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This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Half-Life 2 Update.

Transcript Edit

It was one of those troublesome weeks for finding something to review. The habitual drunkard that is the release schedule belched up the last of its latest round of rancid gut butter and has rolled over and gone back to sleep as we awkwardly hold the bucket and wait for the next tremulous stomach gurgle like a nest of baby birds.

I was gonna do Pillars of Eternity, but after I rolled a character and went through the prologue, I walked out into a meadow and was immediately slaughtered by a small group of wild piglets. I’m not sure I’m on the right wavelength for that kind of game, although I did start enjoying myself later when I was reading through some conversational text and was suddenly magically transported to a dark thorny forest, full of gigantic monster crabs. But then I realized that I’d actually fallen asleep from boredom and my face was resting on a 1970’s issue of Mayfair.  

So instead, let’s do what I usually do when current releases are letting me down: Let’s Get Ret...Ro. After all, you can’t polish a turd, but you can at least reminisce about the lovely pie and chips it used to be. It’s not hard to find relevant retro games since remakes, remasters and updates are constantly raining down upon us like someone planted landmines in the graveyard

Half Life 2 was recently updated with the imaginatively-titled Half Life 2: Update, a community-made mod that improves the graphics in such a way that you probably wouldn't notice without a side-by-side comparison. But hey, graphics are like public toilet cleaners: you know they’re doing their job properly if you never notice or think about them. The update also adds commentary, not by the original developers, but by quote, "members of the Half Life community". And forgive me if that feels a little presumptuous. Bob the stinky tramp is technically a member of the community, but I wouldn't ask him his opinions on local government.

The thing about fan commentary is that it’s pretty-much always going to be cheerleading, 'cause that’s what defines a fan, whereas the developer ten years down the line might have some interesting self-criticism with the benefit of hindsight. 99% of creators claim to loathe everything they made more than five years ago and the remaining 1% are liars. So with the occasion of the update, let’s see if Half Life 2 still holds up. Half Life 1 did the last time we rode the retro metro, but Half Life 2 isn't quite the same vent full of Space Crabs.

 After escaping the research facility and defeating the leader of the alien invasion in Half Life 1, Gordon Freeman has a well-deserved lie-in for the next twenty years before finding the Earth he fought so hard to save double-backsy reconquered by an even WORSE alien race, and the struggling human resistance now considers him to be speccy Jesus. God knows why, when none of them actually saw him blow up the alien leader and most of the rest of Half Life 1 was spent gunning down American servicemen and failing to rescue scientists. Also, the leaders of the Earth resistance all used to work with Gordon at Black Mesa, as did the human overseer of the occupying aliens, which is the kind of extraordinary coincidence that could only be explained by writers trying to force continuity between what could have easily been two completely unconnected plots. But I suppose it wouldn't have been the same without Gordon Freeman, it’s not like players would have accepted any other mute personality-deficient goof, allegedly lurking behind the first-person camera.

Old games that in their day sold themselves on ground-breaking tech usually now come across as kind of quaint at best, kind of Quake II at worst. Half Life 2 (Surely it would be a Full Life, then?) was most noticeable for its ground breaking physics engine, and if there’s a single word that summarizes its approach to physics it would be “Tadaaaa!”

In this day and age when physics engines are just another old toy cluttering up the playroom of the most hideously-spoiled child to have ever existed, improved physics engines are that where everything doesn't feel like it’s made of vulcanized rubber and characters don’t ragdollise like their bodies have spontaneously transformed into over-cooked pasta. One might reasonably wonder why we have to pause in the middle of a daring escape through enemy-infested tunnels to pile some bricks onto a see-saw and jump off it onto a ledge when we could just do a single pull-up. The exciting airboat chase has to break flow three or four times because we have to disembark and figure out a Rube Goldberg machine someone set up to activate a ramp, that could quite easily have been constructed from two planks and a fat person. 

And the other new tech the game is very keen to showcase like a weirdly chippy roommate humming and skipping round the house desperately hoping you’ll ask how his date went last night is facial animation. To that end, we’re occasionally locked in a room for lengthy story sessions that just barely escape being tarred with the cutscene brush ‘cause we’re still free to climb on the furniture and jump on people. Certainly the facial animation is good and the characters are well-rounded, but there’s something kind of off about them. Maybe it’s the way they remain so weirdly chipper while the oppressive regime is murdering people next door, or how their enthusiasm never wavers no matter how many times Gordon never speaks or visibly reacts. 

