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Half-Life 2 (PC) artwork

Half-Life 2 (PC) review

"You know, itís truly a testament to great game design when you beat a game and feel sad that itís over. Sure, I can always go back and play through Half-Life 2 again, and I will. But will it have that same "magic" like it did my first time? That ďwhat are they going to throw at me this timeĒ element of surprise; where I constantly anticipating whatís around that next turn or in that building? I know it will still be awesome, and I'll still love it and all that jazz, but is it possible to ..."

You know, itís truly a testament to great game design when you beat a game and feel sad that itís over. Sure, I can always go back and play through Half-Life 2 again, and I will. But will it have that same "magic" like it did my first time? That ďwhat are they going to throw at me this timeĒ element of surprise; where I constantly anticipating whatís around that next turn or in that building? I know it will still be awesome, and I'll still love it and all that jazz, but is it possible to feel that original euphoric feeling again?

I hope so.

I am thankful that I purchased Half-Life 2. There are very few games out there that are perfect and Half-Life 2 is one of the few. For most fans of the first-person shooting genre, the original Half-Life was perfection on a disc (PCGamer rating it the number one PC game, ever). Now, Half-Life 2 has taken over the role as the perfect first-person shooter, the pinnacle the genre has to offer. Every shooting game I play from this day forth will be compared to Half-Life 2 until something manages to surpass it. Maybe this is unfair, but hey, thatís life sometimes. To the next batch of big-release first-person shooters coming out, I can tell you the one thing I know coming out of my experience with Half-Life 2: you will not be better than this game. Tout your physics, your graphics, and your cutting-edge gameplay all you want -- you wonít beat Half-Life 2.

Thereís no way I can possibly describe why Half-Life 2 is so great in a review. Sure, Iíll pick out twenty or so reasons in my head, then type them up to paper with some descriptions and pretty words attached to them, but thereís too much here to describe. Reviewing Half-Life 2 is like winning the Oscar for me: there are a dozen little people I have to thank for my success, but for some reason I can only remember that bunion on my uncle Hankís foot last Christmas and I end up forgetting everyone.

Itís not just the one thing that makes Half-Life 2 so damned interesting either. Everything comes together, starting with the storyline. Half-Life 2 just sort of Ďpopsí you into the shoes of Doctor Gordon Freeman, the star of the original Half-Life. Heís the boss here, and everyone else is just a bunch of worker bees in the hive making him look better. Not that youíll ever see him mind you. Throughout the entire game, you never see Gordonís face. There are no cutscenes; you stay in Gordonís eyes for the entire game, never once leaving the inside of his head.

You wake up on a train, headed for City 17. Gordon has no knowledge of anything thatís going on, but we soon find out that City 17 is an oppressed city thatís controlled by the Combine, an army of soldiers that do whatever they want in the name of ďjustice,Ē including shooting innocent people in the streets and all other sorts of nasty things, like censorship. Judging by the fact that everyone in the city knows his name, itís pretty apparent from the moment Gordon arrives in City 17 that heís achieved a level of fame along the lines of Jesus Christ. His arrival to City 17 seems to be heralding in a new era of prosperity for mankind.

Or so it seems anyhow.

Gordon doesnít really know anything about City 17 or whatís going on with it, but fortunately, heís got some allies in the city that he didnít even know about. Former characters from the original Half-Life, including the loveable security guard Barney who starred in the Blue Shift expansion pack and the two scientists from Black Mesa, now have personalities, facial expressions, voices, and more importantly, friendship with Gordon that provides guidance and direction. The newcomer Alyx, one of the scientistís daughters, also helps Gordon out along the way. No matter how many people are involved though, Gordon remains the star, and is often left on his own to find ways out of impossible situations.

The interactions between Gordon and non-player characters are incredibly important to the storyline. Nothing is ever really handed to you in Half-Life 2. There arenít any fancy cutscenes with the chief bad guy in monologue, telling you about his evil plans. Instead, you have to look for the storyline, and you get it through listening to other people. Secondary characters will talk of the events that took place in the city, how it got the way it is, and how their lives are affected by it. The plot is full of twists and turns, and some people might say that having to find the storyline rather than have it spoon-fed to you makes it hard to follow, but keeping up with it reveals a fantastic conspiracy-laden plot that rivals anything else thatís been written for a game.

Half-Life 2 doesnít necessarily reinvent the wheel of FPS gameplay, but it certainly modifies the crap out of it, mostly by shoving spikes onto the sides of it and attaching it to big 21Ē chrome rims. Start with the weaponry: the trusty crowbar, the symbol of the original Half-Life (being Gordonís first weapon in the original game and all), is thrown to you by Barney in a great scene and it kicks off your arsenal of weaponry. Every weapon in this game is utilized to its fullest extent. The shotgun and magnum are powerful and can take out anyone, but the shotgun is weak from long range and the magnumís ammo is hard to come by, so youíll have to use less-powerful guns and try to maximize their effects with headshots. A nice, clean menu at the top of the screen sorts out your weapons based on their class type, with everything from standard pistols to more innovative laser-guided rocket launchers eventually at your fingertips.

