The Half-Life 2 Files, Part 2: The Road to Ravenholm

HL2 DogNote: 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.

HL2 Water Hazard

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!

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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!

13 thoughts on “The Half-Life 2 Files, Part 2: The Road to Ravenholm”

  1. Like Eddy, I’m not the biggest fan of anything horror. I refuse to watch any sort of scary movie or game. When I was going through Ravenholm, I was not a happy camper. I started it at about 10pm and by 1020 I’d turned the game off I was that freaked out. I couldn’t keep playing it, I had to wait until daylight hours. That probably took away some of the atmosphere, but I saw enough to know that Valve are masters at what they do.

  2. Lol, spiders and panache. Bit had me laughing quite a bit.
    Another great account guys, I’m really enjoying them so far and it’s nice to have something fill the void after Anthony stopped recounting his (mis)adventures in games, lol.
    If I remember correctly (it has been about 3 years) there’s a bit on the canal where you’re meant to go to that red building in the picture on the first page. When you get to it you found that the rwbels you were to meet were turned into zombies which is teased by the head-crab-rocket-thing. One of the most chilling parts in any game. Unless I’m making it up, I really can’t remember. 🙁 I guess I’ll just have to get it and play it again! 🙂
    I was wondering what the next game you guys will play will be. I know you aren’t even halfway through this yet but the curiosity is getting the better of me. I’d imagine Bioshock is a strong contender after listening to the E3 podcast, but who knows?

  3. Reading this really makes me want to get back to my own play through of this game. I’m currently on my third time through and just really don’t want to go down that last shaft to where all the poison spiders are…

    Any ways, I’ve really enjoyed hearing what you think of the game. I consider it one of my top all time favorites and it’s nice to hear there are still other people out there discovering it.
    Are you guys going to be playing through/discussing episode 1 and 2 as well?

  4. @SkubaPatr0l, yes the survivors in the red barn are zombified 🙂 and yes you should play it again 😀 and yes they should play through Bioshock once they finish HL2 and the episodes.

    one of the most gut wrenching and horrid things I have ever experienced in a game came from the level where you get the air boat when you walk up and see the guy fighting desperately to get the head crab off of him only to turn into a zombie right before your eyes. the thing I like about HL2 is that it throws amazing set pieces and levels at you but does not flaunt them at you, they are just there. its part of what makes the world so believable. the photo-realistic nature of the graphics that Julez mentioned in the previous post comes from something I have been a huge advocate for ever since I got into gaming. great art design. If you look at HL2, Doom 3 and Far Cry side by side both Far Cry and Doom pale in comparison to HL2 when it comes to graphics. this is not because HL2 has superior texture resolution or lighting but because the world has such good art direction and inspiration, to the point where it feels hand crafted and real. There is no texture that sticks out as really good or really bad, it just fits.

    Also only Valve could do a character like Father Grigori and make him believably fit in the world, he is funny but never campy.

  5. Half-Life 2 is my favorite game…of all time! I was thrilled when you guys announced you would be playing through my favorite game(of all time). I am enthusiastic to join you guys in playing through the game which still surprises me every time I replay it.
    In my humble opinion Ravenholm is the best video game level in history because it still scares me even though I have played through it several times. The moaning of the zombies never fails to send shivers down my spine. But of all of the enemies in the game NOTHING freaks me out more than the fast zombies. Goosebumps appear on my skin when I hear their freakish chattering and screams as they jump at you from the rooftops.
    I have probably played through Raven holm close to 20 times, but yesterday I was playing through and I actually broke out in a cold sweat because a headcrab I forgot about leaped at my face. My heart rate doubled as I repeatedly smashed the headcrab with a desk like you would a cockroach even after it was dead. I even placed a few rounds into it’s lifeless body for good measure.
    The fact that I can be frightened as a child by a game made several years ago is a testament to how real that valve makes this game feel.

    Oh and how did you guys like Father Grigori?? He was really creepy, but I was oddly comforted whenever I saw him throughout the level.

  6. Another interesting and thoughtful read that also had me laughing, great job once again guys! 🙂

    I have to agree that Alyx’s line “We don’t go there anymore.” was perfectly placed and delivered. Valve are probably the best at pacing their games and designing levels. When the music kicks in, it’s just perfect, with the sounds and the events that are happening in the game, they got it just right. Ravenholm is the creepiest and one of the most well made areas of the game. When I walked out of the building and I saw Ravenholm for the first time, I thought “I don’t want to continue going this way.” but I had to. Ravenholm is truly scary, the atmosphere is perfect. They didn’t make you scared from things jumping out at you all the time (things jumped out at you very occasionally), they scared you with the thoughts of hings jumping out at you, and with the environments were designed, the sound you hear, they clearly put a lot of work into it.

    Another great article guys, keep it up!

  7. Ravenholm on hard mode: Only use the Gravity Gun and saws. I really liked the whole level, like you said the atmosphere is really tense and well done, but if I have weapons I’m never scared in video games, because I always have the power to kill whatever’s in my way. Now Amnesia, on the other hand….

  8. Are you guys plaing HF2 on PC? If so, you should use Synergy…it allows you to play the entire game on co-op.

    1. I’m playing on PC and Anthony is playing on 360.

      Thanks for all the great comments, guys. It’s cool to hear some thoughts from people that played this game years ago while we’re experiencing it for the first time. Like I said in the article, feel free to play through the next session as we do for next week.

  9. [quote comment=”16897″]I’m playing on PC and Anthony is playing on 360.

    Thanks for all the great comments, guys. It’s cool to hear some thoughts from people that played this game years ago while we’re experiencing it for the first time. Like I said in the article, feel free to play through the next session as we do for next week.[/quote]

    Started Highway 17 last night. Continuing tonight. ROCK AND ROLL!

  10. First playthrough I had to take the entirety of Ravenholm (up to where he gives you the shotgun) with just my crowbar as I’d emptied everything long before.

    I got pretty good at back-and-forward knocking them on the head, four times for each kill.

    Brilliant level even after three or four plays. Also, Gadfly Jim is exactly right. There’s no game that looks like HL2 because of its immaculately designed sets.

  11. Another great post guys. Along with you Eddy and supernovaforce, Ravenholm absolutely scared the sh*t out of me. I actually remember it being my least favourite level in a game because I was so terrified when I played it. I think I was 12 or 13 when the game came out. On my trips back through it, I’ve realized how amazing it is, but there’s always a part of me that thinks “I hate that f*ing part of the game”.

    Can’t wait for the next piece.

  12. Just finished episode one, did HL2 over the course of the week.
    It was amazing and quite a challenge to play it on hard. But what I found interesting was that I didn’t feel so much involved in the story anymore, the atmosphere wasn’t that great either. I guess the magic is lost once you get to play it on a good PC 🙁

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