It’s possibly the single most anticipated video game of all time. Despite delays, source code thefts, internet leaks, a falling out between publisher and developer, and a bevy of other conspiracy theories and rumors surrounding the release of Half Life 2; it has finally seen the light of day. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s the release that thousands of salivating gamers have been drooling over for years. You also don’t need me to tell you that Half Life 2is an absolutely perfect gaming creation without fault – which is a good thing? because it’s not.
Half Life 2 starts in very much the same vein as the original. After a short train ride sequence reminiscent of Half Life; yet eerily different, you’re quickly thrust into the confines of City 17. The reason why you’re in City 17 isn’t made immediately clear – neither is exactly what’s going on. The story slowly and ambiguously unfolds through various conversations with other NPCs. A lot of assumptions are made and you quickly find yourself on the run from your mysterious oppressors.
The atmosphere of City 17 is one of complete despair. Despondent citizens warn you against drinking the water because “it makes your forget” while others hopelessly wait for loved ones to arrive on one of the subway’s ghost trains. Immediately upon exiting the train the first word that comes to mind is 1984. City 17 can best be described as a type of Orwellian dwelling set in the Eastern European Block circa the not too distant future. This initial sequence provided me with some of the most impressive visuals and immersive atmosphere I’ve yet to experience in a game. I once wrote that Doom 3 had the best graphics I had ever seen. That was a short-lived title. As much as I hate hyperbole, Half Life 2’s graphics are stunning. NPC’s feel more alive than in any game prior. They look, move, and act with a realism that is unrivaled in the industry. Explosions and other special effects are rendered with an authenticity that mocks other games in comparison. Everything about the look and feel of Half Life 2 contributes to the verisimilitude and is so aesthetically pleasing that it seems an almost impossible task for any game to surpass. If I haven’t made it clear, the Source engine makes Half Life 2 the best looking video game of all time.
As good as the graphics are, they would be nothing more than window dressing if it weren’t for the highly impressive Havoc Physics Engine. During Half Life 2’s development the Havoc engine was touted as their pride and joy, and now that we’ve seen it first hand; it was for good reason. The immersion that Half Life 2 creates is possible in no short part due to the success of this new technology. Virtually everything in the game can be manipulated in one way or the other as long as it is not tied down (and even some things that are can still be moved). Boxes, barrels and cinder blocks can be stacked, thrown or used as shields. Shooting out the wooden planks of a platform can cause the enemy soldiers standing above to come crashing down along with the structure. When Gordon receives the experimental gravity gun, the level of interactivity is taken to the next level. I highly recommend using the gravity gun, a can of paint and a lucky enemy for an impressive display. The possibilities are endless, especially when rotary saw blades are involved?
?And this brings us to Half Life 2’s fatal flaw. Surely you didn’t think it was going to be perfect, did you? While the graphics, sound, and atmosphere are unparalleled in the industry, Half Life 2 gets caught up in its own interactive grandeur. Instead of allowing the tools and world that Valve has created shape the story and game play; they seem content, indeed almost hell bent, on having them become the game play. At its most elementary level, Gordon moves from one location to the next, defeats whatever enemies are in the area and then has to solve a puzzle to advance. Valve has taken the utmost advantage of its physics engine and in doing so forces the player to manipulate the environment on a constant and repeating basis. An individual can only take so much crate and box stacking before it just becomes a tedious task. While many of the puzzles are in fact clever, there are just simply too many of them for the game’s own good.
Initially the game’s pacing is spot on providing a ton of adrenaline rushes. As the puzzles become more elaborate, the action suddenly grinds to a screeching halt; even as the game’s overall pace becomes more frantic in the later chapters. Depending on your puzzle solving skills, you can be stuck in the same spot for quite some time while you figure out exactly the right way to stack those cinder blocks, or raise that platform, or flip that broken switch or power down that force field or?you get the idea. Let us not forget the dreaded jumping puzzles either. Why game developers continue to insist on including the bane of any self-respecting gamer into their products I do not know. However, the puzzles themselves do take great advantage of the Havoc engine and the game world at large. The issue arises only when the action is forced to slow to accommodate the introduction of yet another puzzle. Luckily, this theme begins to subside in the games later chapters when the puzzles wean and the battles become longer and more in-depth.
