So I went ahead and started on Half-Life 2, which I had attempted before, but had gotten away from while en route to Ravenholme (Chapter 5, methinks). It didn't take very long to get caught back up, partly because I could remember several of the puzzles, and partly because I had gotten used to the mechanics of the first, and partly because I didn't find the 4th chapter nearly as nauseating this time around (I've previously referred to it as "the vehicle section that doesn't end").
Playing the original has endeared me to the sequel, having better understanding for the conceits and logic of the universe of the game, as well as why NPC's think so highly of Gordon Freeman when he shows up out of the blue after a twenty-ish year hiatus. And I have to praise Valve for their approach in making a sequel. It's easy to make a sequel that apes the original, maybe adds a weapon or two, but follows the same plot and same characters in the same (or similar) settings in an oh-no-here-we-go-again sort of way (if not a straight-up retelling). Instead, Half-Life 2 takes place in an unrecognizable future that is indelibly connected and yet tacitly different from the world Freeman left behind in the first game.
It's also interesting that you are dropped into a foreign situation both as a player and a character. Freeman's been in stasis since the conclusion of the original, and while he's been gone the human race has been enslaved. You start out (on a train) with no idea what's going on or what you're supposed to do, only given the knowledge that "the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world." In short, you're there to stir the shit.
So, along with a deeper story with a greater sense of immersion, you get better-developed characters, stronger voice acting, more casual dialog and fairly cinematic scenes that present story without completely obstructing gameplay. The presentation is vastly improved, there are new weapons and new enemies (and old weapons, and old enemies). While it still alternates between combat and physics puzzles, the puzzles feel less like a series of tutorials, and by the way, there is no more tutorial section--everything you need to know to play the game is worked into regular gameplay.
And then there's the addition of auto-saves. If they were int he first game, I had them turned off, and while I don't really use them, I appreciate that they're there. I went to the Final Fantasy school of "die well, die often, save well, save often", but almost every time I saved, both Auto-Save files (which appear to alternate auto-saves) had already updated, meaning the game was at least twice a diligent as I was.
So I'm enjoying Half-Life 2. I admire its bravery, because it takes a very solid step away from safe ground in what could have been a by-the-numbers shooter. We'll see if it ends with as much strength as it begins.