“It’s great to reminisce about good memories of my past. It was enjoyable when it was today. So learning to enjoy today has two benefits: it gives me happiness right now, and it becomes a good memory later.” –George Foreman
A full sixteen years after its initial release, I returned to City 17 on what is my sixth play-through of one of the most iconic shooters of all time. This time around, however, I played through a mod of the original Half-Life 2: titled Half-Life 2: Update (Update for brevity). This conversion provides players with a redone visual experience. Lighting is overhauled, shadows are more detailed, and the game has been improved with full high-dynamic range (HDR lighting). With superior particle effects and fog, Update represents a considerable improvement to the visuals of the original Half-Life 2. Volumetric lighting creates a mustier sense amongst the dated buildings of City 17. Improved reflections in the canals gives water an even cleaner, true-to-life sense. The skies over Ravenholm are even moodier and intimidating, evoking memories of Halloween. Despite being identical to the original Half-Life 2 in gameplay, Update lives up to its name, breathing new life into an old classic by means of its improved visuals: familiar places are vividly rendered, and old memories came flooding back. However, these modifications are generally subtle, and the mod has been praised for being the Half-Life 2 Valve would have implemented had they gotten around to giving Half-Life 2 the same visual improvements that Episodes One and Two possess. Despite being a purely campaign-driven game, Half-Life 2 has managed to enthrall and immerse players for the past sixteen years: the game is endlessly replayable, even in its original form. Revisiting Half-Life 2 through Update, makes one thing about older titles apparent: gaming was at its finest during the 2000s, a time when improving technologies allowed games to immerse players in new worlds more completely than before, while simultaneously, still encouraging players to have fun and improve over time.
The design paradigm in Half-Life 2 had been to create an experience for players, such that every play-through felt distinct and fresh. The game used verticality to surprise players, dropped in the original jump scare to keep players on their toes, and encouraged players to be creative in how they approached a scenario. There was thus a myriad of ways one could solve challenges Half-Life 2, and this in turn meant that Half-Life 2 offers nearly infinite replay value. Back in 2004, games were intended to maximise replay value, and developers prided themselves on creating captivating single-player experiences that gave players incentive to revisit their games. The consequence of this were highly innovative games that continued raising the bar for what was possible. The paradigm in Half-Life 2 also carried over to Halo, where the campaign had been meticulously crafted for the player’s enjoyment. These early games represent video games at their finest, creating a combination of an experience for players to traverse a world unlike our own, and then giving players incentive to hone their skills and find new ways of improving their runs. By comparison, an increasing number of contemporary titles are written with revenue in mind, over the players’ experience. In particular, the emphasis on micro-transactions and cosmetics has come at the expense of gameplay: studios are forced to spend more time devising micro-transaction systems and cosmetics over ensuring a smooth, enjoyable product for the player. Nowhere is this more apparent than the current fad for Battle Royale games. Mechanically, these games are simple: a group of players are dropped into a world and then battle it out until a squad or individual is the last standing. Along the way, players can customise their characters to ensure their wins are memorable by means of cosmetics. Rather than writing captivating stories for the players, games are all about creating memes out of a moment now, and for this, they have suffered. Modern video games emphasise memes over substance, but the fact is that older games like Half-Life 2 and Halo, still remain immensely entertaining: it is a blessing that these older games, developed during a time when discovery was valued over memes, are still available for players to experience.
Screenshots and Commentary
- My curiosity in Update came from the Chinese New Year Steam sale, during which I was recommended a variety of titles to try out. Half-Life 2: Update was among these recommendations. I ended up deciding to check it out shortly after Thanksgiving ended, and right out of the gates, I was impressed; the lighting updates are subtle, but noticeable in the improved volumetric lighting everywhere in the game. After exiting the train station onto a city plaza, these updates became apparent.
- For this post, I’ve opted to feature screenshots from areas of Half-Life 2 that I did not have in my original reflections talk for the original game. I’ll kick things off with a moment of Dr. Kleiner’s lab, prior to my acquiring the Hazardous Environment (HEV) suit. Lighting effects in Kleiner’s lab are similarly improved, and I immediately set about trying to wreck Kleiner’s mini-teleporter, as I had done during my original play-through.
