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Half-Life 2: Play by Play Commentary (Part One)

Better late than never, right? The recent death of my seven-year-old Macintosh had the pleasant result of my excuse to purchase a new computer in its place. A laptop, this time…and a PC capable of actually (fanfare, please) running computer games.

While purchasing my new computer I made sure to pick up a copy of The Orange Box, as it contains two of the games that I’ve been wanting to play for some time…namely Portal and Half-Life 2. The former probably doesn’t warrant an article like this (remarkable though it is so far) but I figured I’d do a running commentary on Half-Life 2, writing up my reactions to the game at least four years after everybody else on the planet got it out of their systems.

Presumably this article series will continue right on through to the end of the game, but I can’t promise that. If I decide to stop playing, that’s that. Also, I intend to play the game entirely without the help of walkthroughs or hints. This may change if I get stuck for an extremely long period in one area, but, for the time being at least, my plan is to figure it all out for myself, relying only on my own cunning, my extremely rusty first-person shooter experience (you all remember Wolfenstein, right?) and whatever I might remember from that Gordon Frohman web comic.

Let’s begin.

Chapter One: Point Insertion


- The first thing I am struck by is how beautiful City 17 looks…but that’s obviously a very conditional definition of the word “beautiful.” I’m a big fan of dystopia (I even like saying the word out loud, in elevators) in fiction and my first instinct in the game isn’t to progress or even to work out the controls…all I want to do is walk everywhere, look around. There’s some alien or something sweeping up. I can’t get close to him, but I’m happy to just watch him working through the fence. I’ve picked up some trash and dropped it again…that’s pretty cool, I guess. I could spend all day in the arrival station alone, just enjoying the mood. I just watched some guy in a boiler suit get harassed by the gestapo. I wonder if any other scenes like this will play out if I hang around long enough…but I should probably move on. Also, I accidentally bumped into the gestapo while I walked past and he shoved me. You’re going to regret that when I find a gun somewhere, pal…I never forget a helmet.

- The mood is really well established. The downtrodden NPCs, the guy walking back and forth muttering to himself, the grey-haired guy on the big screen who keeps welcoming me…I’m enjoying my time in City 17 already, but obviously in a very conflicted way. I wouldn’t be having nearly as much fun if everybody was happy…I’m only enjoying it because I’m not as miserable as they are. I guess, in pretty much every sense, I am an outsider. They live in fear for their lives…I toss soda cans at sentries because I like it when they beat me with their blue glowsticks. I don’t seem to have a health meter or anything, so I’m not worried about the beatings. I’m more interested in what I can get away with before the beatings begin…how much I can toe the line. I’ve got nothing to lose, might as well stress out the storm troopers.

- I kind of wish I could hear Breen’s whole speech about the suppression of reproduction…it started while I was in an adjacent room and could barely hear it. EDIT: oh, it looped, like the welcome message. Pretty cool…I was afraid I’d end up missing some of the texture of gameplay. I think I know what sort of figure this Breen guy is meant to be…kudos to the game, though, for actually assembling some distinct, believable propaganda and not just giving us a screen flashing NO SEX FOR SLAVES or something.

- I’ve just been herded into a cage and then redirected to a room with a dentist’s chair and blood all over the floor. On the way I passed a room where I think torture or something was happening but I couldn’t see. These storm troopers sure are bastards. Not only are they torturing presumably innocent people, but they won’t even let me watch.

- Evidently I’m friends with the dentist. He helps me escape, by locking me in a closet. Evil soldiers, or something, are knocking at the door. I’m not really sure how he hopes to escape detection as a double agent…if he was supposed to kill me, aren’t they going to wonder where the body went? Maybe he’ll just say he ate me, bones and all. Then they’ll think he’s Badass Gestapo Supreme.

