|Platforms||PC, Mac, Xbox, PS3, Xbox 360|
|Genre||Modern Classic FPS|
|Buy from Amazon|
It's hard to find a gamer who doesn't have some experience with the
Half-Life franchise. A champion of PC software when things started
shifting heavily in the favor of consoles, the original Half-Life wowed
critics with its pulse-pounding scripted sequences and seamless
stitching of narrative and gameplay in first-person. The long-awaited
full sequel, Half-Life 2, received just as many accolades, if not more,
for its advances in artificial intelligence, character animation, and
especially the robust physics engine powering the game's many objects.
And yet, it was only two weeks ago that I first experienced a game in Valve's flagship franchise myself. I've never been much of a PC gamer: I can count the number of games I've played on a computer monitor on one hand, and four of them begin with the words "Star Wars." I've had many consoles in my life, but rarely a PC with the power to play current games. I'm actually typing this on a Macbook right now, and as we all know, Macs just aren't for gamers.
That said, Valve has made an effort to bite into the Apple market with Mac versions of its excellent digital-distribution model Steam and many of Valve's own big games offered therein: just in time for the annual ridiculous 4th of July sales on the incredible digital distribution service. And if Valve is willing to create a Mac version of Half-Life 2 and price it at an outrageously fair $3.39 just for me, then I guess I owe it to them to play the game that millions have gone headcrab-crazy for.
But for all its fame and glory, the bottom line is that Half-Life 2 is a six year-old PC game in a genre I'm not terribly enthralled by. Did I hate it? Hit the jump, smash that caps lock key and ready your profane comments, PC fanboys, because I'm about to tear into your beloved Half-Life 2 like a shotgun into an antlion.
Our fifth first hour review ever was for Half-Life 2, check it out to see Greg's impressions of the game and then read on here for mine.
Rather than starting with an overview of the game and then delving into the nitty gritty like I usually do, I decided to jump right into the specifics. It seems for every aspect of Half-Life 2 that still works, there's something that bothers me about it.
+ I get by with a little help from my friends
Considering how much Gordon travels the coastline all by his lonesome self, it's impressive just how memorable the non-player characters can be in their short time in the spotlight. Barney's easygoing buddy role is probably the weakest of the bunch, and he's more than good enough. Doctor Kleiner straddles the line between absent-minded professor and believable genius remarkably well, despite his cartoonish voice. When the air starts feeling a bit too thick, Father Grigori and Colonel Cubbage cut the tension just in time. You'll genuinely want to help the good-natured Eli Vance, though Judith Mossman's shady dealings and tinge of jealousy will make you think twice. And of course there's Alyx, who's way out of Gordon's league (and ours) and doesn't seem to know it. All these characters are great, but my personal favorite -- who now sits among the top game villains of all time -- is the perfectly-realized Doctor Breen. Sorry humanity, but I'd hop aboard the Breen Machine and support my local Combine. His charismatic and almost fatherly public addresses would have convinced me to surrender even Alyx to my otherworldly benefactors...if I'd had the choice.
- Gordon the Link, and the unlimited G-Man
But Gordon doesn't have choice, because Gordon doesn't have voice. It's difficult to call the main character a "character," since the silent avatar is obviously meant to minimize the barriers between the player and the game world. I've never been a huge fan of the mute hero device in story-heavy games because he seems so out-of-place in a living, talking world. How am I supposed to believe that Gordon is humanity's messiah figure when other characters speak for him and hold his hand the entire game? On the other side of the spectrum is the enigmatic G-Man, who may just exist to provide Valve with an easy out for any plot holes or implausibilities that may arise. Don't get me wrong: I enJOY hisss peculiARity and PSYchadelic tripsss between REALITIES...but his powers and motives are neither explained nor outlined, which in most fiction ends up being nothing more than a cop-out. Secrets are sometimes unveiled with time, but twelve years and seven Half-Life titles haven't clued us in on the G-Man at all.
And speaking of implausibility, how did Gordon just happen to teleport into Breen's office at the beginning of the game...twice? Well whatever. I guess I'll just assume the G-Man did it.
