The Half-Life games shake things up in the shooter world with each release. It would take a pretty extreme turning of a blind eye to not recognize that. I like to use the Half-Life games as a baseline for what makes an excellent shooter because of how many things the games did right and how little they did wrong in terms of universal game design practices. I also like comparing and judging things because it makes me feel like a big man.
There are a few things that the Half-Life games did that you can see other games try to follow, but fall a bit flat on. There are those out there that take what Half-Life brought and run with it into a fantastic new direction as well, but those are seemingly few and far between. So here are a bunch of things Half-Life 2 did right that the many, many underwhelming shooters out there should basically start copying so they can drive up those Metacritic scores.
Interestingly Linear Levels
One of the defining traits of the Half-Life games is that they’re linear. You literally go from A to B, and there is no open-world exploration in the slightest. Sure, you’ll occasionally get open rooms where you run up and down for a bit, but the Half-Life games are a strictly linear affair otherwise.
Linear games contain a stigma for having uninspired and lazy level design, but it’s entirely possible to do them very well in a way that open-world affairs can’t offer. What Half-Life did was to offer plenty of variety in its levels. It wasn’t simply running in a straight line à la Final Fantasy XIII, nor was it a bunch of turns on a flat plane like The Darkness II, and it wasn’t simply a dry kill-room after kill-room like in every Modern Warfare FPS ever. It had a good mix of vertical travel, puzzle rooms, seemingly open world pathways and relatively realistic building traversal with pathways that were never immediately obvious.
Remember back when you’re fleeing from the Combine at the start of Half-Life 2? You spent most of that time going up a single building, floor by floor, ducking in and out of rooms until you reached the roof, at which point you went over ledges and rooftops to get into another building. None of this was guided or scripted; the player had to find the route themselves or face death. There’s only the one route, hence the linearity of the game, but it’s not strictly laid out flat for you to see.
Compare this to any mission in Battlefield 3. You’re constantly told where to go by NPCs and enemies alike. You’re constantly traveling forward on flat ground, or perhaps up and down some stairs if the NPC’s go that way, and everywhere you move is a new place to shoot people. It’s flat, dry and repetitive. Clearing a building evidently involves shooting people in the windows, clearing the bottom floor and then moving on. But, then again, this flat traversal could be excused due to the relatively realistic modern combat approach.
What about F.E.A.R. 2? It was about as fantastical as Half-Life 2 and in a likewise ruined city. But the game was instead hallway after hallway, lined with enemies who essentially guided you forward. The few times the game made use of crawling through small spaces or moving debris out of the way, it was left at the end of a hallway for you to find. This type of linearity is often referred to as a “corridor shooter” and for good reason. Don’t do it unless you’re making a rail shooter.
Games that did this well: Star Wars: Republic Commando, F.E.A.R., Crysis, Unreal 2, Halo 3, Gears of War, Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay
Optionally Epic Views
This is one established back in the first Half-Life game. The player was in complete control of the main character from the time the game started to the time the game ended. Half-Life was renowned for not having a single cutscene or moment where control was taken away as the player camera moved by itself to show a story point. While a lack of cutscenes is a uniquely Half-Life thing that is not right for many games, the issue about player control has become a bit of a rub for some people.
What I have noticed is that some games have adopted a sort of “LOOK AT ME!” button during gameplay that does nothing but focus the player camera on something specific that is either story or progress related, like a bridge exploding in the background. Epic Games especially loves this button. I might as well call it an Epic Button since it fits the name in both senses for sure.
The problem with this button is that it comes off as a lazy way to excuse taking the camera away from the player for the express purpose of showing them exactly where they have to go or what they have to do. It ruins all sense of discovery and immersion in favor of handholding. It’s especially noticeable in a game like Crysis 2, which is chock full of scripted sequences, and especially egregious in Bulletstorm where the player actually was forced to activate them in order to get the best score possible.
It’s a terrible button. There’s no wonder involved if the game jumps up and yells at you to look in a certain direction. Where’s the fun in knowing exactly where a helicopter is coming in to shoot you from when you’re told from the outset instead of hearing the sound of it approaching and panicking around to spot it? Imagine if Serious Sam games had a button to show you where the Headless Kamikaze Guys were coming from, or if Left 4 Dead showed you exactly where the special infected were approaching from. It wouldn’t really be the same, would it?
The best example of the complete lack of this button in Half-Life 2 is during the waterway chase scene when you’re speeding down the ravine away from the helicopter and a gigantic smokestack collapses right in front of you. If you’re not paying attention, you could easily be flattened. Watching it carefully, you can make a splitsecond deduction and narrowly avoid getting crushed. It’s tense and exciting and complete bullshit all rolled into one immersive package.
