Yesterday, I finished Half-life 2. Not for the first time; I'm certain I played it when the Orange Box came out in 2007, and I might have played it before that as well. I remember I really loved it.
I loved it a lot less this time around, and in fact have major complaints against the design of the game. This is odd, because I'm pretty sure that the things I loved 4 years ago were the same things I disliked now. Let me try to explain, and I'd love to hear what you think.
Story and characterisation
The story is simply bad. There's a lot of SF nonsense about humans being oppressed by aliens from another dimension, and there's a being out of time who manipulates Freeman for purposes unknown. All very "mysterious", but the kind of mystery where you feel that the guys at Valve are not giving you a coherent story because they don't have a coherent story to give you. This feeling was certainly borne out by the two episodes that followed, which did little to clarify the situation.
Most mysterious is the design decision to give Freeman no voice. I'm not talking about voice acting, but about any means of communications at all. People are continually saying things to you, you do not utter a single syllable, and nobody thinks this is strange. What are we to make of this? Do they all know that you are a mindless automaton? No, they seem to treat you as a human being with emotions. So why are you not talking, and why are they not noticing? Freeman's silence makes it impossible to take anything in the game at face value; but then the game doesn't provide another value for you to take things at. We only have bewilderment.
I really don't understand this design decision. There have been other games with a they-talk-and-you-do-not approach, like Diablo 2. But that was different. (1) Since you trade with these guys, you are apparently communicating, even if the game doesn't show this. (2) You were still selecting options from a menu, even if they were as impersonal as "trade" and "turn in quest". (3) Since the game was less cinematic and the conversations were less about personal feelings, reactions of the protagonist were less important and less expected.
Freeman really freaks me out. I don't believe he is supposed to, but man... his silence is his only personality trait!
Many of the original reviews agreed with me that Half-life 2 didn't have a great story. So let's put that to the side, and look at the gameplay. Surely that is brilliant? It has everything: not just fast FPS action, but also vehicles and jumping and shooting down huge robots and summoning ant lions and getting the upgraded gravity gun and whatnot. A truly fast-paced game with lots and lots of variety.
And it's true. Half-life 2 does give us a lot of variety. A lot of creativity went into it. But, and this seems to me the game's central problem, all of it is the creativity of the designers. Nothing is the creativity of the player.
It starts with the extreme linearity of the game. There is exactly one path, and it is impossible to deviate from it for more than a few meters. Even where there was absolutely no reason to choose such a design, Valve insists on linearity. For instance, near the end of the game you are turning off generators in some kind of public building. It's a big building, you need to get to all generators, there's no story reason to do them in a particular order. But Valve blocks off all corridors except one with force fields, and then slowly turns off the force fields one by one as you shut down the generators. Why? Apparently just so the player doesn't get overwhelmed by having... a choice.
The linearity of the game is so ridiculous that you cannot help but wonder -- again and again and again -- why the Combine is sending soldiers at you when all they would have to do to stop you is lock a single wooden door, or put a single 70 cm high obstacle in a corridor somewhere. In fact, if they just did nothing, Freeman would get stuck in one of the many areas where you can only proceed once your enemies have blown up a wall.
Linearity wouldn't be so bad if Valve allowed us to decide how to take on the enemies. To a certain extent, of course, we can: we can choose to throw a grenade, or use our crossbow, or shoot with our machine gun. But in fact, this extent is quite limited. We are continually placed in situations where there is exactly one way to proceed, and all we have to do is pick up the designers' hints and act on them. Combine soldiers behind shields? You'll be given a bunch of grenades just before you arrive there. Lots of zombies coming through a narrow corridor? Three circular saws are lying on the ground at your feet. In fact, if you come across a cache of rockets, you know that you will have to fight an airship or a strider. This is true every single time. You don't see a strider and decide which weapon to use against it: only rockets will work. You don't see a strider and think of a way to get rockets: there will always be a cache of rockets nearby, and there will be no other way to get rockets. The designers have decided that it is time for a rocket-vs-strider battle, and therefore you are given a strider and rockets and the battle commences.
This design philosophy informs every aspect of the game. The designers at Valve have decided what you are going to do at each point of the game, and any significant deviation is impossible. You never duck into a small tunnel because it allows you to circumvent the guards; you duck into a small tunnel because it is the only way forward. You are never moving crates and floating barrels because you have had an interesting idea, you are moving them because you have come to see that the level has been designed in such a way that you must positions the barrels and crates in position X in order to proceed. If you find placable turrets, you know that you'll have to defend the area against lots of enemies. There are no exceptions. Perhaps worst of all, there is Ravenholm with its awesome anti-zombie traps: gas-and-fire traps, falling cars, rotating knives, truly brilliant. But every trap has been designed and placed by Valve. The player just pushes the on-button. You don't even have to lure your enemies towards it, because if there is a trap, Valve will of course have provided you with a couple of enemies who are walking towards it.
As I played, the feeling that I was just acting out a script given to me grew stronger and stronger, and I came to resent it more and more. Why don't these guys just leave me alone? I don't want to be fed the set-pieces you have thought up in advance; just give me a level in which I can move and do things and be smart. And if it's a pure arcade game in which I don't have to be smart, but just have to show my skill at shooting in the right direction, that would be fine too -- but do not force me to act out the smart ideas you have had.
Seriously, if you think that crushing zombies under a falling car is cool, design a game in which I can raise cars, lure zombies, and crush them. Don't design a game with a suspended car, some zombies wandering towards it, and a button which I can push to drop the car. Because that is me acting out a scenario you have thought up and imposed on me.
Let me put it another way. The Half-life 2 designers are like a bad kind of Game Master: the kind of guy who has thought up in advance with what tactic the monster should be defeated, who gives you the tools to do it, and who rules that anything else you try will not work. "Nope, your spell does nothing. But remember that wand you just found in the previous room?" To which the natural player reaction is: "Yeah, I remember it, but I refuse to be manipulated. You are trying to usurp my fun, and then you want me to congratulate you on your well thought-out scenario. Go away." That seems to be exactly what the Half-life 2 designers have done: usurp my fun, and then expect me to applaud them for their brilliant "design". I'm not applauding. I just feel manipulated.