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Half-Life 2
game: Half-Life 2
four star
posted by: Chris Martin
publisher: Vivendi Universal
developer: Valve
ESRB rating: M (Mature)
keywords: ]
date posted: 12:00 AM Wed Dec 29th, 2004
last revision: 12:00 AM Wed Dec 29th, 2004

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This review, as well as the sequel to the 1998 critically acclaimed masterpiece Half-Life, have been a long time coming, and while 2004 has netted some excellent titles for both the PC and home consoles, it just wouldn't be the same without a breakout PC first-person-shooter, now would it? No, it wouldn't be the same at all; it would be the equivalent to eating waffles without syrup, or playing baseball without bats.  We had thought Doom 3 would fill that shooter-void, but while a marvelous graphical splurge, D3 left a sour taste in many a gamers' mouth.  Luckily for us all, that void is being filled by another title, featuring none other than the humble physicist named Gordon Freeman.

Welcome Back, Mr. Freeman

Half-Life 2 is out, and while it seems unbelievable that a game we waited five years for has actually launched, it is just as unbelievable that it lives up to the hype in nearly every way - nearly.  In more than a few ways Half-Life 2 has been pegged as the greatest-something-something game ever - PC game, shooter, action game, storytelling endeavor - but the hype has been a double-edged sword, causing stricter criticisms than most any other game recently released.  This is partly due to the five year interim, but more so to public expectation and actuality.

I can sum up my lasting impression of Half-Life 2 in one word: mixed.  I'm going to have to explain myself - mixed? will just not do.  Don't take that the wrong way, either.  Half-Life 2, one of the most anticipated PC games ever, is worth owning, playing, and loving like a significant other.  But then again, there is no perfect game.  Even Halo 2 is not perfect.  Both games sport problems here and there, but - for comparison sake- Half-Life 2's problems end up affecting gameplay in a way that Halo 2's never did.  Half-Life 2 is a worthy, if slightly disappointing, successor to Half-Life, and a fantastic game even with some glaring issues.

A Technical Marvel

First off, it is important to mention that Half-Life 2 is a marvel on even lower end graphic cards.  The GeForce 4 Ti 4200 - not exactly the top of the line anymore - runs it like a charm, and the GeForce FX 5200 will perform higher resolution textures and still maintain an acceptable framerate.  So you can imagine what running this game on one of the high end GeForces or ATI's would get you - gorgeous indeed.  Even on my system, running Pentium 4, 2.26 GHz, 512 Mb Ram, with a GeForce FX 5200, the game only had a minimal stutter.  Added to that, I was running it at a resolution of 1152x864 with medium to high effects (some water effects were medium, others were high) and you'll see how technically flexible Valve made this game.  Half-Life 2 will scale down to fit most any computer, even those not running quite so fast a video card - they have to at least support Direct X 9.0, which most cards do.  Make sure you have 512 Mb of ram though, otherwise you'll have to deal with a stammering framerate.

Half-Life was and is among the greatest of the first-person-shooters - especially for a single player.  It might even be the best, but I'll leave that to speculation, gossip, and internet forums.  I have run through the original Half-Life twice, once on normal and once on hard.  It still surprises me how much depth of character, situation, and world can be revealed through in-game storytelling.  For those of our readers who never played through Half-Life, but are thinking about picking up the sequel, I must briefly return to the first game to explain Gordon Freeman's fate.

In the original Half-Life, you are Gordon Freeman, a physicist at the Black Mesa Research Facility.  You test and analyze top-secret machinery and technology.  It's your average, everyday job; it's routine.  On this routine day, however, things go wrong (as it frequently does with top-secret business).  Amidst testing a particular machine that towers from floor to ceiling, its pistons shooting beams of yellow electricity from conductors, you unfortunately tear a gateway to another dimension.  Creatures begin appearing, slaughtering everyone they see (as creatures from another dimension are inclined to do) and causing a terrible mess for you, Gordon Freeman, who ends up the only remaining survivor at Black Mesa.  Luckily, you are equipped with a number of weapons (MP3, grenades, pistols, crowbar, etc.) to deal? with the problem.  You try to make your way to the surface, out of Black Mesa, and to safety.  But here and there you see the G-Man - always a step ahead of you.  And you begin to suspect conspiracy.  No one is really certain what the G stands for, some speculate government? or guileful? or greasy,? but one thing's for sure: he knows an awful lot more than you do.  Long story short, the government attempts to cover up the accident by deploying a number of soldiers to terminate any survivors - gee, thanks government.  At the end of the game you get to choose to work for the G-Man or take a portal to your doom.  I always thought a nice tea and crumpets? option should have been in there somewhere, but what can you do?

Half-Life 2 picks up vaguely after the events of the first.  It follows the path of Freeman as he chooses to work for the G-Man.  But how much time has passed is difficult to say, because moments after starting the game you're shuttled into City 17 and introduced to the world.  The game begins in much the same way the first did, with a train ride and a gradual acclamation to the control scheme and the skills? at your disposal - yes, Gordon can now pick up items in the world and throw them at people.  The guards in City 17 don't really like this, though.  I found this small skill handy at times, but mostly it's just to show off the physics engine.

