Welcome. Welcome to City 17.

“You have chosen, or been chosen, to relocate to one of our finest remaining urban centers.”  Were the slightly haunting first words as the pictures appeared on the screen.  You appeared to be on a train but you didn’t know where you were going until you heard Dr. Breen’s voice.

It’s been 10 years – 10 years today – since Half-Life 2 was released.  One of the best games in video gaming history and it feels as though it has stood up to the test of time.

When you start the game you’re dropped into this dystopian world of City 17 where people live effectively as slaves of the Combine.  All of this is the fall out from the original Half-Life, which you as the lead character Gordon Freeman, are effectively part responsible for.  Now you’re doing your best to survive and find the handful of other people left over from Black Mesa.  It’s never simple though, is it?  You have to battle all sorts of aliens, people, headcrabs, machines and radiation.

At Christmas in 2004 I purchased Half-Life 2 for someone and sat and watched them play it.  I wasn’t particularly au fait with games in general.  I was in a relationship with someone who was an IT worker and they played a lot of games.  My PC gaming experience extended to Driver, Midtown Madness and The Sims.  I wasn’t wholly sure how I would handle a first or third person shooter, so I was a little reluctant to play them.  I was encouraged to play Max Payne.  I’m so glad I did.  Max Payne is a fantastic game.  It will look rather dated now, but it was the game that brought the world bullet time, and the gameplay was punctuated with stylised comic strips.  Once you could get past the constantly constipated look on Max Payne’s face, you were hooked.

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Having completed Max Payne, and subsequently Max Payne 2, I decided to play the first Half-Life.  Now that is a game that does not stand the test of time.  It looks terrible now, but just remind yourself that it was released in 1998.  That’s 16 years ago.  Half-Life completed and I moved on to Half-Life 2.

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I’ve actually forgotten how many times I’ve played the game through.  It takes forever, and is far more difficult on the xBox 360 than it is on the PC, but it never gets old.  It doesn’t even really look old.  Sure, the rendering is a bit slow, and games no longer do the wonderful “LOADING” thing in the middle of a sequence, making you wait forever.  Half-Life 2 spawned so much from Day of Defeat: Source (which wouldn’t have been possible without the Source engine that HL2 was built on) to Team Fortress 2, and Portal.

HL2 was what turned me into a hardcore gamer.  I racked up thousands of hours on Day of Defeat: Source and Team Fortress 2.  I was a highly ranked medic on TF2.  Eventually life got too busy and I just don’t have time for it much anymore, but do like to pop up on European TF2 servers occasionally.  (Drop me comment if you want to hook up on Steam, and I’ll see what I can do.)

I wasn’t mesmerised by the graphics of HL2 or how realistic the weapons were.  Nah.  Sure, it did and still does look good, and any weapons that are based on real ones I guess are pretty accurate.  For me, it was the story.  It’s the fact that Gordon Freeman never speaks.  He is a silent participant in a dystopian world that he never wanted any part of.  There are no cutscenes to disturb the flow, try to make up time or used as a patch over a hole in the story.  What would people like Ubisoft do without cutscenes now?

The fact that Gordon Freeman didn’t speak means that you are wholly in control of his emotions.  He’s not putting words in your mouth, he’s not influencing how you make decisions or how you feel about your decisions.  All of that is your own and you make those decisions based on your experiences in life and in the game.  That’s powerful.  So many games now manipulate your emotions and decisions using dialogue.  HL2 doesn’t do this.  You are Gordon Freeman and Gordon Freeman is you.

The setting is so bleak that even years later it all stays with you.  I remember going to Frankfurt a good few years after it came out and getting the feeling that I was in City 17 by the way it looked.  I hate the Ravenholm level, and anyone who has played the game will agree it’s a creepy place.  The line spoken in the game “We don’t go to Ravenholm” should have been heeded.  It’s creepy as you like, especially if you’re playing with headphones.  It sticks with you.  Leaper zombies will haunt your dreams after the first time you play it.  The black headcrabs that lurk around each corner will have you on tenterhooks.  And Fr. Grigory?  Well, I never figured if he was truly a friend.

If you’ve never played HL2, please do.  You can buy the game here, or just watch a video of gameplay for a bit of nostalgia.

The game is still relevant today.  As a global society everything is actually quite fragile and I don’t doubt that there are a few world leaders out there who would like to create a dystopia for their own gain.  Half-Life 2 was almost a painting of what widespread Communism could have looked like.  The only people who benefit in those socities are those who are in charge.

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Remember, “The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.”

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