Half-Life 2 review
Nothing Short of a Masterpiece

The good:

-Everything that isn't a loading screen

The bad:

-Loading Screens


“So wake up Mister Freeman… wake up and smell the ashes”
As those final words leave the G-Man’s lips you know you’re in for one heck of a game. Half Life 2 is a First-Person Shooter although with the amount of times it effectively kicks the general standards of the genre in the balls and proceeds to dance around them makes you wonder whether it’s really in a genre of its own. Either way Valve’s sequel to the original Half Life; a groundbreaking title that outright redefined it’s genre and the gaming industry as a whole would have to be something truly mind-blowing to top the original game. Packing the newly developed Source Engine (Well newly developed at the time anyway) Half Life 2 set out to redefine the industry once more, and there’s certainly no denying that it succeeded. Looking back over 5 years later, was Half Life 2 really as good as it was revolutionary?

The game kicks off with a rather surreal opening sequence featuring the G-Man talking to our protagonist Gordon Freeman in a way that could probably creep out even the toughest gamers. Following on from the events of the original Half Life the G-Man has employed Gordon and presumably placed him in some inter-dimensional stasis or something along the lines, the G-Man’s powers are never really touched upon enough to understand exactly what it is he does. Either way as the G-Man so rightfully puts it Gordon’s time has come once again, and so it is time for us to take up crowbar once again and rabidly beat things to death. Following the scene Gordon is transported to planet Earth some 20 years after the events of Half Life, and quickly discovers that the impact of the Black Mesa Incident has finally come through in full force. Portals all around earth have opened up enabling many alien species to invade and also attracted the attention of the Combine; an empire consisting of several different species that dominate planets and enslave the populations. With earth now under Combine control Doctor Freeman finds himself in City 17; the center of their empire and home of the Citadel; the Combine home base of operations. Before Freeman find himself in any serious trouble he runs into some of his old allies from Black Mesa including Dr. Kleiner and the newly introduced Alyx Vance; daughter of Doctor Eli Vance from the original Half Life. After a bit of chit chat and Gordon getting a hold of his infamous HEV Suit, providing him with enhanced abilities and resilience to damage as well as environmental hazards Kleiner attempts to have Alyx and Gordon teleported to Black Mesa East, the headquarters of the resistance against the Combine. Unfortunately things go wrong and Gordon finds himself outside Kleiner’s lab with the whole of City 17 on red alert. Having nothing on hand but a crowbar, Gordon is forced to make his way through the canals in an attempt to escape the Combine.

The Headcrab Zombie wasn't best pleased about the fact he was on fire.

Half Life 2 has a storyline that pretty much stands at the top of industry. Every character apart from Gordon himself go through impressive development, and the sheer design of the environments and setting is truly unsurpassed. Whether you be exploring the desolate town of Ravenholm or racing through the canals of City 17 on an airboat you quickly find yourself with your mind simply blown by it. The twists throughout the story, the gripping narrative and the truly superb way in which the settings tell their own tales and add to the overall plot is immense. No manner in which it can be described can truly do the story of Half Life 2 justice; it’s simply something that HAS to be experienced to understand how brilliant it is. However while the story itself may truly be fantastic, at times you can’t help but question certain elements of it. Half Life has always been rather surreal in it’s storytelling and it really shows here, often you’ll never truly grasp the story of Half Life 2 until you’ve played it several times, examined every detail and looked up anything you didn’t grasp. Even so the sheer magnitude of the tale and the way you find yourself immersed into the story are easily at the top of the gaming industry.

Moving onto the aesthetic elements of Half Life 2, the Source Engine enables for some pretty high-end graphics, or at least high-end for the time the game came out. Even by today’s standards Half Life 2 still managed to look fantastic, mostly due to its superb set pieces. Not one environment in Half Life 2 fails to either look downright amazing, or at the least be incredibly atmospheric. The art direction also exceeds the graphic fidelity, at times Half Life 2 could be best described as the result of placing The War of the Worlds, The Matrix, Starship Troopers and Aliens into a blender, the designs of the characters, the varying wild life and the various areas of Half Life 2 are all superb. The sheer variation in the environments also adds to the appeal of the game, you go from the canals of a polluted city to a desolate town ravaged by parasite and the find yourself racing along the coast in a buggy. There’s simply no end to the impressive design of Half Life 2, every area you explore feels and looks exactly as they should, if not several times better.

I seriously will kick your ass with this Crowbar. Just you watch me.

Now as far as the audio goes Half Life 2 once again succeeds at standing among the best of the best. The soundtrack in Half Life 2 is nothing short of mind-blowing, whether it be the dark and tense music that plays along in the background as you explore the terrifying homes of Ravenholm, or the intense rock that rages in your ears as you face off against squads of Combine soldiers, or even the brilliant use of silence with music isn’t needed. Half Life 2 doesn’t once trip-up in its masterful use of music to enhance atmosphere. Music isn’t the only thing the game does right either in terms of audio, whether it be the strange sounds of the alien guns or the varying sounds made by your foes you’ll find that the sound effects in Half Life 2 are top notch, and the voice acting is brilliant. A talented cast brings well written characters to life, only furthering the already superb story.

