Half-Life 2 – PC
Developer: Valve Software
Publisher: Valve Software
Release Date: November 16, 2004
ESRB Rating: M
Nerd Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Reviewed by Malefico
Half-Life 2, the much anticipated sequel to the original, has the enviable honor of being part of a franchise that some have called the best FPS games ever made. It’s Retroary, and unfortunately I don’t still own any PC games that are old enough to officially qualify, so this absolutely kick-ass game (close to its 10-year anniversary) will have to suffice.
The Story So Far…
Half-Life (Valve’s very first video game) told the story of Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist working at the top-secret Black Mesa research facility in New Mexico. After an experiment to create a working teleportation device goes wrong, a tear in the fabric of space/time is opened drawing the attention of extra-dimensional beings called Xen and other creatures. In addition to the introduction of Vortigaunts, a species of benevolent intentions but bizarre aspect, the game featured an enigmatic character known as the G-Man. After battling evil aliens, discovering evidence that the government knew about the Xen, and besting humans bent on preserving the cover-up, Freeman eventually defeats the creature that’s holding the rift open in preparation for an invasion. The game ends with Gordon regaining consciousness to be confronted by the G-Man, who makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Work for the G-Man’s employers, or die… Freeman reluctantly agrees, and is placed in stasis until such time as his new employers require his services.
Half-Life 2 begins with the protagonist, Gordon Freeman awakening to the G-Man’s voice. He stumbles into a post-apocalyptic nightmare with humanity under the control of the Combine, a race attracted to Earth by the Black Mesa events. Your job is to throw off the Combine’s yoke of oppression and liberate the people of Earth.
Half-Life 2 controls follow (and probably helped define) the standard FPS model. The version I own was ported into the first iteration of Valve’s Source engine, and the game has received updates through the years so even now the images are sharp and the controls respond well. As with many games, you can sprint, use a flashlight, or even breathe underwater, but all these abilities rely on an auxiliary power supply that’s part of the environment suit, described below.
The polygon models look a bit dated, but are fine for the rendering of NPCs, enemies, and the game environment. They are not taxing for modern systems and the game can be played with integrated graphics, albeit with low frame rates at times. There seemed to be an error with Fraps reading FPS on this game; it was consistently reporting FPS in excess of 150, which is not possible with the POS’ hardware. If I had to guess at a number I’d say between 40-50 FPS based on perceptual clues. Unlike more modern games, this one played at 1440 X 900 with 4XMSAA and 8X Anisotropic Filtering.
The developers did a good job of animating enemies so they have their own characteristics and require different tactics to defeat. The foes are varied, but universally dangerous. The Combine utilizes biological and mechanical technology, as well as coercion and reward to create the opposing force. You’ll face human security troops that work for the Combine as well as numerous creatures and mechanized terrors that have taken up residence on Earth. Hostile creatures and machines will come at you from every direction including underground and through the air.
In-game music suits the overall tone of the game. I especially enjoy the sinister ambiance of Ravenholm. The sound effects are also effective, and the background sounds are matched well to the environment. When you venture outside, birds and insects call and the soft sighing of the wind can be heard. Underground, water drips and other sounds echo. Shaky structures creak under your weight, and from the radio communications of security forces to the grotesque glorp of a dying Barnacle, Valve created a believable alternate reality.
Game play is engaging and challenging, and you get to pilot several vehicles during your journey to the Combine Citadel. You’ll need to gain familiarity with various hand and vehicle weapons, and acquire at least some comfort with driving in order to navigate Half-Life 2‘s hazards.
Instead of distinct levels, the story is split up into Chapters, generally coinciding with changes in the game environment. The various chapters of Half-Life 2 take place in a wide range of terrain. You’ll escape Combine custody in an occupied area known as City 17 and travel through sewers, rivers, a sandy coast and more before you finally reach the Combine headquarters. Along the way you’ll have to overcome mini-bosses and automated defenses, solve puzzles and generally be ready for anything.
Although Half-Life 2 is by no means an open-world experience, the chapters do include areas that can be explored to find extra supplies and weapons, or skipped if you want to avoid unnecessary damage. The maps are well-structured to take advantage of the 3D world, and you’ll have to jump, climb, and use various elements of the environment to progress toward your final goal. In addition, most of the objects in the game world can be picked up, thrown and destroyed.
