Half-Life 2

Review

posted 11/22/2004 by John Yan
other articles by John Yan
So after a year and two week delay from the original announced released date, Half-Life 2 has finally hit the shelves and Steam users. It’s been sitting on my hard drive for months waiting to be unlocked. Is it worth the wait? Does it live up to the hype? Is it the best first person shooter ever? Well, let’s take a closer look.

Before we get into the game, I’ve been reading about many problems with Steam. You cannot play Half-Life 2 without being activated via Steam first and this has caused many headaches with the server being overloaded with requests. I unlocked my copy at 6AM EST the day it was released and didn’t experience any problems. Unlocking the files took about ten minutes on my AMD64 3200+ machine with 512MB of ram. I guess I was one of the lucky ones as some users can’t even play the game with the server situation. It’s unfortunate this process will frustrate many who just want to play a game that’s five years in the making. I hope Valve learns from this experience as even with the long delay in the game’s release, Steam still had issues that shouldn’t have appeared with such a long lead time to release.

Now let’s get to the game. You return to the life of Gordon Freeman, now in the services of the man in blue with the suitcase that haunted you in the first game. From the beginning, you can see how much the graphics have evolved with the close-up of the mysterious stranger. The wrinkles, eyes, liver spots, and imperfections that appear in the model are but a taste at how much the graphics have improved by leaps and bounds. The game starts you out just like in the first one as you ride a train to your destination. In this case, it’s not Black Mesa but City 17. And all Hell’s going to break loose in City 17 because, well, because that just seems to follow Gordon wherever he goes.

You’ll meet up with a few of your friends from the first game. Barney appears early on to escort you to temporary safety. Dr. Vance makes an appearance from the first game along with a new character, his daughter, Alyx Vance. Dr. Alex Kleiner, a new character, looks like one of the Black Mesa scientists that you saw in the first game. The special ops soldiers are now replaced by Combine Soldiers featuring a ghost like gas mask. A few of the original monsters also come back to haunt you. All characters are beautifully modeled in the new Source engine and the level of detail is amazing. Combined with rich textures, the models that make a return in Half-Life 2 are amazingly articulate and the lifelike movements create virtual actors that are very convincing.

A big part of what makes Half-Life 2 immersive is the interaction with characters and how they move and react. The facial animation technology really needs seen to be believed and generates very believable and realistic reactions. One thing Valve has always done well was try to create realistic virtual actors via actions and reactions. Valve’s Source engine delivers in spades on having lifelike characters. Watching Alyx react to news and conversing with her father was like watching a movie. The range of emotions displayed by Alyx from surprise to anger throughout the game provide characters that you can relate to, perhaps giving them a more human element. They definitely aren’t portrayed is unemotional robots anymore. Remember in Half-Life right after things went to Hell and you saw Dr. Vance consoling with one of the scientist? Remember seeing the characters play off of each other with their primitive movements and emotional reactions? Now, take that scene and multiply the complexity of the expressions by about 100 and you’d get what makes the characters in Half-Life 2 so astounding.


The high quality animation spreads to the enemy as well. Seeing the hoverships move in an almost animalistic style with the bending and weaving of the tail rotor is an impressive sight. The Combine Soldiers move in groups with their guns held in sight and also throws up hand signals to their squadmates. Watch the Striders’ legs bend and move with an insect-like movement. I’d get into how Dog is but I’m trying to keep this review spoiler free but I’m sure you’ll enjoy the way it moves as well. The ragdoll physics that are prominent in a lot of games today show up here as you knock soldiers over obstacles and see their body flail and fall with a sickening thud. Half-Life had great animation but the second game takes it a few steps further.

AI in Half-Life 2 is pretty good for the most part. Combine soldiers will work in teams and they will try to flush you out with grenades. When they feel threatened some will try to fall back to a better position while firing at you. During the level where you can control up to four squadmates on where they go, they do a good job of shooting down the enemy and trying to stay out of your way. Their path finding can be a little sketchy at time but for the most part they will follow you everywhere you go.

Most of the original weapons make their appearance in the new game. The submachine gun returns as one of the favorites with the alt-fire of firing a grenade. No zoom is available on the magnum though. The two weapons that really make the game are the grav gun and the ant lion bugbait. Valve’s design makes full use of the grav gun as you’ll be using in all sorts of situations. You can use it to sling saw blades at oncoming zombies. You’ll use it to solve puzzles. You can even use it as a defensive purpose by picking up and chucking grenades back at the enemy. It’s not a stretch to say the grav gun is the star of the game and with that the physics engine and the deeper you get into the game, the more the grav gun shines. The bugbait is a ton of fun and sending ant lions to the enemy is a very satisfying site to behold.

Ahh yes, the physics engine. You’ve seen it in Max Payne 2 and others but Half-Life 2 really takes it a step further. Everything has physics and reacts to anything in the environment. You can shoot a barrel with the grav gun to take out a plank which falls down and hits a box which topples over a few ledgers and so on. Near the beginning, there’s a good demonstration of physics engine at work. There’s a playground with working swings and merry-go-round. You can push the swing, jump on, and act like a grade schooler swinging back and forth. Hop on the merry-go-round and take it for a spin. It’s all possible with the Havok physics engine in place. Throughout the game you’ll encounter many puzzles that involve some sort of physics based solution. It does give you some good variety instead of always running and gunning enemies.

Interacting with the environment is a big feature for Half-Life 2 You can pick up almost anything in the game whether by hand or by the grav gun provided it’s not too heavy. You see a milk carton on the ground? Go ahead and pick it up. Throw it at someone if you wish. Push the coke machine and grab a drink. If there are a few planks of wood on the ground in your way, you can pick them up and place them somewhere else. Once you do have something in hand, your weapon is holstered and you can’t run. You can even pull a working TV out of the socket and watch it go black. All this and more make for a very immersive experience and really makes you feel like you are in a living, breathing world.


