9.8

Half-Life 2 review
One Man on a Crusade

The good:

- Unbelievable visuals.
- Awesome level design.
- Excellent sense of realism, urgency and tension.
- Gripping music adds to the experience.
- Adaptive graphics engine that allows less powerful PC owners to play.

The bad:

- Lacking story that could have been explained a lot better.
- Mediocre performance of Steam on launch day that should have been foreseen and prepared for.

Summary:

If there's one thing you should never do when producing a form of entertainment, should it be a movie or a game – never set the standards so high for yourself that you can't easily outdo it when you come to making a sequel. If there's one game developer that broke that rule, it was Valve. They gave us Half Life oh so many moons ago, a game of its time that set new standards in the genre of first person shooter, creating endless possibilities and opening the door to adventurous level design and exploration. Gone were the linear outcomes of such games as iD Software's Doom and Wolfenstein, where you killed everything in your path and followed a relatively simple track to the end. Half Life introduced many new concepts, such as puzzles, scripted cinematic events and superior AI. The game developed a massive following, became critically acclaimed and collected an obscene amount of awards from virtually every games magazine and website in existence.

So, when it came to sequel time, it looked like Valve had set the bar far too high for themselves. There could be no possible way for them to produce another game that would be regarded as better than its predecessor. Perhaps, but Valve have always been about setting new standards and defying laws of restraint. Half Life 2 does crush its older brother, quite spectacularly infact, even if it is years late. With all the money Gabe Newell has, it really confuses me how he can't afford a firewall or some sort of decent security to stop his files being stolen, but hackers managed to nab an unfinished copy of the game and the release schedule just went to the dogs.

Regardless, it's now here, so the question everyone's asking is the same as for any other release, is the damn game any good? I've spent a weekend back in the biosuit of Gordon Freeman (as Gordon of course, not in it with him) and I have some mixed feelings towards certain aspects of the sequel. As mentioned, you once again play the surviving scientist from the Black Mesa disaster that the first game was based around, Gordon Freeman. In Half Life 2, you visit City 17, a huge technologically advanced glimpse into the future, under the control of an alien dictatorship known as the Combines. Valve neglect to explain Gordon's reason for his presence in this city, unless the rather poor introduction from the mysterious G-Man is supposed to do this and I failed to pick it up. Where the first game paints the perfect picture of you starting work at the experimental Black Mesa facility, the sequel just discards you on a train coming into station at City 17 with little explanation to your purpose.

Fortunately, where lack of detail threatens to dampen the experience, Valve's superior scripting saves the day and players are thrust into the daily life of the controlled city, as menacing guards herd you through security stations. One guard in particular even manages to teach you game mechanics, as he tosses a can on the ground in front of you and demands that you pick it up and replace it in the trash canister. It's at this point that a brand new concept is introduced. The ability to pick up and throw objects, something which is used to great effect throughout the game. You can now target any sort of moveable object, such as a crate, tin can, piece of masonry or steel bar and then throw it or simply place it gently down in another location. If you've played Deus Ex before, you'll recognise the concept, but not the way Valve produce it. Their physics engine for handling this is nothing short of amazing and definitely credit to explaining what the *bleep* they've been doing all these years in producing the sequel. Lift a plank of wood at one end and it behaves exactly like its real world counterpart. Turn and collide with a pillar, and it also turns. Continue to revolve and you drop it since it cannot pass through the pillar. Drop it upright, and it slowly tips over and picks up speed as it careers towards the ground, clattering to rest on the floor.

You soon meet up with an old friend from the first game, namely Barney, the friendly security guard from Black Mesa who assisted you in many firefights against the hordes of Marines and facehuggers. Before you've time to settle down and talk about old times, you're propelled forward by the game's frantic story. There's no time to admire Valve's stunning scenery and setpieces, as Barney instructs you to leap from the window in the next room into the alleyway below, and so your adventure begins. Some gentle exploration finds you meeting up with resistance fighters hiding out in an abandoned apartment, but before they too have time to help you, Combine troops raid it and you're thrown into panic as you flee to the roof and across the rooftops. You later meet up with Alyx, daughter of Dr Eli from the first game, who takes you to meet her father. Thanks to some teleportation problems that'll have veterans of the series simultaneously screaming and sighing familiarity, you're transported to the wrong location and must make your way out of city limits alone to hook up with your friends.