Five Years and All is Well

Whilst you're being introduced to City 17, and an eerie man speaks on every television, you'll notice that, visually, Half-Life 2 is a much different game than its predecessor.  Half-Life 2 is possibly the most gorgeous game I've ever seen on a PC, and that's saying a lot, since after five years it's had plenty of time to be left behind in the technology race by other games.  The game's single-most astounding innovation is the Source Engine's rendering of real-world physics.  You can hit wood and it will splinter and fall apart.  If you knock a body off a ledge with a rocket and the rag doll physics will have him fly off to a timely, bone-crunching demise.  Shoot an explosive barrel and cause destruction to a good portion of the surrounding environment (provided it is breakable).  It's a joy to just mess around in the game doing nothing productive, per say, like shooting stuff to see what happens, hacking away at boxes with the crowbar, or hurling barrels into enemies with the Grav-Gun.  Quite satisfying, indeed.

But that's not all.  Water bobs you up and down, bullets tear through liquid and whiz by your ear.  Things will float in water if they float in real life (wood, plastic, rubber) and each object acts differently in the dynamic environment.  Light will refract naturally throughout.  And if you look up from under the water, you can see the whole world wavering from the light refraction - it's all quite breathtaking.  Half-Life 2 is nothing short of a technical marvel.  And just when you think it couldn't get any prettier, it does.

While its predecessor also boasted a pretty face (for the time), it was the way the in-game storytelling could immerse you in the world that brought Half-Life into the realm of videogame innovation.  Beauty is, after all, only skin deep.  Luckily, in HL2 there's substance beyond the glitz and glamour.

Half-Life was among the first games to integrate the storyline into the gameplay itself (I remember System Shock 2 also did this in 1999).  It used the in-game engine and scripted events to push the story, instead of cutscenes or full-motion video.  Half-Life 2 continues the legacy (as you would expect) but this time around the storyline don't seem to make quite as much sense as Half-Life.  In fact, this is where HL2 bites off more than it can chew.

Characters, Combine, and Questions?

While immersed in the world - where a force known only as the Combine has taken control of, and is destroying, City 17 - I was consistently reminded that I knew absolutely nothing of the events surrounding the action.  While trying to decipher exactly why this is, I concluded two things: 1) certain situations are much too convenient, even for this game, and 2) characters don't fill you in on backstory, and they talk about events as if the player is already fully informed about the game's history.  There is one character in particular that I disliked for just this reason: Alyx.  Alyx, one of your main contacts in City 17, almost consistently hounds you with one-sided conversations (Gordon never talks, you see) about the resistance and the future of the world.  More on her later.  First, what is with all the explosive barrels?  They're far too convenient within the bounds of the world.  Sure, it's great fun and to see them explode taking a few careless guards with them, but why are there so many, and why do the Combine find it convenient to use them as cover?  They sure don't seem like the brightest alternate-dimensional-alien-conquerers, now do they?  Turning the difficulty up doesn't adjust their AI either, but only makes your weapons do less damage.  Good thing there are tons of explosive barrels which don't stand a chance against my MP5!

While more and more issues are raised, things never get answered.  And so, questions begin to arise in the player's mind.  Where does the Combine come from?  Why do certain alien creatures aid the resistance while others kill indifferently?  Why is the Combine destroying City 17?  And furthermore, what side is doing what and for what reasons?  Obviously the resistance is resisting the Combine, but there seems to be no motivation for the Combine to do their destroying to begin with.  Things don't seem to fall into place in Half-Life 2, even though the characters are mostly convincing.  And on that level, I just don't see much correlation between the stories of Half-Life 1 and 2.

While question after question will be raised throughout the course of the game, sadly none of them will be answered, and even the characters who know about the present situation speak so vaguely that I wonder if Valve even knows what's going on.  After a while I stopped caring about the story, and began to focus solely on the action.

Perhaps things will be revealed in Half-Life 3, but are we going to have to wait another five years to find out?  This is one of the reasons I feel so negatively about the story - I feel I know significantly less at the end of the game than when I started.  It is a shame that at the end of Half-Life 2 I was more confused than ever, because the ending is quite intriguing.  If you thought that Halo 2's ending was disappointing, you'll find no satisfaction with HL2's.  In the least, it'll cause mild discomfort; at most you'll want to throw the CD against the wall. 

But while you're immersed in the progression of the story - and I mean you'll get really immersed - oh, what greatness Half-Life 2 achieves!  There are moments of sheer panic and exhilaration mixed with sparely used puzzles.  Not a moment goes by where I wasn't surprised at the tight production value, the closeness and desolation that I felt while lost in Valve's world.  When in the tunnels of City 17, for example, I yearned for some human contact, but while above ground, fighting drop ships and gun ships, I ached for more firepower.  Part of the game's immersion factor is due to the exquisite score: a combination of moody gothic and distant ambient that accents the game perfectly.  And then there are the sound effects, best played on a surround-sound system (preferably with Dolby Digital 5.1) so that every echo and voice resonates perfectly with the environment.  When you hear the drop ships flying in, or the charge of a Strider's beam cannon, you'll know it.

