I must have started and re-started this review more times than I care to think about. In order to write about a game I have completely fallen head over heels gaga-in-love-with, and still maintain a sense of objectivity, I found it necessary to scrap my other introductions. Mainly because they were all some variation on the following:
OH MY GOD DID YOU SEE THAT CAR FLIPPING AND WATCH OUT FOR THAT OVER THERE OH MY GOD IS THAT THE G-MAN I SEE WHOA THIS GAME RULES!!!!
Since an entire review like that would be out of line, I tried my best to quell the drooling over Valve’s latest and focus on the basics. How hard could that be, right?
It is very tough to convey just how spectacular Half-Life 2 really is in motion. I was one of the fortunate few who saw the 2003 E3 demo in a hotel room with fellow CG staffer DarkEl, and we’ve both been hopped up like ferrets on speed ever since. We’ve all heard or read about the hype, the infamous code theft, the equally infamous Sept. 30 release date, the lawsuits, etc. Flame wars seem to explode on the internet at the mere mention of Valve Software and Half-Life 2, regardless of which side of the fence you stand on. It cannot be argued that Half-Life 2 doesn’t bring a lot of baggage with it to the table, and what compounded all of this were the packaging and the worst install I’ve ever experienced.
I’m an old-fashioned type of guy. My wife loves it because I tend to put her on a pedestal more times than not, but I also like to keep things simple. In 2002, we went to Australia on a wonderful trip, but I didn’t need a ton of pictures to immortalize the event. All I needed is what I still carry to this day: a single keychain from the Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb. My point being that I want something tangible on my desk at the end of the day, if only to have proof of the experience. So is it too much to ask that when I buy a simple computer game that I have my CDs protected in a jewel case and that I at least have the option to read a manual?
Valve may have done the gaming world a service in creating Half-Life 2, but man did they honk me off when I opened the box to find paper sleeves and no manual waiting for me. I cannot begin to say how much that feels like a slap in the face, especially when you consider just how much good-will both Valve and VUG have squandered with fans and the gaming community at large prior to this release. I can appreciate the desire to keep story information to a minimum, even more so after playing, but why are my CDs not protected in ANY way, shape or form? There is a difference between wanting to save money and appearing cheap, and you can take three guesses as to which side of the coin this lands on.
But how is the game itself? Sensational if you can install it. I refuse to believe that no one in Quality & Assurance had the same trouble as me, and many other gamers, just installing Half-Life 2. It took me three tries, and both of the previous attempts ended with a message stating it was missing a series of important files. Not since my friend Nathan showed me how to manually allocate memory through DOS just so I could play Tie Fighter have I experienced anything this frustrating. To fix the problem, I completely uninstalled Steam, Valve’s personalized distribution software, deleted the Valve folder I had created, opened my registry editing software and deleted any key associated with Valve, rebooted and tried again. Maybe it was because I threw in a series of prayers and Hail Mary’s this time, but Half-Life 2 finally installed. I shall now tithe for the remainder of the month.
After the install(s), and the online activation (similar to how Microsoft forced an activation for Windows and Office XP), I was finally able to get in and play, and my thoughts were confirmed immediately. Indeed there is a heck of a game here that will grab you by the throat and not let go. Half-Life 2 routinely defies your expectations by changing the game around at every turn. One moment you will find yourself in a heavy gunfight with Combine forces, in the next you will be in a haunted house-style town carefully peaking around every corner, and then you find yourself sneaking up on a coastal town that you’ve just seen get reinforced. I never knew what to expect, and Half-Life 2 has so many game types all worked into the finished brew that I found myself immediately intoxicated.
As in the first game, you take the role of Gordon Freeman, a quiet physicist from MIT who worked on an experiment at a government research facility called Black Mesa. It was located somewhere in the New Mexico desert, and when the experiment went wrong, aliens teleported in and all hell broke lose. Freeman fought his way to the surface only to find Marine commandos had been sent in to kill everything in the facility, regardless of which species it belonged to. By the end, Gordon had defeated the aliens and the commandos, only to come face to face with the mysterious G-Man. This figure was always three steps ahead of Gordon, and as he spoke it became quite clear that he wasn’t what you might call a local. He offered Freeman employment or death, and since I’m reviewing the sequel you can guess which option Gordon took. A lot has happened to Earth in the intervening years since the Black Mesa incident, and the G-Man feels that Gordon’s time has once again come to pass.
Once Half-Life 2 begins, Gordon finds himself on a train to nowhere, both figuratively and literally. He arrives in City 17 which is the headquarters of an alien authority called the Combine Overwatch. We’ve heard from the beginning that the city was based in Eastern Europe, and you can really see that from the architecture and the vehicles scattered about. The major thing you will notice is just how photo-realistic Half-Life 2 can be in both the environments and character models. Valve’s artists should stand up and take a bow right now, because this is truly fantastic work.