It's at this point that Half Life 2 really starts gaining pace. There's no lie in saying that the initial levels are somewhat boring. I found myself following the game's path but feeling little interest or attachment to any characters I encountered, and I didn't really feel at all compelled to following this latest chapter in Gordon's story. That was until I was pleasantly surprised by a female resistance fighter, who insisted I had to take an airboat to escape my current confines, in the aptly titled level, Water Hazards. Control of a vehicle is something totally brand new to fans of the game, since the most vehicle control they enjoyed previously was a forward and back control for a one way train. You can control the airboat using the same controls you use for Gordon, with the same effect. The mouse allows freedom of view, allowing you to drive forwards and look out behind you at the turbine engines powering the small craft, for the ultimate in suicidal experiences. The boat moves at exhilarating speeds, and you're unrestricted by fickle elements such as boat health/condition, as you explore the toxic, polluted waterways that highlight the rundown condition of City 17's outer limits.

Later stages find you taking command of a small beach buggy to make your way down coast to a Combine-run facility, in order to rescue Alyx's captured father from imprisonment. This journey is probably one of the most enjoyable parts of the story, because it's here where you can really see Valve's designers letting their imaginations run riot. An example is at one sweeping bend in the road, where Combine forces have stopped off. Pulling in here, you engage the troops and explore the house to find you've just wasted 20-25 minutes of your life on a totally irrelevant part of the game. You could just as easily have driven on past to the next mission orientated part of the journey. I find this sort of addition really nice, because it really disguises how linear Gordon's journey through the entire Half Life 2 world is. Certainly, it's not linear to the point of three locked doors and only one opens. You can easily get trapped or confused as to where to go or what to do next, but no one environment had me scratching my head for more than 20 minutes. Is this a bad thing? Not at all. Half Life 2 is the type of game that dictates and requires compacted levels, filled with excitement, adrenalin fuelled experiences and enjoyment.

Events that don't even concern the player are back. Remember being open jawed as you stared through the safety glass at the two scientists taking their wounded colleague away on a stretcher in the first game? Forget that, that was a cartoon compared to what Half Life 2 contains. From the previously mentioned moment when a Combine soldier uses his baton to throw a can on the floor, to the frantic firefights between the resistance movement and Combine troops, you'll feel like you're part of a movie from start to finish. Iron staircases suddenly give way to your weight and cause you to fall to your doom. Concrete floors burst open and give birth to hideous ant creatures that chase you relentlessly. I found myself at one stage blocked by a massive spinning ventilation fan that most definitely would have diced me into a million bits if I'd tried to get through it, but a look around the room revealed a discarded shovel. Imagination dictates that you could stick it into the fan and stop, a la every movie you've ever seen with a ventilation fan, but surely this wouldn't happen in a game, right? That's what I thought, but *bleep* it, nothing wrong with experimentation. I lifted the shovel and cautiously approached the spinning blades. It chopped at the shovel, emitting sparks as I fed it in, and next thing, to my horror and amazement, the shovel was whipped out of my hand into the blades, jamming itself in the mechanics and bringing the blades to a violent stop, allowing me to dart through the created opening. At every turn, through every door and over every bridge, you'd have to be blind and deaf to avoid seeing and feeling Valve's passion in developing this title.