- The last time I wrote about Half-Life 2 would have been in 2017, when I gave the mod Downfall a go. It had been a particularly cold and snowy December then, and I’d just gone on a drive into the mountains without any survival gear. It was a hazardous drive, and in retrospect, not exactly the brightest decision in the world. However, I did enjoy the crab-and-asparagus omelets that I had at a mountain restaurant prior to the drive. After brunch, we pushed into the mountains and noticed abandoned vehicles on the side of the road, an ominous sign.
- After reaching Peyto Lake, the time had come to turn back around. On that day, there had been a heavy snowfall in the area, depriving the world of colour. Of course, winter in the mountains is beautiful, but I’ve never really been favoured with the sort of luck required to visit the mountains on a sunny day by winter. Today, the weather is a more hospitable overcast, and there is no snow on the forecast. Of all the levels in Half-Life 2, Water Hazard is my personal favourite: featuring the perfect combination of vehicular combat and on-foot moments: here, I pass by the first stop: players can spot the mysterious G-Man here, and curiosity will drive players to explore, leading them to find supplies.
- Update‘s water effects are a slight improvement over those of the original’s: I was particularly fond of the reflections because they really give a sense of how clean the water of the canals is. In this post, I’ve opted to showcase more of those screenshots; interiors of the buildings remain more or less as they appeared in the original game, and while fun to move through, do not offer much in the way of interesting screenshots.
- Travelling along the canals, players catch glimpses of Soviet-style apartments and factories. City 17 is distinctly said to be modelled after Eastern European architecture, and is set somewhere in Eastern Europe. There has always been a sense of mystery and intrigue about this side of the world, and it is for this reason that Half-Life 2 is something I’ve found so enjoyable. Since Half-Life 2, I’ve been curious about games with levels set in Russia. Together with getting Metro: Exodus free with my GPU, this led to my interest in the Metro series.
- For much of the Water Hazard mission, the airboat will not have a pulse cannon mounted to it. As such, players only have the option of pushing further on into the canals towards Black Mesa East, eluding the Hunter-Chopper as best as they can. During one segment of the mission, Combine forces will close the canal locks, forcing players to disembark from their airboat and re-open them. In the control tower, a pair of automatic guns can be found. They’re powerful enough to damage the Hunter-Chopper and drive it off, giving players some much-needed quiet.
- Having already showcased the final confrontation with the Hunter-Chopper, I’ve decided to skip that section and instead, show off one of the puzzles here. While solving the puzzles in Half-Life 2 now is a matter of trivial difficulty, I still remember that the first time my friends tried this game out for themselves, they’d gotten stuck at some of the puzzles. Ultimately, they’d never made it past the final puzzle leading to the showdown with the Hunter-Chopper: the reason we had been visiting then was because of a group project we’d been working on, and owing to our progress, we had time to spare for checking Half-Life 2 out.
- Ravenholm received one of the most dramatic changes in Update: rather than a deep navy blue, the sky has a more greenish tinge to it. The lighting from lamps, however, is also warmer. Ravenholm is iconic in Half-Life 2, for changing up the game’s dynamics and capturing the horror aesthetics. To accentuate this, ammunition in Ravenholm is rare, and players are encouraged to utilise the Gravity Gun to lob saw blades, explosive barrels and cinder blocks at the zombies.
- Like the remainder of Update, the exteriors are where the mod’s visual improvements are most noticeable. Inside the apartments and warehouses of Ravenholm, the game looks more or less identical to the original. The interiors of the buildings in this mining village have a very austere, Spartan feel to them that contributes to the sense of unease that the town conveys. According to the original E3 footage showcased in 2002. players were supposed to arrive in Ravenholm by boat and reach the docks, but in the final product, players travel here via a tunnel from Black Mesa East.
