Before I obtained a copy of Half-Life 2, I decided to play through the first one, which is something I havenít done in years. I remember liking Half-Life, but I didnít consider it anywhere near the ìlegendaryî status itís at today, except in the multiplayer department. While playing through it I began to realize why the game is held in such high regard today. Every one of the levels was amazingly well-designed and very memorable. I vividly remember most portions of Half-Life. Now that Iíve experienced Half-Life 2, I have a feeling itís going to achieve the same legendary status as its predecessor.
Once again, you find yourself in the shoes of Gordon Freeman, an MIT graduate who presumably saved Earth in the last game. Apparently he did a pretty crappy job at it, because our planet has been conquered. In City 17, where Gordon mysteriously appears out of thin air, huge TV screens show propaganda in an endless loop. People are forced to live off of rations in dilapidated apartments. The enigmatic Combine is the species that took over, and theyíre assisted by some of the creatures theyíve already enslaved. The Combine makes their presence known in the city/prison through vicious soldiers that can do whatever they want, regardless of human rights.
Through the help of some very familiar friends, Gordon has to kick-start the rebellion thatís been lurking the shadows for quite some time. There are a couple things that make the plot immersive. First of all, you never actually see Gordon or hear him speak. There really arenít any cutscenes in the game, so everything is seen interactively through your (and Gordonís) eyes. The other brilliant aspect of the plot is how itís all set up. Very rarely are things explained. How was Earth conquered? What exactly is the Combine? Who helped with the invasion? What is this mysterious agent doing that I sometimes see in the distance? The answer to all of these questions arenít ever spoken, but they can be found laying around in newspaper clippings, what random NPCís say, and quick events that are easy to miss if not paying attention. Each time you play you may notice something different. Now thatís replay value.
As excellent as the storyline is, you could completely ignore it and still have an amazing experience. One of the changes from the last game lies in the level design. The repetitive crawling through air ducts has been replaced by more action. A good portion of the game involves Gordon being chased, and the fast pace of the early levels reflects that perfectly. But even though thereís more action, that doesnít mean that there arenít a few deliberately paced moments and inventive puzzles like there were in Half-Life. One of these levels has you wandering through a zombie infested city that comes equipped with plenty of gruesome traps at your disposal. Ever wondered what would happen if a car was dropped on a few zombies? Well, Iím sure no one has ever wondered about that, but itís quite a sight to behold when it happens. And one of the best puzzles in the game involves you making a ramp and then jumping a hovercraft over it. That sure beats the switch-flipping and button-pressing of yesteryear.
The hovercraft is just one of the two vehicles in Half-Life 2; thereís also a dune buggy. The hovercraft rides like a dream- itís fast, handles well, gets huge air, and most importantly, it runs over the Combine soldiers. You can only use it one level, but itís one of the longest and most thrilling levels in the game. The dune buggy is a bit different. Most of the time while riding it youíre being swarmed by aliens who look straight out of Starship Troopers. It flips over rather easily, and it isnít nearly as powerful, but those are definitely not faults. Instead, it turns the level into an intense and suspenseful ride. When you flip over, you have to manually put it back on its wheels, but as youíre trying to do this the aliens pop out of the sand and attack you from all sides. If that wasnít enough of a rush, the dune buggy also comes equipped with nitrous-oxide. In my humble opinion, a vehicle isnít worthwhile unless it comes with NOS.
The platform jumping from the last game has been seriously toned down with great results. There are only a couple moments of platform hopping, and these wind up being so original that they actually become enjoyable (I never thought Iíd say that about platform hopping in a FPS). One of the unforgettable moments has you on a beach jumping from rock to rock. Doesnít sound too dangerous, does it? The thing is that if you touch the sand for a moment, the Starship Troopers-type aliens will come out and attack you into oblivion. Itís a little frustrating at times, but it beats the generic ìjumping over a black abyssî present in many games. One of the other memorable parts has you walking underneath a bridge on the frame. Of course, the beams you walk on a frighteningly narrow, and the drop is undoubtedly fatal. After you walk across one time, you have to double back. The only difference is that now a Combine helicopter is firing at you as you try to make your way across. I held my breath more than once during this part.
Despite all of the new improvements and additions, the star of the game is the brand-new physics engine. In the first chapter of the game youíll notice that almost every small object can be picked up and thrown at someone, with hilarious results ranging from a ìknock it offî to a beat down from the Combine. But of course, the physics become more entertaining when killing is involved. The way the enemies react to gunfire is lifelike- almost too lifelike it seems. Bodies instantly go limp when killed, and their limbs get bent into weird positions on a particularly nasty falls. Itís a little gross, but very satisfying.
The new physics engine begins to truly shine when you obtain the gravity gun rather early on. With this lovely weapon of mass destruction, you can pick up objects and throw them at whatever you want. You can toss exploding barrels, circular saw blades, and even toilets if youíre feeling naughty. Eventually you can pick up live bodies and toss them at your adversaries. Itís such a blast to use that whenever I play another FPS I wish the gravity gun was available. Itís just not as fun when you canít cut zombies in two with a saw blade.
Despite the sheer entertainment the gravity gun provides, it wonít be the only weapon youíll be using. Most of the weapons are returning favorites, such as the magnum, machinegun, and the trusty crowbar, but a couple of the weapons have either been overhauled or are completely new. The crossbow now shoots fiery-hot rod that pins baddies to the wall behind them, which is a delightful touch. One of the new weapons is a Combine assault rifle that either shoots lasers or a giant ball of energy that bounces around like a 25 cent bouncy ball, but one weapon, aside from the gravity gun, steals the show. Late in the game, you gain the ability to control group of vicious aliens with a ball-shaped artifact. Just toss the object at a group of Combine soldiers or a turret, and watch half a dozen of these creatures attack the target with ferocious intent while you sit back and enjoy the show.
Of course, Half-Life 2 just wouldnít be worthy of the Half-Life title without its share of breathtaking moments, but this is another area where it does not disappoint. One of the highlights is an epic battle against a few enormous insect-like vehicles called Striders. Your squad of a few freedom fighters looks a little anxious before the battle begins, but they scream out battle cries when the Striders reveal themselves amid the rubble of the city. The facial expressions in all parts of the game are eerily lifelike. Sometimes the poor city dweller has a hint of sadness to his face, but in rare moments you can see someone looking happy but no matter what itís always convincing. The voice acting that goes along with the realistic facial expressions is equally fantastic, and that just makes the otherworldly situations all the more believable.
There are really only two things that I found wrong with Half-Life 2. First, once in a while some techno music starts playing and it just feels really out of place. The second problem with the game is the length. Itís about ten-fifteen hours long, and my fanatical roommate managed to beat in just four days. But hey, the first problem is minuscule, and the second one becomes irrelevant when you take it online. There are the standard deathmatch and team deathmatch modes, but that isnít what people will mostly be playing. What theyíll be playing is Counter-Strike: Source; the update to one of the most popular online games that actually comes free with Half-Life 2. Talking about Counter-Strike: Source would result in a whole other review, so Iíll just say that itís pretty much the same as the last game but with amazing graphics. There are also plenty of other free mods on the horizon, so it looks like the multiplayer will remain as popular as it did in the last game.
So what is there to say about Half-Life 2 that hasnít been said about it already? There are the generic blurbs: ìpossible game of the yearî, ìa crowning achievementî, ìone of the best FPS everî and so on. I canít think of anything to add, aside that newcomers to the series and veterans will both be amazed with Half-Life 2. I know I was.