In the case of horror films, it may seem obvious to note that the viewer needs to feel immersed in the reality on the screen before they can get scared. The threats of the situations presented have to be enveloping if your spine is going to start crawling. The same is true of any game, however, the interesting part here is that a game has the ability to take it that much further. While horror films wrestle fear out of making us associate with a character or situation presented on the screen, videogames literally plant our feet into the shoes of the intended victims.
While Half Life 2 reviews have been lighting up the internet with their glowing praise of late, none I’ve seen have touched upon what was, for me, the biggest strength of the first game. It may have only lasted through the first third of the game, but Half Life was scary. Alone, low on ammo, trapped hundreds of feet below ground, crawling through an air vent pursued by an unseen threat, and with only a crowbar to fall back on, those early hours of the game ensured that the ones beyond the blast chamber would be nothing but a disappointment to me.
As effective combatants as the soldiers were, they just weren’t scary. So it’s from this viewpoint that I approached Half Life 2. Valve had been promising something scary and I felt it was about time that someone took a look at one of the biggest releases of the year to see if that promise has been met, after all you haven’t come here to see a carbon copy of what all the game sites are saying about the game.
Are the physics great? Well yes they are. Absolutely. Very impressive and a lot of fun no doubt…but they don’t make the game scarier, so don’t expect me to mention them much again.
What does help any game in being scary of course are better graphics. It’s often said that better graphics don’t make a game better, but when we’re talking about the fear factor, they absolutely do. The more believable the world is up on that screen, the more I’m going to be scared when some thing comes tearing around the corner lusting for my blood. The more human-like characters look, especially when the humans are predominantly on your side, the more likely you are to feel for them if and when they die.
More polygons don’t achieve this by themselves, the art design has to be up there as well or it’s all for nothing. Doom 3 was scary, but it felt cheap. Unrealistic pools of blackness mere feet away from a light is as likely to make your skin crawl at what might be waiting in the darkness as it is to get you annoyed at the designers of the game.
Half Life 2 presents as convincing a reality as I’ve seen in a game. From top to bottom very little is going to make you remember you’re sat in the safety of your own house, instead of fighting through the bizarre future Valve have concocted here. Only the long load times are likely to drop you out of the game.
The early moments of the game introduce you to City 17…a dark, repressed place where European architecture is strongly contrasted against the giant metallic structure, the headquarters of the sinister Combine, and their moving wall munching away at more and more of the city. Citizens look like convicts, and looping propaganda calls to mind the big reveal in They Live. In City 17, though, there are no pretences. The invaders are not hiding behind any facades here. The police are dehumanized behind full face gas masks, the round black lenses giving them a blank, emotionless gaze, adding a layer of threat to the human enemies that Half Life could have done with.
Most of Half Life 2 takes place during the day and in the kind of big open spaces that don’t normally lend themselves well to fear or tension. Even here though, Half Life 2 generates more atmosphere than most games do in these kind of areas. They’re desolate, derelict, empty…like all the life has been sucked out of the landscape.
The original Half Life featured some good monsters. The alien head crabs, obviously inspired by face huggers were especially effective, and wherever they were their victims, zombiefied innocents were never far behind. These in-your-face shocks and reanimated walking pieces of grue were behind a lot of the fear found in the first game, and the same is true here. In Half Life 2 though, there are more types of headcrabs, and the newer, improved headcrabs not only are much scarier, but give birth to more intimidating victims.
While you can go long stretches without seeing the little devils, they’re never far away, lurking in the shadows, and this pervasiveness helps keep you at the very least tense.
You’ll have feelings of claustrophobia, disorientation, vertigo and agoraphobia, and at times you’ll plunge down into the underbelly of City 17. It’s these moments where the fear sets in…slowly picking your way through the levy (which is pretty dry) at the beginning of the game, a rather inspired section midway through seems heavily influenced by Tremors…any time you find yourself alone in the darkness Half Life 2 can and will raise that tension to genuine fear.
The centerpiece, as far as we’re concerned, is Ravenholme. Ravenholme is a town beyond the reach of Combine but not beyond the reach of the zombies. Ravenholme: a burning ghost town stacked high with wall to wall frights. Ammo is relatively scarce meaning that you’ll be falling back on the gravity gun a lot, and as far as fall back weapons go there’s none finer.
Imagine a tool shed stacked up with circular saw blades, spanners, and steel vices. Imagine such a tool shed infested with the undead. Then imagine you had a weapon that could pick things up and hurl them around with great force; Ash could have done well with one of these babies out in the woods.
I’ll be honest, there are only sections of Half Life 2 that feel like outright horror but there’s a lot for the horror fan to enjoy: the vibe of They Live runs throughout the game, at times the environments feel like something straight out of Escape from New York, while at other times it feels like War of the Worlds. And if Steven Spielberg can’t do three legged Martian landing units believably, I’ll be pretty annoyed since a game like Half Life 2 has similar enemies that work flawlessly in an interactive environment.
You’ll never get the feeling of being more than a thorn in the Combine’s side. You’ll never feel like you can walk through a battlefield laying waste to everything. What you are going to do is run, hide, drive at breakneck speeds; do anything you can to get out of a situation.
Audio deserves a special mention here; the music fits perfectly with the situation and while not having any strong themes that will get stuck in your head, it almost subliminally ratchets up the atmosphere. The screams and screeches of the aliens and monsters are perfect, and the modulated voices of the Combine guards add to their sinister air. If you have a surround setup for your PC, it’s even better; separation is excellent and the amount of bass is perfect . If Half Life 2 has a weak point, it isn’t sound.
I leave Half Life 2 impressed. It’s unquestionably one of the greatest PC games, but if fear is what you’re after you might come away a little disappointed that the terror you’ll feel in Ravenholme isn’t spread throughout the whole game. What sells me on Half Life 2 is that at no point does it feel like any other game. There’s always something unexpected just around the corner. The world is more believable than any I’ve seen before, and it’s not a nice place. Even when you’re fighting human enemies wielding machine guns in what should be a familiar environment, Half Life 2 manages to eke more tension than you would expect. Are those parts scary? No, but they’re scarier than they’ve been in other games.
Half Life 2 is all about variety, and part of that variety is fear. If you consider War of the Worlds and They Live horror, then you’ll find a lot to like in Half Life 2. Doom 3 may be consistently scarier, but it has all the life of a haunted house attraction; it never feels real whereas Half Life 2 does. It has its missed opportunities (it’s far too kind to its human characters) and one ugly difficulty spike mid way through, but all in all, the story and world it presents are far easier to buy into.
4 1/2 out of 5
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