- Fuck, I can’t get out of the store room. He told me to pile up some boxes and climb to the window, but every time I get them high enough I climb up and the stack tumbles. Kind of irritating considering there’s a LADDER RIGHT HERE but my man doesn’t seem to be able to climb it. The “use” button doesn’t work, and just walking into it and holding down forward doesn’t work either. Back to stacking. Nope, took another tumble. Wheel over a cart and jump off of it? Not high enough. What the hell. My dentist is going to lose his pension if they find me. And I’ll probably be pummeled with blue glowsticks like there’s no tomorrow. The awful thing here is that I AM LOOKING AT A LADDER and I can’t climb…oh. Oh, wait. I have to look up the ladder and THEN I’ll climb it? Alright. Well, that’s not so intuitive and the only reason I’m not dead is because it takes the storm troopers at least 20 minutes to investigate a room before they think to check inside the closet. Maybe it gets more intuitive from here.


- Oh hey, I just missed a bloody street murder. It’s much scarier that I didn’t actually see it, and that I can’t even get a good look because the troopers are blocking me from investigating. Very creepy. Though why the dead body is positioned with his ankles up and crossed behind him, like a teenage girl on the telephone, is beyond me.

- Found a little playground for oppressed kiddies. One of the pieces on the spinny tic-tac-toe thing is missing. If this game were made by Nintendo I’d have to find that piece and put it back, then a treasure chest full of bombchus would appear. Something tells me that nothing like that is going to happen here.

- I’m walking through people’s apartments, unplugging their televisions. Not because I disagree with the propaganda broadcast, but because I think these people should read more.


- Gah! I’m caught in the middle of a raid for Anne Frank. I thought honesty would be the best policy and I could just tell the troopers there was a misunderstanding, but they killed me! Killed me! I didn’t even know I had a health meter. Murderous bastards. At least now I know that when you die, you start off pretty much where you went wrong…which is good, in a way, but it leads me to believe there’s a very definite and direct path through the game. Not necessarily a bad thing, but this kind of makes the structure obvious.

- I’m scrambling over housetops getting shot and falling to my death every couple of steps. Jesus Christ the pace of this game sure has picked up.

- Did I do something wrong by having this girl show up and rescue me? I don’t know if I’m a fan of situations in a game that force you to lose as a way of advancing the plot. One second I’m cornered by evil dentists and the next—before I’ve even decided if I can retreat or not—I’m knocked out and a woman takes care of business for me. Oh well. I’m sure I would have met her either way, but the fake-out resolution to a situation isn’t my favorite. I don’t like it when failure is supposed to feel like success…

Chapter Two: A Red Letter Day


- I’m in Professor Farnsworth’s lab now, which is good, I think. There’s a lot of exposition and I’ve learned that if I stand just behind her and look down, I can totally see down the buttcrack of the girl who rescued me. Hot.

- There’s a debeaked headcrab running around, causing trouble. It reminds me of a similar creature in Space Quest V (his name was Spike, I think…) which was surely a reference to something. I don’t really like him. In Space Quest V I was just in it for the comedy so I didn’t mind alien hijinks. Here I’m in a panic because everywhere I look robots want me dead. I haven’t got time for headcrab shenanigans, man.

- Aww, I have to wear a robot suit? Boo. I wanted to be the rough and tumble boilersuit action man. Now I have to settle for Mighty Morphin’.

- Great. Comedy headcrab fucked up my teleportation thing. After another long cut scene I’m transported to…outside the window across the room. My dentist friend tosses a crowbar down to me and more or less tells me I’ll be dead inside of 10 minutes. The chapter ends. Boy, these chapters are short.

Chapter Three: Route Kanal


- There are millions of bees coming out of the Citadel. I hope my character isn’t allergic.

- Okay, I like that in the trainyard more enemies appear as I make progress. They appear from interesting angles, too…I always think I know where they’ll pop up next, but, what do you know, it’s never where I’m pointing my gun. And yet they are coming from logical places…nothing cheap. At least not yet. Are they unlimited? I genuinely can’t tell which events are triggered by my stepping on a certain tile, and which are just timed. If I wait long enough, will more soldiers show up, or do I have to make progress first? Also, I noticed that shooting them in the head kills them instantly. I don’t do that often though. Mainly because I can never see my crosshairs well enough…but also because they kind of look like Kryten from Red Dwarf…and a head-shot just feels disrespectful.

