It's time I came out and said it. I don't like Half-Life 2.
Yes. It's true. And I don't just not like it. There are a lot of games I don't like for various reasons- fighting games, racing games, modern-day military shooters, zombie apocalypse games, and games with strong horror elements- but the reasons why I dislike them are personal, and I'm perfectly fine with the idea of other people with different tastes liking well-done games that I, personally, would rather not play. No. I don't just not like Half-Life 2. I DON'T THINK HALF-LIFE 2 IS A PARTICULARLY GOOD GAME.
And I'll tell you why. I found another skeptic during my internet travails ([link], beginning at 4:02)- he makes many of the points that I do, and we even arrived at some of the same language. But he doesn't really make it a main point of what he's doing and he doesn't explain it very thoroughly. I do. Here's the analysis.
Music: As an avid game OST fan, I payed special attention to the music. I was mildly disappointed- while half of the original songs were fairly good, the other half of the soundtrack was just atmospherics (heh heh. The music is only half-alive). Furthermore, the music would only play once, and the triggers were relatively rare, leaving you in silence much of the time.
Nitpicking: The game's plot is sparse enough to avoid any serious questions of logic other than the standard FPS nits of why your bullet holes fade and so on, although there are a few loose ends that nobody seems to bother to explain*. That said, the Half-Life series (and Valve games in general) don't seem to involve much actual science: "Oh no! Lowering the dampening fields on the anti-mass spectrometer caused a resonance cascade scenario!" Now, it takes a lot of nits (Transformers II's geography-warping level, to be exact) to actually DETRACT from the quality of a work, but Half-Life 2 will NOT be getting bonus points for science the way Mass Effect did.
Messages: I'm a firm believer in the idea that it's impossible to create a truly apolitical work of art, and Half-Life 2 has some messages that I'd disagree with. In particular, the Combine's specific "brand" of evil very heavily involves cybernetics and non-invasive population control, both of which are I think unfairly demonized. That said, while I would have preferred female characters other than a maybe-traitor and a love interest for Gordon, this game is pretty good as far as its portrayal of women goes, and it does have some unusual levels of parallelism with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, so I would score it "significantly above average" in that area.
Morality: Half-Life 2 has a terrible case of protagonist-centered morality. Blow up one of the largest cities on Earth? So long as you, your love interest, and a few other people you, personally happen to like got out it's fine. Yes, they tried to evacuate it... haphazardly, but the game even actively mentions "all the fresh zombies pouring out of City 17." Similarly, it isn't as though they bother to release anyone else from imprisonment in Nova Prospekt or the Citadel (which, need I remind you, they later BLEW UP)- so long as Eli Vance wasn't one of them, they didn't much care. I realize that Earth was in a pretty bad state and a lot of the other strategic options are terminal dead ends, but usually when a character or group of characters have to commit a necessary evil, they should acknowledge what they are doing is wrong, question it, and maybe even angst a little. Freeman and friends are downright flippant.
Gordon Freeman: I was not necessarily averse to Freeman's... umm... "character" in Half-Life 1: he sort of just faded into the background and let the story play out around him. Then came the sequel. Suddenly, everything is about Freeman!(Ok, ok the article is a bit harsh, but it gets the point across.) The rebels worship him. The alien slaves worship him despite his having blown a bunch of them to tiny pieces in the first game (did I mention Half-Life 2 had a horrible case of protagonist-centered morality?). The Combine, which is massive and has a whole planet to oppress, is obsessed with hunting him down. Father Grigsomething sacrifices himself so that he can continue on. Even G-Man, who is probably a minor Space God or something equally powerful, is interested in him to the exclusion of just about everything else he is able to tamper with. Which wouldn't be too bad, if it weren't for the fact that John-freaking-117 had more character!! Add to that this weird... cult of non-personality that makes up a lot of the fandom, and... well, I gave Gordon Freeman a Mary Sue litmus test, and he scored a whopping 53% Stu! (For comparison, John-117 scored 42% (including actions he took in the expanded universe), Pre-Other-M Samus scored 43% (Post-Other-M Samus scored an unbelievable 112%!!) , and Jak/Mar scored 45%. For whatever reason, these litmus tests seem to rank video game characters higher than normal, but even normalizing them with a flat 10% deduction (making Samus, Jak, and John "consider tweaking"), Gordon is considered "Obviously/dangerously Stuish").
