Half-Life 2 (PC) review
"Like Half-Life's Black Mesa, it's a place infused with an atmosphere and culture that you can only experience through microcosms. Even more so than VALVe's immortal debut FPS, Half-Life 2 is a single, seamless scripted journey that's not so much about where you're going as much as who you meet on the way. Sometimes, you get there in time to be a hero; others, you're too late, whether it's by seconds or years."
Robbed of its name but not its personality; Half-Life 2 is set in and around a city numbered 17. It's a classical harbour town, choked by the sharp monolithic technology of a ruling alien master race and left to rot in the pallid sunshine of eastern Europe.
Like Half-Life's Black Mesa, it's a place infused with an atmosphere and culture that you can only experience through microcosms. Even more so than VALVe's immortal debut FPS, Half-Life 2 is a single, seamless, scripted journey that's not so much about where you're going as much as who you meet on the way. Sometimes, you get there in time to be a hero; others, you're too late, whether it's by seconds or years.
This one, like the last one, begins on a train. Once again, you are Gordon Freeman. Ostensibly he's a research-assistant turned messianic-saviour, but in practice he's just a wordless avatar; Gordon Freeman is erudite heroism personified in nothing but a name, an iconic crowbar, and a few snappy HUD icons displayed on a never-broken first-person view. He controls exactly as you would expect, and so from the very first moment of interactivity, you are one.
The train stops. You depart. The game begins.
Throughout the city's crumbling station, ubiquitous gas-masked metropolice bully human citizens and the Xen alien refugees alike, while a sycophantic gentleman on unavoidable telescreens explains that they - the Combine, as the masked aliens are known - are actually there for your benefit and safety. You envision a world inadvertently ruined by one alien race and violently conquered by another. Moments in, and VALVe's storytelling skill is as congruent and as effortless as ever.
Later, you are lost in the city; an attempt to seek refuge in an apartment building sees you getting caught up in a Civil Protection raid, which are apparently regular occurrences. As you flee up to the attic with jackboots thumping in your ears and true panic clouding your mind, a brave citizen holds the door closed; as you leap from the attic to an adjacent building, you hear behind you the crunch of the door being kicked through and the swift double-tap of a handgun being fired. As you run, you feel genuine emotion for the generous stranger, a mixture of guilt and gratitude, and realise that it's impossible not to be affected by this world.
Still later, a girl's desperate pleas cut through a claustrophobic underpass you're wandering; you round a corner just as her male companion is beaten to death by a couple of armed officers. You're too late for this one. You're outnumbered and one has a gun, but this time you're armed too, and driving your recovered crowbar into their white-masked skulls comes as a bloody, cathartic relief. As the girl tends to the fallen man's body and begs you to run, you wonder - was he a friend, a husband, or a brother? You'll never know - you're the silent benefactor now.
Much later, you're a fully-fledged revolutionary messiah, brought into the ranks of the underground militia (who, brilliantly, use the original game's lambda logo as their graffiti tag) and granted an incredible tool with which to fight the war. Previously, the game's interactive physics have simply been something to coo at alongside the elegant sun-washed architecture of the city itself; now, as you gain access to a tool that can pick up heavier objects than you can manually and send them hurling, the physics become absolutely core to the game. Detoured from your new rebel duties, you're forced into the moonlit alleys of a ghost town. You're far too late to save any of its residents, but it's hard to care when you're using the Gravity Gun to fling washing machines and wardrobes at their zombified bodies. Cleaving a half-dozen howling zombies at the waist with a single launch of a rusty sawblade fosters a sense of satisfaction less noble than that achieved from helping the innocent, perhaps, but you're a gamer, not a saint!
Back to the city, back to the war, and you're early this time - a skirmish, in a warehouse, a few rebels outnumbered by well-armed fascist soldiers. By this time, you are past learning; every single element of the game's mechanics and makeup is cemented in your mind, and performing perfectly. All you can do now is absorb the atmosphere, and be the hero when you can - like now!
One soldier receives a .357 round from your Magnum pistol - one of the many superb ballistic cocktails of exceptional handling animation and fun secondary functions that makes up your armoury. An (optional) stark *death* closed caption flips up as he recoils spectacularly, and you feel the testosterone kick that only a computer game with the correct combination of weapon effects and enemy ragdoll animations can provide.
Another soldier lobs a grenade! Too close to dodge, too late for the Grav Gun - quick, throw it away! Without thinking, on an instinct that only this game develops in you, you jab the keyboard to pick it up, before whirling in the direction of the soldier and cracking the mouse button to hurl it awa - [EXPLOSION!] Too late! Reload, and be quicker next time.
Half-Life 2 is, if deconstructed, a first-person shooter focused near-solely on combat. On the merits of those interactions alone, it's still one of the best FPS games ever made; far more complex than simple bullet theories, every element of the equation - the way people move, the way weapons fire, the way the world around you all reacts - runs in perfectly-tuned synchronisation, orchestrating interactive chaos that frequently hits the kind of beautiful, balletic ideals that FPS gamers have been demanding for generations.
But it's also so much more than that. Half-Life 2, like its predecessor, is really about the context - the atmosphere of the moment and the woes of the strangers you meet.
Those five are but a fraction of the stories to be told in this game, all featured in the first third of the lengthy campaign. There's a hundred more to play through, and a million more to be played out in your imagination once planted there by the myriad details VALVe paints into City 17. When you're so firmly embedded in a game and its world, everything tells a story; from the scuffs and rips on a fellow rebel's jeans, to the mystifying newspeak used by the cool-voiced woman on the PA systems that sings your rights out across the canals of the city.
Half-Life 2 is a fascinating vault of original sci-fi lore, and a gigantic compendium of spectacular anecdotes and jaw-drawing spectacles waiting to happen. Don't experience it second-hand; board the train, be Gordon Freeman, and make some memories of your own.
Staff review by Daniel Forbes (July 09, 2005)
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