Let’s Study Half-Life 2, Pt 6

Six down, one to go. Although expect a longer break before my next one. (It may not be out until the end of May.)

Script below the jump.

So, this is now part six of a seven-part series. And so far in this series, we’ve made it about halfway through the 8th chapter of Half-Life 2, out of 13 chapters in all. So we’re about sixty percent of the way through the game, give or take a bit, depending on how hard you found the earlier sections and how hard you find the later ones. For this video series, I spent about 11 hours capturing the footage for the previous sections, against about 18 hours overall for my playthrough. Which actually does, yeah, work out, more or less exactly. We’re 60% of the way through.

But we only have two more videos, out of seven. And, actually, I’ve decided that I want to get to the end of the game before the last video, since that one’s going to be more of a general wrapping-up of lessons learned, with an eye toward Half-Life 2’s legacy.

This episode is called “left shift.” It’s the button you press to sprint when you’re playing Half-Life 2 with a keyboard and mouse. In this video, we’re going to be sprinting through the last 40% of the game.

Obviously, that means that there’s not going to be a whole lot of detailed analysis in this video. But I think that’s okay. I’ve spent the previous five video building up a large vocabulary of concepts for talking about Half-Life 2. There’s not much more I have to add to it. So, even if I really took my time on the back portion of the game, I’d still just be pointing out more examples of things I’ve already said before. So might as well just hit that sprint button.

Here we go.

The latter portion of the “Sandtraps” chapter uses the antlions to enact the logic of the children’s game “the floor is made of lava.” It’s always surprising to me how few video games riff on this game idea. It’s such an elemental form of play, like tag or hide-and-go-seek, and certainly there are plenty of games that riff on those archetypal formats.

Sure, you see it enacted in very literal ways in platformer games. But I don’t see many other instances where the whole logic of a game-world is built around the idea of avoiding stepping on something. Dying Light’s innovative use of zombies comes close, I suppose.

Anyway, Valve tests it out here, and it’s a nice change of pace. One problem, though, is that it does get tedious. Too much of this journey is just about alternating between standing on and moving two safe platforms.

We have a boss fight against an antlion queen, and a Vortigaunt comes out and harvests some antlion pheromone pods from it. This completely changes the mechanical logic of the antlions: during their appearances in the rest of the game, they will be our allies. We have a moment where we’re trained in how to wrangle them, and then we mount an assault on the Nova Prospekt prison complex with them at our side.

This section cleverly reverses much of what the player had been trained to do during the coastline road trip section. Before, these “thumper” devices were things we were trained to turn on, as they kept the antlions at bay. Here, our relationship to them has reversed, and we need to turn them off as we approach the prison, in order to allow it to be overtaken by our newfound allies.

There’s some fighting on the beach where, if we want to, we can stay mostly out of danger, guiding the antlions to attack our foes.

Eventually, we breach the perimeter, fight off a gunship, and get inside the prison.

In the prison, we’re introduced to combine turrets, in a process of incremental escalation.

The first time we see one is through a window. And then, even when we get closer, it’s still pointed away from us, separated from us by some bars. In this way, Valve can demonstrate that turrets are hazardous to our antlion allies, without actually placing us in danger, yet.

The second time we see them, we’re similarly protected. Here, the antlions can overwhelm the turrets on their own. So even if we didn’t knock the previous one over ourselves, now we know that it can be done.

The third time we encounter turrets, there’s no longer a barrier of bars separating us from them. But they’re still pointed away from us, so they don’t present much of a danger. They’re easy to knock over.

The fourth time we encounter them, they are pointed at us. But, by the time we can get close to them, they’re far above us, and they’re not particularly adept and pointing down. So it’s easy to lob grenades at them. We’re in danger, but not that much danger—we still have time to think.

This changes the fifth time we encounter them. Here, we’re being fired upon just as much as our antlion allies. This room is pretty darn dangerous, and it’s essential to find a way to use the gravity gun to take these turrets out quickly.

The next turrets we encounter are farther away, and some of them are even protected by forcefields. Knocking these ones over is much more of a puzzle. It requires us to have a keen eye for vents, even when we’re under heavy fire.

We continue to use the antlions as allies. We can tell them to attack enemies. We can sacrifice them to diffuse traps. But, eventually, Valve runs out of new ways to use them, so they disappear from the level, and are replaced by Alyx—who becomes a voice on the radio for awhile … doing very typical voice-on-the-radio things.

