The Half-Life 2 Files, Part 1: Summer in the City

G-ManNote: This series is a correspondence between fellow writer Anthony Taylor and myself about one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time, Half-Life 2. There have been enough volumes of html created about this Valve classic to fill Gabe Newell’s swimming pool, but one fact remains: neither of us have ever played it from start to finish.

When it comes to video games, admitting that you neglected to play through a monumental title like Half-Life 2 (or even the first Half-Life, in my case) is something akin to being branded with a pixelated Lambda symbol, forever marking you with the burnt orange of shame. However, for me it’s a bit more odd than for others. Many of you on GamerSushi know that I spent quite a bit of time in the past making videos in the Source engine which required me to edit Half-Life 2 maps, arrange Portal turrets and facepose lengthy monologues of the G-Man model. As such, I’ve acquainted myself with the lore of Valve’s celebrated sci-fi shooter series, but have never donned that H-VAC suit myself. I’ve always wanted to, however, but time always seemed to slip away from me. Recently, after talking about games we haven’t played, Anthony brought up Half-Life 2 and suggested we both tackle it. Inspired by the brilliant FFVII Letters, we thought we would document the process as we did it.

It’s for this reason that Anthony and I decided we would undergo a playthrough of Half-Life 2 together, and see what happens when we look back on a game that still manages to cast its shadow on gaming storytellers and worldbuilders, even 7 years later. Hopefully you’ll enjoy the result.


From: Eddy Rivas
To: Anthony Taylor
Subject: Summer in the City

I suppose it’s best to start from the famous train sequence, eh?

I remember seeing the G-Man monologue that Valve first used to debut Half-Life 2 all the way back at E3 2003, and being amazed at the smoothness of the facial animations. It’s funny that I finally witnessed the similar monologue in its intended format on the eve of E3 2011, when I watched the G-Man open the game earlier this week. Funnier still is that it managed to mesmerize me just the same, pulling me into the shoes of Gordon Freeman.

While I’ve only played about half of the original Half-Life (I’m sure there’s a juicy pun in there somewhere), the most memorable thing about that game for me would have to be the open on the tram car. At the time, I had never experienced anything quite like it. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the fact that I was asked to be patient while the game let me settle into its world like sitting into a worn leather chair, feeling it take on a shape around me. While the train ride into City 17 is no less iconic, there was something special about experiencing it as an invested player all these years later.

I don’t know about you, but I refrained from looking up any information about Half-Life before I started playing that sequence, so as not to be sullied by that information (I’ve since gone to familiarize myself). It was fairly remarkable to go into it blind, not quite understanding that while Freeman was in stasis (presumably for decades) after accepting the G-Man’s offer of employment, the Combine forces came to Earth because of the events of Black Mesa in order to enslave everyone in the brutal and decisive Seven Hour War.

City 17

The game starts in City 17, an anonymous ghetto in Eastern Europe with all the trappings of an Orwellian distopia. Oddly enough, the whole sequence played out like a JRPG, where the player is given the opportunity to talk to each citizen on the train and in the train station beyond. It really seems like Valve designed it in this way, too, letting you fill in bits of the world through all of the little details: the vortigaunt sweeping the trash while the Civil Protection soldier watches with disinterest, the welcome video of Dr. Breen and the woman clasping to the fence and waiting on her husband.

It’s actually startling not to have a shooter that doesn’t kick you in the face with its story and tell you to take this gun, soldier, the war’s-a-here. In fact, over the course of the first two chapters, I was surprised that there was no shooting at all. I mean, I understood that the crowbar is Gordon’s batarang, but I never expected I would do more running away than firefighting, even in the early chapters. I seriously got nervous during the apartment raid, which I’m sort of embarrassed to admit. Also, Barney was kind of a dick for not giving you a gun at that point.

Where most modern shooters would throw you into a lame tutorial experience or bog you down with exposition (or both), Half-Life 2 dumps you into the role of Gordon Freeman, and lets the characters bring everything to life. The cast is shown to you right from the get-go, and these aren’t your typical FPS stand-ins. I could wax on and on about the super-charming sequence in Kleiner’s lab, complete with the silliness of Lamar interrupting the teleportation, but I’ll let you jump in and talk about your thoughts.

Were you as taken away by the atmosphere as I was? What about the characters? Am I being overly cynical in dumping on modern shooters after seeing the atypical way that this game starts off in? And how big of a dick was Barney for that crowbar thing?

Read Anthony’s response on the next page!

Written by

I write about samurai girls and space marines. Writer for Smooth Few Films. Rooster Teeth Freelancer. Author of Red vs. Blue, The Ultimate Fan Guide, out NOW!

9 thoughts on “The Half-Life 2 Files, Part 1: Summer in the City”

  1. Wow, awesome guys. I really enjoyed that and it brought back so many memories. It makes me want to replay it again even though Ravenholm freaks the SHIT out of me. It’s still one of the best videogame levels EVER. No question.
    Can’t wait for the next installment. From the sign-off I take it this is to be a weekly thing?

  2. This is wicked… just reading this has brought back so many great memories of HL and HL2 (and all it’s episodes…all 2 of them). I’m definitely excited for the next installment. Great job!

  3. Yup, the goal is to make this a weekly feature, taking us all the way through the end of Episode Two. Would be great fun if everyone joined in, so people could give their own thoughts as we all progressed together.

  4. This is an awesome feature! 😀
    I think it’s really cool to learn what other people think of such a fantastic game. The Half-Life series is by far my favorite, I can’t wait for the next installment, keep it up! 🙂

  5. I loved reading this article mainly because of the wonder you write about which i remember feeling exactly. I only played Half-Life 2 last September when i bought my first personal laptop. Before, i felt as if i would not be missing out on anything by not playing and this was further solidified by not being able to play a ton of games. I am looking forward to reading more of these and hearing your “first time” opinions on the game.

  6. I’ll never forget arriving on the train. In my head Half-Life 2 still has photo-realistic graphics, knowing full-well that the Source engine is quite dated. It’s just a unique monster. I’ll never forget loading my quicksave before the stairs collapse on you after the roof running sequence to try to see if I could hide or escape… So many tries…

    I screamed during the apartment chase. I get VERY tense when I’m playing a game alone.

    This is such a great idea, I’m right along with you guys.

  7. I just finished re-playing Episode 2 last week, so I still have the whole game stuck in my mind. Such a great game from start to finish. One of my favorite parts was that you would always get a new gun right when you started needing one, the complete kick-ass-ness of the Gravity Gun, and how the story develops throughout the game. It’s like the more you play, the further you’re sucked into the world.

    Except sometimes Alyx gets in the way.

  8. It’s in the ranks of Firefly and the Harry Potter books in that I wish I could forget everything I knew about them so I could play/read/watch them for the first time again.

  9. I still get chills whenever I see so much as a screenshot or a picture of one of the characters from HL2.

    The work had a huge effect on my when I played it for the first time, and I echo James in his wish to just forget about it and experience it again for the first time.

    Even though the technology, to contemporary eyes and sensibilities, is a little old now, what Valve have done transcends that through story-telling to every human sense. Just one example: the screenshot of the Combine police and the boiersuit guy in the atmospheric blue alleyway takes me right back into the world of Gordon Freeman. Even such a simple scene is totally evocative, and there’s no mistaking the visual style of the Steam engine.

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