Updated: Aug 11, 2020
A short while back, we investigated the impact made by Halo: Combat Evolved, and in the last article its slightly less imaginatively named sequel, Halo 2. Most FPS games that came out after Halo implemented its innovations, such as; a two-gun limit, regenerating shields and dedicated grenade toss and melee attack buttons. With one major exception - Half-Life 2 - the topic of this article. Let’s dive in.
Lip-Syncing, Body Language and Facial Expressions
In many ways, Valve’s Half-Life 2 (HL2) was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. On the one hand, its technology was ahead of its time and dropped jaws amongst gamers and critics alike, as you can see and hear in the video below. (Apologies for the blurry video. I suspect this was taken on an attendee’s phone, and the video cameras in the phones of 2003 were not up to much.)
Half-Life 2 Tech Demo - E3 2003
NB - If you turn up the volume you may be able to hear the presentation.
In particular, the body and facial animations were far in advance of anything seen in a game up to that point. This added a new set of tools for storytellers, who could now convincingly convey mood, intention, exertion, pain, fear, anger, etc. through expressions and body language. This would go on to become an increasingly important part of games. The Last of Us made particularly good use of this to tell its gut-wrenching story.
Facial expressions and body language have even been used as a core mechanic in some games, most notably in the investigative LA Noire. In this, the player must read suspect’s and witnesses’ body language and facial expressions to determine if they are lying, withholding information, afraid of repercussions, etc.
Half-life 2’s lip-synching was revolutionary. Instead of animators having to attempt to match the character's mouth movement to the sounds, the sounds themselves animated the lips. This is how the G-Man from the video above was able to lip-sync to foreign languages so effectively. You can learn more about how this process works here.
Another of Half-life 2’s great innovations was its remarkable in-game physics. Physics have been implemented in previous FPS games of course. In Halo, for example, we saw both the Covenant and the UNSC NPCs being sent flying from grenade explosions and then rag-dolling over the scenery. However, Half-Life 2 incorporated the Havok physics engine, which took in-game physics to a new level. This was incorporated into the game’s core gameplay.
The term ‘physics puzzle’ has become commonplace, but it was very rarely - if ever - heard before HL2. Indeed, it may have coined the term. Boxes could be moved to create steps, breezeblocks placed on planks to act as counterweights, and corrugated metal sheets used as stepping stones for the world’s most dangerous game of ‘the floor is lava’.
Half-Life 2 (100%) Walkthrough (Chapter 8: Sandtraps)
If even the tip of your toe touches the tiniest bit of sand you don’t get the achievement. You also get swarmed by Antlions. Standing on a flimsy plank on top of the sand is ok, because, err, ‘reasons’?
Or you could try the method below…
From the hilarious webcomic ‘Concerned’
Central to manipulating the environment was the Gravity Gun. Part tool, part weapon, the Gravity Gun can pull things towards the player, suspend them in mid-air and forcefully propel them towards targets. This becomes vital in the ‘We Don’t Go To Ravenholm’ chapter, where zombies are plentiful but ammo is scarce. This forces the player to get creative and use objects in the environment as weapons.
Physics manipulation such as this started to appear in other franchises, for example, the Temporal Uplink in Time Splitters: Future Perfect and The Force powers in Star Wars: Force Unleashed. It may also have been the inspiration for Singularity’s Time Manipulation Device (TMD).
Half-Life 2: Full Walkthrough
Half-Life meets Resident Evil: We Don’t Go To Ravenholm’
One Foot in the Future, One in the Past
Although technologically Half-Life 2 was 'next-gen', aspects of its gameplay felt distinctly ‘old skool’. For example, it used the same non-regenerating health mechanic as the first Half-Life. What’s more, your avatar could carry the entire in-game arsenal at the same time. Aim Down Sights (ADS) only worked with the game’s dedicated sniper-weapon - the crossbow. Furthermore, there were no dedicated grenade toss or melee attack buttons. These are likely due to HL2’s five-year development cycle - it would have started development before Halo was released.
This resulted in a game that was both anachronistic and a glimpse at the future of gaming at the same time. Some said it felt out of time, whilst others felt this gave it a unique charm.
