Living up to what most PC gamers consider one of the very best first person shooters of all time is no easy task. Half-Life is widely considered one of the most innovative and genre-changing first person shooters out there and people had extremely high expectations with Half-Life 2. Valve had so many problems with the development of Half-Life 2 that it seemed as if it would never get released. From code leaks to delay after delay, Half-Life 2 finally became a reality late last year. Now comes the ultimate question, was the long wait worth it and how could Valve possibly outdo what they did for the original Half-Life? For the most part Valve has succeeded in bringing PC gamers another FPS that they can be proud of. The only issue that people will find with Half-Life 2 is that it doesnít feel nearly as fresh or original as Half-Life did. The industry has changed a lot since Half-Life hit the scene in 1998; wow has it been that long? Half-Life 2 brings enough new and innovative gameplay elements to be called one of the best FPS shooters out there but it isnít without its fair share of problems.
The environments are out of this world
Ironically the biggest weakness of Half-Life 2 has to be the gameís story. It feels a little too similar to that of the original Half-Life. Sure everything is different, in terms of characters and locations but the feeling of transition is almost identical. The game begins sometime after the original Half-Life but the player is never told exactly how long after the first game. Players take on the role of Gordon Freeman once again, that physicist with an attitude. The game begins with the G-Man telling Gordon that the time has come for him to get back in action. The G-Man, for those who do not know, is a character from the original Half-Life that told Gordon at the end of the game that he would have to work for him or die. Clearly the player wanted to stay alive so they chose to work for the G-Man, or at least that is the choice Half-Life 2 assumes players made. The original Half-Life had players taking on the role of Gordon Freeman in order to save the world from an alien invasion, the question is did Gordon succeed. Since Half-Life 2 begins with Gordon riding on a train entering City 17 (where the G-Man talks to him), the player is not told anything about what has happened between the end of the original Half-Life and the start of this new one. This is really disappointing since fans would like to know how the world went straight to hell, as that is exactly what has happened since the original Half-Life.
The Gravity Gun is the best weapon ever created
The world of Half-Life 2 is what is really stunning. The whole planet has been taken over by an alien race known as the Combine. They have issued a fake government to over run the world. There are guards everywhere and the regular population is now being totally enslaved. Gordonís new mission is to free humanity from the Combine. The question remains though, how did they get in power and why didnít anyone try to stop them, and what the heck is going on? Throughout the course of the game players wonít find out many answers to all these questions, which as said earlier is rather disappointing. The beginning of the game appears to be very well thought out; if not a tad slow but the ending is the exact opposite. The player will feel as if Valve simply rushed to finish the story as everything simply falls into place rather immediately. It just doesnít feel right. Itís a shame too as everything about this game world is so incredibly detailed and atmospheric that players will want to play along to find out what happens next.
Players will have to find a safe heaven first and foremost, which kind of moves things around very quickly. Players will want to check every section of Half-Life 2ís world simply to see what the Combine is doing to the everyday populace. It will sicken people to see how mistreated everyone is. Think of the Nazi regime to get an idea of what Valve was trying to show here. To say it shows a scary resemblance is an understatement. It works wonders to build up the tension and the suspense of the overall feeling of dread that everyone in the world feels toward the Combine. It would have been ideal to let players spend a bit more time in this feeling of dread before pushing them forward to find a safe place to hide.
Once the game begins it doesnít stop, thatís one good thing. There are no cinematics, no load times (if the player has a high-end PC), and no levels, nothing at all to interrupt the gameplay. Essentially the game is one very long day in the life of Gordon Freeman. Players are always in each ďcinematic,Ē so they can move around and do whatever they want. The characters in these scenes are talking to Gordon, so if he leaves they will simply stop talking. It really is an impressive feature of the overall game and one that more games will likely copy in the coming years. There is nothing to detract players from the game and it really works well. Overall though the story simply doesnít hold up to the original Half-Life, if just for the fact that there are too many questions left unanswered and the feeling of ďbeen there, done thatĒ will happen all too often. Sure itís told in an incredible manner but one can only hope that Valve will fix things up when Half-Life 3 comes out. Answering more questions than starting new ones would be ideal next time around.