- There is an achievement for completing Ravenholm with nothing but the Gravity Gun. I had gone through Update with the intention of doing the Gravity Gun challenge again, but evidently, my skills have deteriorated since 2013, and for the last bit of the mission, I was forced to abandon the challenge and fend off a few waves of fast zombies. Conversely, whereas poison zombies gave me considerable trouble back in the day, my trick of luring the poison headcrabs off them and finishing them off individually meant now, poison zombies are easy to deal with and no longer require an inordinate ammunition expenditure.
- In my original post for Half-Life 2, I did not write much about Highway 17: this mission is similar to Water Hazard in having a substantial vehicular component, mixed in with on-foot segments. It is set under a grim, overcast day, and I first set foot on this mission at another friend’s place while visiting for leisure. With no science project to deal with, we conversed and played through the driving missions while enjoying Mac ‘n Cheese. Despite the skies washing out the land in white and offering little of note in the way of lighting, this mission nonetheless captures the sense of hopelessness in humanity’s war against the Combine.
- While I cite an evening at a friend’s place in 2005 for a science project as my earliest exposure to retail Half-Life 2, I’d actually heard about Half-Life 2 as early as 2002; back then, the local Radio Shack had been running videos of the 2002 E3 demo for Half-Life 2, showcasing the Nova Prospekt bug-bait segments and engagement with the gunship along Highway 17 on their then-cutting edge 1024 x 768 resolution monitors. I watched in fascination, impressed with how realistic everything had looked and how the game had appeared to use a very sophisticated physics engine.
- The Highway 17 missions also bring back memories of my undergraduate graduation; I’d picked up Half-Life 2 for my own Steam account to celebrate my finishing the Bachelor of Health Sciences programme, and reached this point in Half-Life 2 on the day of my graduation ceremony. Looking back, it was a bit of a sad time, as all of the friends I’d made in the past four years were headed their separate ways. Here, I ready the crossbow to grab the Targetted Advertisement achievement, noting with some irony that for me, targetted advertisements aren’t actually all bad: I’ll sit through food and entertainment ads without impatience kicking in, but pick-up truck and beer commercials are those I do not bother watching.
- Upon reaching Nova Prospekt in Update, it was late October, and here, I do have a bit of a personal story to share regarding the ongoing pandemic; as the month reached an end, it turned out that I had been in close contact with a positive case, and immediately set about scheduling a test while observing isolation protocols. While thoughts of the pandemic ran through my mind, I pushed through Nova Prospekt. I eventually got stuck in the final part, and it took a bit of effort to clear it. Fortunately, I was able to clear it (my gaming skills might not be what they were seven years earlier, but they’ve not left me yet), and in the end, I tested negative, to my great relief. The incident was a reminder of how important it was to keep safe and healthy.
- The Pheropods (informally, “bug-bait”) were a pleasant addition into the game, allowing players to command the Antlions. These insects were a nuisance during the Highway 17 and Sandtraps missions, but once acquired, they allow players to direct Antlions to attack Combine soldiers or follow. The Pheropods are most useful during the Nova Prospekt mission, allowing one to save ammunition by ordering Antlions to attack. However, even after the Pheropods are rendered useless, they can still stun Combine soldiers, and appear to regenerate on their own, making it a useful tool for creating minor distractions.
- In what appears to be a laundry room, I prepare to engage a host of Combine soldiers. The improved lighting conferred by Update is visible here, as moonlight streams into the hall. A major part of the appeal in Update was the fact that these minor updates accentuated the atmosphere of each area. In The Master Chief Collection, 343 Industries’ anniversary version of Halo: Combat Evolved was an example where visual updates altered the tone of an environment. The original had been suspenseful because of the dark, sparsely decorated corridors, whereas in Anniversary, once-dark locations were now brilliantly lit. Conversely, Halo 2: Anniversary was a straight upgrade, respecting the aesthetics of the original while giving everything a fresh coat of paint.