This was fine in Half Life 1 when the cast consisted of ninety thousand clones of the same five guys, but when there’s an emphasis on individual characters and their interactions, the silent protagonist feels weirdly out of place in the middle of it. It feels like everyone’s acting at him, y’know what I mean, like he’s a casting director at a restaurant and they’re a waiter with big ambitions. But now that faces rarely need to animate much beyond a grim, determined-frown and physics engines are largely used to make bits of grit realistically fly off of chest-high walls, don’t you think that the wonder and creative spirit the tech was intended to provoke has been lost? It wasn't just that Half Life 2 Episode 0 had physics, it was that the gameplay made it work! 

The whole game is a series of showcase set-pieces linearly strung together, but at least it had something to showcase. Most action games have physics engines now, but precious few have a mechanic as simple and gratifying as the Gravity Gun to use the physics to its’ full potential and give the world a sense of true interactivity. Many admittedly have better endings, where the story doesn't just screech abruptly to a halt because its run out of set-pieces, with two more episodes bolted on after the fact that end on a cliffhanger that goes unresolved forever, thus earning a permanent benefit of the doubt. Well fucking played, Valve. 

Is Half Life 3 taking so long ‘cause you need to think of another innovative thing to showcase in it? Why not start with a ladder that it’s possible to detach from without breaking both your legs!?

Addenda Edit

  • Never really had a point in the first place: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
  • Freeman isn't the best casting director but you never hear a word of complaint from him
  • You try doing a pull up in fifty pounds of reinforced orange steel