One of the most important pieces in your inventory is the Gravity Gun. Yes, this is what everyone is talking about in Half-Life 2. The Gravity Gun can only pick up and push non-organic objects (until later levels, when it gets modified), but man is it fun. Thereís really nothing quite as satisfying as picking up a bed frame and shooting it at a group of Combine soldiers. The Gravity Gun is utilized throughout the game, from the moment you get the gun until the end of the game (and during the end of the game is where it really, really shines), and is essential for solving many of the new physics puzzles that you come up against.

The first Half-Life was filled with a lot of different platforming puzzles to show off Valveís creative level design, but since theyíve already showed that off, the decided in Half-Life 2 theyíd show off how well they can manipulate the Havok physics engine. While a lot of games use the Havok physics so they can have bodies that fly all over the room and go limp when they die, Half-Life 2 uses them for every possible reason the developers could find. Every object, from abandoned cars on the streets to cardboard boxes to tables can be tossed around. Bullets hitting one side of a desk will push that side of a desk and turn it. An explosive barrel will take to the air and shoot across the room upon detonation. Barrels can be picked up and placed on see-saws to act as a counterweight so Gordon can climb across.

Also new to Half-Life 2 are vehicles. Gordon will take command of both an airboat and a dune buggy in his quest for salvation, and theyíre quite a bit of fun. The levels you pilot them in do drag on a bit, but those levels are traveling levels, meaning that Gordon is supposed to be moving to another location thatís supposed to be a good distance away. Instead of simply having you show up there, you have to get there yourself, and understanding that makes the levelís length much easier to handle. The physics are really shown off here, as you can take the vehicles off sweet jumps and land on your enemies. One of the best physics puzzles in the game occurs during one of these missions, and see you carrying barrels filled with air (the ones they use on docks) underwater to lift up a platform so you can launch yourself and your airboat over it. Not only was the puzzle incredibly original, but you got mad air as you flew off the ramp.

Of course, it isnít all about physics, the core gameplay is still first-person shooting, and Half-Life 2 does it better than anyone around. The location-based damage works really well, with each bullet that hits your enemy drawing out a mess of blood. Most of the gameplay is comprised of close-quarter combat, as youíll be crawling in and out of shelled buildings throughout City 17, which adds a lot of surprise to it. You never have to be stealthy, but you have to constantly be paying attention to whatís going on, which really helps you immerse yourself into the role of Gordon.

You wonít only be shooting the Combine soldiers either; the old zombies from the original game have moved out of the Black Mesa Facility and have infested several areas. They really havenít changed all that much, but theyíre still fun as hell to blast. The old head crabs still launch themselves at your head, trying to get a bite of Gordonís brain, but they still havenít learned how to dodge pistol bullets. In one particularly memorable fight with the zombies, I shot an explosive barrel with the Gravity Gun at a group of them, and all the zombies went flying in different directions. Some of them were still alive, running around, screaming, while they were burning to death. The gameís not sadistically violent, I swear.

The original Half-Life might look crappy today, but at itís time, it was a good looking game. Now, in our time, Half-Life 2 is the best looking game. No other game looks this awesome all at once. Everything looks good. Edges are free of jaggies, textures are never repetitive, and particle effects (mainly explosions) look freaking awesome. Every character has fully-realized facial expressions, with their eyes moving while they talk to you and their lips in sync to their voice-overs. Theyíll cross their arms and put their hands on their hips while they talk to you Ė they almost look alive.

Of course, none of that begins to compare to the massive battles youíll get in. One scene in the later level of the game is truly awesome. Imagine the AT-ATs from Star Wars (the big walkers with giant legs), except with three legs instead of four and a giant machine gun mounted at the vertex. Youíll find yourself fighting four of them at a time, with bullets flying every which-way and explosions threatening not only to hurt Gordon but make your graphics card cry out in agony. All the while, this runs at a smooth, playable framerate, even on my laptop.

Fancy character facial expressions and things wouldnít at all be important without dialogue. Dialogue can be tricky, but itís handled masterfully in Half-Life 2. The energy between the characters when theyíre talking makes you feel like youíre really in the room having a debate or conversation with them. One particular scene (actually, one of the last major conversations in the game) was startlingly well done. Gordon never talks during the game, and the silent protagonist angle once again worked nicely for Valve. Occasionally, NPCs will comment about Gordonís silence, and itís usually good for a chuckle. The great voice-overs are complimented by solid sound effects and a lot of great music. The battle I mentioned in the last paragraph is accompanied by one of the best scores Iíve heard in any game, an awesome blend of music that really gets you ready to kick ass.

The major graphics engine update has also been retrofitted onto the popular Counter-Strike game, which ships as Half-Life 2's multiplayer component. Counter-Strike: Source plays almost exactly like the old Counter-Strike, except that it looks a hell of a lot better and has physics. The multiplayer component isnít based on Half-Life 2 at all, itís terrorists fighting counter-terrorists at random levels, but itís a lot of fun still. Iíve already held two Counter-Strike: Source LAN parties at my house, and even unupdated, the game remains a lot of fun.

Iíve started playing Half-Life 2 again, and Iíve discovered something: even though I now know where the enemies are, and whatís going to happen around the next turn, itís still a magical game. So it is possible to get that same feeling. I know so, and that's why Half-Life 2 is awesome.

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Community review by asherdeus (January 24, 2005)

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