Half-Life 2

Review

posted 11/22/2004 by Charles Husemann
other articles by Charles Husemann
First off, I'd like to thank the executives who thought it would be a good idea to release Halo 2 and Half-Life 2 within a week of each other. Some of us have "real" jobs which require us to be away from our consoles/PC's for up to 10 hours a day. This frustration is compounded when you get instant messages at work from your hardware editor talking about how he took the afternoon off to play a game and how awesome it is and how you suck because you didn’t do the same. I can forgive John for rubbing it in though since he is the one who hooked me up with one of the ATI coupons for a free copy of the game.

Saying that I've been looking forward to Half-Life 2 would be an understatement. Like 96% of the PC FPS crowd, I was huge fan of the original so when the sequel was announced I was giddy like R. Kelly at a Girl Scout convention. Sure, I had questions about the relevance of the game after all of the delays, I even wrote an article about the subject.

By now, we know the saga of the game. A surprise announcement before the 2003 E3 show and the announced release date of September 30th, 2003 came and went. Then the leak of the source code, and further delays while Valve finished up and polished the game. Luckily, those who had the afore mentioned coupons or pre-ordered the game through Valve’s online distribution system, Steam, were allowed to get a taste of the game through the multiplayer component, Counterstrike: Source. All this did whet the appetite for fans about the upcoming release date of November 16th.

November 16th finally rolled around and my copy of the game was unlocked. For some reason, my cognitive mind forgot about the release of the game due to a cold. But on the morning of the release, a weird thing happened. My subconscious (inner Gordon?) actually woke me up early for work, tearing me away from Angelina Jolie Dream #120 (this is the one where I come downstairs to find her playing Halo 2 naked). With over two hours to get to work, my mind compelled me to skip going into work early and just log into the computer to get a jump on e-mail for the day. As soon as I hit the power button, the switch flipped and I realized what was now waiting for me on my hard drive. Luckily, I was able to pry myself away from the computer a half hour later but it wasn’t easy as Half-Life 2 is easily as good if not better than the original.

The game takes place an undetermined number of years after the events of the first game. You start the game off on a train headed into the mysterious City 17. A city under the control of the Combine and headed by Dr. Bleen. Dr. Bleen was the administrator of the Black Mesa project from the first game and he’s now the overlord of the city. The city has an eastern European flavor but you’re never really told where the city is. It’s ruled with an iron fist and Combine soldiers are everywhere keeping the people under tight control. Early on in the game, as you’re exploring the city, you’re forced to pick up garbage by one of the carbine soldiers. This does two things. One, it introduces players to the physics engine in the game while promoting the story of the game. This is just the first of such perfect moments in the game.

One of the big features of Half-Life 2 is the inclusion of the Havok 2.0 Physics engine. While it would have been fairly unique had it met the original release date, since then several games have included realistic physics as part of the package (Painkiller,Far Cry, and Second Sight are three examples) but in each of these games the physics was more of gloss rather than an integral part of the game. Half-Life 2 makes the physics engine a core part of the game by integrating it completely into the game. This means you’ll be solving a lot of puzzles by moving things around and stacking things. How will you be doing this? By using possibly the best weapon ever put into a game, the gravity gun.

The gravity gun is pure simplicity, by primary fire pushing things away while the alternate fire pulls them toward you/picks them up. You can pick up almost everything in the game (large objects and enemies can not though) and then hurl it at your enemies or be used to access different parts of the map. It’s a real joy to be able to pick up and throw barrels at your enemies…especially the explosive ones. Of course, it wouldn’t be a lot of fun if it was just barrels as you can also use the gravity gun on chairs, boxes, saw blades, tables, desks, wooden planks, pallets, paint buckets, and all manner of things. This allows you to do all kinds of interesting things like creating barricades, accessing parts of the map that you normally can’t get to, and even re-decorate parts of the map (paint cans splatter when they hit a wall). What makes this stand out is that there are times when you can do things that Valve probably didn’t expect you to do or situations where you can work your way around certain puzzles. This lends a different feel to the game.

The rest of the weapons in the game are fairly typical. You have the genre standard machine guns, shotgun, grenades, and crossbow (sniper rifle). The iconic crowbar from the first game returns and serves as your melee weapon (and opener of crates). For one level of the game you get to use the bugbait weapon (or as I call it the “stress ball of doom”). Basically, it allows you to summon a group of Ant Lions (primary fire) or send them to an area to attack (alternate fire). The Ant Lions do a nice job of killing everything in the area as well as serving as advance scouts. Since you get an unlimited number of the little guys, you’ll never feel too guilty about sending them into a room full of sentry guns. It’s a good mix of weapons and while it doesn’t sound like a lot of weapons the sheer variety of what you can do with the gravity gun makes the assortment of weapons work.

The game play is your standard FPS fare turned all the way up to 11. While there is a lot of your typical running and shooting, you have the cool physics puzzles as well as some truly special set pieces. Half-Life 2 really does feel like an interactive movie and you get a sense that there is a lot going on around you. The plot eventually does come down to you saving the world but there are moments where you do feel that there is a massive war going on around you. The game does a great job of switching modes on you as well as you’ll go from fighting the combines in the sewers, to tackling zombies in a burned out city, to close quarters combat in the middle of an uprising. While there are some levels that are a little longer than necessary (especially the hover boat level early on in the game), for the most part, the game changes enough to keep you interested in the game.

Another new game play addition is the inclusion of drivable vehicles in the game. During the course of the game, you will get to drive two different vehicles. The vehicles are a nice addition to the game and during the vehicle missions you will have to get out of the vehicle to either clear the way to take care of some Combine forces. Some of them are optional and the vehicles do add a lot to the game (it is a lot of fun to run over Combine soldiers)

Half-Life 2 is simply a beautiful game to play. The environments are mesmerizing and while they aren’t as lush as the environments in Far Cry the game is simply amazing to look at. The broken down jail level and the city levels are just dripping with atmosphere. The place looks well lived in and run down which further enhances the feel of the game. Another big innovation in the game is the character models. The level of facial details in the models is startling and almost scary in some instances. Everything from the lip syncing to the eyes represent a new level of realism in the industry.

The in game sounds match the excellence in the graphics. Valve brought a lot of the sounds over from the original game but the new sounds in the game deserve special mention. The sounds of the Combine solders are excellent. From the chatter between soldiers to the radio squawk when they are sent to the digital maker, it’s hard to imagine better sounds. The best sound in the game though has to be when you dispatch one of the large Striders toward the end of the game. Maybe that’s just because it’s a pain to take them out but the sound is just so other worldly

Music is used sparingly in the game but when you do hear it, it fits perfectly into the scene. There’s none of the brazen heavy metal chords or orchestral strings from Halo 2 but more of an electronic music that gets the pulse racing.

My quibbles with the game are minor. There is an acknowledged problem with the game that will cause the sound to stutter at points in the game (mostly right after a level loads). Another issue is that level loading tends to break up the game play a bit. It’s not a big deal and de-fragging your hard drive will help the problem a bit. There is a plot to the game but it’s not explicitly stated within the game. Rather, you’re fed bits of it by the characters in the game. This makes it easy to miss things and given the looseness of the plot if you miss something you’re hosed.

Overall, Half-Life 2 is one of the best FPS games I’ve ever played and I was really disappointed when I finished the game. Was it because the ending sucked? No it was because there wasn’t any more game to play. If that’s not a testament to a great game, then I don’t know what is.




A
Simply the best FPS experience on the market. The mood, atmosphere, and graphics are perfect. Finally, a game that lives up to most of its hype.