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Half-Life 2: Play by Play Commentary (Part the Last)

Chapter 13: Our Benefactors
- The level opens with my favorite of all of Half-Life’s offerings…platforming!

- Actually, it’s not so bad now that I’ve got the hang of it. The game allows for a much larger margin of error than I have been assuming…so the fact that I’m always trying to land Gordon on the head of a pin actually works against me; my fidgeting is what’s been dropping me off cliffs and into hordes of horny antlions. Half-Life 2 “allows” for inaccuracy, I can see that now. How convenient that the game also happens to be over.


- Ah…here it is. The very first time I saw the Citadel from a distance I thought to myself, “Yes. I am going to take that fucker down.” At last it seems I might just get the chance.

- Inside there’s not much of…well, anything. All of the construction material’s got kind of a blue tint, which is pretty cool but also really…cold. I hear some noises around me that might be screams, or metal scraping, or something; I don’t know. Maybe a Combine soldier hit his shin on the coffee table. Regardless, every time I expect to find an enemy around a corner there is nothing. Did I happen to storm the building during the Combine’s lunch hour?

- I do see…um…I don’t know what I see. Some human-shaped steel baskets zipping around on rails up above. I assume they’ll contain enemies at some point (they’re at perfect attack range) but…I’m wrong. They just fly past, go through some electrical barrier or something, and are ferried away where I can’t see them anymore.

- I can’t find anywhere to go, but—surprise surprise!—the human-shaped baskets are stopping right in front of me, and opening their doors for a few seconds. I’m not too keen on the idea of getting inside one of these things but I’m pretty sure I’ve exhausted all of the other locomotive possibilities.

- Into the death-trap I go!

- Wow…now this is fun. My crosshairs have vanished so I know I won’t be expected to fight anything anytime soon; all I can do is move my head. I relax for a bit and enjoy the ride. The long, long, long ride.


- But it’s great. The basket sweeps me all through the Citadel, high above the rest of the action. Beneath me there are loads of Combine soldiers walking around, sometimes hanging out with scrawny old men in their underpants. The Combine is weird. There are gunships on the wall and striders marching around below…it’s like a Half-Life 2 curtain call. I’m already terrified of getting out of this basket thing…there are way too many monsters out there.

- Fortunately the ride isn’t over any time soon. It’s simultaneously tense and relaxing…and I can’t convey enough just how beautiful it is. Obviously games are always more fun to read about than to actually, you know, play…but I suggest checking this sequence out first hand. You can skip the rest of the game. It’s just a load of robots and physics. Nothing to see here.

- The basket comes to a stop right in the middle of a Gordon Freeman motel. Gordon Freeman comes in…but he does not come out!

- Only the disintegrator or whatever has…uh…disintegrated. Weird. It destroyed all of my weapons but freaked out when it got to the gravity gun…presumably because it didn’t recognize the device, which was a Fred Sanford special. I grab it…obviously, as I have NO OTHER LINE OF DEFENSE…shit myself, and move on.

- Combine find me in around .00000000000928938891 seconds, and all I have is the gravity gun, so I try to pick up a piece of the scenery (hey, I panicked) and discover that I can now…HOLY BARF!


- I’m actually really mad at myself right now. Ages ago, when I first started fighting with the gravity gun, I was upset that it couldn’t pick up or manipulate the corpses of enemies. I almost—ALMOST!—commented about it here. But then I decided, oh, that’s not fair, Phil. If the engine can’t handle the hurling of bodies you shouldn’t hold that against it. Look at all the cool stuff it CAN do. But fuck. If I had commented back then I’d be able to rescind it now with great glory and relief. Instead…you’ll just have to take my word for the fact that this is what I have always wanted from this fucking weapon.

- I’m not entirely sure, though, why grabbing a living soldier kills him instantly. Maybe it’s to do with all of his organs getting sucked toward the gun as well, thereby wrenching a few important things free. No idea, but man oh man is this great. A weapon that allows me to grab a bastard by the crotch and bowl him into his buddies’ legs? Brilliant!