There are some stand-out areas that I consider the game's highest points.  The first is the introduction to City 17, aptly titled Red Letter Day.?  Here you get acquainted with City 17 and the Combine, meet the resistance, a few old friends, and a few new ones.  Valve shows off their flair with scripted events and the various voices/faces you will meet on your journey.  Here you will also meet Alyx, one of the most highly detailed, yet one-dimensional characters (personality-wise) I've ever seen in a game.  You will interact off-and-on with her through Half-Life 2, but mostly she will open doors for you and tell you Uh-oh! Soldiers are coming!?  This type of thing happens a lot, and so you'll find yourself saying, No kidding?? more than you'd like.  Later, you get to take the air boat for a spin in one of the game's longer (2-3 hour) sequences.  There are many memorable moments in Half-Life 2.

And then there's Ravenholm, Valve's answer to survival horror.  Ravenholm is a destroyed (and dimly lit) town that has been overrun by creatures.  Unfortunately for you a rockslide blocks your path and you must take Ravenholm as a detour to meet back up with the resistance.  Just your luck.  You'll be nicely equipped with not only tradidtional weaponry, but the Grav-Gun as well.  The Grav-Gun is possibly the best reason to play Half-Life 2.  Take that with a grain of salt, because I dislike saying the guns are the best reason to play a first person shooter.  Perhaps it's the romantic in me, but I love balanced gameplay and a tight storyline.  Unreal Tournament 2004 is the exception.  But I digress?  Without giving too much away, I'd say the best scripted sequences happen here in Ravenholm.  And after playing it - preferably in the dark for best effect - I hope you'll be inclined to agree.

Of course, if it was downhill from there, the game couldn't hold water.  Luckily that's not the case.  There are numerous segments later, mostly involving the walking tanks called Striders, that will be memorable.  You'll reach the game's climax at hour 11, out of a game that takes approximately 12-14 hours, depending on your style of play.  And when you get there, you'll make a big happy face and say, Holy crap, I didn't know they could do that!?  As if you hadn't already said that many times before.

But the game begins to drain a few hours before the game's climax, right about when you start fighting the Striders and you acquire a squad to lead.  And, in one of the few shortcomings of the game, I found the gameplay was actually hindered by poor artificial intelligence, and could have benefited by more scripted sequences.  At first, the squad elements seem like a nice addition to an already stellar game, but this is where form and function really affect the gameplay significantly.  Pressing the C? key by default will tell the squad to go-to? where you are looking.  This is the only way to get the squad members out of your way.  Otherwise they follow at a distance of about 2 feet.  This makes going through tight hallways, backtracking, and using cover extremely difficult.  And if you were to run into Combine soldiers, grenades or a hopper (a land mine that jumps into the air before exploding), there would be no way to quickly backpedal and avoid a messy fate. 

Trying to get your squad to go-to? is equally as frustrating, since they'll only go so far before returning like lost puppies.  On top of that, they seem to have problems going single file down hallways, avoiding obvious sniper fire, and recognizing live grenades.  Likewise, the enemy AI will run aimlessly into live grenades and hoppers without trying to avoid them.  Of course the enemy AI is for some reason slightly better than the incompetent friendly AI.  But that would explain why the resistance needs Gordon Freeman to lead them.  I found myself sending my team to their bullet-riddled doom more often than not, as they are only good for getting killed, or getting me killed, anyway.

All-in-all, the guns are mostly the same as in the original.  There's the pistol, MP5, crossbow...but the gauss gun is gone as are a few others (no more laser mines).  Of course, the Grav-Gun is just a blast and a half.  On the subject of weapons, I'm not a big fan of the new grenades, which Gordon seems to launch as if his arm were a cannon.  (Come on now, why am I able to throw a grenade the length of a football field?)  The new grenades have this red, glowing light which - one would assume - would make them easier for the enemies to see, but as I mentioned just above, it might as well be a helpless pidgeon.  Gripes with the grenades might be silly, but they just don't feel right, as if the wonderful physics system just decided to ignore them altogether. 

Tough Love

I have harsh criticisms of Half-Life 2.  It's one of those games that you think about when you're sleeping and working.  It's one of those games that steals the time away from any other games you might have.  I loved Half-Life 2, most of the game blew me away, some of it I could do without, and so I return to the one word I used before: mixed.  I love it, and I wish it could be better sometimes.  It's what I call tough love.  But there's the option for Valve to patch things, tighten up the game, add more content.  And we'll likely see an add-on similar to Blue Shift for the original Half-Life.

I will probably play it again, and god-knows how many hours I will put in on Counterstrike: Source or Half-Life 2: Source.  While the online options are somewhat limited, I found the single player game to be the greatest achievement.  Wonderful, and yet uneven.  Counterstrike: Source is the same game as the original Counterstrike but prettier, and it's fun in Half-Life 2: Source to toss a toilet at some guy's head.  It's damn fun.

On the whole, Half-Life 2 is a stellar game with some problems.  When it comes right down to it, I'd recommend it to anyone - it is hands-down my favorite single-player PC game this year.  Bravo to Valve on a genuinely fine work of video game art. 

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