2004 was a ridiculous year in video gaming. Far Cry, Doom 3, Paper Mario: TTYD, Thief: Deadly Shadows, Pikmin 2, Fable, The Sims 2, GTA: San Andreas, Metroid Prime 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, World of Warcraft; the list goes on. Ground-breaking sequels, landmark series launches, and a little indie title called Half-Life 2.
Half-Life 2 was a pioneering game in several ways. It featured fantastic physics effects, with the ability to pick up items that had weight and affected the world. It was the first single-player game to require Valve’s Steam software (it’s like iTunes for games, but less shit); even if you bought it on disc. There are teething problems and the shift in purchasing habits and the idea of no longer physically or legally ‘owning’ a game is something that’s still being debated today. The game itself? It’s a revelation. It has puzzles that make you think and play with physics. It’s beautiful and still looks good today, with facial animations that put modern AAA titles to shame; only The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker has more expressive eyes. There are probably thousands of reviews and articles about how great and groundbreaking the game is, but I’ve no idea, because the game was broken for me.
Okay, I’ll be honest, I think I broke it.
It’s 2007 and I’m gifted a copy of Half-Life 2. I remember the first game, but I was a console gamer growing up, so I’d never really got into it. Goldeneye and Perfect Dark were my FPS games of choice growing up. Still, it was free, so I’m not going to pass up to chance to play one of the most acclaimed video games of all time.
The first thing I notice is that this game looks incredible. I’m running on a piece of shit computer, but it still looks pretty damn good. I get off the train in the gorgeous City 17 (the work of Viktor Antonov, who would later go on to work on the similarly dystopian, faux-European city of Dunwall in Dishonored) and take in the grim sights. People — slaves? — in blue uniforms are being pushed and beaten around by sinister masked members of the Combine empire. You’re soon introduced to the wonderful physics of the game by being ordered to pick up an empty can by one of the Combine. You can chuck it around and it’ll realistically (as far as you can get in 2004, anyway) bounce around. Chuck it at the miserable Combine soldier and he’ll shout and twat you, reporting to a superior that you’ve failed a loyalty check.
Moments like this abound in the game and I spend a few hours in it, absolutely loving it. I’m constantly on the run from the Combine and its flying, deadly ‘manhack’ machines; trying to avoid ceiling-dwelling, slithery alien barnacles, which trap you with its tongue and slowly pull you up towards its gaping, tooth-filled jaws. There are a few simple, but fun physics-based puzzles, like trying to weigh down one side of a massive seesaw to get over a gap, or messing with water levels to get through a dank, dangerous sewer.
It’s great! And then… I reach the mudskipper. In the Water Hazards chapter you’re tasked with taking a massive airboat called the mudskipper and crossing the City 17 Canals. You have to solve some physics puzzles and avoid a powerful, heavily-armed attack helicopter on the way to your goal. I imagine it’s full of thrills and adrenaline-pumping action, but there was just one problem – my mudskipper vanished. I didn’t realise I was supposed to have it.
Here’s a confession. I get bored with FPS games sometimes and, when given the choice to mess around, I will. So I loaded up the console (a setting for developers/idiots to test the game for bugs, etc) and turned off clipping (turning me into a ghost, basically, allowing me to float around the world and walk through walls into areas the developer never intended you to reach). I’m not sure what happened, I maybe passed through a loading zone and the game didn’t realise, but my trusty airboat was gone. I assumed this was normal and took the very, very long trip down the canals on foot.
It took a while. An hour or so maybe? Just walking, and walking, and walking. The occasional puzzle, but mostly walking. Sometimes I would get to a dead end, assumed the game was stupid, and clipped past the obstacles. Finally, after what seemed like years, I reached the end, but the game wouldn’t trigger the next chapter, because I didn’t have the mudskipper and the game didn’t know what to do. I was stuck. Alone. Forever.
I didn’t play the game for another seven years, until today. I played for two hours, fighting past the Combine, solving the puzzles, avoiding the barnacles, twatting the headcrabs with my sturdy crowbar. I enjoyed the characters, Valve’s unmatched attention to detail, the panic when you’re escaping the Combine, the general oppressive atmosphere of the game; you’re not welcome here and the world lets you know it. I reached the canals, butterflies spazzing around in my stomach, terrified it’s going to happen all over again. It doesn’t. The airboat is there. I climb on, power up and zoom around the canals. Eventually you get a weapons upgrade and get to blow the shit out of everything. I imagine the game only gets better, everyone in the world says so, but I’m happy to stop here. That damn canal has haunted me for years, but I conquered it, just as the developers intended.
One of the best games of all time? Probably. Fuck that canal, though.