- And surely I can’t be the only one who, once this feature is discovered, spends about three or four minutes just repeatedly hurling the same corpse against a wall to watch the blood stain grow and grow?

- The problem is that their weapons vaporize when they die…so I realize that the game is forcing me to use the gravity gun, and only the gravity gun, for some extended period of time. Part of the fun of the game was experimenting to see what worked and what didn’t at any given point…but now I have only one weapon in my arsenal, noticeably restricting the possibilities for what I can do here. Oh well. It IS fun, which is the important thing, but I wonder why the game—which concerned itself so strongly with varying outcomes and approaches—is all of a sudden narrowing my options?

- Also, after almost every wave I encounter an energy box. Which also refills my health, which it never did before. AND it juices my suit up to 200 HP, whereas it only used to go to 100. What the heck. The game really wants to keep me alive all of a sudden, and it’s making the Citadel feel more like an experience than a challenge.

- This is okay, mind…I just wonder why this is.

- Every so often Breen pops up on a screen to talk to me directly, but he only says a sentence or two before he logs off. He’s kind of like an angry ex calling up, a half hour after you broke up with her, to say, “And another thing…!” to make you feel bad. Several times throughout the stage I am witness to Breen having a petulant frenzy. A petulant frenzy. (He’s petulant, and he’s having a frenzy.)

- There are definitely some tough moments in the Citadel, but it’s nothing that a quicksave and a not-far-off health box can’t fix. The strider battle is by far the most difficult, as you need to suck up some of those Portal energy balls and fling them at him as he’s shooting you through the eyeballs. He’s kind of a dick, and the energy balls don’t seem to go where I point them…they fly along slightly below what should be my line of fire. Eventually I’m able to account for this, though, and he goes down.

- The Citadel is going by really quickly and I’m surprised by this. I find another basket ride and I climb in and shout whee.


- Only this time I pass a few travelers going in the opposite direction. HOLY HELL WHAT IS THAT THING I HATE IT I FUCKING HATE IT.

- I get a lovely view of City 17 as I ascend, but I have to wonder why this is going so easily. It’s not a feeling of something big being around the corner, it’s a feeling of the game winding to a close a little too quickly. I’m distracted by the speed at which I’m hurtling toward the climax. I’m flying over enemies rather than fighting them. My vehicle pilots itself. My weapons are removed so that I already know I can’t engage in any serious combat. It’s very strange, and it almost seems like I finished playing Half-Life 2 an hour ago and now I’m just watching the end cinematic.

- I guess they kind of painted themselves into a corner with the Citadel. It’s supposed to be impressive in its hugeness, but its hugeness can only be experienced by flying around in a railed basket (with the side-effect of removing you from the field of conflict) because having to trudge through an enormous featureless skyscraper would be far more tedious than exciting. I don’t know. It’s certainly fun to glide around on rails, and it’s nice to be able to sit back and eat soup while the game progresses for me, but I’m not entirely convinced this is the best way for the game to end… surely there’s something big just up ahead…

Chapter 14: Dark Energy

- Oh. The chapter’s over. What the hell is going on here? I’m not saying the game feels rushed, but for such a huge ability to have been granted a short time ago (the AWESOME FLINGING OF DEAD FUCKHOLES), why am I being shoved along to the ending so quickly? Every other time something big was given to Gordon (either of the vehicles, the gravity gun, the bug bait) he got an entire, sprawling level to come to terms with it, master it, and move on a little smarter, wiser and more able. Here I’m told, “Look! You can now do the coolest thing in the whole game! Anyway, when you get a chance, step into this pod so we can show you the credits.” Bah!

