The Infinite Zenith

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Tag Archives: Alyx Vance

Half-Life 2 Update: A reflection

“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!.

Half-Life 2 Episode Two: A reflection

Half-Life 2 Episode One was good, but Episode Two was phenomenal. After the train derails, Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance attempt to make their way to the White Forest base to deliver a code that will collapse the Citadel’s portal. En route, Alyx is mortally wounded by a Hunter, powerful and resilient enemies with a flechette cannon and wickedly sharp claws. The player fights through an antlion colony to retrieve the extract necessary to heal Alyx, before driving through the countryside to reach White Forest ahead of the Combine. Once the rocket is launched, Eli Vance is killed by a Combine Advisor, and the game ends after Dog drives off the Advisors. Of all the Half-Life 2 games, Episode Two is set in the countryside and therefore feels a lot more open compared to its predecessors, even though it is as linear as Episode One and Half-Life 2. My first experience with this game was back in March 2008; after finishing my chemistry, English and calculus coursework, I spent the remaining three days of Spring Break playing through this game, although looking back, I feel that the experience is far more enjoyable with a larger screen.

  • Episode Two is an amazing experience all around, but its most infamous achievement is the “Little Rocket Man”, which is notoriously difficult to complete. I might go back and try to get it later, but for the present, I’m occupied with Battlefield 3. So…the preview for posts are as follows: I’ll have a final impressions post for Infinite Stratos² and Non Non Biyori by Christmas Eve at the latest.

  • I’ve omitted the antlion colony level from the screenshots simply because those levels were a shooting gallery, and I was admittedly having too much fun squishing antlion larvae to obtain screenshots. Before picking up the vehicle, the player must take down both the antlion guard and the antlion guardian. There are many explosive barrels scattered throughout the region, so even if one is short on ammunition, it’s possible to make use of these barrels and the Gravity gun to take down these mini-bosses.

  • The remnants of the Citadel can be seen way out in the countryside. I’m about to reach the radio station and fight the Hunters for the first time. Guides recommend using the energy ball to take them down quickly, but the shotgun is also effective. Using bunny-hopping to perform hit and fade assaults, the Hunters are no match for my über-micro skills.

  • This abandoned farm is where the player first encounters a Combine Advisor: be prepared to be impressed by the Source engine when one of the Advisors uses telekinetic powers to crush a barrel. Even the super-powered Gravity gun can’t do that.

  • The mountains and atmosphere in these parts are somewhat similar to that of the Rocky View County region during autumn, when grey skies and the vast prairies end in distant mountains. It’s a very calming place to be, even when it’s overcast. Here, another assault chopper pursues the player, but upon reaching a Resistance base, there is a chance to square off against it using the Gravity gun and the chopper’s own mines.

  • This is the White Forest Inn. More Hunters and a Combine unit show up. I recall that Sunday in July when I had taken down the last Hunter; the basement television was on and the news was broadcasting Prince George of Cambridge’s birth. Though I am not too terribly interested in the British Monarchy, the event itself was particularly noteworthy from a historical perspective, and so, this part of the game will forever remind me of this event. It’s been some five years since I last played this, so I don’t have any memories attached to this part of the game from back then.

  • The Magnusson device is the ultimate weapon against Striders but requires precision aiming to operate. During the last mission in Episode Two, the player is tasked with defending the White Forest base long enough for the preparations for a rocket launch to be completed.

  • It looks like one could take out a Strider with a single shot from the USP Match here; in a sense, this is now possible. After sticking Magnusson device to the Strider’s underside, the pistol is the recommended weapon to use: the 9mm rounds are enough to trigger the device, and the pistol has a reasonable firing rate. It is very satisfying to bring down the Striders using this weapon.

  • As the battle wears on, the Striders begin targeting the buildings housing the teleporters. The vehicle can carry one Magnusson device at any given point, so it is imperative to make every shot count. Hunters escort the Striders: they represent additional firepower and should be dealt with quickly, although priority should go towards taking out the Striders.

