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Half-Life 2 remembered

"You've arrived in City 17..."

Half-Life 2 is a game built of great moments, and of its designers' desire to change the pace, the structure, and the feel of the challenge while you move from one sequence to the next. As a celebration of City 17's 10th birthday, we asked a handful of developers to tell us about the specific moments that stuck with them the most.

Dan Marshall, Size Five Games

"You've arrived in City 17, you've had a taste of the atmosphere, the dystopian tang in the air, and you're starting to itch for something to shoot at. Before you get the gun, before you get the crowbar, even, there's this sublime little bit of game design, dashing through buildings, guided by citizens ushering you through the apartments.

"There's this building tension, a succession of 'moments' that get increasingly frequent, like a rising heartbeat. Suddenly there's a Combine coming up the stairs and the whole thing erupts into this mad, brilliant rooftop dash. Bullets pinging against the wall next to you, the sinister crackle of radio chatter chasing you, and you're just madly, desperately clambering to find the path forwards. A gunship buzzes you, and guides your eye towards a tank on the streets. Barely-visible ground troops take potshots at you as you dart across a ledge. Finally you're in through a window, and a door bursts open and Combine charge towards you. You turn, and the door behind you does the same.

"You're never really in danger, of course, and it ends in an inevitable failure. But that chase remains such a thrill, such a pitch-perfect masterclass in action choreography. I'd play a whole game like that."

Tom Francis, Suspicious Developments

"Looking back on what I wrote at the time, my mind was apparently f***ing blown by the digital acting - the nuance, the warmth, little expressions and inflections I'd never seen a game pull off before. And I was in love with the combat - it was my favourite shotgun ever, and the gravity gun was limitless joy.

"Those things have since lost their novelty, but the thing that's stuck with me is its sense of place. And of those places, Highway 17. It's a route that runs along the coast from City 17 to the prisons at Nova Prospekt, and you gun it in your wireframe buggy as Antlions pop on your hood. But once you plough through those, it becomes a quieter drive. There are bleak little houses on the clifftops along the way, and it's up to you whether to stop off and investigate.

"If you do, you'll find them weathered and abandoned, repurposed as rebel hideouts, fallen to the headcrabs or annexed by the Combine. The dead trees, the misty view, and the calmly shimmering sea gave them a quiet sadness. The fact that they were optional made them feel real: places that existed with or without me. And choosing to investigate was one of the few times when Half-Life 2 made me feel like a survivor of a tragedy more than a freedom fighter. Scavenging for scraps among the remnants of isolated places long lost. Hitting a boat with a crowbar for +25 health."

Adrian Chmielarz, The Astronauts

"The core Half-Life 2 was never immersive to me, I couldn't buy into the story and the world.

"However, I admired each minute of the game for how smart it was. I remember this little combat set up where you had to roll up a gate, but it took time and any enemy attack interrupted the action, causing the gate to slowly go down again. It's a solution replicated quite often these days - like many other things from Half-Life 2 - but at the time it was a wow moment for me.

"And the game was densely peppered with smart solutions like this. You just knew you were in the presence of something very special. But, as I said, I wasn't immersed. It was all too good, too calculated, you could feel the designers' presence every step of the way. "I did feel immersed in the Episodes, though. To this day I am not quite sure why. I do know, though, that the Striders' attack on the White Forest is one of those rare moments in gaming where the gameplay, the world, and the storytelling perfectly mesh together into one nuclear blast of synergy that only a handful of games managed to offer in the last 10 years."

David Goldfarb, independent

"Caveat: I'm old, so I don't recall that many moments with much clarity any more. What I remember best from Half-Life 2 was a sound. I had to listen to it again today to refresh my memory.

"The sound of the Strider. Maybe it's weird that this is the thing I latched onto. There were so many firsts in Half-Life 2 that to pick a thing which was, at the end of the day, just some incredibly good sound design seems like it's missing the point.

