Half-Life was a long and beautifully crafted game. From the exceptionally good intro sequence; a long and winding travel through the ubiquitous Black Mesa labs from entry to your assigned position, you, Dr. Gordon Freeman, knew this was gonna be a great ride. And it was. Teleportation and nuclear science, that’s the name of this scientists game, and following a breakdown in an experiment and a bit of a merging of two worlds this is how we start out.

Along with a bunch of scientists trapped in a few labs Gordon finds his way around, gets tooled up and goes off on his adventure, eventually escaping Black Mesa and the troops sent there to clean things up, once and for all, and winds up journeying to an alien world. One step ahead of him in this journey is the mysterious G-Man, modelled heavily on a similar character in the X-Files, minus the smokes. We leave Gordon at the end of his journey travelling on a train. Where to is unknown but the G-Man knows and he’s not letting on.

Half-Life 2 starts in the same fashion. You’ve been gone years but you wake up on a tube train bound for City 17; a dystopic metropolis governed by a dictatorship called the Combine. This is a bleak place. The citizens are imprisoned, bullied and overruled by the troops that oversee the city and they’re not happy about it.

I’m not going to go into the storyline of Half-Life 2 for two reasons, firstly it has one, and secondly it’s made up bit by bit as you go along by the characters you come into contact with. A few of the characters from Half-Life have survived and are your link to what’s going on. The storyline is, however, a little muddled: it’s always clear what you have to do, but why you have to do it seems to be a spur of the moment decision as events unfold. Why are you here, erm… well the G-Man knows, but as usual he’s not saying.

This is indeed a frightening world to be stranded in. Beautifully portrayed by the characters and civilians who cross your path. As you walk your way around City 17 you get a second-hand picture of what’s going on as you overhear conversations and take in the vibe. You’re not there for long though, soon enough you’ll be armed and on your adventure.

Along the route you’ll meet some of the enemies from the first installment, along with a host of new sub-human and alien creatures and machines. You’ll get to use a couple of vehicles, spectacularly, in long, fast segments of the game and you move around a fair whack of land throughout the entire game. Like Half-Life you’ll get to use some of the aliens on your side too, which was a great touch from the original they’ve kept. Additionally you’ll be fighting alongside friendlies who follow you into battle.

Since we’re on the subject this is a good time to mention AI. This little asset is fast becoming one of the most important, if not the most important aspect of the First Person Shooter. As the technology develops, so do the complexities involved, and this is a part of the gameplay that is very difficult to get right. Half-Life 2 does, however, get it right. Your enemies and allies alike are adaptable and work together. Gone forever are the days of scripted or waypoint battling. These guys are good. And they can make decisions on how best to attack you based on their surroundings and their proximity to you. So expect units to cover each other, make use of multiple entry points and know when to use grenades against you. Large artillery enemies like the gunships and striders will not forget your position once they’ve discovered you and will do anything they can to get to you. That will often mean overturning vehicles and debris in the process. These guys won’t give you an easy ride.

In my Counter-Strike: Source Review I discussed briefly the Source engine: Valve’s physics and rendering engine the game is built on. Developed for this title it’s a state-of-the-art technology which outrivals every other gaming engine currently available. Physics is the plotline of this game, and its also the one significant element that really does make this the best game of its class, and, well, the best game of the year. The environments you’re playing in are highly interactive, and you’ll need to be inventive in order to progress. This fundamental part of the gameplay is perhaps Half-Life 2‘s most shining quality. The graphics are outstanding, yes, and i’ll move on to that, but its physics and interactivity together that make this title work. There are a few great puzzles based around real-world physics and they’re a joy to work with. Because they’re based on real-world rules, wood floats in water, for example, or pulley-systems with weights, they have a real point in being there and that, for me, enhances what a game like this should be: realistic. Material properties, magnetics, fluid dynamics, electricity and gravity, they’re all a factor here and the one piece of kit integral to your progress also makes use of this feature. The Zero-Gravity Gun is used to pull objects towards you and then expel them. Coupled with an inventive mind this often gives you more than one way to complete a task, or take down your enemies, and I’ll let you know here and now, the more inventive the solution, the better it feels.

Visually the game lives up to its hype. Environments and characters are of an outstandingly high quality. Of the three titles I’ve played this year that have shone in the graphics department, Half-Life 2 beats both Far Cry and Doom 3. It’s a relatively close call, visually as those two titles are great to look at and feature all the recent advances gamers have come to expect but Half-Life 2‘s Source engine has a couple of extra strings to its bow.

Firstly the characters. The models are excellent, they move incredibly smoothly, without sharp edges or overlapping polygons and they express very well. Characters eyes will follow you, or are used to convey emotion, they don’t suffer from the dead look most games inherently offer their photo-captured characters. The seven or so main characters have been lovingly crafted. You can see the effort that’s been put into them just by watching them go about their tasks and interacting with each other. There are no pre-rendered scenes in the game at all. There are scripted cut-scenes, but these never alter from you’re perspective, if you look away, you don’t see it. Simple as that. This, then is perhaps the smoothest title in that respect. Although Doom 3 didn’t have pre-rendered cut scenes, it didn’t use only the players first-person perspective. It’s only something you think about in hindsight, but maybe that’s the point; you don’t notice at the time, it’s keeping you involved. Half-Life 2 is then rather theatrical in this way.

