Why Half-Life 2 failed

Portal. I’ll borrow the words of Ben Crosham and say that “If you don’t like it, you are stupid.” You can get dizzy, you can get movement sickness but you can’t get bored playing. It is fun and it is smart.

Since I’ve played Portal and like it so much, I decided to play its father, Half-Life 2. You know, I had some fun playing Half-Life, even when, in the last chapters, they give you more ammunition that you can carry, which you completely deplete in a few minutes and then you are left with a shitty weapon that throws bees (which is the only thing you can use for long range.)

Half-Life 2 was praised for being amazing and received a lot of good critics. So, why no to try it?

Well, I must say that I’m not completely impressed by it and it amazes me that it received such praise.

First of all, you don’t the story very much. I mean, of the strongest points of Half-Life was the story. Not much like “We opened a portal to another dimension (with things that are/look like demons) and now you have to kill everything that moves.” More like “We opened a portal to another dimension and you must close it. Oops, it looks like you can close it this side, you must go there and close it in the other side.” Of course, most of story is only understood in the latest chapter (the one you run without any bullets and kill enemies with a crowbar and bees) but it explains much of what you have done. Makes you feel like you just watched “Fight Club” and finally realised what the story was about.

Anyway, Half-Life 2 doesn’t have this kind of closure. Maybe because they decided to split the story in three parts, so you’ll have to wait for Episode 3 to be released to understand why you were put on stasis (which I only discovery reading the Wikipedia page), why you were brought back (still no answer) and why you keep running back and forth (still no answer.)

Second, there are a bunch of chapters (five or six, I can’t remember and I don’t want to remember) which the level designer probably had a fetish about Dukes of Hazzard:

You get a hovercraft-like vehicle and run around in radioactive waste and water. And every time you see a ramp, you have to jump it. If it slightly looks like a ramp, you must jump it. You try to go around it and you find that you need to come back and jump it to keep going forward. Just before the end of those chapters I found a ramp, tried to jump it and failed. The first thing that came to my mind was “Ok, now the guys are making fun of me. ‘We put all those ramps to make you jump, now we are going to put one just to mock you’.” Well, in the end, it turned that I tried to jump it before I could. And I had to jump it.

Still about vehicles, it seems the game designers drive things with a lot of weight in the back and no weight in the front. You get the constant feel that your vehicle (hovercraft, car) is constantly sliding the front wheel.

Third, there is the constant “let me show what our physics engine can do.” You move things, you need to pile things to make ramps (which you use to jump with your hovercraft), you lift bars on doors to keep going… And some things break and some don’t. Door are barred with wood planks, which you can easily break with two or three hits with the crowbar. But, some wood planks used as wall, you can throw three grenades and it would still be there. Ok, your physics engine rocks, Valve, but for the fuck of God, if you put wood somewhere, make it behave like wood in a consistent way!

Fourth, and I will again still from Ben Croshaw and his review of Crysis, some points require that you assign your left button and right button to quick save and quick load. It is so annoying that you need to jump in a three centimetre square or you’ll either fall in the hole of infinite depth or into fire. Or realise that you forgot to put an empty barrel under the bridge, so it won’t fall in the electrified water. Not to mention that you need to do that pretty quick, in a 90 degree turn, jumping over three of those three centimetre squares while a strider is shooting your ass.

Fifth, linear paths. Although it is kinda good, so you don’t get lost while searching for the air conduct hidden in the darkest place of the last room in the corridor you just came from (’cause, you know, there is no point in turning back), it also gives you a complete feeling of lost of free will. You path has been already chosen and you can’t get out of it. Sometimes I found myself wondering “were the fuck I’m going?” just to get there and people say “Hey Dr. Freeman, you made it!” Made WHAT? I was just following the only possible way!

Sixth, fanboynism. At first, it seems nice that everybody remembers you and seem to be happy that you are around. But when completely strangers, just by hearing your name, come like “Dr. Freeman, I’m a man, but I want to be the mother of your child! Make me!” then things start to get weird. It also adds another point to the failure of the story: why the fuck everybody in the whole planet things you are their saviour, their messiah, their Jesus? No explanation so far, except that you killed a lot of them.

Seventh, AI. Although it is cool that people actually use space in the game and you can’t just, say, walk through them, it is freaking annoying that they decide to stay in the fucking way all the time. At first, you get annoyed that, when some enemy throws a grenade at your feet and you move back to avoid the explosion, the friendly IA decides to stay in your way and you can’t get away from it (and probably saved their stupid, pathetic life using your body.) But, then again, you can’t stop smiling when they look at a granade in the floor and look at it like “oh, shinny!” and blow up in pieces. “That would teach them how to get fucking out of the way.” The friendly AI is so stupid that, later, I realised that it wasn’t worth try to save them. Just let them die, maybe they’ll learn how to shoot and avoid grenades in their next life. This is partially solved in Episode One, as your only companion is Alyx (which, much for your happiness, her bootilicious body can’t die.)

Eighth, infinite enemies. At one point, Valve pushed the physics to be the most realistic thing possible. On the other hand, you have this portal to another dimension, which is not something we see every day. Although you can balance those two to work as a normal sci-fi thingy, you can’t stop wondering where the hell are all those enemies coming. First, you have the combine, which captured part of the human population and turned them into mindless droids. By my counts, if you take all 6 billion people living on Earth today, kill some when the combine appeared, kill the children, kill the old, take some to make a resistance, turn everyone else into droids, you’ll probably get the count of 10 billion people. I’m not kidding here. In one of the last chapters of Episode One, combine soldiers keep coming in a steady pace. You need to take some survivors to a train while preventing the combine soldiers to kill them. If you try to kill the combine soldiers before letting the survivors to reach the train, you’ll see yourself in an infinite loop of kill, get ammo, run, come back, kill more, get ammo, and so on.

The insectoid race is even worst. In one chapter, you’ll see yourself in the set of “Tremors“:

You are in a beach where you can’t step in the sand, otherwise a swarm of insects (which look a lot like the bugs in Startship Troopers) will crawl from the sand and attack you, so you need to keep jumping over rocks and other stuff in the ground (remember the “mouse buttons as quick save and load”?) And, if you survived around three waves of such thing, you’ll wonder how the beach didn’t sink after so many bugs coming out of it (remember the “infinite number of enemies” thing?) In Episode One it gets even worst: the insects just pop from holes in the street and the only way to stop them is to move cars over them, so they can’t get out of. You don’t do it, they just keep coming and coming and coming. It is like the whole insect planet from Ender’s Game were inside Earth, which would be hollow and full of bugs. Either that or they reproduce at the speed of 10 per second.

Ninth, story don’t flow if you don’t do what it is expected (yeah, kinda like the fifth point.) You are in a corridor, there is a strider just behind you and the only person who can open the door in the end of the corridor refuses to go out before you blow up the strider, even if you can safely go all the way to the door. That happen about three times in Half-Life 2: the story just stops if you don’t kill a certain object, even if you can safely get away from it.

Ok, that’s what I came with in the last 30 minutes, just remembering some pieces of the game. I must say that the Half-Life 2 guys must learn something from the Portal dudes. Portal, although is just 1 hour long (18 minutes, if you are pretty fast and watch the YouTube video), have a complete story, nice puzzles and it is not annoying. I’m hoping that Episode 3 will take most of good stuff from Portal and be something that actually adds some closure to the Half-Life 2 story arc.