- Anyway, there are some bad dudes (the president has been kidnapped by ninjas!) who confiscate my gravity gun, just to rub my nose in the fact that there’s nothing cool left for me to do in the whole game, and also, I guess, to narrow the decisions I can make further. In fact, I’m not even let out of the pod! Judas—OH SORRY JUDITH—Mossman leads me into Breen’s office, but I’m still in the pod, on a rail!

- Breen’s office has a carpet, which makes me laugh though I’m not sure why. I can’t imagine he’d ever have any human visitors, so why bother? The aliens obviously don’t like carpet because they don’t use it anywhere. Kind of odd. And where does Breen live? In this room? Or does he commute? I guess it’d be fun to take one of these pods up to your office every morning but unless he has a family he might as well bring in a mini-fridge and camp out under the desk. (Does anyone else get the feeling he’s got jammy bottoms on during his broadcasts?)


- When I arrive Breen is yakking it up with Fred Sanford, who is in a pod like me, and when nobody wants to defect to old Breenie’s side he brings Alex in…also in a pod! Okay. So this game’s evil dude has the three good guys exactly where he wants them…unarmed, immobile, and completely and totally under his control. The only question is: how is he going to fuck this up?

- Oh, Judith does it for him! Sweet, treacherous, lusciously-chested Judith. She smacks up Breen’s machine with an electric toothbrush or something…Breen panics, blasts me with my own gravity gun, and scampers off like a roach.

- He doesn’t run far, though. Just into the next room, so he can call his boss, who I think is revealed to be a slug wearing a gas mask. If this is supposed to qualify as a “twist” I promise it’s entirely lost on me. Anyway Breen skedaddles, waving goodbye as his elevator descends, and Alex points out to me that he left the gravity gun behind. How did this guy ever get to be President of Evil, anyway? He’s exactly as stupid as any given Legend of Zelda boss, as they always choose to live in whatever dungeon contains the only weapon that can kill them.

- In the next room I see Breen in a giant hamster ball. Or maybe it’s a pinball, and he’s about to be launched into a series of cosmic bumpers. He taunts me for a bit, I take out some Combine and hurl them at other Combine, spiraling my way up through the room toward nowhere in particular. I beat Breen to the roof and Alex tells me I need to destroy the transporter that Breen’s in. Again, I only have one weapon, so the game isn’t really presenting me with much of a puzzle. I pelt the thing with energy orbs or whatever they are, and before long it’s destroyed.


- Alex is so happy she wants to bring me back inside and let me poke her, right in front of her old man. Only we might be celebrating slightly prematurely because—


- boom

- The explosion catches me off-guard and there’s an absolutely beautiful moment during which time slows and then stops, freezing Alex as she’s blown backward…and the business suited guy who deposited me in the game in the first place appears to take me home.

- Now I’m of two minds about this ending. It’s obviously a deliberate anti-climax. I mean, freezing an explosion in progress and finishing the game on a monologue rather than any kind of aftermath…it subverts expectation. That…hey. I’m cool with that. But I’m more used to things like this happening in film, or in a novel. You expect a certain finale, and not only don’t you get it…you get nothing at all. I’m reminded of the meandering, loose moral of No Country For Old Men, or Jake’s extended, quiet dip in the swimming pool at the end of The Sun Also Rises. The difference, though, is that in film and literature, such an ending requires you to re-evaluate everything that came before. As a member of the audience you have to ask yourself whether or not you were watching/reading the right story. What were you reacting to? Were you following the actual plot, or the plot you assumed you’d see? The ending can redefine the entire story…it can turn comedy into tragedy and tragedy into comedy. When that happens—and when it happens well—you are in the spell of a great storyteller. You were given all of the information, but you missed something. Your mind was headed one way while the story went another…and it’s only when the story arrives at its destination that you realize you thought you were going somewhere much different.

