The dev team, for starters. The strat guide (which as I observed before explains things not in the game). Random Valve employees.
Oh, and Ep1 too. Since you asked.
I somehow managed to figure it out without the dev team, or strat guide, and a lot of other people did as well. Now, I didn't get everything on the first playthrough - the conversation trinkets in Eli's lab, the complete significance of the dried ocean, the Vortigaunts' cryptic lines - but it is all there, as I've repeatedly demonstrated. Valve have given out hints as to the full depths of the plot, but you can't say that all of the story for HL2 comes from their press releases.
Valve seemed to let you interact with pratically everything in the enviroment, except the people and faces that seem so determined to let you save them from the combine
You can press 'E' at people, which gets them to throw out a couple of lines. The Vortigaunts are particularly revealing in their own way. So you can, to an extent, talk to the people you're saving (just not in a meaningful way).
It's not sloppy; to the contrary, it's well integrated into the game itself.
That's what I like most about HL2. In most games, the story is something that's tacked on to the game. You make an isometric tactical real-time game and throw something about dead gods and their mortal offspring on afterwards. Or you make an arcadey space fighter game with WW2 physics and make up some random **** about a visionary admiral, a civil war and an ancient alien race of xenophobes.
In HL2, however, the story is integrated into the game. Because they're not unloading a text dump onto you at the beginning of the game (something, sadly, that most of you would have preferred), the art and design choices have to be made carefully. Textures and models and speech have to tell you the story because they've integrated it so heavily into the game. This is a step towards having *real* stories in games, stories which are actually written and constructed rather than ripped off of sub-standard sci-fi&fantasy by unwashed game developers. Stories which are told in a more exciting and dynamic way than FS2's command brief dumps, stories which take advantage of a game's unique multimedia opportunities, stories which aren't relegated to Star-Trek-Encyclopaedia fluff stuck in the manual.
Why would the resistance give a **** - even if they knew - about an alien whose death quite possibly pre-empted the combine invasion?
Because, as I've explained already, the Nihilanth was a tyrant ruler of his people, the Vortigaunts. Gordon, a heroic warrior, battled his way through his army and killed him. They believe he will do the same for Breen and his Combine. They know all this because the Resistance is led by three friends of Gordon, friends who were all there at Black Mesa when Gordon stopped the Xen invasion: Barney Calhoun, who says "Hey, it's me, Barney, from Black Mesa!" and starred in Blue Shift; Dr. Kleiner, who was your sponsor for recruitment by Black Mesa as seen in the form in the HL1 manual and clearly recognises you ("Great Scott! Gordon Freeman, is that you?"); and Eli Vance, who reminds you himself that he was the generic black scientist in HL1 who sent you up to the surface to get help all the way back in Unforeseen Consequences. More so than that, however, the Vortigaunts approach you with a semi-mystical reverence, and since they're big members of the Resistance, they have undoubtedly spread the word.The Vortigaunts know a hell of a lot for creepy aliens
Anyways, tell me what definitive facts there are about the world HL2 is set in; the location, the scenario, the enemy? Stuff you could discover in a realistic manner by just reading an old newspaper, for example. What is Nova Prospekt, as another example?
HL2 is set in City 17 (see the welcoming Breencast), which is clearly one of several cities (aside from being 17 of presumably 17+ cities, two citizens discussing Breen mention a City 14). City 17 is presumably set somewhere in Eastern Europe or Russia, given the Soviet-era architecture and the signs in the Cyrillic alphabet. The city is being transformed by the introduction of alien Combine technology - doors are held shut by strange Combine locks, and certain areas (particularly those important to the Combine, such as the Overwatch Nexus and Nova Prospekt) are being replaced with Combine architecture, specifically those blue-steel walls. During the war, large Combine barricades advance through the city, turning the buildings into base materials (stone and rubble), possibly for Combine use elsewhere. The city is under the thumb of a police state, with Civil Protection troops all over the place, Striders walking the streets, Combine APCs scattered throughout the city, and block raids a common occurence (all seen during Point Insertion). Although the city has a canal system, it is no longer functional, being mostly without water and full of debris. It is used by the Resistance as a means to smuggle people out of the city (Route Kanal) to their headquarters, the abandoned dam. Trains, some with new Combine engines, are used by the Combine to ferry people from city to city as well as to Nova Prospekt and (I assume) other Combine outposts (Point Insertion, Entanglement).