"But here's my argument, I guess. That one sound told me everything I needed to know about the game. It was mournful and lonely and wounded in a way that made me think about everything that must have happened to make this thing sound this way. How was it born? What kind of world would have to exist in order for this thing to fit in? There was a feeling of deep, grounded reality in the sound, like someone had been standing there with a boom mike in the middle of City 17, waiting for one of these things to come by, risking their own life just to bring us this one noise. So even though the totality of Half-Life 2 was this amazing collection of incredible 'I've never seen that before' stuff, it all started for me with the one sound, that awful wail like the lighthouse monster in Bradbury's short story, relentless as the tides."

Scott Warner, Visceral Games

"One of the things that Half-Life 2 did better than any other game I can think of is how it introduced gameplay features to the player. New mechanics and weapons are not just pickups you find on the ground after killing something - nearly every one of them has a carefully crafted sequence that teaches the functionality of the system we need to learn and keeps it firmly in the universe. Think about how much time we spend with D0g and the gravity gun, learning how to control the Antlions and encountering Striders for the first time. Interacting with objects in the world doesn't just get some text on-screen to inform the player of what to do, but instead is presented menacingly by a Combine soldier who threatens to shock you with his stick if you don't comply. Even the crowbar is presented to us as 'our old friend' by another old friend. Thanks to Valve's attention to detail and their clear synergy between narrative and gameplay, our immersion is rarely broken in Half-Life 2 by cheap tooltips or gamey tutorials."

Warren Spector

"The most memorable moment for me was tossing the ball for D0g - but saying that will surely cost me much gamer cred!"

Jordan Thomas, Question LLC - working on The Magic Circle

"I'm not sure if this answer will be rogue, controversial, or incredibly common, but honestly the thing I remember most keenly is playing catch, and then fetch, with D0g. It sits high among a very small number of tutorials which have ever allowed me to forget that I was being taught, and remember it instead as a moment I had lived.

"Although heavily scripted like other scenes before and since, the heavy involvement of the physics simulation, and the interactive honesty to involve one of the game's central mechanics (in a scene which also introduces a semi-major character and effortlessly weaves small notes about his relationship with Alyx into the action)... The elegance of it struck me hard at the time. Clearly, it inspires run-on sentences.

"You're getting to know these two through action as much or more more than dialogue, and the kinesthetic part of your brain, which would normally rebel against a scene this long, is consistently engaged - in a non-violent way, to boot.

"Reviewing it again on YouTube now, the slight moments of churn where the scripting has to wait for the physics simulation to settle, etc - are still explained relatively well by D0g's robotic nature, which is a conceit Valve would go on to exploit masterfully for years to come without ever making it an excuse for lazy presentation.

"Cases where D0g would miss, or you would - they were gamey, but in a way that felt true to all physical play; project atoms into space and sometimes the trajectory isn't ideal, the margin for error in intent is pretty friggin' wide. You might, perchance, bean your baby brother and never hear the end of it.

"That moment remains a great example, to me, of a case where the compositional elements were strong enough, and enough white (or negative) space was left for me to express myself within it via the systems - that I actively filled in the gaps, remembered it as smoother and more natural than it truly was. That rosy hindsight effect tends to be a hallmark of greatness, especially in games, where most of us still handle quiet "human" moments so awkwardly, all these years later."

Chris Avellone, Obsidian Entertainment

"The gravity gun - sorry, Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator - was one of the best gaming 'tools' I've seen given to a player. It's perfect for puzzle-solving, exploration, and combat, especially choosing your ammo, which can come with all sorts of advantages and drawbacks.

"So my happiest moment was this: after going through the game dreaming that the gravity gun worked on enemies, the moment it went supercharged blue in the Citadel and I was able to punt Combine soldiers around was one of the most satisfying moments I've had in gaming. As soon as I targeted the first enemy, my room was filled with joyous streams of profanity. As a game mechanic advancement, it made me empowered - and made me totally forget that my other weapons were vaporised in light of the new power I had. (Well played, Valve.)"

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About the Author
Christian Donlan avatar

Christian Donlan

Features Editor

Christian Donlan is a features editor for Eurogamer. He is the author of The Unmapped Mind, published as The Inward Empire in the US.

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