  • After the last of the Striders are downed, the player has the honour of launching the rocket. The codes the satellite transmit are successful in shutting down the Combine super-portal, but there isn’t a happy ending: Eli Vance is killed by a Combine Advisor, leaving behind more questions than answers. With the release date for Episode Three is nowhere in sight, I have no idea what the Borealis’ role is, or even where the next game will take place. Over the past few years, April Fools’ jokes surrounding Episode Three have been made, leading some fans to believe the game was available for sale for 29.99 at one point.

At present, Half-Life 2 Episode Two reminds me of two moments during the summer. The first memory was on July 20, when I am driving down a railway track to a Resistance hideout to get the radar installed. I was set to go on a short outing to Canmore at this time: for most of Summer 2013, the floods completely threw my hopes of travelling in the mountains out the window. I had made donations to help flood victims and also to flip the bird at the weather for having caused the flood to begin with, but by late July, when I had reached this point in the game, much of the Trans-Canada highway had been repaired. This trip succeeded in giving me a brief  but much-needed respite from work. I spent a sunny afternoon in the mountains, partaking in a hike before having afternoon tea at the Communitea teahouse. A few days later, on July 22, while the media was buzzing with announcement about Prince George of Cambridge’s birth, I reached the White Forest Inn. Admittedly, I am not particularly interested in the Royal family, but the announcement meant that the mission “Under the Radar” would be associated with this historic event in my books. I beat Half-Life 2 Episode Two a few days later. It’s been some five years since I first played through the Half-Life 2 episodes, and although clues about Aperture Science’s Borealis are tantalising, Half-Life 2 Episode Three or Half-Life 3 show no signs of release anytime soon. So shrouded in mystery these games’ statuses are, that I’m willing to bet that I’ll probably be a few years into my full-time occupation before it comes out.

Half-Life 2 Episode One: A reflection

Released in June 2006, Half-Life 2 Episode One is set immediately after the events of Half-Life 2: Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance return to the Citadel to stablise the reactor, before leaving via train. The train derails, and the two fight there way through the remains of City 17, eventually aiding other survivors in their evacuation. Recalling the friend who lent me the episodes back in the Spring of 2008, I was in several of his classes during my secondary education, and he expressed boredom that very few individuals at our school had actually played these instalments because of hardware limitations. At the time, the Dell XPS 420 had been in service for a year, replacing an eight-year-old IBM desktop (rocking the 600 MHz AMD Duron processor), and thus, I was now wielding one of the most powerful desktops of anyone at my high school. With the means to play the game, I installed his copies of the game and shot through them during the Spring Break. My initial impressions were positive: the episodes captured the spirits and atmosphere in as effectively as Half-Life 2, retaining all of the gameplay mechanics and more impressively, giving Alyx a far greater role as the player’s companion. After beating Episode One, I would, in subsequent years, remember it for the Citadel and long stretches of underground fighting.

  • Before I go ahead with this post, I’m going to mention that every screenshot (except one) features the Gravity gun because the play-through I took screenshots on was also the play-through I decided to go for the “One free bullet” challenge. I got it, of course, and I’ll immediately clarify that using the shotgun once to break the lock works only if one uses the primary fire. Using the crowbar, grenades and RPG rounds are perfectly acceptable.

  • The challenge isn’t so bad initially, when all one has is the Gravity gun (or the super-powered version of the Gravity gun). Armed with a gun that can perform what is essentially magic makes the first part of Episode One entertaining (and perhaps a little too easy). There is one thing I long to try with the super-powered Gravity gun: I’d love to see if I can kill barnacles with it.

  • One viable trick to surviving is to use the flashlight and direct Alyx’s fire towards hostiles. The gravity gun can also punt headcrabs and antlions, although here, the latter will spawn endlessly until a car is pushed on top of the spawn points to block them. Apparently, the term parkade is strictly a Canadian term: in the United States, they call them garages, and they’re known as car parks in the United Kingdom.

