(2004, PC; 2005, Xbox)
Half-Life 2: Episode 1
(2006, PC and Xbox)
Half-Life 2: Episode 2
(2007, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC)
Half-Life 2 may have saved my life.
In 2004, my 1999-vintage PC was starting to show its age. I'd gotten a beastly Alienware machine as a high school graduation gift, which had served me well for most of its lifespan, but it wasn't up to the task of running two new games I desperately wanted to play, Doom 3 and Half-Life 2. Unfortunately, I was dead broke. And even as the word on Doom 3 was less than stellar, by all accounts Half-Life 2 was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of a game. Still I put it off.
By winter of 2005, things had gone from bad to worse. My computer was infected with malware and viruses, and had become all but unusable. I needed a new one, but my budget was tight. I couldn't buy a new one. I couldn't even pay it off in installments without cutting something from my monthly expenses. After I ran the numbers, there was only one conclusion: I would have to quit smoking.
I finished the pack of cigarettes I was on, and ordered the computer. Somehow, seeing the cost in such stark terms made it -- well, not easy to quit, but not that hard, either. And by summertime, when I saw Half-Life 2 on the shelf at Target and remembered how important it had been to play it, I could even afford that, too.
And, as you know, it is so good. The original is still a masterpiece of self-contained B-movie storytelling, but the sequel broke ground with its more ambitious and ambiguous narrative. Gordon Freeman has gone from a plucky survivor to an unlikely messiah figure, and the threat has shifted from icky creatures to a totalitarian occupying force. Half-Life 2 is creepy, both in ways that make your skin crawl, and in ways that poke at your conscience.
It is also, at its most basic level, one of the most deftly engineered action games ever made. The optional commentary tracks on the later Half-Life 2 episodes are illuminating, and dispel any notion I may have had that the team at Valve had somehow lucked into the quality of their games. No other developer is better at tricking you into doing exactly what they want, while making you think that you're the one at the wheel. Half-Life 2 is chases, shootouts, and everything else exciting you could want from a game, all performed at the highest level.
In subsequent chapters, Valve has added new twists without taking away from what made the first game so great. The culmination of Episode Two, a massive battle sequence against the beastly striders that makes heavy use of both driving and the gravity gun, may be the series' high point. I expect even better from Episode Three.
So thanks, Half-Life 2. This January will mark five years since I stopped smoking. When I'm not dying of lung cancer at age 60, I'll play this game, and I still won't be able to breathe.
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