The second is in the detail. As I’ve mentioned in the Counter-Strike review the maps are crammed full of rubbish. Literally. This adds a new level of realism to the experience that, along with better image and texture mapping and specularity help bridge the gap somewhat from the sort of ingame rendering we’re used to seeing to photo-real scenes. Along with great water and lighting the quality of these environments, both when seen as stills and, most impressively when played, bring the environments to life.

Which brings us to sound, and yes, I’m going to have to say the sound design rocks. It’s really really good. George Lucas’ famous little quote about sound being half the experience of film runs so true in games, too. Spatiality and ambient sounds, voice, music, action, focus and attention sounds are all factors in producing a good game.

Over the past couple of years, music and voice acting have been steady and unremarkable. There is no exception here with all voice and lip-synching performed very well and the soundtrack  ‘a fairly techno offering ‘ generally kicks in over the ambient soundscapes when the action does. It’s very blatant and aims to drive you deep into the action in the same way a movie’s music would. Harder to get right are incidental sounds. From weapons to consoles, objects, alarms and remarks Half-Life 2 does a good job. The original did too, and many of the more esoteric sounds, like the sound of your suit charging up have been kept, slightly upgraded for this release. Audio from the enemy troops is genuinely exceptional. They’re in constant radio chatter with each other and when you eliminate a unit, a siren sounds followed by a radio message from a controller ordering remaining troops to the location. It’s the little touches that certainly don’t go unnoticed.

Half-Life 2 is a shooter. It does, however change in terms of gameplay from start to finish. There are points in the game where you’re travelling around without enemy contact, some points where you’re in very comfortable positions picking off small groups of enemies and there are parts of the game which take place with full-scale urban battles and its here that you’ll be frustrating trying to push forward. It all adds to the pacing of the game, which varies greatly.

In the middle, the game is relatively slow and comfortable. You’ll spend time using vehicles, and travelling at speed. You’re more often than not solving puzzles or waging small skirmishes. These parts were, in my view, the best. They had all the inventive angles I’ve covered above and they gave you a chance to enjoy the scenery. These mostly outdoors parts of the game are also keyed in to time. You’ll start in the morning and move onwards towards dusk, and then to night. It has beautiful vistas and outdoors environments like Far Cry, and a good deal of high-tech environments that Far Cry and Doom 3 share.

As I’ve mentioned before the AI is great, until it comes to your allies, who seem to be a bit dumb really. They’re not pathetic by any means but they’re more of a hinderance than anything else; they’ll often get in your way, blow your cover or just generally get cut up, and there’s nothing you can do about it. When you’re with allies they’re part of your squad, but you can’t control them in any way or stop them from blindly running into the enemies bullets. It’s lucky that your ammo doesn’t harm them, otherwise you’d be more responsible for their demise than the enemy. However, it’s great when they do take an enemy down though, they get quite excited about it.

All this doesn’t come without issues though. The game has a lot of audio glitching when loading and saving which is more annoying than serious but it did crash several times, especially towards the end whilst trying to auto-save, or dealing with complicated scenes using lots of moving objects and effects like fire and explosions.

My custom-built machine is only six months old and I can play smoothly with most of the settings at their highest, but there were some real bottlenecks that were enough to have me throwing my mouse at the monitor as I was forced to end the game via the task manager and then restart, closing every other system application it had crashed manually as I went. Bizarrely, Counter-Strike runs like a gem, and its the same engine.

Which leads us nicely to the biggest niggle: Steam. Steam is Valve’s content management system. You need to install and use it to download their other titles. It auto-patches the games and it’s used as an online manager for both your account and servers worldwide. In order to play this single-player game you need to validate it. It’s a very effective anti-piracy measure. To this end lots and lots of people have had issues validating the game.

The game is also available to download via Steam, which runs in at over 3Gb. This meant that on the day Half-Life 2 came out, those that didn’t get in first were out of luck. Valve’s servers apparently have a bandwidth of 20Gb/second which gives you some sort of sense of how in demand this title was. Prior to the release many players, like me, had already preloaded the entire game onto their hard drives. Whilst the anti-piracy effort is valid, and to be commended, the problems were not a welcome sign for a large part of Valve’s commercial audience.

Putting Half-Life 2 into perspective: it is an exceptional title. The technology is matched only by artistry and both are benchmarks for the future of gaming. Whilst Half-Life 2 may be the best game in the world to date, it’s far from perfect. For a start it’s not nearly long enough. There will be expansion sets for it – the game features creatures towards the end that aren’t actually encountered face to face in the journey, and the ending is, like the first one, left open.

I’m going to give Half-Life 2 ten because of Counter-Strike: Source, which is a full title in itself and is only available with Half-Life 2. As I’ve put down in my CS: Source review, one is strictly single player, the other strictly multiplayer and that’s the value-add. Also included with the higher priced packs is the full release of Half-Life, re-rendered with the Source engine which makes for a better experience and, when its available, a Source version of Day of Defeat, Steam’s other killer-app; a WW2 themed multiplayer that plays very much like Call of Duty.

Valve know exactly what they have in Half-Life 2 and I’d imagine there is going to be a lot of Ferraris in the parking lot when work commences after the Christmas break. The intro and ending pretty much sucked, if I’m honest, which certainly isn’t true of the rest of the game.

Half-Life 2 (2004)

Developer: Valve
Publisher: Vivendi
Platform: PC

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