21: Half-Life 2
Format: Xbox 360, Mac, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox
In my second year of university, I lived with four computer science students. As you can imagine, that made for quite a nerdy household, and a lot of gaming. It helped that that year fell from autumn 2004 to summer 2005, a quite astonishing period for all-time classic games. (Resi 4, Metal Gear Solid 3, San Andreas, not to mention the launch of the DS...) One of my most abiding memories of that time is the release of Half-Life 2. Naturally, all four of them had mighty PCs and so they all got hooked up to this newfangled Steam thing and started downloading simultaneously. We then spent a while wandering from bedroom to bedroom, seeing who would get the game first. Turned out to be Leigh, so once he’d installed it we crammed into his room to witness the start. (And then Dan, Jonny and Scott swiftly left to check on their own progresses, but since I wasn’t waiting for it to download due to the fact that I was then using a knackered old laptop that wouldn’t have played the game in a million years, I hung about to watch Leigh play for half an hour or so.) I didn’t actually get the game myself for a few more years, eventually picking up The Orange Box on my 360, but I’ll never forget that initial glimpse. You could throw cans about!
Anyway, Half-Life 2 was so ahead of its time it still seemed remarkably impressive when I got it a good five years later. Valve completely turned the first-person shooter on its head with the first game in the series, and this sequel proved just as revolutionary in its foregrounding of realistic physics. The gravity gun and everything that it entailed arguably gave gaming in general the next big jump forward after coherent 3D worlds – making the worlds seem that more real with decent physics. It wasn’t the first time someone had tried it – anyone remember the Jurassic Park puzzle-shooter Trespasser, possibly the defining example of a game made a good five years before the tech was ready for it? – but it was the first time it had really worked, and suddenly nearly every big game had to at least nod to physics.
But this being Valve, it wasn’t just one trick in the book. Half-Life 2 arguably doesn’t have a weak moment. From the physics to the graphics to the voice acting to the enemies to the weapons to the plotting and direction, it’s a relentless masterpiece of how to draw the player in. And in Alyx Vance, it gave you one of gaming’s great characters – a lesson in how to accompany the player with a believable, well-rounded AI who works so well and is so convincing and likeable that it took nine years for anyone to truly match up to her (Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite, o’course). And that’s why Half-Life 2 still astonished me when I eventually played it in 2009, and why it still astonishes me now.
MAGIC MOMENT: Oh lord, how to choose? Let’s say Ravenholm, where the game suddenly turns into a terrifying survival horror.