I think that I'm impossible to please when it comes to video games. When I play a terrible game, I take an almost ecstatic glee in pointing out all the many, many ways in which the developers screwed up. When faced with a nearly perfect game, on the other hand, I start to nitpick, and search for tiny mistakes to grouse about, as if admitting that the existence of perfection somehow invalidated my worldview. I'm trying to work on this, so I'll get my childish nitpick out of the way right now so I can start singing the game's praises. Here goes: no matter where I was standing when I fired a pistol, the shell casing always seemed to make the same sound as it hit the ground. Shotgun shells sound very different when landing on sand than they do when they hit marble, and every time I heard the wrong sound it pulled me right out of the experience.
Half Life 2 is the best-looking video game I've ever played. No exceptions, full stop, the best-looking video game ever. It's the first thing I noticed about the game, and it kept stunning me with its beauty all the way through. The textures are amazingly detailed and varied to the point that I even if the walls repeated every ten feet none but the most discerning viewers would ever notice it. The animation is superb—all of the human characters move with a wonderful semblance of life, amazingly coordinated and fluid.
The only notable thing missing are pain animations, and that's enough of an oversight that it merits mention. Come on, it's the year 2004—if I'm playing a first-person shooter and I shoot a man in the leg, I want to see him stumble. Then, if for some reason I haven't finished him off, and he tries to escape, he damn sure better do it limping. All the characters in Half-Life 2 barely flinch when wounded.
Which is a tragedy, because the game's guns are all so fantastically designed that I'd liked to have seen them have a more pronounced effect on my opponents. The guns all look incredible, feature full animation, and sound amazing. By amazing, I mean LOUD. I've always said that the report of a gun should sound like the world is ending, and, as silly as it sounds, whenever I fired a gun in Half-Life 2 I felt as if I'd accomplished something, whether I'd actually hit my target or not.
The artificial intelligence, both friend and enemy, is also spectacular—everyone seems to be constantly in motion, always reacting, looking for cover or a better shot. 90 percent of the opponents in the game are human stormtroopers, and (except for one glitch wherein troopers don't actually exist until they jump out of a personnel carrier, allowing the player to camp in front of it and blast them one after another as they jump out) they react about as well as I'd expect a human to when under fire. The craftiness of my opponents and their skill at hunting me down really raised the level of the game for me. The stormtroopers were such challenging and entertaining foes that I didn't mind for a second the fact that I was essentially fighting the same four or five guys for the vast majority of the game.
Half-Life 2 picks up just moments after Half-Life ended—or maybe it doesn't. The game seems to imply that no time has passed for Gordon Freeman (the world's most butt-kicking physicist) since he single-handedly defeated the Xen invasion in the first game, but it's kind of hard to tell. Quite a bit of time has passed in the interim, time enough at least for a hostile extra-dimensional race to conquer the Earth. Since Gordon doesn't seem to have aged much, it's probable that he's been in some manner of extra-dimensional holding area since the end of the last game, waiting until the Man in the Suit had something for him to do. This is one of the more confusing of the game's plot points, one that could have easily been explained away had Gordon opened his mouth just once in the entire game. He doesn't.
Unfortunately, this lack of opportunity to get to know the main character left me feeling strangely detached from the overall game experience. Attempts are made to humanize the supporting cast, and the superb voice acting and new facial animation routines do an excellent job of making them seem much more human, and therefore much more creepy, than in any game before them. It's too bad they really don't have the opportunity to say anything much more substantive than telling Gordon where he's supposed to walk next, and who he's supposed to shoot. I sensed there was a problem with characterization when I realized that the most likeable character is an adorable giant robot that operates under the mistaken apprehension that it's a dog.
I was infuriated at times by the game's almost aggressive lack of an involving plot. I remember hearing the first Half-Life praised for being a step forward in video game storytelling, and finding the idea funny—Half-Life had the minimum story that was absolutely necessary to keep the player walking in the correct direction. There was no more plot to it than the first Contra had, and they were similarly linear in their design. Suffice it to say that this game follows closely in their footsteps, with the one notable improvement being that now some of the helpful scientists that point Gordon in the right directions actually have names. There's no furtherance of an overall plot, and no continuing characters beyond a few familiar villains. Frankly, had this game been called something other than Half-Life 2, it's possible that people wouldn't even have noticed that it was a sequel.