  • I included this image solely to illustrate just how dark it is at some places in the game. The darkness makes it difficult to figure out where enemies are, and armed with the Gravity gun and a crowbar, death from carelessness is always just around the corner.

  • I spent the entire time waiting for the lift bunny-hopping around the map with flares or explosives in hand, lighting up all zombies that were spawning. This is considered to be one of the toughest sections in the game for the low visibility and large number of enemies. Even when playing with firearms, ammunition is short, making accuracy and smart play important.

  • No matter how dystopian the outside world looks, I prefer to be above ground rather than underground with all the zombies.

  • According to Valve, this hospital was inspired by one in Chernobyl, from which the surgery lamps and the overall white and yellow color scheme were derived. The tile work, high archways and metallic bedsteads give the institutional an old European feeling, making it an unnerving place to be: in general, even though they are home to some of the world’s most cutting edge medical technologies, they are unsettling, and old hospitals are doubly so simply because they represent an era when medical science wasn’t as well-developed, leading patients to suffer in often degrading conditions.

  • The hospital basement is partially flooded and barnacles block critical passages. The crowbar is thankfully allowed by the “One free bullet” achievement, whereas the Gravity gun challenge in Ravenholm forbade use of anything other than the Gravity gun. Of course, the former is more challenging since it applies to the entire game rather than one mission.

  • I got a bunch of Facebook messages telling me that a gathering with some friends was cancelled owing to an impending storm in July. With the event cancelled, I decided to game and made it to the train station. For a moment, recalled that night in March 2008 when I beat Episode One for the first time. I had spent most of the Spring Break studying chemistry and physics, but nonetheless, high school was a period characterised by a lot of free time. The content isn’t particularly difficult by any stretch.

  • The portal explosion causes the train to derail. What happens next are the events in Episode Two. I’ve already beaten the game once using only the Gravity gun, and on my next play-through, I’ll allow myself the luxury of using firearms. This achievement just goes to show how versatile the Source Engine is, if players can finish the game by firing exactly one bullet. I know I’ve gone on a fair amount about this achievement, but that’s because I’m in the top 97.6 percentile of players who are pro enough to have the achievement unlocked, even if it means that around 33 600 of 1.4 million players (as of December 3, 2008) actually have the achievement.

When I caught wind of the fact that Episode One and Episode Two were on sale for 2.49 each during the summer, I sprang on the chance to purchase the episodes. The episodes are still as immersive as they were when I first played them (perhaps even more so, because I’m now experiencing it on a 24-inch 1080p display). It was July 13 when I had beaten Half-Life 2, and I recall recieving word that a gathering was to be rescheduled on account of a thunderstorm when I had reached the train station in the final mission. I decided to finish the game, since the event had been moved, and upon completion, I was granted the “One Free Bullet Achievement”. I had used the shotgun to blast open the lock and spent the entire remainder of the game using the Gravity Gun and crowbar, but wondered if the shotgun’s spread counted as more than one bullet; however, here, I confirmed that the shotgun or pistol could be used to unlock the achievement. This accounts for why every single image I have depicts me with the gravity gun, crowbar or RPG (explosives are allowed). The achievement may be difficult to unlock because some portions of the game feature hordes of zombies, but there’s a solution for that: Alyx will fire at zombies illuminated by the flashlight, illustrating the strengths of the behaviours of NPCs in the game. At the end of the day, this achievement is a worthy one and thanks to the game mechanics, isn’t that difficult to unlock, even though records suggest only 2.4% of all people who own Half-Life 2 Episode One actually have the achievement unlocked.