Real time animation just doesn't get any better than this
The gameplay in Half-Life 2 is really what makes the game shine. Since this is an FPS there are only a few key things that need to be discussed, first and foremost, weapons. Half-Life 2 only features three new weapons, and includes all the weapons from the previous game. The older weapons may be a little outdated but it makes the game feel as though it takes place in the same universe with the original Half-Life. Each and every weapon feels unique and recoils differently than the next, which is a standard feature for an FPS created now-a-days. The three new weapons add so much to the overall gameplay though. There is the ďbug baitĒ which is one of the greatest additions to the series and to any FPS out there. Basically the player is able to control one of the most deadly enemy-types, the Ant Lions. The player can shoot out spores to enemy locations and the Ant Lions will go and attack whatever the spores attach themselves to. Players can also use the Ant Lions as shields so they can reach areas without harm. It really is impressive being able to control these unique aliens. Think of the movie Starship Troopers to get an idea of what Ant Lions look like, and then imagine being able to control them.
The best new weapon has to be the Gravity Gun. This weapon is crucial for several different reasons, but mainly for the fact that players can interact with the environment in ways they only dreamt about before. The Gravity Gun enables players to lift and throw many objects in the environment. If an enemy throws a grenade, players can use the gun to catch the grenade and hurl it back at enemies. It doesnít stop here though; players can use this weapon to move cars out of the way for when they need to traverse various areas and also to build stairs out of boxes, when the player needs to reach areas that are inaccessible. Players will have to think in all new ways to solve some of the puzzles in Half-Life 2, which is not an easy thing to do really. There is something about lifting up a flammable barrel and hurling it at a far off enemy that is sure to bring a smile to any gamerís face. Once the player has the Gravity Gun, the things they can do with it are left up to the player to find out. There are way more uses for this one weapon than meets the eye and it is a delight to find out these new uses.
Not everything about the weapons is great though. First off there should have been secondary functions for older guns. Sure there are some weapons that have a few secondary features but not enough. In todayís FPS world, this has become almost a standard feature and leaving it out in Half-Life 2, no matter how original the new weapons are, is not wise. The next complaint is that there should have been some new weapons. While Half-Life 2 doesnít really have all that many weapons to start off with, getting rid of some of the older ones or even creating new ones would have been appreciated. The ďBug BaitĒ is great and all but it is only useable during one location. At least the Gravity Gun is useable everywhere but that means there are only two new weapons for the whole game. That just isnít enough for a new FPS.
People will run for their lives when a Strider comes along, so should you!
Half-Life 2 takes place in a super realistic world; making it so that the player can do almost anything they have ever dreamed of doing. They can go anywhere, so long as they can create the necessary means to get there. They go to any door and try to open it; the only way the game stops players is by using thumb print locks. If the player doesnít have the thumb print to access the door, they canít get in. It just adds so much to the overall feeling of realism in the game. Players can climb through windows, they can create bridges, and they can do whatever they want based on the realistic laws of physics. Itís never been done before to this caliber and it will have to be done from now on. Playing Half-Life 2 will change a person. Forget all the downfalls the game might have, the game world in which Half-Life 2 takes place is enough to show anyone the future of videogames. If there is garbage on the floor the player can pick it up and throw it out in a garbage can, in fact some of the guards will command the player to do just that. The fact that players can do this is what is so incredible though. The player can even use a crowbar to break through areas that appear unreachable. Players could be stuck for ages trying to figure out where they have to go until they realize that they can break wooden planks, windows and other areas with their crowbar. It doesnít stop here though; there is just so much the player can interact with that no one will be left unimpressed.
Half-Life 2 features a few vehicles but they arenít anything new to the series. They may look impressive to the eye but they are still tough to drive with any accuracy, unless the player has enough room to move around in. Itís still nice to see them make a return in this game though. It would have been better to get a few more surprise vehicles in the game but sadly those will have to wait until Half-Life 3. Later on in the game players will even be the leader of a squad of freedom fighters that will join up with Gordon. It isnít uncommon for the player to be trying to find a location to some base when all of a sudden a group of freedom fighters will break out of no where and plead for the playerís help. There are various gameplay tweaks that take place during these scenes but it would have been nicer to see some great AI in these characters, the main issue is that they seem to always be in the playerís way when in tight locations. It will get annoying very quickly. Itís nice to get the added gameplay depth though and players will surely be surprised by these additions.