- Update is more in line with Halo 2: Anniversary, respecting the original Half-Life 2‘s aesthetics while bolstering lighting somewhat. I’ve skipped ahead to the part where players return to City 17 after rescuing Eli Vance. In the two weeks that passed owing to time anomalies resulting from the teleporter. Nova Prospekt is destroyed, the Resistance has come out in force, taking this as a sign to begin fighting the Combine. The Combine respond by sending in heavy weapons, including APCs and Striders.
- With City 17 now a battlefield, the players’ goal is to assist the Resistance and eventually reach the Citadel. The remainder of Half-Life 2 features urban combat, and it is here that Update really is given a chance to shine. It is outdoors that the new lighting effects are most visible: the original game did not have a slight fog, whereas here in Update, a slight bit of haze can be seen, accentuating the ferocity of the battle: it turns out that the Combine and Resistance have been at it for over a week, and despite lacking the same armour as the Combine do, by scavenging weapons, the Resistance are doing a fairly good job of repelling the Combine.
- As I make my way through one of the tunnels underneath City 17’s surface streets, I stop to consider the fact that two walkthrough-driven sites, Mahalo Games and Visual Walkthroughs, are now both offline. These two resources were once indispensable for gamers looking for tips and tricks to get through certain areas of games, and I remember specifically that Visual Walkthroughs had some of the most extensive collection of screenshots around: their guides actually inspired my format here. Mahalo Games, on the other hand, were better known for their videos, although I never made extensive use of their materials.
- While I provide covering fire for the Resistance as Combine forces swarm a plaza, Alyx will work on overriding a Combine terminal to expose its energy core. Once the core is exposed, a blast from the Gravity Gun will dislodge the core, causing the gate to power down. For the final segments of Half-Life 2, the Overwatch Pulse Rifle becomes plentiful enough so that players can use this as their primary. Until now, the MP7 would’ve remained my weapon of choice simply because ammunition for it was more common. Despite having a high recoil, the Pulse Rifle also has a higher damage-per-shot, and where ammunition is plentiful, this is by far the superior weapon.
- Players eventually a vast underground tunnel beneath City 17. I’ve always been fond of this segment of the game: the massive warehouse players end up in reminds me of the local Convention Centre’s south building. Leading into this area, players must traverse a Manhack-filled hallway. At the end of the hallway is a window that fills the corridor’s end with light, but owing to limitations, I’ve never really figured out whether or not this was a window or a light fixture. Once I fight my way through the warehouse, I will return to the city streets, ready to take the fight to the Combine Nexus building.
- Combine Snipers cover the streets of City 17, but fortunately, they can be destroyed with a well-placed grenade. There’s an achievement for taking out all of the snipers in City 17, and during my play-through of Update, I secured this achievement without effort. I missed one sniper on my original run because of how the spawns worked, and never bothered going back for the achievement. At the time of writing, I’m missing this, plus the Defiant (throw the can at the Combine officer instead of into the bin) and Lambda Locator (locate all caches) achievements.
- For better or worse, the Combine Nexus building reminds me of the Great Flood of 2013: it had been a warm summer evening three days after the flood waters had receded, and after making a donation to the Red Cross for flood relief, I fought my way through the Nexus, clearing out the energy projectors locking the facility down. Because the university had been closed as a result of the flood, my plans for a kokuhaku were shelved, and I ultimately spent a week on the hunt for games to try out. I ended up going with Vindictus and Tribes Ascend, and while both games were fun in their own right, neither had staying power.
- Fighting through the interior of the Combine Nexus, there was one spot that always stood out to me: there’s a room filled with explosive traps, and tripping any of these beams with set the explosives off. I’ve tried this previously: even with cheats enabled, one will not survive the blast. The only solution is to navigate through the room and find a switch that deactivates the beams. Once this is done, and the building is cleared, it’s time to hit the roof, destroy a handful of gunships and rejoin the battle on the ground, where Striders have entered the fray.
- Striders are among the deadliest opponents in Half-Life 2, and aside from a pulse cannon, possess a powerful laser cannon that warps the space around the weapon. I’m guessing that a shader is applied to a sphere that is generated when the weapon is fired to create this highly distinct effect, and as soon as the cannon discharges, the sphere is deallocated and removed from world-space. While I’m not a game developer, I have had some prior experience with both the Unity and Unreal engines as a part of graduate school, so there are some things that I can still speak to; the warp effect is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a video game, and for the longest time, I’ve had no success in capturing a screenshot of such a moment.