Alyx Vance: I disliked her immediately upon encounter. Partly because her voice is annoying, and she has no personality, and she follows you around a fair bit more than I would prefer in a game that sprang from one with Metroid Prime levels of isolation, and I never liked the idea of a protagonist who is supposed to just fade away and let the story play out having a romantic interest**. But she's... well, a bit Suish herself. When put in danger, she reacts physically and emotionally like a hardened veteran, making action movie one-liners while she blasts the headcrabs off of shrieking zombie-corpse things*** (there's a few incidents where she cracks, but she immediately picks herself up again and gets back to what she was doing, which overall makes her composure even more impressive). I think ~20 years old is a bit young for that, and it seems at odds with the bubbliness that seems to be about her only sign of an actual personality. That, and I would think someone of her apparent physical fitness would have a bit more muscle mass than she does. But anyway. While I can accept that she's a very skilled fighter at a somewhat young age, and somewhat attractive at the same time, also making her a brilliant hacker and engineer takes things a bit too far (yes, sometimes she uses a small handheld gadget that could conceivably be a very powerful and automated hacking tool, but she also interacts directly with Combine equipment and the dialogue implies that she had an active technical role at Black Mesa East and other rebel mechanical projects). Furthermore, the plot revolves to an unreasonable degree around Freeman, and since Alyx is a close satellite of Freeman it tends to revolve to an unreasonable degree around Alyx as well: the alien slaves are interested in her, the Combine's interested in her, she's the scion of the resistance, and for that matter even G-Man is, once again, focusing a lot of attention on tampering with her destiny to the exclusion of others (and when he ignores her and leaves her to die like countless other people his manipulations have endangered, everyone bends over backwards to make sure he pays attention to her and only her. Have I mentioned this game has a very bad case of protagonist-centered morality?). It gets particularly bad in EP2, where you spend easily half the game wandering around to try to heal her/escort her. Once AGAIN: If the situation is so black that we/Freeman just can't be bothered to push a button and release some innocent prisoners or give an evacuation alert ahead of time, we most assuredly do not blunder about for hours with the Combine breathing down the backs of our necks trying to save one woman just because she's our sort-of-girlfriend. Have I mentioned that this game has a terrible case of protagonist-centered morality?!?!!
Other Characters: A lot of these characters don't really have much in the way of personality either. The scientisties (Eli, Kleiner, Uriah, and Mossman) are more or less interchangeable, Magnussen is very one-dimensional, Barney has no personality at all, G-Man got nerfed horribly, nobody (nobody!) cares about the blueshirt civilians, and while I thought Breen had the potential to be interesting his motivations and behavior are never really explored. Dog is... a very flat thingy that I'm not sure even qualifies as a character so much as a cute animal friend / tool for the rebels to move heavy objects with. Throughout the game, I found myself thinking the same eight words screenwriters dread: "I don't care what happens to these people." Seriously, I empathized way more with the cookie-cutter scientists in HL1 than with these... plot-armored redshirts. Ok, Ok, I cried when Eli died, but that was just because I knew it meant the Dirigibles of Doom wouldn't kill Alyx.
Tone: Half-Life 2 just can't figure out what exactly it wants to be. The humor is at least actually funny on its own, but... it doesn't seem to fit. The premise of the game is quite dark, being in a dystopian society and all, and it has quite a lot of horror elements to it. I don't necessarily dislike horror elements in non-horror games, but the constant mood swings make the lighter elements seem odd and unfunny while trivializing the darker ones. This sort of flippancy also contributed very heavily to the FREAKING PROTAGONIST-CENTERED MORALITY. It's actually kind of odd. The first part of this description could also apply to the primary Halo trilogy: both games feature occasional horror elements and major, serious events interspersed with moments of levity. But in Halo, while the net effect ended up somewhere south of serious, the two halves made the plot seem more enjoyable and encouraged you to "play along". In Half-Life 2, the effect is exactly the opposite. Why? Maybe because as far as the characters were concerned everything in Halo was deadly serious and the funny elements are strictly between Bungie and the player? I don't know!****
Plot Miscellanea: The game is far from plotless, but the story is fairly linear and most everything is explained directly to the player. Furthermore, there's no real "lore" to figure out, which is something I've come to appreciate in games: Everything that you can learn is tossed right out in front of you. I've also gotten a bit tired of post-apocalyptic themes in video games, especially those that feature zombies. Then there's the memetic status of Freeman's crowbar: in the first game it was justified as in improvised melee weapon in an industrial setting, but in the sequel there's no real reason for it to be there.
Puzzles: Let me come right out and say that I'm a giant puzzle nut. I can't get enough of them, in games or just about anywhere else. Pi day challenge, the Myst series, anything. Half-Life 2... well, it tries to include them. But it doesn't do a terribly good job of it. Now, I will admit I prefer my puzzles a lot harder than most other people, so while I'm disappointed with the fact that it takes me all of thirty seconds to solve any puzzle in the game, that falls squarely under personal preference. What doesn't is the fact that just about every puzzle seems designed to show off Valve's oh-so-shiny physics engine. This makes them boring. Which is a shame because I think if they wanted to, I think Valve could make good puzzles. They've got the perfect setup: Freeman is a scientist, interacting with and deciphering sophisticated alien technology! Add in a figure-it-out-for-yourself plot, and we'd have a very good puzzle element. But instead, we get endless glowball-moving and cable-stretching. Yes, Valve. We get it. You've got levers and pulleys and conservation of momentum. But what you don't have is logic or deductive reasoning.
