If you’ve been following along with my series on the best video games ever, you might be under the mistaken impression that I only like games made by Nintendo, or games made by Square and released on a Nintendo system. Well, you couldn’t possibly be more wrong, and allow me to prove it to you by revealing that the fifth best video game of all time is Half-Life 2.
Again, you wouldn’t know it by looking at my favorite video games so far, but I LOVE first-person shooters. Ever since I played Doom back in the mid-90s, I’ve had a massive attachment to this genre, and Half-Life 2 is easily the best pure first-person shooter ever made. (I qualify that because there are a couple of games that I have ranked higher than Half-Life 2 that are first person games that involve shooting, but most people wouldn’t consider them true first-person shooters. That’s called a tease, people.) These games just impart such a great feeling of being right in the thick of the action. I love it.
The weird thing about my attachment to Half-Life 2 is that I can’t stand the original Half-Life. Back when Half-Life came out in 1998, I heard a lot about how wonderful it was, but I didn’t have a PC that was capable of running it, so I didn’t get a chance to play it at the time. Instead, I played the Playstation 2 version when it came out in 2001. Like I said, I’d heard a lot about how amazing Half-Life was, and the PS2 version got good reviews, so I decided to go ahead and buy it.
What an utterly TERRIBLE game. The level design feels like it was just thrown together, there is almost NO story, the controls are floaty and it’s very difficult to get your character to do what you want him to do. Many was was the time that I fell victim to random acid or spikes or whatever just because I was fighting the controls and lost. I wondered if maybe the PS2 version was just a bad port (and the good reviews I’d read were paid for by Valve, the makers of the game), but a few years later I finally played the PC version, and found that it was just as bad.
Maybe I would have understood the appeal of Half-Life a little better if I’d actually played it in 1998, but there’s no mystery about the greatness of its sequel. Half-Life 2 is the absolute pinnacle of the first-person shooter genre. It is a finely crafted and superbly designed masterpiece. It has a phenomenal story, masterful level design, graphics that are still gorgeous seven years later, and lots of variety. It is, in a word, amazing.
Half-Life 2 picks up several years after the original. In both games, you play as Gordon Freeman, who is a physicist with a Ph.D. from MIT. He was working on a top-secret research project at the Black Mesa Research Facility when there was a horrible mishap and aliens from another dimension invaded the facility. Gordon has to fight his way out of the facility, a task which is complicated when government troops arrive to shut the place down and destroy every shred of evidence about the incident – including the scientists. Eventually, Gordon makes his way into another dimension and kills the alien holding the rift between dimensions open. He then is approached by a mysterious man (known as the G-Man), who congratulates Gordon on his efforts and makes him a job offer. Gordon accepts the offer and is placed into stasis by the G-Man.
Half-Life 2 opens with Gordon emerging from stasis on a mostly empty train. At first, you know nothing about what’s going on, but you gradually figure out that after Gordon was placed into stasis, an alien force known as the Combine invaded Earth and obliterated the planet’s defenses in seven hours (hence the name for the conflict: the Seven Hour War). The Combine set up a brutal police state and now rules the human race with an iron fist. They are slowly and steadily exterminating humanity, even going so far as to set up an energy field that keeps humans from having children.
The first part of this game is probably the very best part. When you first step off the train in City 17, you have no weapons, and the oppressive and stifling nature of the Combine regime is evident from the very first moment. You can only go where the Combine tells you to go, and if you even look at them the wrong way, they’ll beat you with electrified batons. Eventually you make your way into an apartment building, where the brutality of the Combine becomes even more apparent. Many apartments don’t have doors, so there’s no privacy, furnishings are sparse, and everyone is forced to wear the exact same outfit. Overwatch (the Combine version of the Gestapo) randomly raids apartment buildings and carries people off to Nova Prospekt, a grim and forbidding prison outside the city.
It is in the midst of one of these raids that you encounter Alyx Vance. Alyx is part of a resistance movement that is working to overthrow the Combine. She takes you to one of their hideouts in the city, but there is a mishap, and you find yourself back on the streets again. Only this time you’re armed with a crowbar. This leads to one of the best moments I’ve ever experienced in all of my 20+ year of video gaming. After not being able to do anything but run and hide from the Combine, I came across an Overwatch soldier beating a defenseless man while his wife/girlfriend pleaded for him to stop. I then ran up to that soldier and beat him to death with my crowbar. It felt like, in that moment, the revolution had begun, and the tide had started to turn. Before that moment, I was a powerless cog in the Combine’s mighty machine, and that first blow in the name of freedom and justice was like, “Oh yeah. It’s ON NOW!”
The rest of the game is pretty good too. Check back next week for number four!