- After fending off an armada of Striders, I finally reach the building rooftops and prepare to hop into the streets below, where Dog and Barney are waiting. After Dog opens one of the Citadel’s walls, players drop into a sewer pipe that leads to the cavern housing the Citadel’s foundation. Having seen the Citadel for most of the game, it is at Half-Life 2‘s climax that this Combine fortress is visited. Resembling a skyscraper several kilometres high, the Citadel is shown to house manufacturing units for the Combine’s war machine along with a dark energy core.
- In the grim corridors of the Citadel, players are stripped of their weapons, save for the Gravity Gun, which allows it to pick up Combine Soldiers and vapourise their weapons. This results in some hilarity as players can finally dispense punishment on the Combine. No matter how many times I return here, the super-charged Gravity Gun never grows old, and one thing I’d love to do is to see what the super-charged Gravity Gun’s effects on Barnacles are. I imagine they’d get vapourised, since this is the effect that energy balls from the pulse rifle’s secondary fire do to them.
- After reaching Breen’s office and confronting him, players can only watch as Breen attempts to escape. However, Alyx suggests overloading the Dark Energy core, causing the entire system to fail. Once the Dark Energy core is destroyed, Half-Life 2 draws to a close. Update was overall, a solid experience, giving me a chance to go back through Half-Life 2 again. My experiences in Half-Life 2 have always been overwhelmingly positive, and so, during this year’s Steam Winter Sale, I picked up Black Mesa, a remake of the original Half-Life. This remake began its life in 2005, released as a mod for players in 2012, and the Xen segments were finished in 2019. In March 2020, the game finally released in full for players.
- Thus, my next journey in the Half-Life franchise will be a step backwards in time as I fight through Black Mesa: I lack the proper hardware to play Half-Life: Alyx, and despite some suggesting that Half-Life 3 could return, I’m not optimistic about the series receiving a conclusion on account of an interview which suggested that the original Half-Life 2: Episode 3 was delayed because of work on the Source 2 engine, and over time, scope creep and expectations made it exceedingly to develop a sequel. Only time will tell what happens in Half-Life, but in the meantime, it’s time to go ahead and experienced a game I’ve wished to play in full since 2012.
Going through Half-Life 2: Update, I found a superb title that shows how even subtle changes can shift the way a game feels. Update was overall, a smooth and solid experience. Moreover, this mod is free to players who own Half-Life 2: aside from a bit of a download, installing the mod is a seamless process. As a Half-Life 2 mod, Update represents modding at its simplest and cleanest level, leaving Half-Life 2‘s base mechanics intact while simultaneously providing players with a new experience. However, mods do not end here; Valve has always encouraged modding, with the intent of allowing players to create their own content, stories and mechanics. The modding community surrounding Source Engine games is therefore especially active, and indeed, some of Valve’s own smash hits came from mods to Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Mods are an integral part of gaming, and while I do not play too many mods myself, I am aware of their impact, as well as their enjoyability. One of my friends plays Source mods almost exclusively over more traditional game modes, citing the unpredictability and community’s enjoyment as the reason for sticking around. A glance at where modern gaming is going indicates to me that my ability to keep up with the latest trends is probably drawing to a close; instead of grinding it out for the latest Battlefield or Division title, I see myself returning to older games like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Sim City 4, capitalising on the fact that I have entire worlds to myself, open to discovery and exploration as their developers had intended, long before skins and emotes overtook creativity and fun as the primary reason to play games. With a host of these older titles left to experience, I believe the time has come for me to take a step back and finish some titles that I’ve yet to complete (such as Skyrim). This is going to be my resolution for the upcoming year as far as gaming goes: rather than delving into newer titles, my aim will be to make some progress with my backlog, starting with Left 4 Dead 2, Black Mesa, Skyrim and Go! Go! Nippon!.