Why Half-Life 2 is so awesome!
Lately, I have been firing up Half-Life 2 again. The graphics engine used may be dated now, as its level design, for its (by today's standards) overly strong reliance on Binary Space Partitioning, meaning you can actually see terrain made out of blocky geometry, as opposed to smooth hills. Despite this, Half-Life 2 hardly lost a dent of its power. So, what exactly does Half-Life 2 right? Compared to Deus Ex or Morrowind, Half-Life 2 is quite linear. It isn't exactly a rail shooter, although there is nothing you can do to alter the course of its narrative nor multiple routes you can take, except within a very narrow margin. In that sense, Total Rendition is not going to be like Half-Life 2 and more like Deus Ex. Yet, some aspects of Half-Life 2 are done immensely well. In fact, even today's games find themselves struggling to keep up with the bar set by Half-Life 2.
The most notable aspect of Half-Life 2 being great is its genre bending. It may not contain Role-Playing elements and is and by large a First-Person Shooter. Although if you have completed Half-Life 2, you definitely have noticed that brings a disparate amount of genre conventions under its tent and executes them well. It contains elements of real-time strategy, by placing turrets and commanding antlions and resistance fighters, racing on Highway 17, survival horror and puzzle-adventure, incorporating the environment to your advantage into its gameplay, and platforming. In doing so, Half-Life 2 evaded many of the FPS genre's cliches. Well, except for exploding barrels galore of course...
Emotionally, Half-Life 2 isn't flat either. Dramatic elements are done really well: Like its predecessor, Half-Life 2 truly is a Game Play made by Game Playwrights. While you can't choose dialogue options and in fact, our hero Gordon Freeman doesn't even speak one word throughout the game play, all story critical NPC's display emotions that are believable, making us want to love or hate them. Imagine playing Half-Life 2 when it just came out in 2004: You must at times have thought you were in a movie. Indeed, the story critical characters were played and voice over'ed by actors, meticulously directed as if they were in movies or in a stage play. Thus, Half-Life 2 genuinely tells a story. And that's what a Game Play needs to inspire, in order to be a Game Play. And to be frank, even its level design is poetic in its own way: When exiting tunnels, you are often greeted with an all-overwhelming light. Thus, the level/mise-en-scene design effectively employs visual storytelling to underscore the dramatic and emotional aspects of Half-Life 2's story. Just amazing!
Yet, what is also a very good aspect of Half-Life 2, perhaps especially great about it, yet is perhaps the most underrated aspect of Game Development in general, is its sound design. And frankly, the sound design of Half-Life 2 is incredibly well-crafted. Every time you do something, or don't do something, you'll be able to hear it. This gives Half-Life 2 a distinctively haptic feel (that is, you feel Gordon Freeman's thoughts articulated by a noise, explained in game as emanating from his HEV-suit). When you fire a weapon, you'll be met with an ear-deafening explosion of audio-violence, as you would in real-life. Some of the other sounds you hear are truly horrific and underscore the (hostile) environment (policy) of Half-Life 2's setting. And while you don't hear music all the time, Half-Life 2 OST's tracks composed by Kelly Bailey are all fantastic musical pieces in their own right, reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails' 1990s output. Each time you hear a track, you know you are in the midst of an important event to the game play's story.
Many of these aspects that made Half-Life 2 great are also true to its predecessor, as well as to Episode One and Episode Two. I can't speak for Half-Life: Alyx as of yet, since I haven't played it yet. Yet, if the final version of Total Rendition yields complaints about one-dimensional gameplay, bland levels and poor sound design, I will know I have failed. So, I better not fail, since I know what to do!