+ A nice, peaceful shoot-em-up
Now, some credit should go to my noise-canceling headphones, but it's been a while since I've been this absorbed in a game world. Gordon's silent journey along the coastline felt so real. I've never played a game, before or after, that took place in a human-endangered Earth that looked so believable, with its abandoned shoreside shacks and crumbling cement cityscapes. It seems every other week, there's a brand new game forcing an apocalyptic setting on us (usually with zombies), but Half-Life 2 manages to imply that humanity's days are numbered while avoiding the exclusively gray and brown color scheme that others adopt. And I'll admit that a few surprise headcrabs made me jump.
- Where do I go from here?
Half-Life 2 undoubtedly gets the big picture right, but the minutiae of the level design just didn't gel for me. There's only one way forward through Gordon's odyssey, and the path isn't always clear. My Steam account says I've played 18 hours of Half-Life 2, though I'd estimate that three or four of them were spent wandering aimlessly, either looking for the next figurative gate or the key to it. The worst offender was the Combine outpost in Highway 17, where a literal gate blocks your buggy's path forward. I followed the gate's power source to a console that, to me, looked like three switches. One was green, the others were red. The USE button did nothing, so I wandered around, looking for a solution. After close to an hour, I gave up and checked GameFAQs to find that they were, in fact, batteries, and I needed to find two more of them. So, back in the game, I found one battery immediately, not far from the console. I searched for the other for about half an hour before giving up, and another trip to GameFAQs revealed it was hiding on top of an inaccessible guard tower for no logical reason. I let out more than a few disappointed sighs at hidden levers or easy-to-miss paths throughout the game.
+ Visuals that stand the test of time
Half-Life 2 is now an entire console generation behind the times, but the game doesn't look any worse for the wear. The industry has improved dramatically in lighting and shadows and all that jazz, but not necessarily in implementing them. The detailed textures and character models go a long way to keep the game looking fresh six years later. Much further than excessive shine and bloom lighting ever could, that's for sure.
- Gameplay that's rooted in the past
On the other hand, the first six hours of Half-Life 2 felt like a generation behind even its own time, and the primary culprit is fairly easy to spot. Through the entire first half of the game, it seems every pack of enemies is standing directly next to a set of explosive barrels. It was almost like taking a trip back in time to 1997's Goldeneye 007, where literally everything from computer monitors to desk chairs exploded when shot. I can't deny that the exploding barrel solution works to even the odds when you're seemingly outmanned in the game's early hours, but there should have been a better solution.
+ The gravity gun
Speaking of solutions, here comes the Gravity gun! What use would Valve's wonderful new physics engine be if we couldn't play with boxes and barrels? Objects all over the game environment can be picked up and launched with an appropriate feeling of weight and force. Some of the more entertaining moments of the game, for me, involved pleasures as simple as pulling an ammo crate up a steep cliff and watching as it slowly floats off the ground and hurries into my arms like a doggie expecting a treat.
- The gravity gun
Which brings me to my next point: the Zero-Point Energy Field Manipulator certainly brings the gravity to the table, but there's just not a lot of gun to it. The giddy anticipation of unleashing your inner Donkey Kong and tossing a barrel at some Combine is tempered once you realize you can't see a thing with a barrel floating in front of your face. I can't think of a single time where I used the gravity gun as a weapon beyond the first tenth and the last tenth of the game. It's just not very feasible when there's so little accuracy from medium range and getting in close to your enemies means taking substantial damage. It's not just combat where the gravity gun disappoints, either, as the process of crossing the antlion-infested beach by making a junk trail was excruciatingly slow and imprecise. There's no way to shoot objects a sizeable (but jump-able) distance, so I could only pick up and drop two wooden slats in front of each other and hope I could hop from one to the other without Gordon's invisible legs touching down on the sand and attracting unwelcome guests. Eventually I gave up and sprinted across the beach from safe zone to safe zone and reward the antlions who came to greet me with some shotgun shells.