Combine rule is centred in the Citadel, at the heart of City 17. Breen has established his adminstration in City 17 and rules from an office decorated with luxuries like carpets, a nice desk, a globe etc. which contrasts sharply with the homes of average citizens in City 17 (Point Insertion). The Citadel is made entirely out of Combine materials and serves as both HQ and factory, mass producing Striders and gunships as well as other synths and housing many, many Combine troops. Security is tight, with only authorised personnel carrying weapons - others are confiscated by Combine technology (Our Benefactors).
The world outside the cities is harsh and hostile. Xen wildlife, specifically headcrabs and ant lions, roam the countryside and appear to have settled in well (Highway 17, Sandtraps), although the Combine keep them away from their positions with snipers (snipers shooting zombies at the mine entrance to Ravenholm, "We don't go to Ravenholm...") and thumpers (on the approach to Nova Prospekt, Sandtraps). Zombies are particularly common in Ravenholm, a small village close to the hydroelectric dam and on the outskirts of City 17, which appears to have been headcrab-bombed into submission by the Combine ("We don't go to Ravenholm..."), possibly because of contact with the Resistance (Alyx mentions that they don't visit Ravenholm "any more", Black Mesa East).
The Combine, or Universal Union, appear to be an amalgamation of multiple species (as their name implies) and are intent on transforming subject worlds into being more amenable to their rulers (drying oceans in Highway 17, integration of Combine technology throughout City 17). Humanity is their latest acquisition and they are changing it, evolving it to make a better subject species (Breen talks about the Combine guards Freeman fights as the "transhuman forces of the Combine Overwatch" in Nova Prospekt, meaning that not only are the human Combine modified humans, but that they are a part of a larger whole. More evidence of Combine 'transhumans' comes in the video feed in Nova Prospekt of a soldier with his armour off - bald, oddly-hued, with implants - and the Stalker seen briefly in Our Benefactors). The Combine have granted humanity several technological benefits - small hovering robots (Scanners and Manhacks), new weapons (Overwatch Pulse Rifle) and organic machines (Striders, Gunships and other synths) as well as generally upgrading existing technology (the Combine helicopter that chases you throughout Water Hazard). It's possible that the Combine rulers (the slugs seen in Point Insertion and Dark Energy) are dependent on their empire and their advanced technology to survive, given that they use a respirator and appear to be in harness and incapable of defending themselves physically.
The Combine tries to portray itself as a benevolent ruler rather than a brutal regime; Dr. Breen, a human, is appointed the Administrator of the planet by the Combine in order to put a human face on the tyranny (Eli's newspaper cuttings) and in his Breencasts he refers to the Combine as "benefactors" (Point Insertion, amongst others) who are attempting to uplift humanity into a better state. Instinct is decried as backward and primitive; dissension is characterised as irrational, as "magical thinking" (Water Hazard). In Our Benefactors, Breen appeals to Freeman himself, asking him not to throw everything away by plunging the world into war with the Combine again, and accusing him of destroying things without having anything to replace them (Our Benefactors). Breen uses rationalism and science as rhetorical tools to get humanity to cooperate with the Combine. Blatant intimidation and coercion works as well; people are beaten up in the streets and taken away to Nova Prospekt by Civil Protection (Point Insertion). Citizens are enticed into enlisting with CP with a better quality of life (citizens getting food packs in Point Insertion say that they're tempted to join CP for more food). Also worth noting is the use of medical jargon to cover up the brutal reality of Combine oppression, as heard over the Combine radio. Lone troopers will often cry out "Outbreak! Outbreak! Outbreak!", for example.