If Half-Life was a textbook example of how to create a sense of ‘place’, then HL2 was a textbook example of ‘pace’. Each chapter felt unique, and many were divided into separate sections.
Some areas saw your avatar having to run or drive for their lives as they were unarmed and attempting to escape enemy territory, whilst others saw the avatar go on the offensive. These intense sections were interspersed with areas that were either safe or required a slow, methodical approach. This created a superb ‘ebb and flow’ pacing which prevented the game from becoming boring or overwhelming.
Impact of The Source Engine
HL2’s impressive features are all thanks to the engine it ran on, the Source Engine. Valve allowed developers to use the engine for free, so long as the game or mod was free. Licensing fees only applied if the game was being sold retail.
This made it an extremely attractive engine for modders and indie developers. Some of these mods, such as the sandbox Garry’s Mod and the fourth-wall-breaking The Stanley Parable went on to become retail releases. Some modders were hired by Valve to work on commercial projects, such as Half-Life Alyx.
Source FilmMaker SFM
On the back of the Source Engine came Source Filmmaker (SFM). This allowed players and budding animated filmmakers to create films using the source engine and its assets. In the right hands, it could create shorts that would give Pixar a run for their money
Granted, this was done by Valve, and they *may* have used custom content not publicly available, but it shows the top end of what was possible.
[SFM] Off Limits
This is a little more achievable for most people, and no, you can’t now unsee it 😉
Steam is Valve's proprietary online digital distribution platform. At the time it was considered the PC’s answer to the Xbox’s Xbox Live. The initial uptake of Steam was limited. Some people were distrustful of it. Secondly, almost all PC games came on physical media back then, so many gamers didn’t see the need for it.
There was also the issue of internet connections and download speeds. Broadband was still in its infancy in 2004 and was painfully slow by today’s standards. What’s more, there was a sizable number of people still using 56k dial-up.
Valve knew that the future of PC gaming lay in digital downloads, and was presumably determined that their platform would lead the way. (And thus, gain the lion’s share of the market).
So, how did they ensure that many PC gamers downloaded and installed Steam?
By making HL2 in such a way that it wouldn’t run without Steam running in the background.
Some PC gamers were unhappy at this imposition, but not so unhappy that they were willing to miss out on HL2 - which was one of the most hotly anticipated games of all time. Therefore, most PC gamers downloaded and installed Steam anyway. The result? Instant market penetration, with Steam installed on millions of gamer’s PCs across the globe. Pure genius.
There was still one problem, however - the sheer length of time it would take to download the game digitally. It could literally take all day. The solution gamers devised was simple - start downloading it before bed and leave the PC on overnight. By the morning it might have finished downloading. The alternative method was to start downloading in the morning before school, college, work etc. then play it when you got back home. This became common practice for downloading games from Steam for a time - until faster broadband speeds made it unnecessary.
Steam went on to become the primary method of obtaining games on PC. This all but killed off physical media. The shelf-space for PC games in retail stores started to shrink - not because there were too few PC games - quite the opposite in fact - but because PC gaming was rapidly becoming all-digital. The success of Steam spawned competition of course, such as GoG.com, Origin, and the Epic Game Store.
Steam went on to expand its services and became the primary distribution method for PC games, with Valve acting as publisher for some. This proved to be highly lucrative for Valve, which has allowed the company to fund many projects, most notably VR - which may become the topic of a future article.
Half-Life 2 - thanks to the Source Engine it ran on - was a technological marvel that was far in advance of most of its contemporaries. This engine went on to become highly influential with many full-price retail games - and a vast array of mods - making use of it. It ensured Steam had a large install base early on, and some have said that Steam saved PC gaming as a whole at a time when consoles were starting to take over. All things considered; Half-Life 2 is (IMO) well-deserving of the praise it receives.
In the next article, we will investigate another great FPS. It too spawned a multi-media franchise that is still going strong today. This franchise would become the poster child for open-world FPS games and emergent gameplay. A franchise where the charismatic primary antagonists are far more memorable than the player characters. The name of that franchise? Far Cry. See you all there.
What are your thoughts about Half-Life 2, the Source Engine and Steam? Do you feel they deserve the praise they get? Do you prefer the newer post-Halo gameplay mechanics or those of the old skool? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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