Half-Life 2: why level design and gameplay mustn’t be neglected.

Apparently, gamers have been “protesting” to demand more information on the status of Half-Life 3, hoping that Valve will tell them something. Personally, although I probably will end up playing Half-Life 3, I can’t quite understand why some people are so desperate for it. Because I, apparently alone of all humanity, didn’t think Half-Life 2 was that great. Call me “anticitizen one”.

I have played it yet again to be sure, and I have come to the same conclusion I always do: Half-Life 2 is a good game, but it is not the wonderful masterpiece it is made out to be. In terms of actual gameplay and level design, it is quite flawed, in my opinion.

Half-Life 2‘s level design suffers from being too lengthy, too tedious, and too hostile to the game mechanics. The levels frequently go on well after they have worn out their welcome. Moreover, they are not all that great to begin with. For example, “Highway 17” goes on far longer than it should, and involves the player needlessly in a repetitive series of roadblocks. And if I have to use the gravity gun to take the power cord from another shield, I’ll go mad.

Moreover, this tediousness is heightened by the fact that the scenery, while very beautiful, is shown for so long that it becomes boring. There are shockingly many dull little farmhouses and tunnels scattered throughout the land, and after the first three hours, they lose their charm.

All this, however, was not nearly as repetitive as another problem which crops up again and again, and which  befalls even the better-paced HL 2: Episodes  1& 2: the damnable enemy dropships and striders. These things serve much the same function as helicopters do in “James Bond” films; which is to provide the hero an opportunity to prove himself against a seemingly overwhelming foe. And fortunately, they have the terrible habit of only appearing when a miraculously infinite supply of missiles is lurking within reach. One or two instances of this would have been fun, 10 or so is predictable and tedious.

But these flaws might easily be overcome; for they are hardly unique to HL. No, where Half-Life falls distinctly below average is its needlessly confusing and frustrating layouts. Why, for example, is it necessary to leap about on jury-rigged automobiles to move about in Ravenholm? Why is it necessary to leap across chasms on to ladders? Why does poor Dr. Freeman always have to trudge up confusing flights of stairs which lead to rooms with nothing but a radio and a monster, when all along the exit was at the other end of the hall?

Why, in other words, is it thought to have been a good idea to introduce a ridiculous amount of platform navigating into a genre that is singularly ill-suited for it? Imagine trying to play Super Mario 64 in first-person mode, and you will see why this is a bad idea. If a platformer is to succeed, you must be able to see your character, or else you have no idea where things are.

All this adds up to make navigating the beautiful, rich world of Half-Life 2 amazingly frustrating. Now, understand that in many, many respects, including those respects which I value most highly in video games, Half-Life as a series is vastly superior tomost shooters. The characters are all more interesting than those typically found in the genre. (Look at HL‘s Breen vs. Doom 3‘s Dr. Betruger, for example.) The graphics in Half-Life 2 and its sequels are gorgeous. The writing in Half-Life 2, while not excellent, at least feels like it wasn’t thrown together at the last minute. In every way except actual gameplay, Half-Life 2 cleans many an FPS’s clock. But if you asked me which I’d actually want to play, I would sign on for another run through a more typical FPS like Doom 3 or Quake 4 before Half-Life 2.

Well, that’s my opinion. Feel free to flame me.

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