The scenario: Following the end of HL1, the Vortigaunts invading Earth are freed from the Nihilanth's control and stop fighting, instead choosing to make a stand on this "miserable rock" (their words) against the Combine. They oppose the Combine for the same reason they opposed the Nihilanth - both the 'lesser master' (Nihilanth) and the 'greater master' (Combine) wish to enslave and subjugate (see the Vortigaunt sweeper in Point Insertion). The 'Portal Storms' (presumably what you saw at Black Mesa) continue for an extended period of time across the world and then the 7 Hour War begins. It ends in Combine victory, the destruction of the UN Building in New York and Dr. Breen being appointed interim administrator (all cuttings from Eli's board). Survivors from Black Mesa (specifically Barney, Kleiner and Eli) begin plotting to overthrow the regime, being disgusted as they are with former Black Mesa Administrator Breen's betrayal (Alyx says not to get her father started on Breen during Point Insertion). The world begins its transformation into what you see in HL2.
G-Man dumps you into City 17 and you are picked up by Barney before you run into trouble. Barney is working undercover with CP at the security post at the train station; arguably, he's keeping an eye out for you, since neither he nor Kleiner nor Eli nor Vance seem particularly shocked or surprised to see you reappear after so long (Alyx says "Funny you showing up on this day in particular," in Red Letter Day which suggests that she was expecting Gordon to pop up at some point - she's more intrigued by Gordon arriving on the day of the teleport than Gordon returning from limbo in the first place). It could be that the Resistance hired you from G-Man or his employers (see G-Man talking to Colonel Cubbage in Highway 17), or the Vortigaunts detected your imminent arrival, or just a strong belief that you'd return some day. Gordon is drafted into the teleport experiment (part of the Resistance's effort to smuggle more people out of City 17 and into the arms of the Resistance) but it goes wrong, the Combine realise that the Resistance's hero, the Opener of the Way, has arrived in City 17 (the chase in Point Insertion just being a 'Sector Miscount') and the game begins. I won't summarise the plot because you know what it is and it consists mostly of chasing after Eli Vance, so there you go.
Nova Prospekt: The name suggests "new prospect" or "new perspective" and smacks of 1984-Soviet-newspeak, much like the Breencasts. The architecture is clearly an old Soviet-era prison, with watchtowers and prison cells, communal showers, laundries, mass dining rooms, all with observation posts and balconies. It's apparently divided into two: a mostly unused older section (Nova Prospekt) and a newer, Combine-assimilated section (Entanglement) where most of the prisoners are stored in transportable metal cocoons. A train depot provides easy access, both for citizens redirected to Nova Prospekt from City 17 (Point Insertion) and (presumably) for outgoing citizens. It's somewhat implied that citizens undergo forced transformation into Combine troops or Stalkers at Nova Prospekt (the camera with the unclothed soldier on a surgery(?) bed, Barney and Alyx's constant hushed references to Nova Prospekt: "He was about to board the train to Nova Prospekt!" in Point Insertion, and "It used to be a prison... but it's something much worse than that now," "We don't go to Ravenholm..."). The connection has some tenuosity to it, and I didn't really like how Nova Prospekt turned out, since it didn't seem all that terrible and the Nova Prospekt chapter seemed rather pointless, but there's something in it.
There's your Half-life 2 story, and I didn't pull it out of a strategy guide or from a Valve interview - it's all in the game. It's right there. You just have to put it together.
You know, most of the aforementioned arguments about "figuring out the story for yourself" could be made about Far Cry, or heck, even the original Doom, but I never see anyone claiming that those games had deep plots.
Do what I just did for HL2 for Doom and Doom 2, then try saying that again. I don't think those little episode blurbs really compare.
I would also like someone to point out why what was okay in Half-life 1 was a mortal affront in Half-life 2. They both took the same approach, you had to figure out the backstory for both games through playing them, so why was all that business with the Xen border world, the expeditions, the abduction and experimentation, the Xen factories, the Black Mesa facility and all that so easy to figure out, but alien oppression, transhumanism, Breen's collaborating, Black Mesa East and the Resistance so very difficult to figure out, given that neither game had a handy backstory summed up in a little easy-to-understand intro sequence?