- But in a game? Hmm. Games—especially big, many-optioned ones like this—are different. You’re not in the audience…you’re a participant. That’s different. When we watch Dr. Strangelove we already know we’re watching a comedy. But, if quizzed, would any of the characters know they were acting in one? Of course not. It’s a completely different perspective. Yeah, video games blur the line a little, but you’re still more participant than spectator. The game needs input from you to move along. If it doesn’t get that, the story doesn’t get told. You are the mechanism of plot. You might not be writing the story, but you’re facilitating its progress…which is something spectators in other media are not expected (or able) to do.

- So, okay, if we end on this intentional anti-climax and we’re curious about what it means…and why it’s there…and whether or not it even SHOULD be there…what is there to do? We could replay the game and take in all of the sights and sounds and experiences again…only we won’t be taking them in again, because the game allows for so much freedom that it won’t be the same experience. We can rewind a movie or turn back to page one in a novel, but playing through an open-field video game like this, we will never experience the same thing twice. Can we be asked to re-evaluate EVERY time? And if so, how is it possible as the experience will never be truly replicated anyway?


- Yeah…I know they want to leave space open for another game in the series. And, hey, I know there already IS another game in the series so why am I so upset? I can just pick up and move right along, right? There’s nothing for me to wait for. It shouldn’t be frustrating from a gamer’s standpoint.

- And maybe it’s not. But from a storyteller’s standpoint, it is frustrating.

- It may turn out to be frustrating in the right way. I won’t know until I play through again, maybe a few times, and see what I missed the first time through. I’m positive there’s a lot…I have more than enough faith in the designers that a lot of the questions I’m left with have already been answered while I wasn’t paying attention.

- But I can’t help but shake the feeling that these final two levels…I don’t know. They seemed to hustle me along toward an ending that turned out not to exist after all. What was the rush? Why all the rails and dialogue? Why the lack of interactivity? Was it really so important I make it to this non-ending? What did I miss? It feels like a lot…and it probably is.

- It’s certainly a merit to the game that my very first instinct is not to play the next one, but to replay THIS one.

- The ending confounded me, and maybe that was intentional. So let’s just hope it was intentional for the right reasons.

About this entry


I always think the ending of Half Life 2 was fan service. But it makes the player ask the questions. These questions are always at the back of the players mind, but at the end of the game, ending on this scene them questions are once again brought to the forefront. Who is this man? Why does he keep messing with me? What’s in the briefcase? Does he buy his suits from armani or is that a matalan sale special?

With these types of questions in mind you can safely go into the next chapter of the series with teh aim of learning more about what is happening to the world, and who really has control over it. Are the combine really running things or is there a race of uber briefcase men watching over events.

You are also missing the main point. You should be asking yourself, “While time is paused, and Alex is still, can I grab her tits.”

Karrakunga's picture

By Karrakunga
November 01, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

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Here are some of my views on the game’s ending. I agree that it is tantalisingly annoying (it was even worse when it viewing it month’s before Episode 1’s release), but I do feel that it was integral to the overall plot of the franchise.

In your conclusion you spoke of the freedom in the game. Surely you have noticed that this is one the major themes of the Half Life universe. At the beginning of the game you are freed from stasis and introduced to a world suffering under the supressive control of Breen and the Combine. A world that you subsequently attempt to free. By killing Breen and severing fucking up the citadel you have struck a major victory for the human population of City 17 and have become the catalyst for mankind to begin fighting back and in effect free themselves. The irony of all this and the freeze frame at the end is that when it boils down to it, you (Freeman) is a pawn, a plaything for the G-Man to loan out to the highest bidder. The concept of freedom you felt for the whole game was a slight illusion.

You do have to seriously question the motives of the G-Man. Are they motivated by financial gains or is serving a higher purpose. Is he an inter-dimensional being who seems past, present and future as the same instance and knows the importance of Freeman and when and where to use him. Is he doing these things for himself or for the world.