One of the most amazing experiences I had in the game was probably when Alyx takes you to part of her father's base to show you a new weapon the resistance has developed. Marketing for the game promote this weapon as a major selling factor for the game as well, and it's hard not to see why. The weapon in question is of course the dual function Gravity Gun. The left mouse button emits a single close range pulse, allowing you to propel moveable objects of any weight a short distance away. Holding the right mouse button down and targeting a distant object allows you to draw it over to you and as it gets closer, lift it off the ground and take hold of it, grasping it in the powerful gravity beam of the gun. You can then launch the item with the left mouse button, or simply place it gently on the floor with the right mouse button again. The area this gun is introduced in, is simply stunning. Alyx brings you to an open caved area, where she switches on a terrifying mechanical beast, subtly titled "Dog". Dog listens to Alyx's commands and throws items for you to catch in the Gravity Gun's traction beams, as well as a reverse method where you launch mechanical balls for the beast to fetch. It's this sequence of the game that really had me open jawed and enjoying the game at its full potential. The way Dog moves and interacts with you is simply breathtaking and a shocking sign of where game development is headed in the future. If that's not enough, you're blown away, as minutes later, Combine troops attack the facility and you're forced to flee with Dog. You encounter a locked door, but before you alter your route, the gigantic Dog stoops and lifts it up enough for you to squeeze under and drops it again. You both stare at each other and he runs off into the darkness to rejoin Alyx, leaving you alone once more. I seriously was at an alltime gaming high at that moment. It redefines everything you've ever experienced from a gaming perspective.

Just when I mention Dog, it's worth mentioning the AI. Is it me, or does anyone agree that the AI in Half Life 2 is slightly LESS challenging than the first game? I couldn't help noticing a reduction in the menace and aggression the enemies exert. Half Life is renowned for the levels which feature the Government Marines, who sweep the Black Mesa facility relentlessly, looking for the fugitive Freeman. Half Life 2 features endless amounts of Combine soldiers, but they seem to pale in comparison to their predecessors. Yes, they are tactical, from their chilling radio messages to each other that warn you of their approach as they clatter down the hall in their military boots, sweeping the rooms in strategic formation and taking cover when you open fire, but they just seem to be a minor inconvenience compared to the furious fighting I sometimes had to display in order to escape the clutches of the Marines. All is not lost however, since the success of the sequel is not precariously balanced on the intelligence of the faceless Combines. The aliens return in force again once more, from the pale colored headcrabs, to the new rapidly pursuing mawmen, a vicious spider-like race that leaps and climbs to any height in pursuit of Gordon, so no area is safe. One stunning part sees you trapped on a rooftop waiting for a Reverend to send across a lift, as mawmen climb the drainpipes to try and kill you. I must have emptied nearly every gun I had in my first encounter with them. They are ridiculously terrifying when you first meet them, but they're quite easy to kill once you get used to how they move. More weird and wonderful variation comes in the Ant Lion, a mobile form of Kevin Bacon's worst nightmare, the Tremor. They tunnel through the ground and appear wherever you are before tearing you to bits in their hunting packs of 4-6. Later, you gain them as a powerful ally, using their pheromones as a weapon to direct them against hordes of Combine troops. Hitting a combine soldier with a small pouch of pheromone causes the Ant Lions to leap on him and tear at him as he frantically shoots everywhere trying to get them off him. They're used to great effect in a level titled Sandtraps, a sendup to the Tremors film, which sees you making your way across a desert canyon using the Gravity Gun and discarded scrap metal and rubbish to carve a path. Crazy, you might think, but one foot on the sand causes Ant Lions to burst from below and tear you to pieces in overwhelming numbers. You're given a chilling demonstration of this when you approach two scientists – one screams not to walk on the sand but before he can tell you why, his injured comrade attempts to get up and is torn apart.

At the time of writing, I've just fought my way into and through the Combine controlled facility, Nova Prospekt, so I'm around 75% done but I figured this was as good a time as any to pencil my thoughts on the game. I have to confess, the initial 2-3 hours I spent with Gordon were shit. I thought Half Life 2 was a good enough game, but the attraction/addiction just wasn't there. Across the internet and indeed the world, friends and colleagues were telling me of how good it was, but I couldn't share in their findings, til I got out of City 17, and as I said before, that's where the game goes into overdrive. It just seems to grab you in its flow and wash you down river, hurtling you towards the finale. What that finale is, well, you know as much as me if you haven't played, since I haven't got that far, so obviously Valve could pull a Matrix and turn the entire thing shit in the closing minutes, but it's definitely one of the most thrilling gaming experiences I've ever had, and it was well worth the wait, even if the wait did piss us all off royally. Here's to Half Life 3 and a hope that McAfee or Norton's sales reps contact Gabe Newell soon.

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