Half-Life 2: A reflection

Half-Life 2 is one of the most famous games in existence: released back in 2004 by Valve, it was praised for its incredible gameplay, graphics and physics and is considered to be one of the best games of all time. The game follows the adventures of Gordon Freeman some twenty years after the events of Half Life as he fights with the resistance against the Combine, who have taken over the Earth and are stripping it of its resources. As a first person shooter, all of the events in-game are seen from Freeman’s perspective: there are no cutscenes to interrupt the flow of events. Instead, dialogue and various elements in the environment reveal what has happened since Half-Life. Contrasting virtually all modern shooters, Half-Life 2 made extensive use of the Source engine to provide players with physics-based puzzles: at some points in the game, the player must use cinder blocks or flotation barrels to manipulate the environment to make it passable. The famous zero-point energy manipulator (better known as the Gravity gun) was also introduced; it revolutionised gameplay and served several functions, ranging from allowing the player to pickup supplies from a distance to turning everyday items into deadly projectiles. These elements gave players unprecedented control over their environment: this was a game that rewarded players for using lateral thinking to solve problems (whereas in previous FPS, über-micro was really the only requirement) and even today, Half-Life 2 remains an incredible game despite its age.

  • It may come as a surprise to some, but I absolutely love East European architecture. The player spends the first two missions without any weapons, although they can still interact with various things in the environment. I’m going to apologise in advance to the anime news aggregator, but I do both gaming and anime talks. It so happens that there’s going to be a lot more gaming content over the next while.

  • The crowbar is one of the most iconic weapons in Half-Life 2 and is immensely useful for breaking things. As with Freeman’s Mind, I use it on occasion to whack the scenery if a puzzle frustrates me., but it’s also quite effective for smashing crates, boards and whatnot, as well as beating down Combine soldiers. The role of the last will be fulfilled shortly by the USP Match, but ammunition isn’t exactly common early on, so the crowbar remains quite useful.

  • I never grow tired of playing through the canals and bringing down the collection of barnacles with a flammable barrel and a couple of pistol shots.  Barnacles used to be the bane of my existence in Half-Life 2 simply because they were placed at chokepoints, although that could also mean luring enemy forces into their path. It’s actually quite entertaining (if somewhat macabre) to see a Combine soldier eaten whole by a barnacle.

  • A friend of mine expressed interest in installing the Synergy mod, which allows for co-op play of Half-Life 2. Admittedly, seeing two airboats shredding the assault chopper would be quite the spectacle. In subsequent posts, I’ll be talking about Episode One and Episode Two before returning to the usual anime program.

  • When I first say my friends play this, they got stuck here and wondered how to reach the sewer pipe on the wall (to my right here). The solution is surprisingly easy: after lighting some explosive barrels in a shipping container, one can enter the area under the piers and speed up a ramp. It’s puzzles like these that really make players feel smart for completing them.

  • In my quest to unlock achievements, I spent a few moments hunting down the singing Vortigaunt cave a few weeks ago. For a moment, after the assault chopper is downed, there is silence. I took a second to admire the sunset, and recalled that this was a game that was made back in 2004. Half-Life 2 is so well done that it retains its replay value even after some nine years.

  • A huge part of the appeal in Half-Life 2 is the immersion one experiences, whether it be through the desolate locales, Combine-controlled facilities or the little bits and pieces of information that reveal what happened previously. Apparently, after the events of Half-Life, the Combine took over the planet in just seven hours.

  • Tutorials in the game are cleverly done: using the Gravity gun soon becomes second nature after a few practise runs with Dog and his ball. This is all the training one needs to master the Gravity gun.

  • For those wondering, yes, I have unlocked the Gravity Gun challenge in Ravenholm: the conditions for unlocking this achievement is very strict, and only the Gravity gun may be used in this map, with even the crowbar being unusable, lest one spoils their shot at the achievement.

  • Ravenholm is said to be one of the scariest places in any game because of the zombies that show up later on. It’s straightforward when one is using the diverse array of firearms available, but in Ravenholm, ammunition is scarce, making it a good idea to make use of environmental factors and traps to take down zombies without a substantial ammunition cost.

  • I have, of course, completed the Gravity Gun challenge. In Ravenholm, and the rest of Half-Life 2, the single most intimidating enemy are the poison headcrabs. They can’t kill, but their venom reduces the player’s health down to one point, leaving them vulnerable to instant death. During testing, it was found that this attribute made the poison headcrabs more menacing than if they killed players in a single hit. The poison headcrab zombies are a nightmare to take down: I usually down them with explosive barrels if they’re around, otherwise, I’ll resort to the under-barrel grenade launcher on the MP7.