You need to consider Half Life 2 as just part of Gordon Freeman’s saga, a continuing story that, while detailing the liberation of mankind, is Gordon’s story. Will he ever truly be the “free-man” that Vort’s claim him to be (funny considering that in the first game they were slaves that Freeman saved). If Half Life 1 was the making of the man then Half Life 2 and it’s episodes are the making of the legend. I don’t wish to ruin any of the subsequent games accept to say that Episode 1 starts exactly where you left and that you should really continue Gordon’s journey straight away.

Aside from this may I just comment that this series of blogs has been fantastic. It’s been engaging and funny and I hope you continue them with the episodes (especially if and when you get to the second one).

By Alan Thomasson
November 02, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

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I second that - can’t wait for the Episode One commentary. The stupidness of the title being as good a place as any to start… :-)

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By Andrew
November 03, 2008 @ 12:42 am

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ending on this scene them questions are once again brought to the forefront.

Agreed, certainly. I can understand the ending’s usefulness in this respect, but it doesn’t feel, structurally speaking, correct. I’m willing to have my mind changed on that…but I wonder if maybe a break from the first-person view wouldn’t have worked better…end Gordon’s portion of the story right there, as it is, but then a zoom out from the Citadel that gradually reveals City 17…destroyed but eerily peaceful…a resistance member or two poking their heads up from the rubble…I don’t know, something to sort of anchor it into a larger story.

I’m not saying that that’s SPECIFICALLY the ending it should have had, but it’s at least a gesture toward it being a conclusion that is open-ended, rather than something that’s open-ended because it HAS no conclusion.

I’m reminded of my new favorite example of right and wrong cliffhangers. Venture Bros. season two ended with a main character, newly married, being interrupted in the middle of a sentence. What did she say?! OMG tune in next season to find out! That’s a bad cliffhanger. It’s bad because it’s cheap and we don’t even know where it’s going. What’s it meant to mean? Without any indication of what she could possibly say, the interpretations can be far too wide to justify the cliffhanger. Can’t ANY sentence that’s ever been spoken be broken in half for the purpose of suspense? Sure…but wouldn’t that be tremendously cheap?

The RIGHT way to do a cliffhanger was handled in season three…a main character decides to resign from his post as bodyguard. That’s it. Unlike season two, it didn’t end before he could make his decision. We see him make his decision…but the suspense is still there, because we now wonder about the consequences of this action. That’s a good cliffhanger. We should be pondering consequences, not content. “What did she say?” isn’t a cliffhanger…it’s something you’ll ask thousands of times in your own life as your hearing goes. But a serious decision being made on-screen, leaving you to ponder the consequences…that’s a cliffhanger. That’s worth holding onto.

Here, we have an event broken off by the magic of editing. Okay, yeah, it’s G-Man doing the editing in-world. We DO have an explanation other than “Valve wanted it this way.” But, behind whatever explanation we get, it’s STILL the fact that Valve wanted it that way. So what does it mean artistically?

I’m having trouble articulating my feelings about the ending without making it sound like I’m disappointed. I’m not disappointed (much anyway) but I am very, very skeptical that this was the right way to end the game’s story. (And sequel or not, every installment of a franchise deserves its own story.)

Surely you have noticed that this is one the major themes of the Half Life universe. At the beginning of the game you are freed from stasis and introduced to a world suffering under the supressive control of Breen and the Combine.

I had noticed, but you’ve given me a pretty good start toward deeper acknowledgment, so thanks! Certainly at the beginning of the game you have freedom of movement, but not much else. You have no weapons. If you do something the characters don’t like, you get beaten. You can only go where they tell you to go. You FEEL oppressed, even though you’re playing the same game that will later feel open and vast. This is something the game handles exceptionally well.

