[See our review of the PC version here]
It’s a hard life, being a games reviewer. You’d think it would all be peaches and cream – playing games for ages and then being allowed to write about them (and if you’re really lucky, being paid for the privilege).
But it’s a lot harder than that. When writing a review, you can’t just dive into the heart of the game, dissecting subtext left, right, and centre. Obligations have to be filled: you need to talk about the graphics, the quality of the textures, the polygon counts, the frame rates; then there’s the sound and music; on top of all that, the fluidity of control. By now you’re bogged down in such a mire of technicalities that you’ve run out of room to talk about the interesting aspects of the game, let alone whether it’s fun or not.
These problems arise because of the youth of the industry. We don’t congratulate film directors when all their shots are in focus, because a certain level of technical competence is expected now. Once upon a time, when the medium was still developing and the industry around it still finding its feet, it might have made more sense to congratulate the accuracy of the cameraman’s focusing, or the fact that the dialogue was audible.
Having never had a PC powerful enough to run it, I jumped at the chance to review the Xbox port Half-Life 2. And reviewing it has been an amazing experience. All the paragraphs in a normal game review about bump-mapping, surround sound, dynamic shadows – have no place in a review of this game. Those aspects are so refined, so complete, there’s no need to discuss them other than to say that they’re practically perfect. If this game deserves any technical discussion, it’s a few brief sentences regarding the quality of the conversion. Which should say: it’s impressive. Bar a few frame-rate stutters in heavy gunfire, it’s a staggering achievement, porting a cutting edge PC game to what is essentially a five-year-old computer. The joypad controls are responsive and never feel like a compromise, and the game loads (and, vitally, quick-saves) almost as fast as the PC version. (And finally, just in case you’ve played the PC version already: there’s no new content bar some snazzy lighting effects, and no multiplayer. The latter is no loss).
Enough technicalities. Everything in the game fits together; everything feels right. The voice acting complements the character design beautifully. The weaponry sounds powerful, and feels weighty. The game world is not only beautiful, but entirely natural; here is a first-person-shooter set not in endless brown corridors and research laboratories, but what is instantly identifiable as the remnants of an Eastern Bloc city. Water doesn’t look like a blue jelly (from above or below the surface); it looks like water. The cracks in the walls, the peeling paint, the mid-20th century architecture, the alien citadel that looms over the city like a Bauhaus minaret – it’s all part of a beautifully constructed whole.
I can’t help but come back to that idea of “whole-ness”. The consistency in Half-Life 2 is quite uncanny. It’s not always realistic – character designs are slightly exaggerated, gunfights are more action-movie than Tom Clancy – but it’s never anything less than natural. And if there’s one thing in the game that is vital to this wholeness – indeed, is the very source of it – it-s the physics.
For so many games of the current generation, physics is the icing on the cake. Developers, unsure of what to do with spare processing power, license the Havok engine and throw corpses around like rag-dolls. Instead of adding to the immersion, this only heightens the artifice; whilst bodies behave like they ought to, wooden doors don’t budge an inch when pelted with round after round of buckshot. It’s inconsistent.
Half-Life 2 takes exactly the opposite approach. Just like the real world, everything in the game is built upon the physics. Every can, every twig, every cardboard box behaves like you’d hope it should. Crates shatter when smashed up, whereas cardboard boxes simply collapse. And when you acquire the “gravity gun” a quarter of the way through the game, everything is turned on its had as you gain the ability to throw just about everything around. All of a sudden, the world becomes your ammunition. Boxed into a corner by a sentry turret? Not a problem: pull a radiator from the wall, hold it in front of you as a shield, and then catapult it through the air at the last minute to smash the turret.
Puzzles are not solved with arbitrary devices such as coloured keycards or pressure-pads; they’re solved through basic mechanics. Early on, you realise that heavy objects can weigh see-saws down, and convert them into ramps. It takes a little longer, though, to realise that you can also raise objects up by placing buoyant objects underneath them. Later in the game, when confronted with a malfunctioning control panel that is electrifying a flooded room, the “gamer” mindset tries to shoot the panel to destroy it. This is, of course, totally illogical. The actual solution is obvious – picking up plastic barrels to lay down and use as stepping stones. Half-Life 2 forces you to stop thinking outside the Xbox, and start thinking inside the real world.
Half-Life 2‘s physics don’t just influence its game-engine; they’re vital to the plot, a tale of scientists and rebels battling their new alien overlords with a mixture of technology, firepower, and the ubiquitous crowbar. They influence character’s personalities and motivations, providing a framework for the beautiful facial animation – which can, without words, demonstrate emotions ranging from fear to sarcasm. They even provide a metaphor for the tale: Gordon Freeman – proclaimed by the Vortigaunts as ‘the One Free Man’ – is anything but free, constrained within a system (the game), compelled to survive (the game’s objective), destined never to remove his hazard suit (the metaphor of interface). There is choice, but within a limited framework.
The physics engine is the system of Half-Life 2‘s world. I use that phrase with intent. Half-Life 2 is hugely important. It’s the first real Newtonian game, and provides hints as to how gaming can develop and, ultimately, head towards its own Enlightenment. The limited space of this review prevents me from going into any more detail – describing the epic set-pieces; the subtle jokes; the way the player creates their own pacing, swinging the game from survival horror one moment to run-and-gun the next; Marc Laidlaw’s tight, minimalist, hard sci-fi script; the audacity of setting a game 20-30 years after its predecessor and yet simultaneously beginning the moment the first game ended. Whatever word limit my editor set, I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. You’ll have to trust me: this is a game to savour, to experience, to return to. Half-Life 2 doesn’t just set new standards for technical competence; it dares, it aspires, to better itself. Given that, it’s only fair to call it a masterpiece.