  • Being able to use a saw-blade and cut zombies in half is amusing, although their remains can continue to crawl around, and sometimes, the headcrabs will wander around for a while.

  • Ravenholm has the distinct feel of a Soviet-era mining town, and the interiors of the buildings are quite unnerving. Even after one has passed through Ravenholm, they must still traverse the old mine, which is now infested with headcrabs, zombies and a barnacle. Individuals looking to complete the Gravity Gun challenge should probably be aware that firing a shot down here (or waving the crowbar around) will void the challenge.

  • It is a breath of fresh air to walk out of the mine and return to familiar architecture in City 17. After the little notification about completing the Gravity Gun challenge appears, players can continue using their firearms. After a firefight in the railroad tracks, the player will reach a Resistance installation and receive their next vehicle, a dune buggy with a Gauss gun.

  • I now reach the halfway point of this discussion, and have an image of the bridge sequence in the mission “Highway 17”. Modern gamers might call it a small clipping distance as a result of graphical limitations, but in the old days, this could easily give the impression of heavy fog. At least in the old era, the graphics left some things to the imagination.

I first played Half-Life 2 in March 2005, while I was at a friend’s place, working on a Goldberg machine for science class. While progress was initially slower, we eventually got the entire machine working about three days before the deadline, and thus, had time to spare. Said friend had a copy of Half-Life 2 and what was then one of the best computers on the market; he asked us if we wished to try the game. One of my friends played through the first few missions, and I was offered a chance to play “Route Kanal”. Since then, “Route Kanal” has become one of the most iconic maps in the game for that reason. Later on, in “Water Hazard”, one of my other friends were stuck, and no one recalled how to solve the puzzle. Of course, when the project was due, we netted a 98 percent grade, losing two points simply because one component failed. I was left with a memorable project, less so for the fact that we did well and more so because I was introduced to what would become one of the most famous games of all time. Since 2005, I have completed the Half-Life 2 campaign at least three times: once on an HP laptop rocking a 2.0 GHz processor and a ATI Xpress 200M GPU, once on the Dell XPS 420, and once more on the current custom rig. In the first case, I had just begun high school at the time, and played through the game during May. At the time, I was going on about how I would be able to dominate high school while playing Half-Life 2 without much consequence (and subsequentlyscored the highest of anyone in my year in the general science course). By my senior year in high school, the same friend who had introduced me to Half-Life 2 had played through the episodes, and was growing bored of having no one else to talk to about the games. He lent me his copies and I was impressed at the gameplay, as well as how the XPS 420 could finish loading a section of the game in 10 seconds (the laptop had taken 30, and back in 2005, it took his machine up to five minutes to load once the loading screens were reached).

  • The bridge mission’s combination of height, wind blowing through the support columns and tremors from the train crossing it above gives it some of the best atmospherics in the entire game. The goal here is to traverse the bridge and disable some force fields, allowing the buggy to drive across. Care must be taken to avoid getting hit by the oncoming train: the train will wreck the buggy and result in the message “Failed to preserve mission critical resources”.

  • The last time I was here, it was the day of convocation: a cold, grey and rainy day. I spent most of it playing through “Highway 17”. Once at the lighthouse, a wave of Combine arrive. The gloomy overcast skies captures the rural Eastern Europe feel very nicely.

  • The crossbow is the only scoped weapon in the game: earlier on, it was possible to grab the “Targeted Advertising” achievement by pinning a Combine soldier to a billboard. According to official resources, the iron rebar is heated using a small battery, and the crossbow is powerful enough to pin enemies to concrete walls.

  • The stairs at the bottom of the lighthouse lead to a secret passage way in the cliffs. Compared to the largest resource for Half-Life 2 screenshots online at Visual Walkthroughs, my screenshots are fewer in number, but far greater in resolution and belie some eight years of progress in computer hardware: my copy of the game runs with higher graphical settings.

