I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it in the past, but there are only a handful of “legendary” video games that I haven’t played. Skyrim is probably the most notable but another game I never really played is Half-Life. Technically, I’ve played the first bits of the first game back in the 90s, but I think I only played the first hour or so. This means I’ve never bothered to play any of the follow-ups, except for Half-Life: Alyx. However, with me finally getting my hands on the Steam Deck, it just made sense to experience Half-Life 2 on it. After spending a weekend absorbed in the gameplay, I see why it’s considered such an important video game.

Gordon holding a shotgun on a stretch of road

A little background on why it took so long

Half-Life 2 was released back in 2004 and at that time I was close to finishing University, still trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, and playing most games on my PlayStation 2. I didn’t have a good enough PC for the time, so a high-profile PC-only game wasn’t going to be something I’d pick up and play.

A few years later, around 2007, Valve released The Orange Box and I immediately picked it up for the Xbox 360. Of the five games available in the collection, I only played Portal (which I love) and a bit of Team Fortress 2. Half-Life 2 and the Episode 1 and 2 follow-ups were set aside. To be honest, I did start Half-Life 2 with the expectation that I would finally play it, but that just never happened.

I can’t say when I bought The Orange Box on PC, it must have been sometime after Portal 2’s launch in 2011 (still one of my absolute favorite games). The most popular PC game of all time was finally on my PC (it’s been a decade at that point, so I had a laptop that could run it). But still, I didn’t touch the game. It wasn’t until 2022 that I got the Steam Deck and felt it was finally time to start my journey in Half-Life 2.

Gordon talking to Alyx and Dr. Kleiner in an early portion of Half-Life 2

Impressive for a nearly 20-year-old game

Having not played through the completion of Half-Life, jumping into Half-Life 2 is a tad confusing, at first. The game doesn’t do a “previously on…” so you start the game, and you may not quite understand what’s going on, who you are, and any other important bits of information. In all honesty, it doesn’t matter too much. Yes, there are some callbacks to the first game, but not knowing them doesn’t necessarily hurt your experience.

What immediately got my eye was that for a game that’s nearly two decades old, it still looks fantastic. Yes, some character animations show their age, and the draw distance suffers, but for a 2004 release, this is incredible.

The audio also shines. Outside the stellar cast of characters and solid voice work, the use of audio made such a difference. I liked how it didn’t feel like it was always necessary to add background music in some areas. The ambiance sound effects do more than enough to keep you focused. Yes, there are a few sections where the music is used to signify a key moment, it never felt forced or annoying.

Gordon riding around on a motorboat in an earlier stage of Half-Life 2

What was fresh then is almost commonplace now

It’s remarkable to see so many concepts in Half-Life 2 that are now almost a necessity for not only most first-person shooters but games in general. The way the levels are designed took me by surprise. Yes, this is a pretty linear game, but every section felt unique, and it never felt like “oh, this area again!”

I played the game on its default setting, but it never felt too difficult or too easy. Yes, I died a few times, but it only got me thinking about other ways of approaching areas. I also loved how new concepts were introduced throughout. You’re driving around on a boat, then climbing buildings, then back on a vehicle, followed by trekking across the support beams of a bridge while trying to avoid the gunfire of an attack helicopter.

It’s not completely perfect. The AI was annoying at times both my allies and the foes I faced. To be fair, it never felt like the game was purposely making them this way to hinder the experience. It was like the game was telling me “hey, you need to keep moving because we’ll continue to send foes until you do.” 

Gordon watching Alyx interact with Dog

Where to go next?

Blasting through Half-Life 2 throughout the weekend was a lot of fun. Now, I’m seriously considering jumping into Episodes 1 and 2. I also want to give Black Mesa, the fan remake of the first game, a try since I’ve heard good things. Yes, it took me almost two decades to finally play what many consider the best game ever made. Thankfully, I didn’t have anything spoiled, and I strongly recommend anyone else who hasn’t played it to finally pick it up.