Great things come to those who wait.
Six years ago, Sierra was hyping a new game being developed by an unknown developer, Valve. Half-Life was billed as the next great first-person shooter, a game that would redefine the genre. Surprisingly, corporate PR did not lie and the original Half-Life raised the bar in terms of single-player action, scripting and storytelling.
The inevitable sequel, conceived immediately after the first one launched and in development for longer than anyone would have thought possible, claimed to not only build on its predecessor, but incorporate a new gaming engine that would be the envy of the known world (no joking'have you read any press releases?) and redefine PC gaming technology.
And in many ways, they were right again.
Half-Life 2 delivers excellent gameplay, a compelling storyline, and some of the most beautiful graphics ever seen on the PC. It's an incredible game that no first-person shooter fan should miss. But while it represents the best that PC gaming has to offer, it also represents the worst, reminding many gamers why the console systems have become the gaming medium of choice. Half-Life 2 is a game you love to hate, or hate to love, and just may spark the worst geek fights since the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Kirk would kick Picard's ass, by the way.
First, we'll deal with the good'and, boy, there's a lot of it. Reprising your role as Gordon Freeman, you wake up on a train entering the complex world of City 17. The Combine, vicious alien invaders from the first game, have taken over Earth after breaking through the portals you unwittingly opened. Whoops!
The military obviously failed to realize the tactical advantage of fighting with a crowbar, and is now working with the Combine, oppressing the masses and routing out the last of the resistance. It's up to you, Gordon Freeman, to connect with the resistance and help them figure out a way to fight the alien overlords.
The gameplay is remarkably similar to the original Half-Life. The entire game is seen through the first-person perspective, with no third-person cut scenes or anything to pull you away from the action. All the dialogue and story are communicated directly to you from characters you interact with in the game. If you choose not to talk to some people, you might not understand some of the subtleties of the plot. Since this is an action game, however, plot can definitely take a back seat.
After the brief introduction to the world of City 17, the action grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. The Combine remembers what Gordon Freeman did to them the last time around and your return is greeted with an overwhelming demonstration of force. Old enemies are back, from head crab-infected humans to special operations forces, along with some new surprises. The aliens do run the planet, and they aren't afraid to show it.
This mass of alien might is presented to you in glorious detail, thanks to the simply amazing Source engine that powers this graphical masterpiece. The facial animations are so realistic you'll forget the characters are actually pieces of code. Water effects, lighting effects and, well, about a thousand other effects are rendered in loving detail, making this one of the most visually pleasing games I've ever laid eyes on. In order to truly appreciate the level of detail in the game, be prepared to buy a new video card, because even cards a year or two old won't be able to handle all that the Source engine has to offer.
While we've seen great graphics in previous releases this year (Doom 3, anyone?) the Source engine separates itself from the rest by way of its incredible physics system. Thanks to the best use of the Havoc technology we've ever seen, every object has a weight and mass in the universe of Half-Life 2, and understanding that helps you solve some of the neatest puzzles ever put forth in a FPS game. From gaining access to new areas by placing objects on seesaws to squashing enemies with heavy containers, Half-Life 2 has upped the level of interaction to ludicrous levels. Using the gravity gun, the best new addition, you can manipulate just about anything in the world, using everyday objects as weapons. Crates aren't just for standing on or breaking open anymore " they make for very nice improvisational anvils, too. You will also drive vehicles at several points in the game, leading to some hectic situations where you're flying across the landscape blasting baddies all around.
The graphical goodness doesn't come free, however, and Half-Life 2 suffers from some quite excessive load times. Unless you have an absolute top of the line machine, expect the action to pause at specific points while it loads up the next area, which interrupts the action rather rudely. Some parts of the game even have you traveling back through the load point you just crossed, causing some needless frustration. For a game that tries so hard to keep you immersed in its universe, the frequent load times are downright annoying.