Little by little your scope of decision-making (therefore freedom) is widened. Barney lets you “hop the rails” so to speak, and then you’re wandering City 17…where you shouldn’t be. You can walk more freely, but are still hindered by other barriers. Then you are helped to make a rooftop escape (thereby surpassing the next ring of barricades) and then into a secret lab that lets you explore and play around with the various things your character can do. Then you’re given a weapon. Then many weapons. Each time you get one, you become less helpless and less oppressed by the enemies and vehicles you could not handle before. You go from maggot to master, one step at a time. Early on you encounter instances of brutality after they happen. Then as they happen. Then, eventually, you get to fight off these events so that they don’t happen. Again, it’s all gradual. It’s a series of minor increases that add up to an enormous sense of heroism and duty.

I guess, as the game winds down, you find your scope of freedom narrowed bit by bit so that the game functions as a sort of palindrome of freedom—thick in the middle but sharp at both ends. You enter the Citadel, so your decisions of where to go are eliminated. Your weapons are taken from you, leaving you with only one. Later, even that weapon is taken from you. The pod rides put you right back on rails. You’re back where you started. G-Man takes you away as quickly and cruelly as he inserted (great verb for this, by the way) you into it. The more I think about it, the more the structure of the game becomes apparent, and correct.

But the ending…I don’t know. You can get away with an opening that answers no questions because—hey, it’s the opening! You have a whole game ahead of you to figure this stuff out. That feeling is very different, though, when it’s a non-answering ending. In that instance, the only option you have is to look BACK at the game you just finished. And whatever answers you don’t find, you don’t get.

And, yeah, there are sequels that pick up directly afterward…but that doesn’t change a bad cliffhanger into a good one.

Aside from this may I just comment that this series of blogs has been fantastic. It’s been engaging and funny and I hope you continue them with the episodes (especially if and when you get to the second one).

I appreciate hearing that! And I hope nobody sees my above comments as stubborn…I’m really just trying to work out the ending for myself, and have it fit “satisfactorily” in my mind. The comments so far on this article have helped with that.

Regarding another commentary for episode one: I started playing it and made it through two chapters…and it’s liberating to be able to play it WITHOUT having to take screenshots and write it up after a session. But I keep coming across things I’d like to talk about, so I’ll finish the game, have a think, and then decide whether or not to go through again and comment on it.

If I do, it’ll be from a different viewpoint…someone who’s had time to play it all and reflect on what’s come before. This article series was all about experiencing things for the first time…which allowed me to write it whether or not I had anything interesting to say. That’s liberating. So we’ll see whether or not I can justify the next one.

Phil Reed's picture

By Phil Reed
November 03, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

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If you’ve started on Episode 1 then you’ll probably have even more distaste for the ending of HL2 since nothing is truly explained. J.J. Abrams stuff is notorious for finishing on cliffhangers(usually good ones though), but at least they are sorted out in the next episode.

It will be nice to hear your comments on Episode 1 though. I haven’t played the games for so long that my memories of what happens has slightly deteriorated to the point where I remember they were great to play through at the time, but as far as plot goes it’s a bit of a blur.

Although, I still remember at how pissed off I get that Gordon seems to be forming a very close relationship to a girl he never speaks to. How come all the mutes with guns and H.E.V suits get the hots chicks!

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By Karrakunga
November 03, 2008 @ 6:43 pm

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Pretty good commentary. On a sidenote, you should consider checking out a website called OverWiki, which is basically a database of events and characters within the Half-Life Series. I glanced through it and I found that It answered some questions I had and also helped to enhance the story a little bit.

As far as Episode 1 goes, I wasn’t too annoyed that they didn’t answer any of the questions from HL2, mostly because Episode 1 was designed as a lead-in to Episode 2, where a few questions are answered (Though many more are presented).

By Chris
November 18, 2008 @ 1:18 am

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HL1 unofficially reborn:

Andrew's picture

By Andrew
December 01, 2008 @ 11:48 am

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“We are currently experiencing an extremely high server load.”

Fucking hell, has this been released now?!

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By Jonathan Capps
December 01, 2008 @ 9:36 pm

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Ah, just a new trailer. Still: exciting!

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By Jonathan Capps
December 01, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

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