Half-Life 2 review
One Free Man - One Great Game


There has been a long held idea that first person shooters are primarily multiplayer affairs with a single player included merely for completion sake. Games such as Team Fortress 2 and Call of Duty make this an easy viewpoint to have, with such heavy focus on deathmatch style games allowing for worldwide battles. Sometimes though, we come across a FPS that surprisingly focuses on the single player campaign. Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to Half-Life 2.

Now, anyone who pursues gaming beyond the simple waggle party game collection should at least have a little idea of who Valve are, or even knowing the name of some of their games should be familiar to hear. Half-Life is basically one of their biggest franchises and the second entry in the series has gotten a tremendous amount of praise. What’s surprising is that (mods notwithstanding) the game is purely a single player campaign with no multiplayer in sight and the way it puts that solo play together really puts other FPS games to shame with their “included for the sake of it” campaigns.

Players take control of Gordon Freeman, a scientist who took a level in badass and became known as a powerful adversary to the enemy. The game opens with Gordon mysteriously on a train headed to a detention facility. At this point we know virtually nothing about what is happening but as players guide Gordon around people appear who seem to know him and the events begin to unfold. The world as they know it has been taken over and Gordon is part of a rebel faction trying to fight back against the oppressors.

What may seem a little generic has the delivery going for it. Perhaps not as epic as some 30 hour RPG epic tale but it’s good to see the struggles of the common man against a much larger enemy force as they fight for freedom. Gordon himself is a classic mute protagonist, but the speeches and conversations done by other people help to keep events moving forward when needed. What’s great about that is that the player still has control over Gordon during the story sequences, having them play out in real time as opposed to having everything pre-scripted for them. It gives proceedings an element of control that makes the player a part of the story. However, it is worth noting that the whole background really does have to be pieced together and can easily be missed as you play.

Admittedly, Half-Life 2 doesn’t have the most promising of starts. A lot of that time is spent wandering around to trigger story events, and then when the action kicks off your starting weapon is a crowbar. Yes, when enemy soldiers with rapid fire guns are hunting you they think you’re bad ass enough to take them on with a crowbar. Fortunately, not long after you get an actual gun and the real fun can begin.

The game adheres mostly to the whole “one man army” ideal of FPS games by having Gordon take on hordes of enemies. The most common enemy are the human form Combine soldiers and do tend to demonstrate good AI. They will fire at you from behind cover, strafe along passage openings, take up vantage points to snipe you from above and even will lob grenades if you keep ducked just out of harm’s way. Occasionally you’ll find them doing something stupid, like just standing around in the open while you line up your sights to gun them down, but for the most part they work well. The game also does well to give them good uses so you’ll have to dispatch individual groups sweeping the area or find yourself pinned down as armies infiltrate the place you’re in, forcing you to take cover to fend off the attack.

We don't go to Ravenholm... except for when we do.

As well as the human soldier enemies you’ll find yourself fighting off a whole slew of other threats. Creatures like Antlions and Headcrabs lack the intelligence beyond “attack anything that isn’t us” but are laid around in a fashion to still cause trouble. Antlions are fast predators that can attack without warning. Headcrabs that have taken control of victims are generally slow and weak but tend to crowd you and hide in places. Then when you want to take your rampage up to awesome then you can take on Combine gunships and Striders, blowing them away with explosives.

You'll also find friendly NPCs that will, in some locations, be busy fighting off the enemy too. What I found was a bit mixed. Usually any combat NPCs not under your control will be good, making use of cover and generally not making a nuisance of themselves. However, at one stage you get to command a squad of rebels that is utterly pointless and seems to turn the NPCs into idiots that help the enemy more than they help you. Unfortunately, they have such a tendency to get in your way or get themselves blown up or shot with no due cause. The game tries to offer you a command that lets you tell the squad to "go there" or "follow me". But alas, your squad seems to suffer from short term memory problems, because they never stay in the spot you designated for long before deciding they all need to invade your personal space or dash out of cover into a Strider's line of fire for reasons only the insane would have an understanding of. Thankfully the only NPC deaths that result in a game over are the smart ones you don't directly control.

Gordon gets hold of a nice selection of weapons to fight with beyond the aforementioned crowbar. Most of these should be familiar to fans of the genre, like the handgun, machine gun and shotgun. However, the game also comes with a few standout options that really make the game interesting. The Gravity Gun is the better of the two, allowing you to manipulate objects freely. You can pull objects towards you and blast them away at high speed. Yes, this means you can launch things like barrels, crates and office furniture as weapons of mass destruction. The other weapon is only used in one section but lets you command a group of monsters that were previously your enemy, which is fun when you can tell them to direct fire away from you or to slaughter the enemy while you hide around the corner out of sight. Most weapons also come with some form of secondary fire which is now treated as standard in the genre. The amount of ammunition is generally good. It has a balance where you’re not left totally struggling with good use but doesn’t give you so much as to make it pointless.

