Half-Life 2 has met the fate of all exceptional games. The ‘classic’ moniker almost instantly embalms them, gradually fossilising to a few forever-parroted talking points while the living entity is obscured. Physics, story, environmental design – Gravity Gun, City 17, Ravenholm. The game is shorn of context, too, and compared with successors that stripped its bones of ideas and sometimes improved on them. The keenly-felt absence of Half-Life 3 helps with this impression, but Half-Life 2 feels like a game on a tightrope – not stuck in the middle, exactly, so much as a pioneer of the modern first-person shooter that still contains much of the ‘old’ first-person shooter.
Half-Life 2’s immediate competition was Doom 3, a comparison that’s worth bearing in mind, because they’re both linear corridor shooters designed to give the player a directed experience. When you enter a Doom 3 room and hit a button, monsters will pour out of the walls. When you see the trigger for a trap in Ravenholm, you know a zombie will soon appear near it. When you see rockets, you know you’re going to fight a helicopter.
Let’s not pick on Doom 3 too much, because it’s fine for what it is, but this call-and-response design can be the bane of a linear game; if it becomes too predictable or repetitive, the player gets bored. The difference between Half-Life 2 and other linear shooters is how much effort has been put into its environments and pacing, how it peaks and troughs, and how much incidental stuff there is to find. id Software can make a gun go boom as well as anyone, but Valve give that squeeze of the trigger more context and impact than anyone.