Before devoting ourselves to today’s protagonist (always in the form of Half-Life 2 which is now 15 years old), a long and necessary premise. November 19, 1998 is the release date of the first Half-Life. Dr. Gordon Freeman must stop a dimensional breach, along with his blue-helmeted colleagues, escaping from the Black Mesa research center, which has turned into a death trap. At the same time, the player lives one of the biggest breaches in videogame history. To paraphrase the recent Japanese commercial dedicated to Final Fantasy VII Remake, but also the reactions of the time, there is a before and an after for FPS.
To be exhaustive, the decade was full of great titles and inventions, in the sector; some will take place a few months later, between 1999 and the doors of 2000. There are many before: pre-Doom, pre-System Shock, pre-Deus Ex. It is almost a virtuous circle. The innovations of these great titles have gradually added the elements necessary for limestone on immersiveness and fun, finally sculpting the first-person shooters as we know them today.
After the first “expedition” in the structure of Black Mesa, for the developers it became the norm to try to emulate that sense of consistency and adventure impressed in the affairs of the Doctor (a silent scientist, all HEV Suit and crowbar). For the uninitiated, the basic novelty was more a directorial novelty. It consisted of the way the story was told. No more logs to read, nor cutscenes that break the rhythm of the action. The whole affair was inserted in a continuum: we – players – in the highlights we became an active part of the dynamics, at the same time spectators and protagonists, able to move and still interact with the scenario, listen to the NPCs according to our proximity, always glued and only within the story.
In other words, the story continued with us in the middle. In real time, within the boundaries of the macro-game sequence in which we were inserted. When an energy machine burst, we had to run for cover, arm ourselves, protect ourselves, while the scientists around us were dying, trying to defend themselves, running away. It’s really a banality, to make the game phases have narrative elements … Today. But today we are – precisely – in the aftermath. The importance of an AI that gives the impression of a vibrant and real world has been understood. It is almost taken for granted, even in those games with long video sequences, to carve out moments where the gameplay is mixed with the plot events in a narrow and indissoluble way.
All necessary, to increase the mystery around the world presented to us beyond measure. In this case, a world that never took us away from the game harnessed us inside the screen: it had something real. Freeman was indeed a scientist, the aliens really had to be confined within Black Mesa, so that they would not flee to the outside world.
So, the only game that managed to repeat this feeling of concreteness and immediacy, if we don’t think about the similarities of System Shock 2 (which had other aims, completely different pacing and UI) was Half-Life 2, precisely in 2004. The reason? He did not simply try to repeat himself blindly, except in an attempt to be a pleasant experience under each section.
It’s true. Once again we used Freeman, the free and silent man, the player’s alter-ego. Once again crowbars and a range of weapons for every occasion. Same trick: linking events without interruptions, creating a sense of continuity. A big difference: this time the journey is long, not limited to a single base to explore. It is almost a pilgrimage, which crosses towns and structures very different from one another. Yet the detachment, spatial especially, but also between one chapter and another, is not heard. Furthermore, Freeman is as bewildered as we are, he wakes up in the oppressive dystopia of City 17. The player / character identification is complete.
Half-Life 2 is not limited to just improving the game engine, the Source that made the fortune of Counter-Strike and Valve Corporation itself. As for the graphic element, in fact, the strong points at the time were facial mobility and brightness, whose system was shown extensively in the Lost Coast tech demo. It is difficult to amaze them even today.
It convinces: because there is a compositive fantasy that many FPS miss, evident when thinking about the set of weapons, level design, even the artistic direction (Viktor Antonov, in turn behind Dishonored). And of course, there’s the screenplay by Marc Laidlaw, who after leaving Valve, for the project’s sake, gave us the skeleton of what would have been Episode 3.
Some specific examples of what we are talking about are first of all if we think of the introduction of the Gravity Gun, with all the implications on game physics. A weapon capable of attracting and pushing objects and enemies, which can therefore bounce, hinder other adversaries, hit them and damage them, giving Freeman an instrument that can be creatively used in combination with other firearms. It allowed more than dynamic approaches to scenarios, as well as the introduction of small puzzles to break the rhythm. On the variety of armaments, we also mention the mission to the Nova Prospekt prison, in which it is necessary to continue by using the ant-lion pheromones, guiding hordes of insects against enemies and equipment.
To mention also the missions in which, using a hovercraft or a dune buggy, the game opens, not only to offer different challenges but to connect distant areas without missing its principle of unity and constant gameplay. Still on the powerful sense of travel, the survival horror exploration of the ghost town of Ravenholm, totally at the mercy of the aliens, is interesting. Here the player is literally forced to look for the most disparate passages in order to survive and continue on his mission. A sign that there is also a certain desire to break the boundaries of the science fiction genre, at the base of the title.
The soundtrack was composed by Kelly Bailey, with the galvanizing ‘Violation’ and the inevitable attack of ‘Hazardous Environment’, famous to all those who have ever played a Valve title (and have seen the stocky men with valves around their necks) ). A small anecdote: Bailey, in addition to also dealing with programming and game design, lent his face to Gordon Freeman together with other collaborators (David Speyrer, Eric Kirchmer, Greg Coomer). A man who therefore put a little of everything into the project.
Half-Life 3 is expected not only to close a story that has been pending at Episode 2 (extra released in 2007), with the mysteries surrounding Borealis, Aperture Science and the threatening Combine. With the plot that brought us closer to understanding G-Man. The wait is also due to the desire for some revolution, for a new way of thinking about single-player shooters, combining atmospheres, mechanics, special weapons, in a journey that has the courage to be personal, reserved for a silent player , so far from the roar (loud and colorful) of GaaS in all its forms.
Not that Half-Life 2, like its predecessor, had pulled back to offer a multiplayer compartment. The classic Deathmatch arrived in fact about a month later, as an expansion, taking advantage of models and Assets of the basic game to prolong the Combine-human struggle. In general, the opening to the Mods has guaranteed the creation of interesting projects, such as the Capture the Flag mode, or the well-known Black Mesa: fan-game that reconstructs the first Half-Life with rare dedication and taking full advantage of the Source engine.
Half-Life 3 is expected because you love Half-Life 2. A title that – simply – entertains by telling an atypical and at the same time simple, compelling and varied story. The invitation therefore remains the usual: to try this milestone, for those who had never had the opportunity, and perhaps all the chapters connected to it. Starting perhaps from its origins, without much fear of encountering badly aged games, because they have everything an FPS needs. Meanwhile, as every year, Godot and the Tartars are expected: you never know when Valve will refocus on his most beloved IP.