (one of my favorite enemies in the first part) was cut in favor of the "fast zombie", which is nothing more than a creature running towards the player, really fast, nearly identical to the "Licker" zombies from Resident Evil 2.
Also there is a lack of a distinct "3rd faction". In the original Half Life you would often find tactical fights between aliens, marines and Black Mesa personnel. It allowed for a fun strategical variant of hiding in safety while a group of, for example, alien slaves and marines are fighting, only to come out to take on the rest. Now most fights are between hordes of "rebels" fighting on the player's side and combine soldiers which usually keeps you busy trying to protect your teammates most of the time.
Similar can be said about weapon variety. While the gravity gun easily trumps most other weapons ever invented in the history of computer games, it is the only truly _new_ device in your arsenal. A lot of weapons make a comeback: The RPG, the crossbow, the magnum... But far more were cut without replacement. The alien hornet gun, trip-mines, the gauss... all gone. Instead Valve decided to give us a _second_ machine gun which has a nice alternate fire but really... a SECOND machine gun?
In defense of this move in gamedesign, one could argue that a lot of tactical options of multiple enemies were "merged" into one. But that doesn't make up for all the little gameplay details that were lost in the process.
My second gripe with Half Life 2 is the direction the story is taking. Half Life 1 was a fun, wacky science fiction action adventure. Half Life 2 is a wannabe drama and science fiction epic.
The ways fights are staged, now usually feel more like a scene from Saving Private Ryan (with aliens), using the same gray, war-torn cityscapes, black, dirty explosions and human drama as it became popular with WWII-style FPSs around the time Half Life 2 was released. Not really what I was looking for in a Half Life game. A good junk of the story now involves Gordon's show being stolen by Alyx, a cheeky young woman who apparently is the daughter of Gordon's former colleague, Eli Vance. She constantly fears about her father's life (for good reason, one has to admit), asking Gordon to help her while apparently being a better fighter and more agile than Gordon himself. Why didn't they give the HEV suit to her instead?
Instead of an unlikely anti-hero, fighting for survival, you are now Gordon Freeman, international superstar. A boring, classic hero, eagerly awaited to save the world. Suddenly, everyone's your old, best friend and seems to know more about the Black Mesa incident and your role in it than yourself. You're the center of attention, which makes the whole concept of Gordon not speaking kinda pointless. While in the first game, you could accept the lack of 3rd person scenes and voice acting for Gordon as a technique to make the player feel more in power of the main character, that concept is pretty much thrown out of the window for Half Life 2. You are not an over-qualified intern who happens to save the day, you are a space marine-- with a PhD in physics. As strange as it may sound, in a way, Gordon Freeman is out of character for the entire game.
And why in the world are rebels spraying lambda-signs everywhere? The incident in the lambda lab was what _caused_ all this horror, and even Gordon has apparently been strikingly unsuccessful at containing it. Rebels worshiping Black Mesa is about as likely as Iraqi insurgents painting their faces in stars and stripes and celebrating great liberator general David Petraeus.
There are moments of genius in the new acting-heavy kind of story telling for Hal Life 2. Kleiner and Father Grigori are fun and likable. But there is generally too much drama, too much would-be epicness thrown into a series that has always been more about exploring abandoned military bases carved into rocks rather than pretentious, Star Wars-style architecture and uniforms (like preferred by the combine forces).
The Bottom Line
Nevertheless, because of the excellent pacing and battles, Half-Life 2 is one of the, if not the best shooter of this decade. If it just weren't such a decade of disappointing sequels. Despite being much shorter, I felt more of the "spirit" of the original game in the latest Episode 2 and the seemingly unrelated game Portal. Both brought back some of the witty self-irony I loved about the first game. With a little more variety in environments, enemies and weapons, Half-Life 2 could be the best shooter ever made. But even the lovely gravity gameplay cannot place this game above its predecessor - or most FPSs from the 90ies.
2010 will officially bring a new decade to gaming. I wonder where things are moving. As I'm writing this, I'm waiting eagerly for Episode 3, the final of the Half-Life 2 episodes which supposedly answers all remaining questions. About the G-Man, the Combine and Gordon himself. I hope, however, that it will answer this question first and foremost: How can I make a FPS that topples the original Half-Life?