The Source engine also has a lot of other little subtle touches that create realistic environments. For example, there are a few spots with a magnifying glass and you’ll actually see any object or person that passes by it magnified. The water effect is amazing and creates a realistic distortion of images if you are looking down into it our out from under it. Energy shields emit a cool blue force field while some of the other ones create this really awesome distorted, yet translucent field. Metal objects create sparks when dragged against surfaces. The lighting, while not up to Doom 3 standards, still generates some great scenes. To me, it seems the Source engine does a lot of the little things that make up a living world well.

A problem I had with Doom 3 was the lack of variety as you go further into the game. It was mostly running in dark areas and fighting aliens in cramped quarters. Half-Life 2 does a great job at mixing up different types of game play giving you a varied gaming experience. Like an action movie, you’ll go through periods of intense action and then be able to grab a breather with some plot movement pieces. You’ll fight in vast, open areas, cramped quarters, and everything in between. You’ll partake in vehicle chases and solve puzzles that take something other than violence. And there’s even some variation in theme. The game doesn’t just stick to the science fiction genre but branches out into the horror and suspense arena as well. It’s the successful conglomeration of variables in gameplay and environment that makes Half-Life 2 a very enjoyable experience.

Valve’s design of the missions spans various genres and types. In the first game, it worked well until about the last third where I thought the alien missions and ending was a bit annoying. In Half-Life 2, the missions are presented a lot better. While some are a tad bit longer than what I liked, such as the airboat, most work really, really well. And this time around, the end level does not disappoint. I won’t say anything here as to spoil it for anyone that hasn’t played the game but the last level is definitely a winner. Like the original game, there aren't any end levels as the game incorporates a continuous level load process. It does take some time between transitions to load but not too bad considering how much information is needed to be loaded for each section.

As you progress through the game, you’ll recognize some of the influences in movies that the designers drew on. Some parts Starship Troopers, a heavy helping of the Matrix, a dash of Night of the Living Dead, a pinch of Aliens Special Edition, and perhaps a bit of Monster’s Inc in there as well. There are plenty of movie references that you’ll easily compare the sequence to.

It’s hard not to see that a lot of work went into the design of each level. The artists and level designers at Valve should be commended for providing a rich and realistic environment to play in. There are a few times I’d stand and stare at the way the buildings are created or how detailed the destroyed parts of the city are modeled. Many polygons are used to depict the various levels you will be playing through and you can tell the level designers spent many, many hours to product some realistic environments. Because of the attention to detail, I did find myself stuck in a few areas that took a few jumps and finagling to get out of.


The levels aren’t anything without great artists and Valve has some good ones there. It’s the combination of design and great looking textures that make the levels in the game stand out. Nothing seemed out of place and all the textures meshed well together giving a very realistic looking world. The quality of textures extends to the characters as I mentioned earlier and Valve’s artists are a top notch talent to be able to pull of some great looking visuals.

Fans of the original will recognize a lot of the weapons and interface sounds. Many have been reused but there are plenty of new audio and they are really well done. The voice acting features some B-list actors such as Robert Culp and Benson himself, Robert Guillaume. Even Mr. Iron Eagle himself, Louis Gossett Jr, takes a turn and perhaps drawing on his roots as the alien in Enemy Mine to deliver the voice for the alien, Vortigaunt, in the game. Fans of Star Trek Next Generation or 24 will recognize the voice of Alyx. While not top notch actors, they all do a good job of voice work in the game.

Yes, there’s no Half-Life 2 multiplayer with the HL2 weapons. Counterstrike Source is the included multiplayer option and while it’s a great game with the updated graphics and physics, I am disappointed at the lack of regular multiplayer game. Half-Life’s multiplayer was one of my favorites with some great weapons and they have some great weapons in Half-Life 2 that I would’ve loved to use in deathmatch.

If you happen to pick up one of the plans that includes Half-Life: Source, then you might be disappointed to learn that nothing substantial has been added to the original game. Yes, there are some new effects such as the water but for the most part the graphics look the same. I would've loved too have seen all new graphics and textures to improve the original's look but you get almost a carbon copy of the original game using the new engine. From a programmer's perspective, I do find the port to the new engine to be pretty cool and for them to refactor the game to use the new engine must've been a great accomplishment for the programming team.

I did experience a lot of crashing in this game and it was at random points. I have a pretty clean setup too as I just recently re-installed the OS and updated all the drivers. Nevertheless, I had a good bit of hard crashes to the desktop that I went about saving more often than not. It’s a good thing the game does automatically save before and after key points or otherwise I’d be one very unhappy customer. Also there is some stuttering I did find and this is on medium detail at 1024x768 with my AMD64 3200+ machine with an ATI Radeon X800 XT card but not enough to really hinder the game. It doesn’t happen when a lot of action is going on either so I don’t know what it could be.

Half-Life 2 is an example of a great merging of technology and gameplay. The Source engine is on full display and it’s scary to think of what can come out of this from other developers leveraging the technology. The game is damn fun to play and offers an engrossing and engaging single player experience. I didn’t find myself bored or the game being monotonous even with the few levels that do draw out a bit. It’s been a long wait but well worth it. Half-Life took the world by storm when it first came out and Half-Life 2 has the potential to do it again. Kudos to Valve for putting out a fun game that pushes the bar again.





A-
It's a crowning achievement for Valve and one game that I thoroughly enjoyed. A few problems do exist such as the crashing and minor engine quirks. All in all, a wonderful PC game and one that fans of the original will love.