Half-Life 2 Review

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Publisher: Vivendi Universal Games
Developer: Valve

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 1.2 GHz, 256 MB RAM, DirectX 7 compatible video card, 4.5 GB HD space, internet connection, Windows 98 or more recent operating system

Every five to six years, someone strikes gold with a first-person shooter (FPS). In this case, Valve struck it twice.

Gordon Freeman has returned to a very different world than the labs at Black Mesa he left behind in Half-Life. The Combine appears to dominate humanity both inside and outside the desolate and depressing City 17. But the spirit of rebellion lurks just beneath the complacent veneer of humanity. And Gordon Freeman is just the physicist to send that rebellion bubbling over.

Kevin Rice

I've just cleared out all the little houses and buildings around an impasse. My buggy is tough, to be sure, but these barriers are impervious to anything in my arsenal. A cursory look around the premises shows a power line connected from the barrier to what has to be a power generating truck. "OK, go blow up the truck." Much like the barrier, it too is made of some otherworldly material that has my armaments ricocheting. "Well, this is an FPS. There has to be a switch I missed." I carefully look through each house, testing everything that looks like it might be a switch. Nothing is working. "Am I supposed to leave my buggy here? What the hell is going on?" After another moment or two of frustration, I notice there are wooden, wedge-shaped blocks under the back wheels of the generator truck. "No way." I shoot the wedges out and the truck rolls backward. The power line then becomes taut and snaps, cutting power to the barrier and opening it. "That's just way too practical." Such is the way of Half-Life 2.

The One Free Man Returns

It's been over five years in the making, the code has been stolen, and we didn't even know it was coming until the spring of 2003. It's a good thing Valve kept this under wraps for so long: Half-Life 2 is such a good game, the anticipation may have led to Prozac overdoses. Half-Life 2 doesn't introduce anything radically new (like Max Payne did with bullet time or Quake II did with colored lighting), but everything is done with such an acute attention to detail and level design savvy not seen since ... well, the first Half-Life. The entire package completely redefines what should be expected from an FPS.

It's no secret that Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 were both vying for "the game to beat" during this holiday season. Half-Life 2 wins. Big. While there's absolutely no denying that Doom 3 is pretty and it has its moments, Half-Life 2 is a work of art in which the entire game is one giant moment. Over the past few years, Valve (and publisher Sierra – now Vivendi Universal Games) has been teasing us with video that was supposedly actual gameplay from Half-Life 2. We were awed. And, being jaded, we were also cynical. "Dude, those have to be movies. There's no way that's live." It's not a movie. And man, is it ever alive.

As the player, you jump back into the hazmat suit of Gordon Freeman, the mute lead character that is as phenomenal a physicist as he is a badass with every weapon imaginable (just like all real-world physicists). Years after the events at Black Mesa, in the original Half-Life, Gordon returns, this time to the mysterious City 17. Where Half-Life's opening tram ride introduced the environment and atmosphere of Black Mesa, the train ride to said city has a different feel but the same purpose. The atmosphere is strong, thick, and believable, all at once. This is the kind of game where you don't have to describe things like, "You know that room where that thing happened? That was cool!" Rather, you describe the environment. "You know when you're in the air-boat and the CPs are taking shots at you, all while you have to hit the ramps at speed to get over the barricades? That was very cool."

City 17 is under the control of someone (or something) called The Combine. You're part of the resistance to said Combine and throughout the game, you're fed clues as to what is happening. You'll run into many familiar faces (Barney is back!) as well as a few new ones, including Eli's hottie daughter Alyx (and her conveniently named robotic pet Dog). Ultimately, you'll work to overthrow The Combine and try to make sense of everything. It all sounds a little hackneyed, but...

Reality 2.0

Careful attention to the game world is what sets Half-Life 2 apart from so many other straight-up FPS games. The first thing most people notice are the graphics. Everything is a high-res texture. Even extremely close-up (like staring at a wall), nothing looks grainy. The attention to detail is decidedly anal-retentive and borderline obsessive-compulsive. However, the prettiest graphics will never make you believe the world exists just because its a pretty picture.