- The music in this game is sparse, but when it kicks in it sure counts. Every time I hear it swell I know I’m in for a serious shit-storm. I can imagine this game giving unhealthy people heart failure. Moderately less successful are the little “loading…” messages that sometimes turn up before shit-storms. They put me on guard, but also kind of make me remember I’m playing a game.

- Okay, so I died about ten million times because at some point in the sewer section the Evil Krytens throw a flaming barrel into the water that blows up and kills me. Or I drown. I can’t tell what the hell happens actually because I’m stuck under water. For all I know one of them drops down and sits on my head like a bully. But many, many screens later I discover by accident that I CAN FUCKING SWIM. Gee, thanks, Orange Box…that one side of half a sheet of gloss-paper that you gave me by way of instructions didn’t quite mention that. I mean, it’s one thing if I don’t know what button to press to swim—I can just keep trying various things until something works —but I had no reason to believe I COULD swim. Also, you never told me how to change weapons, you shit. I thought my crowbar was gone once I got the gun…it was only an accidental press of the middle mouse button that made me realize otherwise.


- Looking back, it’s really hard to remember everything I did in this chapter. I mean, last chapter all I had to do was plug in Farnsworth’s toaster and watch 20 cut scenes. This time I’m storming a trainyard, scaling buildings, crawling through sewers, doing minor plumbing repair, swatting flying robot hornet saws…last chapter I barely had to do anything but smile and nod for the game to think I was king of all things Half-Life, now all of a sudden I’m fucking Harvey Danger.

- So I saw a bunch of blue suited civilians just hanging out along the shit river, but as I approached them they were murdered. Oops, that’s what I get for doubling back in case I missed an ammo box. But as I approach their carcasses I hear a guy yelling for help from inside the sewer. He’s immediately on my right so surely I can save…oh. Oh shit…he’s dead too. Am I supposed to be saving these people? I really hope these slaughters are unavoidable, because by now my Good Samaritan Meter has definitely bottomed out.

- Ooh, I think I missed out on one of the game’s “definite” trial and error moments…that hungry blister thing hanging down from under the bridge. I would have walked right under him, and probably been consumed (another Space Quest memory! Part III this time…) except I saw a skull on the ground and felt the need to desecrate it. I bet you never thought THAT would be a constructive instinct. Anyway the blister gobbled up the skull I was kicking, giving itself away, and I shot it until it barfed up its own face. I think. I really don’t know, this game is fucking weird.

- Physics puzzle with the cement blocks and teeter totter…raped. Just immediately, totally raped. Yeah, game…that’s what you get. Send waves of Killer Krytens after me and I’m your bitch, I admit…but when it’s time for a PUZZLE? Oh yeah. I will take that puzzle down. I will take it down to China Town.


- Everywhere I go, trouble follows. Innocents die. Maybe it would have been easier for everyone if I had just settled in, watched the propaganda, and put up with the damn Not-Tonight-Dear-I’ve-Got-a-Headache Field. One thing is good, though…I met the first NPC who did not get shredded to ribbons as a direct result of my presence. It was some sassy guy living in the sewer who spanked the flying razor bots (are they called Man Hats?) with his lead pipe. Of course, I spanked two of them to his one, but it’s probably not worth bitching about equal distribution of labor right now. I’m just happy his innards are not staining my shirt. (Also, did this Smoove Operator use the word shit? I really have been out of gaming for a while…the closest thing I remember to obscenity is when Kirby visited Frosted Knob.)

- Well, I found the first glitch. Which is pretty good, considering how long I’ve been playing, and how many foolish things I’ve attempted. I had to swim into a pipe, but I didn’t approach it head on and so got stuck, somehow, in the side of the pipe. I couldn’t move at all…but I could look around. And wait for my oxygen to run out. That sucked.

- This is the longest chapter ever. (And by ever I mean so far. But I really do hope I also mean ever.)

- So these razor bug bots are pissing me off. Who would have thought I’d ever wish for the storm troopers to return? Oh, me, obviously, because I’m picturing them played by Robert Llewellyn, and I pretend that every time one falls over dead it’s because I asked for ketchup with my lobster.



