Join GameSpot as we celebrate gaming history and give recognition to the most influential games of the 21st century. These aren’t the best games, and they aren’t necessarily games that you need to rush out and play today, but there’s no question that they left an indelible impact on game developers, players, and in some cases, society at large.
2004 was a hotbed for games that would go on to leave a lasting impact on the industry. World of Warcraft popularized the massively multiplayer online sub-genre, Doom 3 impressed with its mesmerizing visuals, and Halo 2 set a new standard for console multiplayer going forward. Another title that would leave a tremendous impact on the gaming landscape was Half-Life 2. It was arguably the most anticipated game of the 2000s, and the sequel to Valve Software’s seminal debut became something of a force of nature within the games industry, reshaping PC gaming as we knew it.
At the time, Valve had a lot to live up to. The original Half-Life was a significant turning point for narrative-driven games, with the industry and PC gamers alike immediately taking notice of its unorthodox yet revolutionary approach to storytelling and action. Moving away from the traditional level progression and story beats from previous FPS titles, Half-Life’s plot was conveyed through a seamless and largely passive style. The creators were swept up by the craze surrounding their game, which eventually took on a life of its own with the rise of player-made mods—most notably the incredibly popular Counter-Strike.
While other developers were learning from Half-Life and its burgeoning modding community, Valve was already hard at work on the follow-up that would cement the company as a creative force within the industry. Releasing on November 16, 2004, Half-Life 2 was a major success in regards to game design and presentation. While it largely upped the stakes and expanded upon the backstories of the first game’s characters, it maintained the intimate and more subdued approach to telling its story—channeling the «show, don’t tell» mantra hard.
One of the big takeaways upon its release was how much of a significant upgrade it was over the original. In GameSpot’s 2004 review, former editor James Ocampo stated: «while Half-Life 2 breaks little new ground, it’s still a superb and engaging first-person shooter, as well as an amazing technological accomplishment.» The linchpin of Half-Life 2 was Valve’s proprietary Source engine. The sequel made smart use of its improved rendering tech to increase the scale and density of the world, along with giving each character a higher level of detail. The culmination of craft and advanced tech made seeing some returning faces like Barney Calhoun, the security guard from the original, all the more impactful. By far, the most prevalent aspect of its impressive technical upgrades was the revolutionary use of in-game physics. At the time, most games that featured real-time physics only used the technology sparingly. In Half-Life 2, it was always present, giving the world added weight and a feeling of unpredictability. Not only were physics used to help tell the story, it was also the crux of some key gameplay moments.
About a third of the way through the game, you acquire the Gravity Gun, one of the sequel’s more clever creations. The Gravity Gun was a game-changer, allowing you to take advantage of Half-Life 2’s sophisticated physics by picking up, manipulating, and throwing objects, resulting in some hilarious and jaw-dropping periods of unintended fun. There was no going back after Valve’s freeform use of physics, and AAA games like Bioshock and Crysis ran with the concept; today, it seems unusual for a big-budget game not to feature real-time physics of some sort.
The effectiveness of Half-Life 2’s presentation and gameplay was in its simplicity. While the original was about arriving to work at the underground Black Mesa laboratory, the sequel’s introduction highlights the mundanity of totalitarian rule following Earth’s invasion by an extraterrestrial force. Half-Life 2’s opening is a masterclass in worldbuilding and storytelling, portraying the many horrors and triumphs from Gordon’s narrow yet incredibly detailed perspective. This clash between the understated and extraordinary is what made Half-Life compelling, and its sequel even more so. Fans eager to see a follow up didn’t have to wait too long, as Valve eventually released Half-Life 2 Episode 1 and 2. Revealing the events shortly after the sequel’s conclusion, these mini-campaigns served as a nice tease for the escalating conflict with Gordon Freeman and the alien Combine, and hinted at what was to come in the next major installment—for which players are still waiting. Both episodes were made available through the developer’s proprietary digital distribution client, Steam, allowing fans to download the next installment straight from the source.
In the beginning, the purpose of Steam was to allow for quick updates to Valve’s core titles, and Half-Life 2 was the first that required its use. Over time, however, Steam’s role in Valve’s repertoire changed. In the year following Half-Life 2’s release, Valve began negotiations with third parties to have outside games on the client, creating a new digital marketplace. Thanks to Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike serving as the killer apps for Steam, the digital platform became synonymous with PC gaming. It turned the once-impenetrable PC gaming scene into something more accessible and enticing. But above all, it would become the nexus point for all new indies and AAA games that would be released on PC. Today, Steam is so well-established and ingrained in the PC gaming community, many players are quick to voice frustration when a new AAA game goes to a rival service instead.
Half-Life 2’s opening is a masterclass in worldbuilding and storytelling, portraying the many horrors and triumphs from Gordon’s narrow yet incredibly detailed perspective.
Half-Life 2 was just one of many steps that Valve took to expand its reach and influence in the PC space. Just two weeks before Half-Life 2 launched, Valve had shipped Counter-Strike: Source, the successor to the popular mod that took the online PC community by storm. Along with Half-Life 2—which also included a download key for CS: Source—this one-two punch of hotly anticipated titles from Valve made for an incredibly enticing package. The developers even supplied toolsets for the Source Engine, planting the seeds for the massive modding scene that would explode in popularity in the years since.
In 2004, Half-Life 2 became the template for single-player, narrative-driven AAA games that followed, and it also marked the beginning of Valve’s time as a prestige developer. Following Portal and Team Fortress 2 in 2007, the developer also released the incredibly popular co-op zombie-shooter Left 4 Dead, finding a massive audience on both PC and consoles. However, things slowly began to change in the 2010s, as Valve focused more on the business of Steam and less on their own products.
Half-Life 2 was a creative and technical breakthrough for Valve, very much setting the tone for what came next. Unfortunately, Gordon Freeman and his iconic crowbar were one of the things cast aside following the developer’s mammoth success and eventual pivot towards Steam. To put this into perspective, we’ve been left with Episode 2’s cliffhanger four times longer than the time it took Valve to create the first sequel. The Valve of today is a vastly different company than what it was during the 2000s, with many key creatives like Marc Laidlaw, Chet Faliszek, Viktor Antonov having left for other opportunities.
In many ways, the Half-Life series fell victim to Valve’s tremendous success following the impact of Half-Life 2 and Steam. Despite the sudden changes that the company went through, there were many attempts to get a potential sequel off the ground internally—including a new episode developed by Dishonored developer Arkane Studios set around returning to one of Half-Life 2’s most memorable locales, Ravenholm. These unfortunately never came to fruition. In 2017, former Half-Life writer Marc Laidlaw posted a heavily revised and reworked script from one of the previous attempts to get a new game off the ground, leaving fans to speculate on what was to come. The mere mention of a proper follow-up to Half-Life 2 has often led to gossip and internet rumors about what happened or what might have been. Some fans have even taken it upon themselves to produce their own follow-ups to the game. Half-Life 2 was a massive leap forward for AAA titles, and there’s always a twinge of sadness that Half-Life 3 hasn’t come around to show what a newer future could be.
Looking back on the history of Half-Life 2, it was very much the quintessential PC game. Half-Life 2, much like its predecessor, let players experience Valve’s vision for what modern AAA could be. And just like the original, it became a gateway for something more significant. For both Valve Software and the gaming community at large, the absence of Half-Life has left a noticeable void within the very culture of gaming. We may never see Gordon Freeman and his crowbar again, but the impact of the series—setting the stage for what was to come with the future of AAA gaming—is still felt to this day.
For a look at the rest of our features in this series, head over to our Most Influential Games Of The 21st Century hub.