Enemies: The enemy selection in Half-Life 2 is bothersome. There are a decent number of enemy types (although I would really have preferred more given the game's purported scope), but they're arranged in long, tedious streams of nothing but Combine, then nothing but Ant-lions (which look like neither, and don't resemble real antlions in the slightest***), then nothing but zombies. And speaking of the zombies- you can't swing a crowbar in this game without hitting one. I realize that they're one of the game's major horror elements, but they really get... tiring. That, and what happened to the Gargantulas, Houndeyes, Bullsquids, and other interesting aliens from the first game? Their absence (and where the antlions came from) is never explained, and they would have helped ease up on the monotony a great deal.
Weapons And Combat: Ok. There's an interesting weapon in this game in the form of bugbait, but it's role is distressingly minor, and all the other weapons seem fairly generic and interchangeable. That, and the grenades bounce way too much to be easily useable- usually, Valve's incessant desire to show off its physics engine just makes things boring, but in this case it actively hurts a combat feature. And they turned a perfectly good railgun into a "tau cannon" for no comprehensible reason (Ok, Ok, a physicist friend of mine made me put that in there!). Overall, it seemed like just opening up at enemies with whatever was on hand worked well, unlike the original game, which had different preferred weapons and strategies for different enemies. The gravity gun is... gimmicky beyond belief, and its role is obscenely overstated. It wouldn't bother me if it was 1) featured/mentioned DISCREETLY in line with the game's other mechanics, and 2) if there were non-physics mechanics to feature it with*****, but HL2 just will not shut up about it!!!
Level And Map Design: Ugh. One of my main problems with HL2 was the way the levels were built. Specifically, (ignoring Combine areas like the Citadel, which I'll get to in a moment), everything is so... incredibly... mundane! Yes, I get that the game is supposed to be post-apocalyptic. But that doesn't mean that Valve has free license to make it dull. Throw in some genuine ruins! Pull a Planet Of The Apes or two! Make people wonder: "What is this decayed object/structure/name/culture, and what did it correspond to in modern life?" If I wanted to see run-down apartment buildings and improvised shacks, I could just walk ten minutes to the bad part of Cleveland. Even when we're confronted with Combine installations, they look empty and ramshackle. It would have been nice to see alien technology that actually looked alien and sophisticated integrated into a 21st-century cityscape, but the Combine's additions are honestly extremely underwhelming. The main draw of the first-person adventure genre is exploration- playing onwards to see what's beyond the next door. But in HL2, what's behind the next door is universally boring, and it makes the player bored as well.
*There were a number of "huh?" moments interspersed though the game. Since some of my knowledge of the game is secondhand I won't cover them in detail, but examples include: Why are there no female zombies? Why do the Stalkers have their perfectly useful human feet and hands replaced with less effective metal bits? Why does everyone in City 17 write in some Cyrillic language but speak English?
**Especially if it's one of those characters who acts as a vehicle for the player. Injecting myself into a character, then having that character express an orientation I don't possess is a rather odd feeling But that's definitely a personal reaction.
***The sound effects and character reactions seem to imply that living people who get headcrabbed are still alive and aware of what is happening. I think this is scientifically dubious (headcrab teeth look like they pierce right through the thalamus, without which consciousness is impossible, to say nothing of the MASSIVE physical trauma the zombie mutation causes) and there is no evidence of such a state in the previous games. But whatever. Like I said, the science in Half-Life (and all Valve games) is pretty weak.
**** I'm envisioning maybe three lines of text in the vein of "Gravity Gun acquired."; "Press R to grab loose objects"; "While holding an object, press R to throw it.", and a bridge to pull across a gap to leave the room. Then, it would be used sparingly as a replacement melee weapon (chucking objects or explosives at enemies), but no enemies would need to be killed with it. The other purpose would be to pick up health & ammo from farther away, and only occasionally would it be used in puzzles, as an implement to manipulate the "controls" on a non-physics-based problem.
*****I found it rather difficult to believe that a bunch of rather large bugs could pose a serious threat to the rebels, much less the Combine- just pour some concrete down the tunnels, and they're done with. The same goes with headcrabs and the resultant zombies. I've heard people say that I'm confusing cause and effect and that the antlions and zombies appear where things are in ruins, not the other way around, but I don't buy it. If the creatures are only a menace to areas already in chaos, why does City 17 need shields? Why does the Combine need those oil-rig shockwave thingies? Why does Breen inform new arrivals that "it's safer here"? What took out the underground rebel mines in EP2? Why does the Combine shell places with Headcrab canisters instead of regular explosives, chemical weapons, or whatever else they have?
****** This actually went away with the last two games (Reach and 4), which is one of the main reasons I worry about the deterioration of the series's plot.