Xbox owners rejoice! Half Life 2 is here! And if you’re like me you missed out on the PC version of Half Life 2 a year ago because you didn’t have a computer powerful enough to handle the game. Well, now you can experience the entire single player campaign on the Xbox. It’s truly remarkable to see that developer Valve Software was able to fit in all the content from the original game. All the physics, weapons, environments, and enemies are present and accounted for. There is no multiplayer to speak of which cuts down on the replay value, but the single player is so spectacular that Half Life 2 must be considered one of the best first-person-shooters on the Xbox.
The game starts you out as series protagonist Gordon Freeman on a train headed to City 17. You are given an assignment by the G-Man, who lets you know that you still have much work that needs to be done. When you arrive to City 17 you are greeted by a run down city which is now ruled by a Nazi-like group of soldiers called the Combine. There are towering screens everywhere in the city, spewing propaganda about how humans and our instincts are our own worst enemy. City 17 is the self-proclaimed safest city anywhere, but one look at the depressed and helpless citizens will let you know that this city is anything but safe.
After only a few minutes you will start to meet up with old and new friends, and then the action starts. Valve lets you get your bearings for a bit, showing gamers new to the Half Life franchise how the mechanics work. You can configure the button layout to whichever way works out best for you. No matter what layout you choose the controls are smooth and very responsive. So after you get your feet wet a chase ensues where the Combine start to eliminate the inhabitants of City 17. The citizens try to help you out by leading you to a roof. As you flee, the Combine are hot on your trail, killing the very people who helped you out just seconds earlier. I set up a makeshift blockade of boxes and crates to slow them down, but it did little to hold up the Combine. As I ran out of a window and onto the roof I was immediately bowled over by how fast the situation had heated up. A minute ago I was talking to a dejected couple, and now I’m on a roof making a daring escape while being shot at by soldiers on the street. And from that point on the game never lets up. The action has a real cinematic quality to it, and it never gets old. It’s always fun and suspenseful.
I love the pacing, energy, immersion, and level design of the game. The environments can be large open lands or cramped little apartment rooms (which can be hard to navigate through). The physics engine is impressive to the utmost degree. Almost everything reacts appropriately to the action and can be manipulated and used as a weapon. There’s not much, if any, backtracking. The game is littered with puzzles, but none of them feel forced or too complex. You don’t have to go searching for keys to locks, just shoot them off. The load times are frequent, but pretty fast for an Xbox game. There are a lot of checkpoints so if you die you’ll never be set back that far. You can also save anywhere which is a huge plus for any videogame.
The gameplay does take some hits because the frame rate can be very, very choppy at times, especially during big action sequences and right after a level has loaded. Sometimes just looking from side to side can cause the picture to break up. Also there are some major gameplay bugs present. Most notably, the bugs happen with the physics engine (they don’t happen often, but they do happen). Sometimes you can pick up an object and let it go and it will just stay there suspended in air. You can also throw an object like a bottle in the air and if the bug is acting up the bottle will just float through the air and solid objects and into eternity. This problem can’t be fixed by just reloading the level either, once the bug starts it can only be stopped by continuing to the next section so a new place can be loaded.
The enemies are not the brightest bunch, but they get the job done with their overall extreme hostility towards you. Sometimes enemies will take cover, but what really makes them (human, bug, or alien) lethal is that they usually attack in sizable groups. So, while they don’t have the best A.I., you still can’t run and gun because you’re almost always outnumbered. This method from the developers can backfire on you at some points, though. I got lost in a town on a night level so it was hard to see, but I couldn’t take my time to figure out where I was going because wave after wave of aliens just kept attacking me. Even when I was sure I had cleared out the level of enemies, they would still just magically (and frustratingly) appear over and over again.
Targeting enemies is forgiving for the most part. And as far as weapons go, there is a nice, varied selection of them in Half Life 2. There’s quite literally something for everyone with firearms such as pistols, revolvers, sub-machine guns, crowbars, grenades, assault rifles, crossbows, and rocket launchers. They all have their own clear and distinct sounds, and they even have effects for when the empty shells bounce off of walls and hit the ground. There’s a nice D-pad system for storing and choosing all your weapons. But the fan favorite weapon will undoubtedly be the gravity gun. With the gravity gun anything can be a weapon. You can pick up and shoot grenades, saw blades, cinder blocks, tables, combustible barrels (of which there are plenty throughout the game), chairs, and more. You can even use less effective objects as weapons which will just annoy your foes like paint cans, empty boxes, wrenches, and shrapnel. The gravity gun is also invaluable more often than not when you come across one of the many physics based puzzles in HL2.
The vehicle sections are fast and fun, although the controls for them could be better. It’s quite difficult to steer the airboat and buggy while shooting. Thankfully, Valve added a lock on targeting system which makes the driving experience easier, but certain parts can still be a pain. Also, the vehicle segments can drag on a bit, but again, thankfully Valve broke up the driving with smaller on-foot parts to accomplish tasks such as opening or fixing barriers in order to continue on in your vehicle. One huge problem I had with the buggy portion was the physics bug. When you first have to drive the buggy you are surrounded by giant bugs (appropriately enough) and it isn’t possible to continue on unless you get in to the car. But just as I got in to the buggy, it physically fell through the pier it was sitting on while I was in the driver’s seat, and then it just fell through the ground in a never-ending spiraling downfall. I tried to reload the save, but the game would not recognize the bug so I couldn’t continue on any further. This frustrated me to no end because Half Life 2 pulls you in so effectively that you always feel compelled to play just a bit longer, but now I couldn’t. The only way I got around this was because of a cheat code that unlocks all the levels. So with the code I was able to come right back to the same level but with a new game, and so the problem was fixed.
As far as looks go Half Life 2 is a bit of a disappointment when compared to other PC ports like Doom 3, and Far Cry: Instincts. The colors really feel fuzzy and washed out. But just as a regular Xbox game, it holds its own well enough. You won’t really be thinking about or noticing the pop-in or the less than stellar graphics with all of the action constantly going on around you. But where Half Life does better is with its animations. The reactions in character faces like Alex, or the body animations in Alex’s “dog” are brilliantly executed and make the game a little more believable.
The voice over work is absolutely tremendous. You can hear the despair, hope, and everything in-between in each individual’s voice. Some people clearly sound nervous and don’t speak much, while others are chatter boxes. NPC’s carry on real meaningful conversations with out you being a part of it. The excellent voice acting helps move the story along better than any other game I’ve played. Other effects like different footsteps for varying environments, distinct weapon sounds, vehicle engines, and the garbled Combine voices are superbly carried out as well. My only little nagging complaint would be that your character, Gordon Freeman, doesn’t talk. It’s been said that Valve believes having Gordon talk would take players out of the game, but I would argue that making him a mute for no good reason takes gamers out of the experience far more. Take for example games like Halo, Prince of Persia, and Ninja Gaiden. Did those amazing voice over jobs for the main characters ruin the game in any way? Of course not. If the developers are that against preset dialogue for the main character, why not give us choices for what to say during conversations? But again, this is just one minor gripe I had with the overall perfect audio.
If you didn’t get to play Half Life 2 on the PC then you owe it to yourself to play it on the Xbox. The single player campaign is not without its faults, but it still manages to simply be one of the best experiences ever for any console. The fact that there’s no multiplayer is a bit of a downer, but the full Counter-Strike game is available to buy on the Xbox, if that’s any consolation. You can replay any of your favorite moments from the game, which is a nice touch. If you’re like me, and really only wanted to play the single player game anyway, Half Life 2 for Xbox is a good pickup.