You start the game as a helpless pawn- unable to defend yourself, you must run from Combine troops, an act which raises alarms at the Citadel and lands you in the lab of a scientist who also worked at Black Mesa. It’s there you receive the basic tools you need to start your quest- a hazardous environment (HEV) suit and a crowbar to break into barricaded areas. The HEV suit not only decreases damage, but also provides energy for your flashlight, sprint and underwater breathing abilities. As it soaks up damage, the energy level of the suit decreases. Both health and energy can be acquired from enemy drops, hidden in crates, or recharged from Combine health and energy stations located throughout the game. Once you start picking up weapons, you get an additional HUD element that shows the currently loaded ammo, available ammo, and on weapons that have secondary functions, the ammo count for that as well.
Along the way, you pick up some cool weapons. All the standard FPS stuff is available, pistols, automatic weapons, shotguns, grenades, etc., but you also run across some specialty items that are tons of fun to use. Gravity Gun FTW!!! You’ll also get an opportunity to man mounted heavy weapons to take care of large numbers of enemy troops or defeat Combine attack vehicles.
The Bottom Line
One noticeable difference between the Half-Life series and other FPS games that followed is that these titles do not have any cut scenes. The story is advanced through sequences of scripted dialogue. Although Gordon Freeman’s face is featured on game box covers, during the entire narrative the player never sees the protagonist’s face, nor does he speak a word of dialogue.
Despite the lack of “formal” narrative, the engrossing story unfolds around you in real-time. It’s advanced by fearful residents as you’re fleeing from Civil Protection thugs, and by crazy priests, scientists, aliens, and Combine toadies as you make your way to the final confrontation. The narrative is written on the walls and broadcast over resistance radios and loudspeakers as the Combine forces hunt you. This mechanic is a work of genius in my opinion because it allows the story to progress without interrupting the flow of the game.
I’ve made some comments in the past about the lack of immersive stories in the FPS genre. That’s definitely not the case with the Half-Life series. The story line is compelling and the NPCs with whom you interact are interesting and help bring life to the plot. Valve did a great job of integrating different personalities, from helpful to hostile to really make for a suspenseful and unpredictable story.
The greatest thing about the plot is that aside from your cohorts in the rebellion, and the Vortigaunts, who turn out to be part of the Xen hierarchy and are useful and helpful little guys, you never really understand the motivation or ultimate goals of the Xen. You’re never quite sure if you’re saving humanity from enslavement, or simply helping an alien intelligence rid itself of competition.
From the opening sequence, where you wake to the creepy, halting speech of the G-Man reverberating in your head to the final battle at the citadel, the alien involvement is shadowy and circumspect. Although the G-Man is seen occasionally in Half-Life 2, his presence is less overt than in the first game, and it seems as if this agent of the Xen may be manipulating humans and Combine alike.
Is Half-Life 2 a perfect game? Damn close, in my opinion. Although the load screens between chapters and areas can be a bit annoying (they sometimes interrupt fast movement in vehicles which is a pain), they’re not enough to create a serious distraction. The fact that it’s influenced by other shooters like Doom and Quake notwithstanding, it helped create the genre and its continuing influence on game designers, and by extension gamers themselves, cannot be overstated.
I can remember when my brother, a diehard FPS enthusiast, told me I should give this game a shot. I was dubious. After I installed and fired it up, I was pretty much incommunicado for the entire weekend.
Half-Life 2 gives the player an opportunity to explore a dystopian future, save the world, and have tons of fun in the process. It is a title that brings all the elements that make for a great interactive experience together, and still ranks as one of the best games ever. Varied environments, changing tactics, puzzling obstacles, fast action, a story that matters, unique weapons, and enemies- this game truly has it all.
Even if you’re not a big fan of shooters (I’m not), Half-Life 2 will satisfy. If you’re still not convinced that this is a must-play, you can choose between me elaborating on each point of my cogent and thoughtful argument, or just read on to see how others have rated this experience. Really, you want to hear this stuff from someone else? Fine…
It has won 39 Game of the Year awards, garnered several Game of the Decade awards, been ranked as the highest-rated shooter of all time by PC Magazine and entered into the Guinees Book of World Records: Gamer’s Edition as such, received numerous “perfect” reviews and one 11 out of 10, sold over 12 million copies, and been responsible for tens of millions of hours of lost productivity around the world.
In short, if you’ve never played Half-Life 2, immediately download a copy, or get the Half Life package from Steam, and try it out. Even if you have played through the series before, you still may want to revisit this classic. Chances are you’ll be thinking to yourself, “Wow, I remember this. I really love this part!”
I have to give Half-Life 2 9.5 out of 10. This game embodies the concept of crispy NerdBacon goodness.
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