I shouldn't be too hard on the game, though, as this lack of a formal, tightly scripted plot allowed the developers to run wild and shoehorn into the game every fun thing that struck their fancy. Half the time I suspected that I wasn't playing a game at all, but rather the greatest-ever sales tool for a game engine. At times, Valve seem to be showing off, proving that they've developed the perfect foundation on which to build any type of game the player can imagine. They pull it of more often than not, as I can't remember a war game that captured the desperation and terror of street-to-street fighting that the game's later levels do. Heck, I've played every single survival horror game ever, and not one of them made fighting zombies as tense and thrilling as Half-Life 2's "haunted town" level does. The way the game switches genres from level to level gives the developers license to use whatever characters and situations pop into their heads. This freedom leads to an inspired set piece featuring the bugs from Starship Troopers, as well as a tense and terrifying encounter with the tripods from War of the Worlds.
More than anything else, I suppose, Half-Life 2 is the story of a group of developers in love with their physics engine. They're so proud of the fact that all the non-geographical items operate with realistic physics that they provide the player with seemingly endless opportunities to explore the limits of those physics. Whether knocking the platform out from under an enemy's feet, knocking barrels into a pool of water to create a makeshift bridge, or pulling the blocks out from under a tank's wheels to let it roll down a hill, I found myself appreciating just how realistically the physics performed.
Of course, the real advantage of this realistic environment is that it allows for an entirely new, and far more naturalistic kind of puzzle design. Think there's a secret passage behind a bookcase? Instead of backtracking through the level, looking for the missing book in the hopes that it will unlock the secret door, why not just tear the books off the shelf? Or tear the bookcase off the wall? The designers even offer a weapon, the gravity gun, specifically designed to manipulate the environment to help solve these puzzles. At one point in the game, I found myself confronted with a door barred from the other side. In another game, I might have looked for a convenient switch to open it, or a vent I could crawl through to circumvent the problem. Here, I just pulled out the gravity gun, aim at the bar, and lift it out of the slot. The realism of the physical environment made this one of the most intuitive game playing experiences I've ever had. It features one of the steepest learning curves I've ever experienced—whatever situation I was in, I just needed to imagine what I'd do in Gordon's place, and usually my solution would work just fine.
The only problem with this love affair is that, like most relationships, over the long haul the developers seem to have tired of their physics engine. More specifically, they seem to have tired of putting in the effort required to generate fantastic puzzles and setpieces. For a long sequence that takes place entirely within a crumbling, war-torn city, I would have liked a few opportunities to destroy bridges as convoys drove over them, or perhaps drop a wall on someone. Then there's the fact that at no point in this sequence does a building collapse. I don't even care if I get to blow it up or not—would it have killed them to have a building collapse, and then have some tripods come striding out of the rubble, and then require me to toss chunks of rubble at the tripods to distract them while my compatriots made their escape?
Whatever problems I may have had with the story progression, lack of characters, and so-so last hour can't dull my love for this game. It's an example of nearly perfect game design, with play mechanics polished until their shine could blind the unprepared. It's also one of the most fantastically paced games in the history, moving along at breakneck speed, never letting the player take a breath. It's only ten hours long, but nine of those hours are practically perfect in every way. For everyone who's ever played a first-person shooter, and who has a computer powerful enough to play it, there's simply no excuse to miss this game.
Oh, and one last little nitpick: when are people finally going to get tired of the whole sequel number superscript Half-Life Squared thing? Am I the only one sick to death of all of those tiny raised numbers?
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood, Intense Violence
Parents should be careful with this game—if their children have any taste at all, they'll want it, but it's an extremely violent game, and isn't really appropriate for players below their mid-to-late teens.
Counter-Strike players should pick this up right away, as it offers the exact same game they've been playing for years, only now the grenades bounce more realistically.
Fans of Psi-Ops should check the game out-the gravity gun is nearly as fun as that game's TK was.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers are in for a treat, as the game contains the most comprehensive subtitles in history—everything is subtitled, even the most minor audio cue.