- Okay, for the millionth time in a row I’m sure this chapter is about to end. I just discovered Camp Refugee and I think they want to loan me a boat. Oh, nope…we’re getting pelted with…falling rocket ships. (I know why these rockets crashed…there were headcrabs flying them!) Is this Krang’s cameo? Anyway, the headcrabs go bananas when they see me and they all want a piece of Big Phil, but I can’t really tell if they’re getting it or not. They jump up…then I don’t see them anymore. Are they on my head? If so, how can I shake them off? CAN I shake them off? I have no idea. I’m swarmed and by the time I kill them I’m a few health points down but I seem to be headcrab free. Maybe I should invest in a baseball cap.

- Hey look! An innocent civilian being attacked by a headcrab! Here is my chance to actually SAVE someone for a change. I’ll just take very…careful…aim…he’s staggering around but I’m sure I can hit the headcrab and…success! I did it! I shot the headcrab! Surely he’ll get up and repay me for my assistance with a canister of health and the title of the next chapter. Surely he…oh. Oh dear. That’s his brain on the wall, isn’t it? I’m really not good at this saving people thing. If that dentist earlier on was really my friend, he would have gone through with the execution and saved my conscience all this unnecessary death.

- Right, so how many fucking headcrab rockets are there going to be?

- Answer: six hundred trillion million billion. Now I know.

- So now I’m a zombie hunter, I guess. Some sprites must have escaped the last time I played Resident Evil and now I have to take them out here. Hmm. I really hope this doesn’t turn into a zombie game…that would really suck, and kind of ruin the game’s identity. I’m already sort of sad to see the back of the very unique location of City 17…please don’t let Albert Wesker appear around this next corner.

- Alright, finally, here’s the girl with the airboat. Surely the chapter is over now, right?

- Oh, I guess I have to get in the airboat for the chapter to end. Right?


- What? I have to fucking navigate the Amazon in the same chapter that just had me fighting zombies and climbing through air vents? Give a brother a rest. Jesus. All you NPCs have to do is bitch about the food. Your chapters probably end every five minutes, whether you’ve accomplished anything or not. Do you even know what it feels like to work a single day in your life? I’m disgusted.

- Alright it was just a quick turn-the-valve puzzle. Back in the airboat after being weakened to all hell by a stray headcrab. (Where’s the headcrab catcher today anyway? What is he on vacation?) The next chapter is called Cruise Elroy. I’m saving, and I’m done. That was way too much stress for one sitting. Next time I won’t feel so obliged to hit a chapter stop before quitting.

About this entry


That has to go down as one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long while. Thank you. From this point on I will only be referring to Barney as Dentist Friend.

I guess the main thing to remember with HL2 is that it’s almost entirely linear (save for a few little goodies you can find off the beaten track) and when something big happens just go along for the ride and see where it takes you. Oh, and Quick Save. Quick Save like your grandma depended on it.

Oh, and you’ve not had the longest chapter, yet. Oh, no no no.

Jonathan Capps's picture

By Jonathan Capps
September 22, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

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Excellent stuff. I wish I’d warned you before starting the game that you should switch on the closed-captioning, though - it makes it a lot easier to keep up with what people around you are saying, especially things like Breen’s background speeches. And it, er, also helps you cheat a bit because you can “hear” things coming.

>You’re going to regret that when I find a gun somewhere, pal…I never forget a helmet.

I had this exact same reaction when they started duffing me up ;-)

>- Aww, I have to wear a robot suit? Boo. I wanted to be the rough and tumble boilersuit action man. Now I have to settle for Mighty Morphin’.

Funny you should say this - for those who’ve played the first game, the bit where you pick up your hazard suit is, complete with musical sting, one of the all-time great gaming moments.

>But many, many screens later I discover by accident that I CAN FUCKING SWIM. Gee, thanks, Orange Box…

I guess this is a side-effect of not having really played an FPS since Wolfenstein. For a good ten years or so, it’s been a pretty safe rule that “If there’s water, you can swim in it”. And usually, it’s easier to swim by using your mouse to point yourself in the right direction than it is to piss about with “up” and “down” keys. I dunno, it just feels quite instinctive and natural when you’ve played through the chain of Wolfenstein > Doom > Quake > Half-Life…

Shame about the “changing weapons” thing, but I do find that HL2 (and indeed the earlier games) is one of the best games for giving you instructions on how to do things in-game and in an in-narrative way (it’s a shame you don’t get a training room in HL2 - the ones in Half-Life and Opposing Force are fantastic).