Screenshots Edit

Episodes
2007 - 2010
2007
Q3 The Darkness Demo · Fable: The Lost Chapters · Zero Punctuation (Episode) · Heavenly Sword and Other Stuff · Psychonauts · Console Rundown · BioShock · Tomb Raider: Anniversary · Manhunt · Peggle
Q4 Halo 3 · Tabula Rasa · The Orange Box · Super Paper Mario · Medal of Honor: Airborne · The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass · Clive Barker's Jericho · F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate · Assassin's Creed · Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock · Mass Effect
2008
Q1 Super Mario Galaxy · Silent Hill: Origins · Crysis · The Witcher · Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles · Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare · SimCity Societies · Yahtzee Goes to GDC · Uncharted: Drake's Fortune · Devil May Cry 4 · Burnout: Paradise · Turok · Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure
Q2 Army of Two · No More Heroes · Condemned 2: Bloodshot · Super Smash Bros. Brawl · God of War: Chains of Olympus · Mailbag Showdown · Grand Theft Auto IV · Painkiller · The World Ends With You · The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion · Haze · Metal Gear Solid 4
Q3 Webcomics · Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures · Alone in the Dark · Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures · The E3 Trailer Park · Ninja Gaiden II · Prince of Persia Retrospective · Soulcalibur IV · Braid · EVE Online · Too Human · Spore · XBLA Double Bill
Q4 Mercenaries 2: World in Flames · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed · S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky · Silent Hill: Homecoming · Saints Row 2 · Dead Space · Fable II · Fallout 3 · Guitar Hero: World Tour · Mirror's Edge · Left 4 Dead · Sonic Unleashed · The Year in Review - 2008 · Prince of Persia
2009
Q1 Awards for 2008 · Tomb Raider: Underworld · Far Cry 2 · Gears of War 2 · LittleBigPlanet · Thief: The Dark Project · Skate 2 · F.E.A.R. 2 · Spider-Man: Web of Shadows · The House of the Dead: Overkill · 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand · Resident Evil 5
Q2 X-Blades/Halo Wars · Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars · MadWorld · Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X · Siren: Blood Curse · The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena · Valkyria Chronicles · Velvet Assassin · Duke Nukem Forever · Bionic Commando · InFamous · The Second Annual E3 Hype Massacre · Prototype
Q3 The Sims 3 · Ghostbusters: The Video Game · Overlord 2 · Red Faction Guerrilla · Wii Sports Resort · Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood · The Conduit · Silent Hill 2 · 2.5-D Hoedown · Tales of Monkey Island · Wolfenstein · Batman: Arkham Asylum · Beatles Rock Band & Guitar Hero 5 · Darkest of Days
Q4 Scribblenauts · Wet · Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story · Brutal Legend · Washington D.C. · Uncharted 2: Among Thieves · Dragon Age: Origins · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 · Assassin's Creed 2 · Left 4 Dead 2 & New Super Mario Bros. Wii · Demon's Souls · Holiday 2009 · The Saboteur
2010
Q1 Awards for 2009 · Torchlight · Darksiders · Bayonetta · Dark Void · Borderlands · Mass Effect 2 · Dante's Inferno · BioShock 2 · Aliens vs Predator · Heavy Rain · Battlefield: Bad Company 2 · Final Fantasy XIII
Q2 April Fools 2010 · God of War III · Red Steel 2 · Just Cause 2 · Silent Hill: Shattered Memories · Splinter Cell: Conviction · Nier · Dead to Rights: Retribution · Monster Hunter Tri · Alan Wake · Red Dead Redemption · Alpha Protocol · Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands · E3 2010
Q3 No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle · Super Mario Galaxy 2 · Singularity · Crackdown 2 · DeathSpank & Limbo · Shadow of the Colossus · Split Second: Velocity · Transformers: War for Cybertron · Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days · Mafia II · Metroid: Other M · Video Game Voters Network · Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Q4 Halo: Reach · Dead Rising 2 · Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow · Enslaved: Odyssey to the West · Fallout: New Vegas · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II · Call of Duty: Black Ops · IPhone Games · Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood · Splatterhouse · Epic Mickey · Holiday 2010
2011 - 2014
2011
Q1 Top 5 of 2010 · World of Warcraft: Cataclysm · Fable III · Minecraft · A Shadow's Tale · Dead Space 2 · DC Universe Online · MindJack · Two Worlds II · Bulletstorm · Killzone 3 · Kirby's Epic Yarn · Dragon Age II
Q2 Pokémon White · Yakuza 4 · Crysis 2 · Nintendo 3DS · Portal 2 · Castlevania: Symphony of the Night · Mortal Kombat · Brink · L.A. Noire · The Witcher 2 · Hunted: The Demon's Forge · Duke Nukem Forever (for real this time) · InFamous 2
Q3 Alice: Madness Returns · Shadows of the Damned · F.E.A.R. 3 · The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D · Call of Juarez: The Cartel · Bastion and From Dust · Catherine · Red Faction: Armageddon · Deus Ex · Deus Ex: Human Revolution · Driver: San Francisco · Dead Island · Resistance 3
Q4 Gears of War 3 · Hard Reset · Rage · Kinect · Batman: Arkham City · Battlefield 3 · Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 · The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim · Saints Row: The Third · Assassin's Creed: Revelations · The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
2012
Q1 Serious Sam 3: BFE · Top 5 of 2011 · Super Mario 3D Land & Rayman Origins · Sonic Generations · Star Wars: The Old Republic · Amy · Resident Evil: Revelations · Darkness 2 · Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning · NeverDead · Syndicate · Mass Effect 3 · Twisted Metal
Q2 Yakuza: Dead Souls · Ninja Gaiden 3 · Silent Hill: Downpour · Kid Icarus: Uprising · Fez and I Am Alive · Prototype 2 · Risen 2: Dark Waters · Sniper Elite V2 · Diablo 3 · Max Payne 3 · Dragon's Dogma · E3 2012 · Lollipop Chainsaw
