REVIEW: Half-Life 2 (2004)

When’s the last time in a videogame you met a black male character that’s elderly, educated, disabled… and with loving family, no less? That’s just one of the many ways Half-Life 2, a game still popular to this day, has set the bar for the industry in the years since its release. If you’re a gamer, you’ll like today’s episode – but if you’re not, check out why the games industry isn’t a totally lost cause

“HALF-LIFE 2” (2004)

OVERVIEW ► released in Q4 2004, “Half-Life 2” depicts a future where faceless aliens have subjugated Earth, installing a dictator to monitor humanity. the game is a sequel to the original “Half-Life”, released to critical acclaim in 1997 for bringing realistic characters and settings to gaming. upon release, “Half-Life 2” was universally acclaimed for its advances in graphics, AI and physics, as well as its complex, lifelike characters. the hero, Dr. Freeman, is the opposite of a typical beefcake hero. the game depicts him as an MIT physicist, forced to fight to inspire hope. this unusually ordinary hero is backed by a varied supporting cast, collaborating despite their differences to fight back against oppression. ultimately, “Half-Life 2” focuses on ordinary people, in contrast to today’s generic military shooters about manly men and their manly guns.

VISIBILITY ► whilst the first “Half-Life” was renowned for its realism, it was oddly devoid of women characters, though it did have one token black dude. surprisingly, the sequel raises the bar in this regard. Freeman’s closest ally is Alyx, an educated multiracial woman with a talent for tech. Dr. Vance is her dad, the one black character from the first game, now depicted as a disabled Harvard grad leading the Resistance’s research. also aiding the Resistance is Dr. Mossman, a woman scientist who manages to be an important character (despite not having a boyfriend). the human citizens of City 17 are an equally varied lot. they hail from a range of backgrounds, as should be expected of a modern populace. though the game features both minority and female characters, it portrays them as essential contributors, not helpless victims to be rescued.

AGENCY ► Dr. Freeman may be the central hero, but he is no lone-wolf saviour. the supporting cast also have roles in shaping the plot and saving Earth. Dr. Mossman is one of the game’s more visible female characters. complex in her motives, she plays both sides in a gamble for Earth’s survival. Freeman’s ally Alyx also defies stereotypes of girls as helpless damsels. her first appearance involves saving the hero from police in pursuit. Alyx’s rapport with her dad is noteworthy as well. the game depicts how their relationship motivates her to keep fighting for the Resistance. Alyx’s dad is a gaming rarity, being an elderly, educated and disabled man of colour. that he spends half the game in captivity is disappointing. nonetheless, most minor characters have an active role in saving their world, even the ragtag rebels who rise up in revolt during the game.

PROGRESS ► though praised for its immersive characters and storytelling, the game failed to immediately persuade rival studios to adopt a similar approach. the later games of the era favoured macho, cinematic approaches where muscly, clichéd supermen save the world, with women oddly absent. in recent years though, more studios have begun recognising the importance of having characters who look like the gamers buying games. the developers of “Half-Life 2” continue to (slowly) develop games under this philosophy, as evidenced by characters in titles like “Left 4 Dead”. even after more than a decade, “Half-Life 2” remains relevant, as fans persist in creating new modifications to update and improve the game. the pivotal question now is whether future videogames will try to surpass the high bar set by “Half-Life 2” and its forward-looking developers.

The first instalment of this review series began with 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order. With this second instalment, we backtracked a decade earlier to 2004, to the birth of technology that now powers today’s most popular games. Our plan had been to then review other titles over those intervening 10 years, to demonstrate how much – or little – has changed in the industry since then.

What we’ve discovered, though, is that playing a new game for each new episode is frankly inefficient. To quote a developer diary we recently wrote on the topic…

…covering a new game in each video is extraordinarily resource-intensive. Putting 8 to 12 hours into a game for the sake of one video is asking a lot, and whilst the economics may work for YouTubers like Angry Joe with established audiences, it’s not a sustainable model for beginning YouTubers.

So we’ll likely do a limited four episodes for this season, and then switch up the format for the next season to focus on feminist playthrough commentary – one chapter from the game per video.

If we do this, we’ll adapt the vlog design we used in our recent Q&A videos, repurposing it for commentary. Yes, the content of those videos was bad, but the purpose of the videos was to stress test our vlog design and workflow, under real-world conditions – and both held up well, so we can apply them to a better purpose next semester.

Anyway, if you’ve no patience for dev diary rambling, basically we’re deciding between critiquing feminism in either Mass Effect 3 or Deus Ex: Human Revolution for next semester’s videos. If you have an opinion on which game we should do, sound off in the comments.

We’ll post the next instalment of this series in a few weeks. (Hint: Strogg.) Meanwhile, for those of you with friends who only care for carnage in gaming, here’s something to whet their appetites…

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5 comments for “REVIEW: Half-Life 2 (2004)

  1. PrettyAmiable
    December 5, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    I’m really into these, and can’t wait for it to hit on a game I’m more familiar with!

    • December 5, 2015 at 3:57 pm

      Well, hopefully we don’t disappoint! With which games are you familiar (unless the answer would date you embarrassingly)?

      • PrettyAmiable
        December 5, 2015 at 4:18 pm

        Haha, you know what would be really cool? Any thoughts on the Tomb Raider series. My current game systems are xbox one and Nintendo 3DS. I’ve stopped myself from getting the reboot or its sequel because of the (SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T PLAYED OR HADN’T OBSESSIVELY READ LIKE ME) implied assault threat she gets, but I grew up with Lara Croft before I knew anything about feminism or how potentially problematic it was that she was supposed to be hot, giant, pointy boobs and all (i.e. I was 10 when the first game came out and I played eagerly on our Gateway PC). Honestly, broad thoughts on the entire series would be really cool if you have them!

      • December 5, 2015 at 7:40 pm

        Funny you mention “Tomb Raider”, because Anita Sarkeesian’s recent review of the franchise is actually what made us realise our review series isn’t good enough, at least in this form. In earlier posts, I’ve said I started this series because projects like FemFreq haven’t bothered to analyse individual games. But just as we launched our series, Sarkeesian started her own series of individual reviews — which I love, but also raises the bar for us. That’s why we’re doing only a couple more episodes of the series in its current format, before switching to a commentary format next semester (as I mentioned above).

        That’s also why I haven’t pushed my mates to review “Tomb Raider”, since FemFreq did a brilliant job last month. Still, I wonder if “Tomb Raider” could benefit from a chapter-by-chapter analysis, like we intend to do with either “Mass Effect 3” or “Human Revolution”. Interestingly, both “Tomb Raider” and “Human Revolution” are published by Square Enix, known for deep, open-ended games generally. Personally I lean toward “Human Revolution”, but if folks ask enough in the comments, I’ll seriously consider reviewing Lara Croft’s excellent adventures!

      • PrettyAmiable
        December 5, 2015 at 9:55 pm

        Ahhhh thank you for linking me! I haven’t been keeping up with her work for pretty depressing reasons (honestly, I have no idea how she puts up with the shit she gets – I get overwhelmed reading the vitriol spewed at her, and it’s not even me).

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