Note: 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. In the first HL2 file, we talked about our history with Half-Life and the opening of Half-Life 2.
This week, we cover the levels Root Kanal through Ravenholm.
From: Eddy Rivas
To: Anthony Taylor
Subject: The Road to Ravenholm
I like that we’ve both had similar experiences in terms of watching the combine-inhabited world unfold before Gordon’s Freeman’s eyes. Seeing the details fill in one at a time in the midst of a story about rebellion is fascinating. Such as trying to decipher the meaning behind the grafitti of the man in the gask mask holding a child. Or the Vortiguants acting as house elves in the mess hall of Black Mesa East. The newspaper clippings fastened to Eli and Mossman’s wall. I’m not sure if I’m on the same page as you in terms of the controls just yet, though.
It’s interesting. At times, they don’t feel dated at all. Gliding along in the Vortiguant-enhanced speedboat or taking on waves of combine soldiers feels like any modern day shooter would. Wielding the gravity gun is downright sublime and even today feels years ahead of its time. However, hopping from Father Grigori’s dangling cars over rickety walkways or hopping down mineshafts is enough to make me a slobbering headcrab-bitten zombie sometimes, and can be more than a bit frustrating.
However, that isn’t to say that I can’t appreciate those moments despite some floaty controls and precarious platforming. Now that I’ve knocked a bigger chunk out of the game, the thing that really seems to stand out to me more than anything else is how much Half-Life 2 levels don’t play like video game levels at all. Not to keep turning this into a “they don’t make them like they used to” party, but it really is astonishing how well designed the levels are.
While modern shooters just flush you down a continuous tunnel, Half-Life 2 takes place across sprawling areas, places that look plucked right out of our world and then filled with danger and wonder. Building a level like the Canals – which could be sewers from anywhere in the world – or something wide open like Water Hazard is a monumental task, one that was more than likely a nightmare to undertake. To create something that feels like a real place but also a video game level is hard to do, which is why we almost never see it. And beyond that, letting the player know where to go through extremely subtle clues is something that takes a lot of trust on Valve’s part that gamers aren’t idiots.
I have to say, navigating through Water Hazard is some of the most fun I’ve had in a while. No matter what crazy set pieces were being destroyed all around me, I felt like Rambo in that boat and never seemed to get lost because of the job Valve does at layering the path for you. You almost lose the sense that it’s a game as you traverse these areas. Not only does it make for interesting gameplay, but it also serves to enhance the same sense of helplessness that was evoked from the train intro. This is a great big world that surrounds us, and it is filled with creatures that want to kill us.
Which I guess brings me to Ravenholm. Did you have to suppress a shudder at that now-famous line that Alyx uttered as you looked down that dark tunnel? It was delivered with such perfect pacing, too. “…We don’t go there anymore.” Here’s a really embarrassing admission: the first time the zombies started rolling up on screen, with headcrabs jumping everywhere to give me laceration warnings, a spider crawled up my leg underneath my computer desk. I screamed at a pitch very near to the sound that combine soldiers make when they die. As if Ravenholm weren’t scary enough, this upped the ante for me completely.
I could go on and on about just how tense that entire township was, how perfectly the mood was set. There were a few moments of sheer fright as I realized I was running low on ammo and shambling zombie men came out of the dark corridors in the middle of that town square. After playing through all of those sequences, I felt some solid, tangible relief once I saw the daylight that awaited beyond that awesome decapitator contraption that zipped up and down the mineshaft.
But I think I should stop there. And that’s not even highlighting the excellent pacing of stopping the insanity of Water Hazard to let you play fetch with Dog in one of the more charming sequences I’ve seen in a video game. And that’s also totally ignoring the jedi-like powers given to Gordon when he finally gets his hands on the gravity gun: This isn’t the scientist you’re looking for…
I’ll leave the next bit to you. How did you feel about the pacing and level design? Did Ravenholm live up to the hype for you? Is the ragtag rebellion starting to win you over yet?
Read Anthony’s response on the next page!