- Unspectacular weaponry
Shotgun rushes actually became my go-to tactic before long, because the guns in Half-Life 2 mostly feel inadequate. What bothers me most is that Gordon's accuracy isn't pixel-perfect: laying the cursor atop an enemy's chest and firing the pistol from medium range doesn't even guarantee that you'll hit them. This wouldn't be a problem, but the Combine soldiers don't have the same limitations: an enemy with the inaccurate sub-machine gun can chip away at you from across the map, but you could empty your entire clip with the cursor on his bellybutton and miss the target every time. It makes sense that the pulse rifle has a better chance of hitting an Overwatch on top of a guard tower than the shotgun, but sniping just isn't much of an option at all. The crossbow moves too slowly to hit moving targets (i.e. all of them), the usefulness of the pulse rifle breaks down beyond medium range, and it just gets worse from there. I tend to play it safe in shooters and pick my potshots from afar, but I felt that my only real chance in most of Half-Life 2 was to charge in, shotgun at the ready.
+ Clever Combine
I can't blame all my blunders on Gordon's poor aim, though, because the metrocops of the Combine behaved more like a capable task force than most shooter fodder does. It's rare that the enemy ever stops moving, and in the era of cover-based shooters where enemies are too shy to give you a proper greeting, it's refreshing that the Combine know how to say hello. And that's not all they say: you'll hear plenty of radio chatter signaling forward movement, contact with the enemy (you), and each fallen soldier ends with flatline and auto-message back to Combine HQ about their unfortunate demise. The Combine may not be the top rung of the intelligence ladder, but you will have some insight into their tactical prowess by the time you've wiped them out, and that's not a claim most shooters can make.
- Perhaps it's just natural selection...
On the other hand, the partner AI is absolutely infuriating. Your human NPC partners will follow you so closely that you'll be wishing you could pry them out of your way with the crowbar. Every time I duck into a dead-end alley, the entire hive follows me in, and getting out again is like fighting incoming traffic during rush hour. The command for your allies to stay put is also entirely for show, because it just doesn't work. Fighting my way up a wide highway, I wanted to pinch the immobile Combine enemies from each side of the street. So naturally I told my war buddies to stay put on the left side of the road while I hightailed it across two lanes. But "stay" only means "stay" as long as you're standing two feet away, just like with my dog. By the time I made it to the opposite sidewalk, my AI buddies were already soaking up bullets as they sauntered through the open warzone. At least your antlion pets went full-Fido and played fetch.
Video: Detailed textures and a style that nails realism better than most keeps Half-Life 2 looking good after all these years.
Audio: Nothing ever sounds out of place. The music is rare but apt, while the sound effects give each weapon, enemy, and inanimate gravity gun fodder a bit of personality. The voice acting is the true star of this package, though.
Story: The only major disappointment here is that I couldn't turn the resistance over to Doctor Breen. I would do anything for Doctor Breen. But I guess Gordon wouldn't.
Gameplay: As a shooter, I didn't find a lot to love. Outstanding gunfights and enjoyable puzzles are the exceptions rather than the norm in Half-Life 2.
Challenge: I played the game on Medium and died quite a bit. Having quick-save handy helps the more frustrating moments that pop up, but it mostly keeps skilled balance between difficult and surmountable.
Pacing: There's never a break in the gameplay, something I always appreciate. The only exception being load times, which are somewhat frequent and lengthy, but you may need them to remind you it's only a game.
Longevity: You'll get a respectable 15 hours out of the campaign your first time through, which most shooters can only dream of. Even if that's not enough, there are some fun little Easter Eggs strewn about, and Steam offers a few extra achievements to unlock.
Fun Factor: The gunplay won't impress you, but City 17 and its suburbs are more than just a potential bullet hole to view through the iron-sights. A well-realized virtual world, physics-based tomfoolery, and some decent puzzles make this a well-rounded package.
Value: You can spare ten bucks for one of the most beloved games of all time, right? If not, wait for the next inevitable Steam sale and scoop it up for $3.39 like I did. It's hard to find a video game that isn't worth twenty cents an hour, let alone one on the level of Half-Life 2.
The Verdict: There are quite a few little things that bother me, and they certainly add up. What can I say? I'm picky. Still, they're not enough to diminish the accomplishments that made Half-Life 2 an innovator in its time and a classic today. Unless you've never played a first person shooter with a smile on your face, you owe it to yourself to save humanity. The only exception would be if you support the Breen institution, in which case, I have some lovely pamphlets for you about a wonderful thing called the Suppression Field...