Half-Life 2 gave me one mesmerizing playthrough, but every time I return to it I feel like I could be doing something else. There are impressive setpieces and environments, but the world overall feels much less coherent than that of the first Half-Life. In that game, the setting was as much of an antagonist as the game's enemies, throwing all kinds of environmental hazards at the player, forcing them to contort their bodies to fit into tricky places, etc. This kind of interesting movement has largely been replaced by puzzles which show off Source engine tech, but are uninteresting in their own right. AI and enemy variety are clearly worse here as well—not that they were necessarily exceptional in the first game, but it made more effective use of what it had. But the worst change Half-Life 2 brings is its particular emphasis on exposition and dialogue. Half-Life 1's technique of placing talkative NPCs alongside a silent protagonist worked well because Gordon Freeman's characterization is very abstract: he is defined by his immediate situation and little else. Half-Life 2 gives him a backstory, relationships, attempts to shoehorn him into a stupid and uninteresting mythology: in short, it puts us the awkward position of being party to social interactions in which our silence is extraordinarily unnatural and off-putting. I'm far from the biggest fan of the videogame-spliced-with-prestige-TV-serial trend that Naughty Dog helped popularize, but there's a reason no one does it like Half-Life 2 anymore and that's because it sucks.

Reviewed on Feb 21, 2023

1 Comment

4 months ago

An extra addendum I'd like to add is that I always felt Half-Life 2 had a horrible sense of realism in terms of level design in spite of the attempted focus on atmosphere that could have otherwise brought the game to much higher heights. It still feels and kind of looks like a Quake level.