These guys are no match for the Ant Lion, which YOU control
While on the subject of AI, Half-Life 2 features some incredible AI and then some purely trash AI. Itís bizarre to see the mixture in the same game but alas it is there. To begin with some of the enemies the player will come across are simply geniuses. They will hide behind wooden planks and just as the players is destroying the plank, by shooting it; the enemy will lob a grenade over to the player and barrel roll to a concrete pillar. Seeing things like this are what will impress the player, the thing is that not all enemies are this smart. During the later areas, players will have to travel some nasty terrain and some of the zombie-type enemies are simply brainless. They will just charge at the player and be done with it. Itís bizarre going from one extreme to the next. Some of the smaller aliens will jump all over the stage to get to the player but even though they are basically charging the player, they will use the environment and their size to their advantage. It really is a mixed bag for the AI. On one hand it has some of the most impressive AI ever seen and then it goes all the way to Doom-level AI, bizarre to say the least.
The gameplay in Half-Life 2 is evolutionary for the way the player can interact with everything and change the enemies' fighting mechanics. It wonít win any awards for AI, simply because of the brainless enemies, which is unfortunate. The overall package though is simply incredible. Being able to do whatever the player wants to do, only bound by the laws of physics and the environment has never been done on this scale before. Playing Half-Life 2 will show players how incredible future games will be. Half-Life 2 is the starting point, from here on out everything will get far more realistic. Very soon players will be able to take part on adventures that are so realistic they mirror what a human being could do in the real world, under the same circumstances. If Valve can fix the AI so that every enemy is just as smart as the last, and give the player a few more vehicles and weapons, it will be perfect. As it is, itís very impressive but thereís still room for improvement.
The controls in Half-Life 2 are very responsive and fast. Each gun controls differently and the recoil from each is unique. The vehicles could use some work though. They arenít as tight as they should be and the player is likely to make several driving errors because of this. Itís bizarre that Valve was able to create a game with such smooth controls considering the amount of interactivity that takes place within the game universe. Players will pick up objects and move them around all realistically and they can do this without too many issues. For a first person shooter Half-Life 2 controls just as good as the next guy. Hopefully Valve will fix up the vehicle controls and everything will be set for the next adventure. Gordon has all the movements of a standard FPS like strafing, crouching and sprinting, so there arenít too many new control innovations here but it just works well and thatís the whole point.
Every character has their own life and will go about their own business
Half-Life 2 will be remembered for the level of interactivity for the most part but if players forget about that aspect, they will never forget about its graphics. To call Half-Life 2 beautiful is just not fair, itís stunning. Doom 3 was the first game to really push PC graphics to the edge this generation but Half-Life 2 takes it that much further. While it is true to say that Doom 3 features far more impressive lighting and shadowing effects, Doom 3 featured far more graphical issues than Half-Life 2 does. Doom 3 failed to create a game world as complete as Half-Life 2ís. Sure Doom 3 was chillingly realistic and had an atmosphere not matched by any game out there but the fact is the game world was as big as the light shined by playerís flashlight. Half-Life 2 doesnít suffer from this limitation. Everything is huge and expansive. The player is rarely confined to see only short bursts of scenes, they will usually see an entire city view or fully lit areas. Everything is created in such refinement that going back to play Doom 3 now is no easy task.
The environments in Half-Life 2 are the best seen in a video game in this modern age. Everything is so textured and detailed that it looks like the player is looking at it in real life. The alien areas are just as detailed and look just as impressive as the realistic ones. The graphics engine does a superb job of rendering outdoor and indoor environments with the same level of detail, regardless of what is on the screen. Everything is constantly in motion and appears as it would in real life. The only issue is that the player needs to have a powerful enough PC in order to run the game at its fullest; such is the problem with all graphically heavy PC titles. For those that do have the hardware though, prepare for the nicest looking game on the market. Polygons have never been so nicely woven together.
As mentioned before, the fact that everything is intractable with realistic physics is what really pushed Half-Life 2 over the edge. Even character animation looks like the real thing. Seeing other characters move around and get wounded will be an incredible sight to behold for the first time. Picking up and throwing a glass never looked this incredible, so imagine what it is like throwing a car. Everything about Half-Life 2 is in the details. The graphics are the best out there and all it takes is one glance to realize this. Seeing AI float around all in real time, throughout the city is enough to make anyone faint. Seeing the enemy animation, the fluidity of characters, the particle effects, the realistic weather effects, the incredible facial animations, itís all in here and it has never looked so good before. Everything runs smoothly and there isnít anything to complain about at all with the graphics. Never before has a game looked this good and it is going to be incredible to see games look better than this.
