I immediately jumped on Portal once I bought the Orange Box, but it didn't take me long before I started working my way through HalfLife 2. I'm not a big FPS guy - counting HL2, you can still count all FPS action games I've played on the fingers of one hand - but I am a fan of Half Life, and it seemed long overdue to return to the world.
I think I first encountered HalfLife in the summer of 1999, after graduating from high school but before starting at college. I can't remember now exactly what made me pick it up. I've far and away been much more interested in RPG and strategy games than action games, but I think the torrent of praise I was hearing for HL grew too big to ignore. If I remember correctly, it won pretty much every single "Game of the Year" award there was when it came out.
For a while I'd held the iD games of Doom and Quake in contempt as convenient whipping boys. It helps that I'd never played either one... the subject matter made them pretty much off limits to me, but even beyond that, the reputation they've had is amazing graphics with minimal plot and reflex-based gameplay. I prided myself on having more intellectual aspirations in my gaming. In contrast, while HL was still definitely an action game, it had won kudos for its storytelling and puzzle aspects.
So I started playing Half Life. And kept going, and going, and going. I went off to college, put gaming on the back shelf for a while as I got my academic sea legs, then picked it back up again. I started to wonder when it would ever end. Not that I was eager to stop, you understand - I was amazed at the variety of the game, the way that it was constantly unfurling, growing ever bigger and more complex. I just couldn't comprehend all the work that must have gone into making a game that was this enormous.
My roommate picked it up and made it pretty far through the single-player campaign, then got bored and switched to the multiplayer portion. For a while I used my Linux partition to run a deathmatch server called Timmy's House of Sprinkles. It was a simple affair, 8 players maximum, with I think a 10-minute limit on each game, and stayed on my favorite multiplayer map, a warehouse that I liked for its small size and the constant action you got as a result. My roommate later migrated on to Counterstrike, which I never got into, but further amazed me. Valve hadn't just created a killer game: they'd built an amazing platform, and I was stunned that the volunteer-based collaborative model that had produced Linux could also create a successful, commercial-quality game like Counterstrike.
I eventually beat the single player campaign, and was well pleased. I poked around a little with various user-created modules, including a cool three-part horror game called something like "They Live." But when I switched to a LInux-only system, HalfLife was one of the casualties, and it faded away.
I'm frankly stunned that it's ten years later and I'm playing the sequel... it doesn't feel like that much time could possibly have passed. I'm also stunned that the game is five years old and still looks amazing.
The original HL was revolutionary for its time, but I think that the industry has caught up. To some extent, you were being radical if you even included any intimations of story in a FPS game before then, other than "All the bad guys are X, kill them all." HL's story was evocative, which is one of the things I like best about it. There were no videos, no cut scenes, everything happened in real-time in front of your very eyes. And so you wouldn't get the standard gaming exposition, describing what's going on and why. Instead of hearing how dire the situation was, you would see it for yourself: not only the hordes of aliens you must constantly fight off, but distantly glimpsed encounters as scientists are slaughtered, or a panicked call for help coming in over a radio. Occasionally you would encounter a particular researcher or someone who would fill you in on something a little more nuanced - "The survivors are gathering in the Lamda core, you should make your way over there." On the whole, though, HL was a textbook example of showing and not telling.
In some ways, HL2 is a step back from that austerity, though I didn't mind at all. There is far more dialog in the sequel than I remember in the first game, and more differentiated characters. Instead of two models of scientists and one model of security guard, you get really well-modeled and well-crafted characters with their own personalities, ambitions, and behavior. It's still an action-driven game, of course, but this time around you hear more from the people you're working to save.
The gameplay is a huge step up from the original, which was already a lot of fun. FPS games have a reputation for linearly improving weaponry; once you get the BFG, there's no point in using anything smaller. In HL, you had to quickly learn which weapons to use for each situation. The machine gun was best when you had a swarm of soldiers in a large room to clear out quickly; the shotgun was best if you were in tight quarters in one-on-one combat; the sniping crossbow could help if you could spot enemies from far away; grenades were tough to master but could clear a room if you got the timing right; and the crowbar was the ultimate melee weapon if you could move quickly and judge your enemy's reach. Add to this exotic weapons like the "bee gun," which could seek out enemies, and the rocket launcher, your only hope for taking down certain large enemies but something that would destroy you if you got caught in the blast.
HL2 keeps most of these weapons (except the bee gun), and adds its own. The new biological "weapon" is an antlion seed pod, which you can use to summon a swarm of obedient alien ants. However, the hands-down most impressive and most praised weapon is the Gravity Gun. This unique tool shows off Valve's vaunted physics engine, and lets you interact with the world in extremely fun, unpredictable ways.
One thing that is a little odd is the set of enemies. There are plenty of new ones, including the forces of the Combine, the alliance between collaborationist humans and the aliens that police human cities. There's also a return of many old enemies, including our friends the headcrab and ceiling tentacles, and some new aliens, such as a great and creepy "fast zombie" and a poisonous version of the headcrab. But I feel like we've lost some of the large enemies from the first game... I vaguely remember there being some larger aliens later in the first game that seem to be entirely missing here. Almost everyone you fight is roughly your size, although there is one great boss in the form of a giant antlion.
Level design! It's amazing. The city environments are cool and pretty unique for a game... it's a dystopic version of an Eastern European city, which is more varied and interesting than the white antiseptic look we got in HL1 or the standard post-apocalyptic New York-ish environment of most sci-fi games of this sort. Where the game really sold me, though, are the exteriors. In particular, you play extended sequences along a coastline, and the interplay of water, sky, sand, and grass are really quite gorgeous. Some levels are just awe-inspiring. Ravenholm is fantastic, a demented Transylvanian landscape filled with spooky atmosphere, environmental puzzles (and weapons), and a great mixture of free roaming exploration and more standard goal-driven progression. Finally, the Citadel at the end of the game is jaw-dropping, a masterpiece of cool design.
On the whole, I think HL2 is a bit shorter than HL1, but still plenty long enough. I've also played through the Lost Coast, an entertaining tech demo, and have just started on Episode 1. I am a little curious where and how they will make this franchise go, but they have so much going for them that they shouldn't have much trouble.