  • I’m so pro, I used lateral thinking to unlock the “Keep of the sand” achievement. All one needs here is two wooden pallets and a bit of patience. Careful players will be able to make their way across without ever touching the sand.

  • Armed with the bug bait (not shown here), I advance into Nova Prospekt, a prison that was converted into a Combine detention facility. Use of the bug bait here and for a large portion of the mission summons Antlions to one’s position and can command them to attack, saving ammunition.

  • The older graphics do not detract from the atmosphere in any way: contrasting the eerie vibes in Ravenholm with the miner’s abandoned and deteriorating homes, the atmosphere in Nova Prospekt is oppressive and feels like a Gulag, the USSR forced labour camps.

  • Early Gulag were located in exceedingly remote locations, such as Verkhoyansk and the Solovetsky Islands. The sheer size of Russia means that much of the land is undeveloped, but for some reason, I feel that the wilderness has a very unnerving, haunted character to it, even though Canada is the second largest nation in the world in terms of geographical size and has a comparable amount of wilderness.

  • At some point, the player will need to fight an Antlion Guard. I found that making use of the Gravity gun and explosive barrels is the single most effective solution, making the battle quicker and conserving on ammunition. Shortly after, the player enters the Combine side of the facility.

  • I’ve jumped forwards substantially: this post technically isn’t a walkthrough, but my own recollections of the game. Upon returning to City 17, Freeman leads the Resistance to openly fight back against the Combine. After taking down one of the Combine generators, a break in the road forces the player to traverse the underground tunnels and enter a massive facility of unknown purpose.

  • The Overwatch Pulse rifle and crossbow are immensely useful here: whether for better or worse, this area feels strangely like the Plus-15 at Banker’s Hall to me, even though a side-by-side image comparison yields next to no similarities.

  • Fighting through the Combine Nexus (pretty much the town hall) was a close-quarters experience that proved immensely entertaining. Back in June, it was a warm, sunny evening following the June floods when I made a donation to the flood relief effort, and with the remainder of my evening free, I decided to continue with the game.

  • Before people start wondering why I remember events from the summer so well in upcoming posts, I will note that I took all of these screenshots from Steam, and thus, all of the images have a date-stamp on them.

  • The super Gravity gun is the ultimate weapon in the game, possessing the power to pick up and toss Combine soldiers like ragdolls. The primary fire sends out a bolt of energy that blows away anything on the other end and vapourises them. Players feeling particularly vindictive can fire or drag a downed soldier into the channels containing the energy balls to vapourise them.

  • I heard somewhere this was actually satellite imagery for New York, with downtown Brooklyn and Williamsburg visible, as well as parts of Maspeth in Queens and Lower East Side Manhattan visible. Nonetheless, it is very rewarding to make one’s way up here after a long fight through the depths of the Citadel.

This summer, I purchased Half-Life 2 (and all the episodes) on sale and had an opportunity to play through the game again. As the game is attached to my account, I played through to try and unlock achievements. While Summer 2013 had been disappointing with respect to travel, it was a stellar summer for gaming, and Half-Life 2 had been an appropriate way to celebrate convocation: on the day of the ceremony, I spent all morning playing through “Highway 17” and “Sandtraps”, even unlocking the “Keep off the sand” achievement. On a sunny evening following the devastating June floods, after I made a donation to the Red Cross for flood-relief, I played through “Follow Freeman”. Half-Life 2 represents a timeless game in this respect: no matter how many times I play through it, it feels different every time. I still find joy in blowing the gunship up after being pursued by it for nearly two missions. The zombies in Ravenholm still scare me on occasion, even though I know they’re coming. Last but not least, I still get a kick from using the super-charged Gravity Gun. Half-Life 2 was a game that hit all the right notes in 2004 and was perhaps one of the most innovative games of the era: the fact that it still continues to shine even against modern giants like Battlefield bears testament to just how well-done the game is.