Valve's new Source engine (that's the name of the graphics engine) is a powerhouse, but it's the use of the Havok physics engine that adds believability to the environment. Pretty much everything that looks like it should be moveable can be moved. More to the point, it's moveable in such a believable and expected way that it's almost uncanny. Examples abound. Just because an enemy is on a balcony doesn't mean he's going to tumble over it when you shoot him. His body reacts to the shot naturally. See that big chunk of metal? Throw it into the water and it'll splash and sink. Throw a piece of wood (or other buoyant material) in the same place and it'll splash and then float, bouncing around realistically. Cinderblocks can be used to turn a teetering board into a solid ramp. Nearly everything in the game is "physics enabled" as it were, and the result is immersion unlike any other game has achieved. Many games have licensed the Havok physics engine, but Valve has absolutely nailed the implementation.

The levels – it's rather unfair to call these levels since it's really once continuous world with the occasional load point – vary in their goals and styles as well. As soon as you start feeling tired of one style of play, another smoothly creeps in. There are snipe hunts, vehicles, all-out brawls, team fights, and much more. The puzzles (and yes, there are a few jumping puzzles, but nothing like the Xen levels from the original) are wildly creative, usually involving things you'd think of in real life but not in a game. Most FPS games involve switches, keys, a certain item, etc. In Half-Life 2, physics is your friend. Low on ammo and there are a lot of enemies? Throw an explosive barrel (or any barrel for that matter) at them. Is there a spinning blade trap in the middle of the room? Lurk beside it to draw less intelligent enemies near, and let the decapitations begin. Is there a giant door you can't open? Get in a massive crane, then pick up a cargo container and slam it into the door. Voila! It's breathtaking stuff.

The enemies include both familiar foes from Half-Life (headcrabs!) and plenty of new challenges. While the requisite CPs (Combine Police) are abundant, there are also sand crabs, tripod mounted turrets, SS-like guards, and more. Most imposing are the Striders. These giant, three-legged machines are the AT-ATs of the Half-Life 2 world. There are only a few weapons that take these things out; if you don't have one, you'd better play a good game of hide-and-seek. Happily, most of the enemy AI is competent. The sentient enemies take cover, call for backup, lob grenades, and even make the occasional mistake. It's not revolutionary, but like the rest of the game, it's plausible and well implemented. Also, know that some of the really irritating enemies will eventually come under your control. Retribution is sweet.

As a whole, the single-player game is exactly what anyone would want. At around 15-20 hours long, it's fully satisfying, and the interactive environments alone are worth the price of admission. This, like the original, is currently the high-water mark for other games of its ilk. It's not frustratingly difficult, it's not stupidly easy – it's the just-right porridge. But, like most FPS games today, the longevity lies in the multiplayer.

Taking It To The Streets

For some, the multiplayer that shipped with Half-Life 2 will be a letdown. I'll admit upfront that I'm not a fan. What Valve has done is recreate Counter-Strike in the Source engine. In fact, it's made up of the same maps that have been around since Counter-Strike became a reality back in 1999 or so. Sure, there are a few tweaks here and there, but it's nothing new. In reality, no one can blame Valve for doing this. To this day, Counter-Strike is by far the most popular online shooter and, being pragmatic, there's no reason to fix what isn't broken.

However, as of this writing, Valve has released a deathmatch mode for Half-Life 2. While deathmatch is certainly nothing new to the multiplayer community, there's something special about picking up a toilet and killing someone with it. It comes complete with a special icon in the chat scroll (player1 [toilet icon] player2). It's a small stroke of genius.

For those that share my view of Counter-Strike, rest assured that Valve has released a complete SDK and map-making tools for the Source engine. Counter-Strike started out as a mod. This means that, within time, we will have all the familiar multiplayer twists as well as complete new campaigns and total conversions (but hopefully not another Gunman Chronicles). If this were a brand new game without a following, that would be stretching things thin. But this is Half-Life 2. It will happen.

The G-Man Says...

I feel as though I've only barely touched the surface of this game. I didn't mention the weapons (the Gravity Gun allows you to manipulate and hurl objects from afar). I didn't mention plot twists. I didn't mention the crazy situations you get yourself in and out of. I didn't mention a lot, because it's best left unsaid. This is a game that is best experienced rather than described. It's like trying to describe Blade Runner or Minority Report to someone. You're better off just experiencing it.

The end of the game is so open-ended, it's just begging for a sequel. Expect the code to be stolen in 2009 and for Half-Life 3 to release sometime in 2010. I'll be waiting.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on December 12, 2004 4:30 PM.

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