Alyx’s ability to always know where we are in the prison and what door we’re trying to get through is motivated by the prison security system, which players have encountered themselves before. Although, in actuality, it’s hard to understand how Alyx is able to use it as efficiently as she does, given its limited usefulness to the player themselves. Valve does try to use security feeds as a foreshadowing technique, letting players know what’s up ahead—for instance, a boss fight against an antlion queen. But it doesn’t work super well, because it’s impossible to suss out accurate spatial relations between our position and the position of what we’re looking at.

Still, though, much of the environmental storytelling we get in this chapter comes through security feeds. For instance, this is the only place in the game we see what Overwatch soldiers look like beneath their masks, giving us an idea of just how much their human form has been altered.

We also get some environmental storytelling outside of screens, for instance when we glimpse this Vortigaunt torture setup.

Having thoroughly escalated turrets as a danger, Valve now does the same thing they did with the Antlions, and introduces turrets as allies. Alyx can re-program them remotely, so we get to use them in a “defend the room” onslaught segment.

This is the first of such segments in Nova Prospekt, and the second one is much harder. So I always like to retain one of the turrets from the previous encounter, and carry it with me to use in the next one.

This involves some annoying things like having to get it through this electrified water puzzle.

But, hey, at least it keeps me safe from headcrab zombies.

And I always find that it’s worth it, because they’re only three turrets in here, despite there being four points to defend. This is obviously strategic on Valve’s part: they want this section to be very tense, and for players to always feel short-changed, in the midst of a continual sort of triage. But there’s plenty of difficult bits coming up ahead, so I never feel guilty about cheesing this one.

Despite the ramp up in difficulty that comes with Nova Prospekt, one nice thing about this section is that they do give you plenty of ammo for the plasma rifle alt-fire. It’s always very satisfying to successfully bounce that energy ball around so that it vaporizes everyone.

We successfully rescue Eli Vance, but Mossman, who has betrayed us, steals him away again and sends him to the Citadel.

So we return to City 17, in a segment that includes an exact reversal of our path through the game’s first outdoor level.

In this section, Valve fully embraces friendly NPCs. In an abrupt reversal of the loneliness that has characterized much of the campaign, we suddenly have a four-person squad, made up of any resistance members we encounter during our journey, with new member cycling in to replace any who have died.

As I went into in part 3, friendly NPCs are very expensive, and this section is made possible by the fact that Valve cuts a few corners. These squad members harken back to the “character types” logic of Half-Life 1. Models and voices are reused freely—sometimes we’ll have duplicates in our squad at the same time.

Unfortunately, despite its ambition, this section of the game suffers from some of the worst herding in the entire game. There are a couple of points I still get turned around, despite playing the game a half-dozen times or so. For instance, the door in this area that we’re supposed to go through is architecturally hidden, and very poorly lit. If you notice, there’s a crate of supplies next to it, which draws us in, but otherwise it’s downright invisible from most angles.

And during this moment at the gate, it’s easy to assume that you’re supposed to shoot these cops … but actually they keep spawning endlessly. What you actually want to do is seek out a door over on the side, and find another way around. This isn’t too hard to find, but the constant waves of people shooting at you are a huge distraction.

We finally get to fight a strider, in the payoff to a moment of foreshadowing in the game’s opening moments. And in fact, we don’t fight just one. The first time we encounter them, we actually have to fight off four or so, in a very prolonged and intense battle. We’re helped out here by resistance members, but for the most part they don’t have appropriate weaponry, so really this fight is all up to us.

And, speaking of foreshadowing, here we are: At the moment where we finally enter the Citadel. It has been a long time coming, but this is the final payoff.

Inside, we hitch a ride on the prisoner transport system. And this finally gives us the classic “Black Mesa Inbound”-type theme park ride that the opening of Half-Life 2 denied us. Much like in that first chapter of the original Half-Life, movement is taken out of our control here, and we’re encouraged just to look around, at some elaborately-staged scenes that illustrate the Combine’s production line for instruments of war.

We get dropped off at a security checkpoint, and all of our weapons get vaporized. But the gravity gun gets super-charged. In its enhanced form, it will be our only weapon for the rest of the game.

We continue on, up and up … and up and up …

And we end up in Dr. Breen’s office …

And, to prevent his escape, Alex says that we need to climb to the very pinnacle of the Citadel, and disrupt its dark energy reactor.

And, so, we do so, in the game’s final battle. And then, as the citadel’s reactor explodes, the G-Man arrives to extract us, in typically mysterious and extra-dimensional form.

And then … that’s it. That’s Half-Life 2.

And, now that this is over, we can plunge into deep analysis, one last time. Stay tuned, and thanks for watching.

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