The dirt, grime and oppression of City 17 are all immediately apparent. This is a city that oozes fear and desperation, and it’s a tribute to Valve’s Source engine that right from the start you believe it. Regardless of what comes your way later in the game, never once will you lose that suspension of disbelief. Half-Life 2 creates and sustains its moody atmosphere by changing the one thing gamers have always had as a fallback: the belief that what they played wasn’t real.
The Source engine combined with the Havoc physics engine have resulted in not only a living, breathing world, but living, breathing non-player characters. People look like people, they act like people, and they sure as heck talk like them. Early in the game, you will come across two guys standing outside their apartment complex watching Combine forces conduct a raid on a nearby building. I watched and listened to these two for 10 minutes and was just in awe at the remarkable work. Both of them stood in different postures, both of their facial tics were different, and one of them talked out of the side of his mouth. There is astounding work here, and there is more than enough to keep your attention.
I purchased a high-end video card a few years ago just because I wanted to see the pretty water effects in Morrowind, and I’m glad I recently bought a newer graphics card because the water and world textures in Half-Life 2 are nothing short of jaw-dropping. An artist can make a world look as beautiful as a painting, but if it looks terrible while in motion then their job was not done well. I believed the world of Half-Life 2 lived and breathed because of all the little details. If I wasn’t too busy ducking for cover, I would have stared at how the phone lines swung back and forth whenever a gunship would fly overhead, and how the people would touch one another, and how the rocks would crumble when a Strider walked by. I did, however, stare at how the water ripples and reflects the world as it should. The coolest detail I could find was with the crossbow itself. This acts as your sniper weapon, and going into the secondary fire will zoom the view in so you can hit targets from afar. But once you get the crossbow, look at the lens itself and start turning slowly. You will see the nearby world reflected.
I did notice some small graphical hiccups every now and then. Some characters will get stuck on doors, or lay in the middle of a doorway and the door will open and close right through them. I somehow managed to get stuck on a few things like rubble or doors, but a bit of jumping around usually freed me. I never encountered major problems, but a few other times I would see sparks from an electrical wire while looking at a solid wall. I would normally take someone to task for this, but when you consider the sheer wonder of everything else that was created then it winds up being forgivable.
This was the score I worried about the most. I sat staring at my monitor debating the merits of the score you now see, but I decided to stand by it for a couple of reasons. The second you hear a Combine soldier’s heart monitor flat-line and his radio relay his position, you will proclaim them the greatest sounds ever. I sure did. The sound and feel of the shotgun captures the brute force of the weapon perfectly. I loved the return of the Black Mesa alarm, as well as the cold, metallic chatter of the Combine troops. But for every wicked cool sound effect, of which there were dozens upon dozens, there were a few issues that knocked the score down.
One thing Valve needs to work on is using music more frequently. The music they chose weighed heavily towards techno, and that worked perfectly during the select few sequences with a score. I would argue some of the scenes would be way more effective with just a hint of mood music, and certainly some of the gunfights would triple the already sky-high adrenaline flow with some hard-hitting beats. Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds has no music in it at all. None. The resulting silence is surprisingly deafening and effective, and maybe that’s what Valve was going for with Half-Life 2.
Another slight issue I had was with the weapons fire. For most of the guns, Valve pulled the “if it ain’t broke…” adage and recycled their sounds. The crossbow still has a satisfying thunk to it, and firing the revolver sounds like I’m shooting thunder, but the machine gun and the new pulse rifle both sound very weak by comparison. These two guns are both very powerful, but I never felt like they were because they sound like toys.
What does work is the voice acting. Everyone involved gave a true performance, and it’s yet another credit to the Source engine that the performances show. In other games, when characters show compassion for one another, you have to believe in the vocal work alone because the models are not capable of expressions. The great thing about the Source engine is it allows for the capture of a genuine performance, but it only works well if a genuine performance is delivered in the first place.
Robert Guillaume is terrific as Dr. Eli Vance, another Black Mesa survivor. In Half-Life 2, you genuinely believe Eli when he expresses emotion because you can see it and feel it. He’s proud of his daughter, Alyx, and visibly relieved to see Gordon again. Compare that with Dr. Breen, Black Mesa’s former administrator voiced by Robert Culp, who methodically drones about the merits of subservience to his mysterious “benefactors” by way of gigantic video screens. Breen is now the administrator of Earth, but it seems like he’s not the one actually running the show. Culp makes Breen seem as cold as callous as his character should be, but there is a hint of fear in his voice. Breen is definitely afraid of something, and if capturing Gordon regardless of the cost will keep Breen from looking his fears straight in the eye(s) then so be it. The woman that voiced Alyx Vance brings enough spunk to the role to make you really care about her. It may have been the years of romantic comedies hitting me, but there were times when she really came across as a romantic interest for Gordon. Michelle Forbes (enshrined forever to geeks as Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Ensign Ro) shows up as Dr. Mossman, another scientist helping Eli. There is so much depth to the characters and to this game that eventually Half-Life 2 stops being a video game, and becomes a new form of interactive fiction.