Over the course of your harrowing adventure, you'll encounter a variety of weaponry, most of which (including that trusty crowbar) existed in the original Half-Life. The new weapons include the aforementioned gravity gun, a pulse rifle with a devastating secondary fire, and the bug ball. This last one is used to control a team of Ant Lions. Imagine a group of bugs taken straight from the Starship Troopers movie that obey your commands and attack anything you want. It's good to be the king'of Ant Lions.
You use these weapons on the countless enemies the Combine sends after you. As in the first game, most of the events in Half-Life 2 are scripted. When you encounter a group of resistance fighters, they'll give you some exposition about what the current situation is, after which you should expect to be attacked by all manner of nasty in some sort of creative way. Watch these events and listen to the characters carefully, as they generally give you clues about how to proceed.
Once in combat, the computer A.I. takes over from the scripting and each enemy operates with one goal in mind: killing you. While most of the time the A.I. is pretty good, it just doesn't seem as dynamic as it was in the first Half-Life. Enemies tend to take cover in most situations, but given enough time, will run at you without any care for their safety. They may see a grenade and even yell about it, but for some reason they don't get out of the way. Changing the difficulty settings only seems to change the amount of damage your weapons do as opposed to changing the behavior of the A.I.
Eventually, you'll finish the great single player campaign and be out of computer opponents to kill, at which point you will launch Half-Life 2's multiplayer, which can be summed up in two words: Counter-Strike: Source. The free mod of the original Half-Life that became a worldwide gaming phenomenon has been updated with the Source engine, and the results are spectacular. It is exactly the same game we've been playing for the past few years - Terrorists vs. Counter-terrorists in short, realistic battles " but with amazing new graphics. Though nothing new, it is still one of the best online gaming experiences around.
Like about a billion other PC gamers, I'm a Counter-Strike fanatic, and am genuinely pleased that CS Source is included here. Some, however, will be saddened that there is no multiplayer representative of Half-Life 2. No Team Fortress 2 (is that technically vaporware yet?), no CTF, not even a Deathmatch mode using the Half-Life 2 weapons and backdrop. Counter-strike is a five year-old game, and while it's great to see an updated version of it here, it shouldn't come at the cost of a genuinely new Half-Life 2 multiplayer game.
In any case, congratulations to Valve for producing what is just about the best PC game this year'and too bad you messed it up with some very avoidable technical issues. This game reminds us why PC gaming can be such a headache, and goes so far as to actually give that headache a name: Steam.
Steam is the first genuine attempt at digital distribution by any major game developer, and while we here at Game Revolution love praising people for trying new things, we don't like those new things rammed down our throats. If you purchase the retail version (as in the version where you legally buy a box from the store, take it home and install it), expect to wait a good two hours from the point where you start the install to where you actually play the game. Also, you better be able to connect to the Internet; otherwise, you won't be playing any of it at all, including the entire single-player game. Half-Life 2 is locked until you've successfully logged into Steam, set up a user account, and verified that your copy is legitimate.
And that doesn't happen just during install, either. Every time you launch Half-Life 2, even just to play single player, the game will launch the Steam service, check your Internet connection, verify your copy, and even download updates, all without asking for your okay.
As a gamer who likes to have absolute control over the information that comes into my system, this whole thing drives me crazy. When I want to play a single-player game, I really don't care if Steam is fully updated or not. Why is it okay for a game company to do this? What if every game company follows Valve's lead and does this to their games? Will my EA launcher conflict with my Eidos launcher? Will my bandwidth be consumed by extra software that constantly verifies software that I legitimately own? And what happens if/when Valve decides Steam is no longer useful and disconnects the service? So many questions, and so few answers. It's easy to see why Valve would freak out after the countless hacking attempts that interrupted the game's development, but their paranoia (or Vivendi's - who knows anymore?) has led to a game so difficult to simply turn on and play that even hardcore PC users will be irritated by the number of hoops they are required to jump through.
But if you look past its technical flaws, Half-Life 2 is a fantastic game on an absolutely incredible engine. It presents the most exciting single-player first-person game you'll find on any system this year. It's a shame that the product is marred by issues that have little to do with the game itself, because ultimately, the games are what matter most...and few matter as much as Half-Life 2.