It should go without saying that Half Life 2 is simply flawless in terms of it’s presentation, the story, visuals and sound all tie into each other to create one of the single most atmospheric and downright epic games in the entire industry, Half Life 2 starts off amazingly and it doesn’t falter once in terms of being immensely appealing in it’s artistic design and fantastic storytelling. However amazing presentation cannot carry a game alone.

Excuse me sir, you appear to have something on your head.

When you get into the actual game portion of Half Life 2 you really come to understand why the game is so universally liked. At its core Half Life 2 is vastly different to most games within its’ genre, blending traditional FPS gameplay with puzzle, adventure and stealth, along with a considerably more strategic approach to the way you handle situations. Combat in Half Life 2 offers a immense amount of variation, when taking on the Combine you’ll often have to intelligently make use of your environment and weapons to try and outmatch them, where as the hordes of Headcrab zombies you face will require a more conservative and defensive approach. The vicious Antlions that inhabit the sandy beaches surrounding the coast often force you to run and try to overpower them if possible, and if you’re attempting to take down Combine Gunships with rockets you’ll find yourself trying to dodge bullets while guiding the explosives around their defensive shielding. The environments also play a huge role in this, in more open terrain you’ll have to make good use of what cover you have whilst in more claustrophobic areas you’ll be forced to try and overpower anything that comes at you before you get killed. The sheer variation and the way in which Half Life 2 sends you from one style of fighting to the next is performed masterfully. The weapons in Half Life 2 are also relatively varied, from your typical human weapons like handguns and shotgun to more obscure items like crossbows and alien assault rifles. Unfortunately the weapons are rather unbalanced in terms of power and you’ll often find yourself only using specific weapons, especially in the later stages of he game where not taking down your foes fast will often result in you getting taken down. Thankfully this is somewhat remedied by the game’s most unique device; the Zero Point Energy Manipulator of Gravity Gun as it’s also called. He handy device can pull objects towards it and fire them away, effectively turning your very environment into a weapon as well as bringing in varying puzzles elements of the game.

As I said before Half Life 2 isn’t merely a typical FPS and this is attributed to the Source engine’s very impressive physics. There are many instances in Half Life 2 where you’ll be using the Gravity Gun to manipulate objects around you, generally to complete puzzles based around the very physics the game excels at. From using the weight of bricks to left a plank of wood to a certain angle, to using the wreckage of beached ships to cross a dried up sea bed without touching the sands which would otherwise alert hordes of Antlions to your presence, it quickly becomes apparent that Half Life 2 has some very innovative situations throughout, many of which are simply incredible in their design where as others are astounding in their simplicity. The puzzles aren’t the only thing that sets Half Life 2 apart from the pack; the well executed driving sections are done amazingly as well. Many FPS merely use vehicles as weapons, where as in Half Life 2 you’re actually using them to cover vast amounts of terrain and you often can genuinely feel the progress you’re making. It doesn’t matter if you’re racing through the canals of City 17 or the Antlion infested coast; never once do the vehicle-based stages in Half Life 2 fail to impress both in their atmosphere and design. The controls for the vehicles do take a bit of getting used to though, and although they were fine when you’ve adjusted you may find them challenging to get used to at first. Half Life 2 doesn’t stop there either, one section of the game has you leading a squad of Antlions using some bug bait and having them assists you in an assault on a high security prison. How many games can you name that let you take on alien forces with a squad of man sized insects at your side? Whether you're stalking about Ravenholm dropping cars on Headcrab Zombies in a stage that puts most Horror games to shame in terms of fear factor, or breaking into prisons and setting Antlions upon the Combine there's never a dull moment in Hald Life 2. It’s not just the individuality and innovation of these impressive variations that make Half Life 2 special, it’s how it blends them into the traditional gameplay so brilliantly. Many games in a similar vein to Half Life 2 specifically separate these sections, like you have shooting here, puzzles here, shooting here, ect, where as Half Life 2 often makes the transitions seamless and they all tie together into one mind-blowing experience where many other games feeling disconnected when they attempt to blend varying gameplay elements.

The Antlions are here to kick ass and chew on Combine. And they're all out of Combine.

Between a superb story, fantastic presentation and simply incredible gameplay Half Life 2 is practically flawless. No other game merges so many different gameplay elements with a brilliant presentational design into a single seamless experience, the environments and the gameplay bounce off one another to make an incredibly fun game to play with a fantastic use of sound and level design o build unmatched atmosphere. All of this is propelled along by a brilliant storyline that ties into the gameplay itself. Very few games have a story so interconnected with the actual game, in Half Life 2 you actually feel as though your actions are having an effect. The only thing I can fault Half Life 2 on is the loading screens, but given how mind-blowing every other aspect of the game is I can forgive the occasional pauses with the word LOADING in the middle of the screen, although it’s unfortunate given that those small pauses do hurt what would otherwise be the most immersive title ever made.

Half Life 2 isn’t merely a good game, it’s a masterpiece within the video game industry and whilst it certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone, it’s something that has to be experienced if you consider yourself a ‘gamer’ in any shape or form. One of the few games ever created that stands on the edge of been absolutely flawless.

The guy that directed The War of the Worlds really wished he'd patented those tripods now.

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