Games that do this well: Black, Medal of Honor: Frontline, Call of Duty series, Killzone 2, Resistance, Far Cry series, RAGE
Interacting with the Player
This is one that pretty much every game with a silent protagonist seems to miss entirely. Half-Life’s famously silent Gordon Freeman always seems to get embroiled in insane situations and long winded conversations without saying a single thing. But do you know what’s so special about Half-Life doing this? It doesn’t make the player feel like they’re just watching a drama unfold in front of them. People frequently talk to the player, ask the player how they’re doing, or tell the player to lead the way and they’ll follow in your stead. Hell, Alyx even teases your muteness and makes terrible jokes for the player. She truly is awful at them, but there’s something endearing about it.
Compare this to Homefront where people only argued in front of you and forgot you were there until they wanted you to move somewhere and shoot something. They shove you behind as they barge through the doors and hatches, expecting you to follow them. You basically play as a third wheel in Homefront. Modern combat games aren’t particularly good about this as a whole. Everyone talks around you and leads the way, expecting you to follow and only ever talk to you when they want something. Basically, modern warfare games are bitchy girlfriends.
This really is a problem half about the quality of writing and the actual gameplay itself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a game having the player follow NPCs through levels. It makes sense when in a game where you follow the orders of a squad leader or when another character is familiar with the terrain.
To that end, the Call of Duty games are not too bad about it. Homefront was a special case because the player character would literally be pushed back by the NPCs so they could go places first. Battlefield 3’s campaign deserves special mention for often having the player character go a path independently of most of the NPCs, such as the second floor of a house while the others take the bottom floor, and really gives the sense of actual teamwork.
Writing, though, is the real falling point for most games. Video game writing is just not very good for the most part. Where Half-Life has NPCs that talk to the player and carry on natural-sounding conversations and talk around the player character’s muteness, other games flat out ignore it and, consequently, the player as well. Half-Life’s NPCs often laud the player for exceptional performance by virtue of the story so far. Gordon made it to Eli’s lab in record time and destroyed a whole army of Combine on the way? Congrats, Gordon!
Not so in Call of Duty games. Remember poor Ramirez from Modern Warfare 2? He’s the American you play as in Modern Warfare 2 who was instructed to do pretty much everything. He’s even got a whole meme around him based on how much he had to do by himself throughout the game. And yet, he never got any real recognition throughout the game, even though he pretty much fought the war for his entire squad.
Games that do this well: Star Wars: Republic Commando, ArmA 2, Halo series, Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, Giants: Citizen Kabuto, Freedom Fighters
Now this is something games either get very, very right or very, very wrong. I could write a whole article about how games can avoid terrible tutorials. Here, though, we need to see why Half-Life 2’s tutorial was so damn good compared to every other games’.
Half-Life 2 stands out in the very, very right category with a tutorial that was as memorable as it was spaced out. The game proper doesn’t begin until about half an hour into the game, after all the story has been set up and the player has had quite a few locations to wander around. Throughout it all, the game will reveal new things to do when they become necessary.
The “pick up the can” scene is ingrained in so many minds because of how much is behind it. This was the first major game where you could actually pick up and manipulate objects as more than solely liftable items. It also is presented in a way that shows abuse of authority from the enemies, builds player resentment towards them, and even offers you the chance to chuck it at their head. Even when you get the gravity gun, you’re treated to a few minutes of fun playing with Dog and shooting hoops. It’s a hell of a lot more than the more common “Press A to Jump” tutorial offers.
This is where I should be finding another shooter with a good tutorial I can contrast HL2 with. I can’t really think of any. Even greats like Bioshock and Crysis offered basic and pointless tutorials that did nothing but show you which button did what. Most shooters gloss right over the tutorial, introducing the button prompts and something to test it on but then quickly moving on.
It’s not so bad when the game plays like any other shooter on the market, but it’s a bit jarring when the game has unique mechanics. How many of you knew that you could activate Crysis’ suit mechanics by double-tapping certain buttons like Jump or Forward?
And of the others that do it well, they’re just not all that memorable. The only one I can really recall is Call of Duty 2’s Russian campaign, where the tutorial was standard shooter fare, but had the neat little twist of having you throw potatoes instead of grenades. Call of Duty 4’s is also memorable for being a fun challenge to see how fast you could complete the shooting gallery.
Sadly, there’s not much by way of natural tutorials in shooters, it seems. It’s either overlaid, forced or sped through and ends up serving nothing more than a page in the instruction manual would.
Games that do this well: none, but CoD games do decent jobs with their shooting galleries.
I’m sure that if every shooter just flat out copied Half-Life 2 on all these points, we would all be a lot better for it. None of these are particularly exclusive to any one game and there are plenty of games that do some of these things even better than Half-Life. As it stands, Half-Life 2 combines all of these in a single well-done package that lays a great baseline.