The Havoc engine is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s such an incredible step in gaming that we can only wish quietly at our bedsides at night that more developers take advantage of the technology. The problem is Valve’s reliance upon it. If I may draw a parallel to popular culture, think of it as a director’s reliance upon special effects in a movie. Even though Half Life 2 has an amazing premise with excellent combat to draw from, the crutch of needing to take advantage of the physics engine at times stifles the underlying experience.
In the game’s defense, this is very much the same thing we saw in the original Half Life. The first installment in the series was renowned for its scripted events and level of environment interactivity. This time around Valve has simply taken advantage of the tools they’ve created. In fact, many of the puzzles are unique and quite entertaining. An interesting example of what exactly Valve is trying to do can be seen very early on. There’s a room during the game’s opening chapters that the player drops down into. On one side is a ledge that’s too high to jump onto and on the other is a wooden board resting on one end in a seesaw position. Strewn throughout the room are various pieces of debris. I’ve been told that the “correct” way to advance is to stack the debris on one end of the board and seesaw your way over the ledge. This isn’t how I progressed passed this area. I simply stacked the debris in the room high enough as to climb up on top and simply jump onto the ledge. As you can see by manipulating the environment, I was able to invent a totally different solution to the problem. While not all puzzles have multiple solutions, invariably the way to get there is up to the player. Some may find it tedious and even frustrating at times, but there are enough jaw-dropping moments throughout the campaign that still make Half Life 2 one of the greatest first person shooters ever.
When you’re not solving a puzzle, combat in Half Life 2 is astonishing. The Combine AI, while nothing extraordinary; is effective in taking cover, fleeing from grenades, flanking, and working in groups. All of this should be standard fare by now in the first person shooter genre, and Half Life 2 is no exception. What makes the combat stand out is exactly the thing that bogs Half Life 2 down at times: environment interactivity. When not being used to solve puzzles, the gravity gun provides some of the most amusing combat ever found in a game. Use it to project a conveniently placed buzz saw into an enemy or catch a grenade and send it reeling back at the soldier who tossed it. Pick up that barrel and use it as a shield as you charge the Combine. Firefights in Half Life 2 are simply fun.
Half Life 2’s sound is phenomenal, and I’ve never heard anything better in a digital medium. The voice acting is of Hollywood caliber and the sound effects are perfectly appropriate. Every weapon sounds like you expect it would. Pulling the trigger of any of the game’s weapons just feels right. The ambiance of the Combine with their loud speakers and walkie-talkies is completely authentic and does as much to draw you into the experience as the graphics. Explosions are also handled marvelously. Instead of a hollow boom like most games use; they are tighter with a strong, almost pop or burst feel that resonates more closely to real life.
For all of its technological splendor, Half Life 2 isn’t without its shortcomings in the game engine. The typical check point save system is used as well as the beloved save anywhere option. However, the game so frequently auto-saves right before any major combat that it becomes blatantly obvious that something is about to happen. This is my biggest gripe with Half Life 2; easily outweighing my diatribe against the environment puzzles. The saving isn’t seamless either. Your game will stutter for approximately one second as it auto-saves; causing a break in the action and a warning for things to come. It may not sound like much; but when you’re intensely into the action on screen, to have everything suddenly stutter, (sound included) it takes away so much. All things being equal, if this is my biggest problem with Half Life 2, it’s safe to say it’s an instant classic.
It may have seemed that I’ve been overly critical regarding the amount of puzzles in Half Life 2. If they seem tedious at times, it’s only because combat is so much fun: “I don’t want to build a bridge with the gravity gun! I want to fight a Strider!” The fact of the matter is that Half Life 2 is one of the most flat out fun games I’ve ever played. Fighting along side other freedom fighters against the oppressive minions of the Combine is a real treat and something that should under no circumstances be missed by anyone. There are a multitude of draw-dropping moments that I won’t spoil here, but they will leave the player wanting more. Forget the flowery exposition: Half Life 2, while not perfect, is better on virtually all levels than any game before it and deserves all of the critical acclaim and praise that it will receive. If you haven’t done so already, stop what you’re doing and play this game.