Q3 Quantum Conundrum · Spec Ops: The Line · Walking Dead · Inversion · The Amazing Spider-Man · Half-Life · Wreckateer and Deadlight · Steam Roundup · Sleeping Dogs · Darksiders 2 · DayZ · Guild Wars 2
Q4 Borderlands 2 · FIFA 13 · Resident Evil 6 · Dishonored · XCOM: Enemy Unknown · Medal of Honor: Warfighter & Doom 3: BFG Edition · Assassin's Creed 3 · Halo 4 · Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 · Hitman: Absolution · Far Cry 3 · ZombiU
2013
Q1 Top 5 of 2012 · Paper Mario: Sticker Star · Black Knight Sword & Hotline Miami · Anarchy Reigns · DMC: Devil May Cry · The Cave · Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch · Dead Space 3 · Aliens: Colonial Marines · Crysis 3 · Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance · Tomb Raider · SimCity
Q2 The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct · BioShock Infinite · Lego City Undercover · Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon · Injustice: Gods Among Us · Star Trek · Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon · System Shock 2 · Metro: Last Light · Next Gen Buyer's Guide · Fuse · Remember Me · E3 2013
Q3 The Last of Us · Deadpool · Animal Crossing: New Leaf · Ride to Hell: Retribution · Dark · Mario & Luigi: Dream Team · Rise of the Triad · Papers, Please & Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons · Pikmin 3 · The Bureau: XCOM Declassified · Saints Row 4 · Killer is Dead · Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Q4 Grand Theft Auto V · Lost Planet 3 · Beyond: Two Souls · The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD · Batman: Arkham Origins · Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag · Call of Duty: Ghosts · Exclusives Showdown · Ryse: Son of Rome · Dead Rising 3 · Super Mario 3D World
2014
Q1 Top 5 of 2013 · Knack · Killzone: Shadow Fall · Survival Special · Broken Age · Might & Magic X: Legacy · The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds · Dark Souls · Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII · Strider · Thief · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 · Dark Souls II
Q2 Titanfall · InFamous: Second Son · Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes · The Elder Scrolls Online · South Park: The Stick of Truth · FTL: Faster Than Light · Child of Day-Light · The Amazing Spider-Man 2 · Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure · Wolfenstein: The New Order · WATCH DOGS · E3 2014 · Murdered: Soul Suspect
Q3 Tomodachi Life · Enemy Front & Valiant Hearts: The Great War · Shovel Knight · EarthBound · Transistor · E.T. · Firefall · Sacred 3 · Risen 3: Titan Lords · Daikatana · Lichdom: Battlemage · The Sims 4 · Destiny
Q4 D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die · Hyrule Warriors · Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor · Alien Isolation · The Evil Within · Bayonetta 2 · Sunset Overdrive · Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare · Assassin's Creed: Unity · Far Cry 4 · Dragon Age: Inquisition · Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric · Top 5 Games of 2014
2015 - 2017
2015
Q1 The Talos Principle · Elite: Dangerous · Five Nights at Freddy's and This War of Mine · Lords of the Fallen · Saints Row: Gat out of Hell · Dying Light · Grim Fandango · Evolve · The Order: 1886 · The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D · Resident Evil Revelations 2 · Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number & Ori and the Blind Forest
Q2 Battlefield: Hardline · Bloodborne · Half-Life 2 Update · Axiom Verge & Stealth Inc 2 · Mortal Kombat X · Grand Theft Auto Online · Broken Age: Act 2 · Wolfenstein: The Old Blood · Cyberpunk Double · The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt · Splatoon · Hatred · E3 2015
Q3 Alone in the Dark: Illumination · Batman: Arkham Knight · Yoshi's Woolly World · Cave Story · Godzilla · Rocket League & Tembo the Badass Elephant · King's Quest: A Knight to Remember · Nom Nom Galaxy & Freedom Planet · Everybody's Gone To The Rapture · Volume · Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain · Mad Max · Gears of War Ultimate Edition · Until Dawn
Q4 Super Mario Maker · SOMA · Rock Band 4 · Assassin's Creed Syndicate · Halo 5: Guardians · Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 · Rise of the Tomb Raider · Fallout 4 · Star Wars: Battlefront · Just Cause 3 · Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water
2016
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2015 · Devil's Third · Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam · Assassin's Creed Chronicles · Xenoblade Chronicles X · The Witness & Bombshell · Gravity Rush · XCOM 2 · Firewatch & Layers of Fear · Far Cry Primal · Stardew Valley & SUPERHOT · The Division · Salt and Sanctuary
Q2 Republique · Shadow Warrior · Quantum Break · Dark Souls III · Ratchet & Clank · Star Fox Zero · Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door · Uncharted 4: A Thief's End · Doom · Homefront: The Revolution · Overwatch & Battleborn · Mirror's Edge: Catalyst · E3 2016
Q3 Mighty No. 9 · Inside & Shadow of the Beast · The Technomancer · Furi & Song of the Deep · I Am Setsuna · Headlander & Quadrilateral Cowboy · Quake · No Man's Sky · Grow Up · Deus Ex: Mankind Divided · Metroid Prime: Federation Force · The Curious Expedition & Mother Russia Bleeds · ReCore
Q4 Capcom Five · Clustertruck & Lichtspeer · Paper Mario: Color Splash · Mafia III · Gears of War 4 · PlayStation VR · Battlefield 1 · Titanfall 2 vs Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare · Dishonored 2 · WATCH DOGS 2 · Final Fantasy XV · The Last Guardian
2017
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2016 · Let It Die · Dead Rising 4 · Hitman · Gravity Rush 2 · Resident Evil 7 · Yakuza 0 · Nioh · For Honor · Nintendo Switch & Breath of the Wild · Horizon Zero Dawn · Nier Automata · Ghost Recon Wildlands
Q2 Mass Effect Andromeda · Yooka-Laylee · Persona 5

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