Cycling between the weapons is easy. You can tap the number keys to instantly jump to the assigned weapon or use input to cycle between weapon options and pressing fire to confirm, with the display at the top appearing to show the available guns. Aiming is as good as you’d expect a mouse input style to be, with options to adjust the sensitivity of it as needed. In fact, pretty much everything could be customised about the controls as needed. Well, almost. Unfortunately, I’m the kind of person far too used to a control pad layout and, after giving the keyboard and mouse layout a go, decided I was more comfortable with a joypad. However, it didn’t seem possible to change the aiming controls to my joypad’s analogue stick, forcing me to use another program to map the mouse pointer commands to the analogue stick.

Admit it, you're jealous of Gordon's sexy wheels.

Difficulty has some merit to it. This is the kind of game where you’re find the enemy forces difficult without being outright impossible to defeat. However, part of this stems from the fact that even on the easiest setting some encounters can wipe out a large portion of your health very quickly if things don’t go exactly to plan. Thankfully the game has a very generous save system which automatically generates saves at close checkpoints and allows the player to set their own saves as well, literally allowing you to save and load from absolutely anywhere. Kinda handy when you’ve rounded the corner, got filled with holes from a surprise attack and thus allowing you to reload and enter the situation with some knowledge of what is about to happen.

The layout of the environments you explore definitely have the feel of a ruined world that was the loser of a war. Many of the places you’ll visit are crumbling wrecks and this leads to some interesting progression as you make use of makeshift tunnels to avoid enemy detection, slip through cracks in the wall to bypass security measures and use fallen debris to get past obstacles. Of course, this can also lead to the destruction itself forming obstacles to get around and lots of cover to take advantage of when engaged in firefights with the Combine forces.

Much of this is done in a linear fashion where you have few opportunities to really choose which path to take to the next destination but it is solidly structured and at times you will be able to go off the beaten path to find a cache of goodies to pick up or be in more open locations like making your way across an Antlion infested beach. Sometimes this does lead to “where the *bleep* am I supposed to go” moments where the design of the locations doesn’t make it immediately obvious. In one instance your progress is blocked by a forcefield which is shut off by pressing a button on the other side of a bridge you have to cross by using the broken underside beams of it. Except when you press the button there’s no clear indication it’s connected to that force field (or even that you needed to disable that force field in the first place) so it left me lost when I couldn’t progress any further. Still, these moments are somewhat rare.

To give the player a break from the on-foot action there are a couple of vehicle sections, like getting dropped into a buggy equipped with a mounted gun, allowing you to tear along great stretches and knock/gun down anything unfortunate enough to get in your way. The handling in these sections does tend to be quite slippery but it proves to be a fun break from the norm.

Half-Life 2 is one of the most well known games when it comes to mods, with such a large amount of them floating around. Some can be minor, like replacing Alyx with different character models. Others take it to more extremes by using mods to build entirely new experiences. Feel like playing Goldeneye using the Source engine? Go right ahead, just download the mod and have fun. Thanks to this, Half-Life 2 probably has one of the best lifespans around as you can move from one mod to the next. Well, providing you enjoy FPS games that is.

Alyx? Who? Gordon's getting help from Naluri here instead.

Graphically the game does look good. Admittedy it is hard to judge when my PC requires me to turn the settings down low, but even then the game manages to craft post-invasion environments well. There is a grittiness that has since been overused but the theme does fit well as you find yourself wandering through destroyed cities, past abandoned wrecks and dash across sandy wastelands. Lighting is used to great effect too, especially in Ravenholm where darkness has fallen and Gordon has a little flashlight to illuminate the place.

Characters models remind me of PS2 level graphics, which isn’t too shabby. People move around convincingly, which is great in sequences like fighting off enemy assaults as they’ll dash around, taking cover and firing at them, all without clumsy getting caught on objects.

Playing on low setting, the game has to make a few sacrifices. There is some fogging used to hide loading of objects but this is only really noticeable in the larger open areas and still creates an impressive draw distance. In exchange, my modest rig is able to pump along at a decent frame rate without choking.

In terms of music this is one of the weaker areas. I can safely say that if asked to recall any music used I wouldn’t be able to recall a single one of them, yet I’m certain there must have been something playing along. So basically, they could do with being a bit more noticeable. On the other hand, the vocal tracks used are excellent, with the voice actors giving enough life to the onscreen characters speaking to give the events a sense of personal involvement. Even better, this isn’t just restricted to story progression. You can hear the Combine soldiers speaking during combat, for example. It does tend to be a few phrases repeated but it sounds good to hear too.

What more can be said? Half-Life 2 has extreme amounts of praise for very good reasons. I certainly had a lot of fun blasting away up to the end of the game and am now eager to carry on with the saga.

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