Seb Patrick's picture

By Seb Patrick
September 23, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

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How are you getting on with the plot? Having never played HL1, I eventually had to look online to find out what was going on. (Not that it changes the ‘escape/kill bad people’ basics.)

That said, it’s not a series big on giving answers anyway…

Andrew's picture

By Andrew
September 23, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

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>for those who’ve played the first game, the bit where you pick up your hazard suit is, complete with musical sting, one of the all-time great gaming moments.

I read up a bit on the first Half-Life yesterday…didn’t want any major spoilers or anything, but I was curious what the first game was like. Once I found out that that’s the suit from the first game I realized I probably should have been excited to find it again. So yeah, no fault of the game really…but I was happy to be in that blue jumpsuit thing and thought it would be really cool to play through the game that way.

Come to think of it, the fact that I have the power suit is probably why people all of a sudden know I’m Freeman. At first nobody seemed to think I was anyone special, and now people react to me by name (or reputation).

>I do find that HL2 (and indeed the earlier games) is one of the best games for giving you instructions on how to do things in-game and in an in-narrative way

This is one thing I like. But I do kind of wish that an orange “Press spacebar to swim” popped up. Practically every other time I had to do something for the first time I got a notification of how to do it, even if I didn’t need it. Small niggle though, it’s just a side-effect of that in-narrative system that the only time it really stands out is when you need it and it isn’t there.

>How are you getting on with the plot?

Escape/kill bad people is about where I stand, too. I mean, the living-hell society aspect is pretty obvious (and I can’t stress how much I love that aspect of the game) and the underground resistance, I reckon, is going to play a bigger role later on (they don’t seem to be doing much now but recognizing me and getting killed)…but yeah, plotwise I don’t know too much. I thought I was going to have to work through City 17 and fight my way into the Citadel, but the game seems to be pushing me AWAY from that area, so I really have no idea. Maybe I get to teleport briefly into his office again and shake my wiener at Breen.

Phil Reed's picture

By Phil Reed
September 23, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

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The full plot in both Half-Life games is something that’s deliberately shrouded in mystery. For HL 1 it seems simple enough (zomg hostile aliens from another planet are invading!) but then there’s a big gap of story between 1 and 2 which both the player and Gordon Freeman misses out on. Story that explains how the earth is now under the oppressive rule of the combine, and how the enemies from HL 1 are now your friends.

If you want to know the full details (Big spoilers, obviously), then this is widely regarded as an accurate timeline of events:

Jeffrey Lee's picture

By Jeffrey Lee
September 23, 2008 @ 5:31 pm

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>please don’t let Albert Wesker appear around this next corner

There is no media product that would not be massively improved by the appearance of Resi’s man in black. I dream of the day when a special digi box is produced which randomly inserts the smug sunglasses-wearing sociopath into TV shows watched through it. Imagine a scene in any soap being cut short as he smashes through the door, kidnaps an unsuspecting victim and laughs unconvincingly…

Until that day, I’ll just have to make to with CSI: Miami- the effect is broadly similar.

I’ve always felt that the opening of HL2 somewhat spoilt the player- you get more narrative in this section than the rest of the game put together. The series is all about telling an absurdly minimalistic story extremely well. Newall recognised in interviews that given that HL2 is all about the impact that Freeman has on the world, you spend far too much of the game alone. What’s really interesting is the way your assumptions as a newcomer to the genre are being confounded. What I’d looked on as legacy design clunkiness on the part of Valve are creating real isue for you, particulary the way it took them until Episode 2 to break free of their quicksave-dependant design school. Also, you keep trying to save the people you encounter, and are disappointed when the game prevents you from doing this. What makes you think that you’re the good guy, let alone the hero?

By Julian Hazeldine
September 23, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

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