I would be remiss if I failed to single out the sound design for the G-Man, voiced by Michael Shapiro. He sounds like whatever he is has tried valiently to sound human, but just can’t quite get it right. When you hear him in the game, it’s downright chilling. Jim French also leaves a heck of an impression as the deranged Father Gregori, a monk with a mean rifle. His character comes the closest to the G-Man as the most iconic character in the game, and it’s a shame you don’t see him again after his sequence. Hopefully, he’ll show up in the next game.
The movement controls are the standard mouse and keyboard combo, but the good news is everything can be mapped how you want it. I changed a few things around, but kept the defaults for the other 90%. Responsiveness is very good, and because older first-person shooters would give me fits with precision jumping I was stunned to see that problem has been fixed. Gordon sticks his landings better now, so there isn’t a need to pull back immediately after landing from a jump. I do not have a gamepad so I was unable to test how well that worked with Half-Life 2, but the mouse and keyboard combo worked just fine for me. As the challenges increase throughout the game, it became increasingly necessary to quickly switch between certain weapons. I wish this could have been done faster than with the scroll wheel, but since all action games are similar in this regard, it isn’t anything more than a nuisance. Every weapon is assigned a specific number hot key so flipping between them that way or with the scroll wheel is easy enough to do.
The outdoor environments work beautifully by giving you the feel of running through a living world without overwhelming you with free-roam. At its core, Half-Life 2 is nothing more than a lengthy rail shooter because you are always moving forward, and are guided or nudged at every step of the way. But the illusion of massive freedom is perfectly done.
At one point you get to drive a swamp boat through a series of canals in what had to be the most white-knuckling experience of my gaming career. It took me over an hour to complete this sequence, and it was chock full of action-packed greatness. There was a moment where I was traveling at high speed and heard an explosion a second before I whipped around a corner, and when I did I saw a car flipping towards me. I actually shouted, “Oh my God!” then dodged it, then saw a Combine dropship fly overhead and start dropping mines in my path. By that point, I was gripping my mouse so hard I damn near crushed it.
There is so much to see and do in Half-Life 2 it’s staggering. While the game may only be around 20 to 25 hours depending on how fast you burn through it, there is more than enough to keep you occupied. Sequence after sequence tests your mettle for high-octane combat and brilliant puzzle solving. The gravity gun may have started off as a novelty during development, but I can’t imagine the finished Half-Life 2 without it. When you consider that we finally have a game where real-world physics are applicable to the environment, and that we can manipulate pretty much everything we see, you begin to realize just how limitless the possibilities are.
I did have an issue with some area where you need a rocket launcher and there is a conveniently placed box filled with unlimited ammo. This also happens with grenades in areas where snipers or special turrets are. I was surprised there wasn’t a sign posted somewhere that read, “Special Weapon X Needed Here.”
The scripted sequences are front and center once again, but they feel completely organic to the world just like in the first game. Half-Life 2 is a rail shooter, as the first game was, but there was never a point when I minded being led by the nose. There is so much fun and excitement and emotion packed into this title, I still have trouble believing I was still playing the same game. This was especially prevalent towards the end when Gordon is front and center with the revolution against the Combine. I grew attached to my squad mates, and it hurt whenever they would get killed. Half-Life 2 genuinely felt like I was the star of my own action movie, and that included all the drama inherent to the form. I have so many stories from just my first run through, I can’t wait to try it all again.
If you add the sheer need to replay Half-Life 2 with Counter-Strike: Source, then you have more than enough game to keep busy with. I haven’t mentioned Counter-Strike: Source very much because it’s the same Counter-Strike as before just with better physics applied to it. I personally dislike Counter-Strike to the extreme because I don’t think it is very fun. When you combine that with the hackers and l33t f00ls who tend to ruin every one’s fun by exploiting, then whining about it when you call them on it, Counter-Strike winds up becoming a worst-case example of 13-year-olds sitting in their basement thinking they are cool because they used a wall hack to frag some adults. The game is there if you want it, but I’d recommend dedicated servers with people you know and like. Otherwise, the only thing you stand to discover is that the gene pool needs a stronger dose of chlorine.
But I have to go back through Half-Life 2. Period. Valve has packed so many different things to see and do into one game that I barely know where to begin. If you want exciting, edge of your seat action, it’s here in spades. Do you Doom III-haters want to see what terrifying horror looks like when it’s done right? Got it right here. When you add in the Gravity Gun and the G-Man spottings, you have a couple of extra mini-games to add to the fun. The journey Gordon Freeman takes in Half-Life 2 is one worth taking again and again, but the answers to the riddles are few and far between. I hope the next installment comes sooner rather than later, especially after the jaw-dropper ending, but I can honestly say Valve finally put their money where their mouth was and shut me up. I extend a heart-felt thank you to Valve for Half-Life 2 as this is simply the best, the most fun, and the clearest vision of what is possible in electronic gaming.