It's incredible what six years can do
The sound effects in Half-Life 2 are what people have always wanted in a game. Computer screens hum like they do in real life, is that realistic enough? There are several outdoor scenes in the game and throughout these scenes players will hear the faint sound of small birds chirping and crickets calling to each other. Itís the little details that give Half-Life 2 such an incredible amount of realism. The sound effects are like the graphics in that regard, it features some of the best sound effects ever put into a game. The music on the other hand is almost nonexistent. Sure there are a few themes here and there but they are mostly just to enhance key moments of the game. Half-Life 2 has gone out to become the most realistic videogame ever created and that is exactly what it has done. The voice acting is top notch as well. The way characters move to speak to Gordon is done as it is in real life. Characters will follow Gordon as he moves so that they are looking at him, and they even react if they are hit by the playerís flying objects. Everythingís just so detailed and realistic itís incredible. Having a surround sound setup for Half-Life 2 is a must. In order to get the feeling of isolation and dread, players will have to have a 5.1 setup. Having a surround sound setup will make players see why Half-Life 2 is considered the cream of the crop for PC games.
Now comes the toughest part of the review to talk about, the replay value. Unlike most FPS games out there Half-Life 2 doesnít feature any multiplayer aspect at all... well almost. Half-Life 2 comes with Counter-Strike Source. For those that have been living under a rock for the last six years, Counter Strike is the worldís number one online action game. It was created back when the original Half-Life was created and it is a squad based FPS that features players as both the terrorists and the counter-terrorists. Thereís a reason it is number one, itís extremely addictive. The thing about CS is that it is very old now, and Counter Strike Source is a graphically enhanced version of the original CS. While it doesnít alter the gameplay all that much, the graphics are far better to look at now. Players are sure to be playing Counter Strike Source for another six years, no question about it. This review isnít about Counter-Strike though and technically there could be a review on Counter Strike Source.
There should have been a Half-Life 2 multiplayer mode on top of the Counter Strike Source mode. It makes sense why Valve made CS Source first, as it is the number one online action game, but it would have been excellent to include some basic Half-Life 2 multiplayer death-matches and co-op play. The retail version of Half-Life 2 didnít include any of that though and as a result it suffered. As of the late writing of this review there is a Half-Life 2 Death Match mode that includes tons of levels with countless options for players to tweak. Think of the best death match experiences and that is what Half-Life 2 now offers. Itís a shame that this wasnít made available when the title first shipped. This review will be scored based on the original retail version, but be sure to note that the multiplayer in Half-Life 2 is now incredible. Luckily for Half-Life 2 the game is a sheer delight to play through and players will definitely play through it several times, if not just to see how gorgeous it is again.
The real time effects are the best out there as well, just look at this
When looking at the retail version of Half-Life 2, it really is a complete package with a few short stops. Getting Half-Life 2 after all these years is a delight, even though there are a few issues and getting Counter Strike Source on top of all this, makes everything even better. While it would have been excellent to include a Half-Life 2 death match mode, Counter-Strike Source will hold anyone over until it comes. As said before, the mode is now out and Valve hasnít stopped there, they have been including new maps every week. Valve sure knows how to please its fans. Since Valve uses Steam to play all their online matches, they can continue to offer fans new maps and whatnot into the far future. Steam is kind of like Xbox Live but it is free and it is far more complete. The biggest difference is that it is mainly only for Valve games. The beauty of it is that players can set up meetings on the message boards, play all their online games, and above all else, keep updating new patches for their games and all the latest downloads, all for free. That is a complete package, isnít it?
Half-Life 2 is the start of a glorious future. There are very few games that get as much hype and deliver on almost everything as Half-Life 2 has done. One can only hope that Valve will continue to push gameplay in exciting new directions and continue to push the industry in ways that most companies have never even thought before. As a game, Half-Life 2 is evolutionary in some aspects but it also has some short stops. Itís an incredible game, a fantastic FPS and a modern classic but just short of legendary. Hopefully Valve will fix up the story elements and equal out the AI for the next installment. Half-Life 2 really is a superb title and itís the type of game players pray for. Anyone looking for a new FPS, and have a good PC, should run to their local gaming store to buy Half-Life 2 now. Why wait for the future, itís already here!