Sunday, April 1, 2018

Half-Life 3

One of the few games that has attracted a ton of anticipation, speculation and skepticism over its very existence is Half-Life 3, along with Half-Life 2: Episode 3, both from Valve Software. To put this into perspective, the latter came out 11 years ago and the only real closure anyone could get on the story came from head writer Mark Laidlaw leaking a document containing his version of Episode 3, presumably after an NDA had expired. Though the leak had tempered some fans’ hopes for a true release of either Episode 3 or the main Half-Life 3, that still didn’t stop Valve, who had actually continued development after Gabe Newell had accepted that he wouldn’t be able to please everyone. With the game finally out, it seemed appropriate to share my thoughts on it.

First of all, my copy came in a rather dense Combine Edition not unlike Duke Nukem Forever’s Balls of Steel Edition, though its presentation, particularly of the steelbook, also earns it the name The Orange Box 2. Inside, it contained Half-Life 3, an official soundtrack with music from across the Half-Life series, a hardcover art book featuring concept art from the entire Half-Life series, a statue of Gordan Freeman and a hardcover graphic novel summarizing the previous games. The game itself is also in a special steelbook which contains the game, an updated re-release of Half-Life 2: Episode 3 and a code for early access to Portal 3.

As for the game itself, it’s best played as an experience with Half-Life 2: Episode 3. It picks up right where Half-Life 2: Episode 2 left off, with Gordon and co. on their way to the Borealis vessel from Aperture Science in Antarctica. Though I’m not the type to spoil a game in a review, I will say that it more or less follows Mark Laidlaw’s text document rather faithfully, including the venture through time and space and the eventual destruction of the Borealis. However, the ending was altered into a cliffhanger that leads into Half-Life 3, billed as the final chapter in Gordon’s adventure.

In Half-Life 3, Gordon sets out to find Alyx Vance and not only uncover the identity of the G-Man, but also find a way to stop the Combine forces once and for all. On his journey, he allies himself with Vortigaunts and other resistance fighters, though the dark tone of the story means that many don’t stick around for very long. This does not, however, prevent the game from making a few subtle jabs at the length of the gap between games, which shows that the development team at least had a sense of humor about it. Additionally, without Mark Laidlaw at the helm, they had to make do with what they had, which turned out rather well, all things considered. Though this installment does not wrap up every loose end presented throughout the series, it does at least address the more major ones, including, surprisingly enough, the true identity and motivations of the ever-mysterious G-Man.

One surprise addition that I will get into is that during the course of the game, Gordon finds himself inside the Aperture Science Enrichment Center in Michigan in search of technology that will help him defeat the Combine. While inside, he attracts the attention of GLaDOS, who decides briefly to use him as a test subject following Chell’s absence after the end of Portal 2. As he’s forced through a couple of test chambers with the aid of the Portal Gun, GLaDOS not only comments on his muteness, but also knows about his predicament with the Combine and goes back-and-forth on what she should do with him. I won’t spoil how the whole thing ends, but I will say that Gordon is from then on able to use the Portal Gun outside the Enrichment Center as an alternate means of traversing the world and fighting the Combine forces, provided there are any portal-able surfaces nearby. This adds some depth to the gameplay, as it turns the game itself into a freeform puzzle the player can solve however they wish. Additionally, the Portal Gun becomes instrumental to the final portion of the game and, rather poetically, the finale sees Gordon reduced to solely using the crowbar.

Perhaps in an effort to make the game feel worth the wait, Half-Life 3 pushes the power of the Source 2 Engine to its absolute limit, fully demonstrating just what it’s capable of. The end result is astonishing and a good direction for the future of Valve Software. Add to this the fact that Half-Life 3 is also compatible with both the PlayStation VR and HTC Vive and you have an even more impressive end product.

Along with the impressive voice acting, the music also turned out well considering the absence of long-time composer Kelly Bailey. Not only did they make do with the remaining Valve composers, they also sought input from Celldweller for some of the more intense moments and his style is able to work without clashing with the work of the other composers.

When all is said and done, Half-Life 3 is a rather impressive feat of innovation on Valve’s part and a display of the power of persistence in the face of a rabid fanbase. Considering the legendary hype surrounding the game, it won’t satisfy every fan, but it nevertheless feels like a worthy conclusion to Gordon’s adventures, even if it didn’t get to involve much of the original team. We can only hope that any future Half-Life game, not hinted at or set up by this one doesn’t force people to wait over a decade.

Happy April Fool’s Day!

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