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Half-Life 2 (PC) artwork

Half-Life 2 (PC) review

"Valve’s objective was to simply provide an FPS experience that surprises you around every turn and never stops entertaining. It works – every chapter in Half-Life 2 feels completely distinguishable from the last, and yet there isn’t a level in the game that I didn’t enjoy. Other developers should study Half-Life 2, because it’s a perfect example of how one game can so cleanly fit into a single genre, and at the same time constantly feel like something different."

So here are the details. After Gordon Freeman inadvertently created the resonance cascade that opened a portal to the border world Xen and unleashed a pack of bloodthirsty aliens into the Black Mesa facility, it was discovered that these vortigaunts were merely running from another race of alien beings called the Combine. This empire of intelligent outer space demons saw Earth as a two-for-one package: Dominate it, and both the humans and vortigaunts would be theirs for the taking. In the appropriately titled Seven Hour War, the Combine unleashed their full might on the human race, until finally the administrator of Black Mesa, Dr. Breen, negotiates mankind’s surrender.

With humanity under their control, the Combine begin the process of enslaving the species. Some humans are transformed into super-powered Overwatch troops, while others are herded into cities, which now more closely resemble prison farms. Dr. Breen insists this is the first step in leading humanity to immortality. He doesn’t want his fellow citizens of Earth to understand the Combine’s true goal, which is to turn every last human into a mindless slave for the empire, a slave whose only purpose is to serve the Combine while they’re deciding on the next planet to annihilate.


That’s a lot to digest all at once, and it occurs over the decades that separate the original Half-Life from its glorious successor. When we first boot up Half-Life 2 and are pulled out of the stasis that Freeman’s “employer,” the enigmatic G-man, put him into at the end of the Black Mesa incident, we’re being shipped away on a train to City 17 – the location of Breen’s headquarters and the starting point for one of the finest first-person shooters ever crafted.

Half-Life 2 begins with no introduction, other than G-man telling us to “wake up and smell the ashes,” and the game once again takes place from Freeman’s perspective at all times – you could literally complete the game and not even know what he looks like. It’s a testament to Valve’s storytelling ability that all of these details become clear eventually. When you’ve got no idea where you are or how you got there, you start paying attention to the little things – a newspaper clipping on the wall, a TV monitor with Breen welcoming you to his hometown, a guy on a bench warning you not to drink the water – far more closely. It’s only the first step in getting the player completely sucked into this world that Valve has created.

But Freeman’s primary objective is to get out of City 17, so it’s all the better that some of his old colleagues from Black Mesa just happen to be lodged nearby. They’ve finally gotten portal technology functional and are using it to quietly ship City 17 residents to safer grounds, but the machine backfires at exactly the wrong time, forcing Freeman to escape the city on foot – and unfortunately, Breen is also one of his former colleagues and understands just how major a threat he could pose. So begins a lengthy and action-packed escape sequence that may or may not involve a helicopter chase, and may or may not end with you blowing up the helicopter.

(And just before Barney sends you on your way, he returns to you that most iconic of melee weapons, the almighty crowbar. Holding it in your hands for the first time again is an experience akin to being reunited with an old friend.)

Half-Life 2 isn’t one to innovate, but then again, neither was the original. Valve’s objective was to simply provide an FPS experience that surprises you around every turn and never stops entertaining. It works – every chapter in Half-Life 2 feels completely distinguishable from the last, and yet there isn’t a level in the game that I didn’t enjoy. Other developers should study Half-Life 2, because it’s a perfect example of how one game can so cleanly fit into a single genre, and at the same time constantly feel like something different.

I found that I enjoyed individual chapters for entirely different reasons. The opening escape from City 17 is an intense, never-stop-moving experience that has Freeman hoofing it through sewers and boating down canals – there’s rarely a time when a Combine soldier or tank isn’t firing down at you, and you’re defenseless enough that your only strategy is to keep pressing forward. Your later journey down Highway 17 (in a rusty old buggy this time) is exactly the opposite: There are enough quiet moments, enough “dead space,” to keep you on your toes as you approach the next abandoned settlement and correctly predict that the next Overwatch ambush is just around the corner. A rescue mission in the prison-turned-testing facility Nova Prospekt uses claustrophobic corridors and automatic turrets to convey a tight, tense atmosphere. The game’s final sequence demonstrates just how far a single weapon can take you. And so on.

In the marketing and hyping up of Half-Life 2 before its release, Valve wisely focuses on the game’s final act, in which Freeman returns to a war-torn City 17 and leads a rebellion that eventually goes straight to Breen’s headquarters. It is in these moments that the game’s action reaches its climax. The Combine employ the use of these enormous, hulking, three-legged beasts called “striders.” They tower several stories over your head and can mow you down in seconds with their mounted machine guns. You’ll catch a glimpse of one early on when you first arrive in the city, and you’ll think to yourself, “Jesus. I am going to be fighting one of those?” The answer is no… You’ll be fighting many of them, and it takes more rockets to bring down just one strider than you’re capable of carrying. Keep that in mind when you find yourself on the roof of a building that’s being circled by several striders as your comrades are dropping dead all around you no thanks by Overwatch troops positioned in neighboring buildings.

The city segments toward the end of the game have you dodging sniper fire, weaving through burning buildings, sneaking through Overwatch barricades, bolting through courtyards while avoiding airstrikes from an unseen super-weapon in the sky… It’s an intense few chapters that would make nearly any other FPS blush. But to give these sequences all of the credit would be to ignore Valve’s talent in crafting even the quieter moments into experiences every bit as memorable. One level that may have been negligible in the hands of a lesser developer is Ravenholm, an abandoned town that is now overrun by headcrabs and the zombies they’ve created out of the humans they’ve possessed. At a glance, it would seem a slow, thoughtless and uninspired attempt to throw survival horror into a game that doesn’t need it.

The twist is that you’ve just received the gravity gun, a wonderfully fresh and innovative weapon that allows the player to pick up any fair-sized object and fire it at enemies or use it for cover. And it just so happens that Ravenholm is littered with buzz saws, gas tanks, and explosive barrels – all magnificent companions to your new toy! And suddenly, what could have been a generic and excessive exercise in survival horror turns into a gravity gun playground as you struggle to find the next random environmental object to be used as a tool of destruction. Enter Half-Life 2, where a toilet can be a lethal weapon.

It just comes to show that Half-Life 2 constantly fools you into thinking you’re playing “just another” FPS, and then surprises you by evolving into so much more. One second you could be backed up against a wall by seemingly never ending rush of Combine troops, and the next you could be using your gravity gun to position objects in such a way that will allow you to cross a pool of nuclear waste. One minute you could be running over antlions in your buggy, and the next you’ll be using the pheropods from a slain antlion queen to send the oversized bugs into enemy barracks to take out the Combine soldiers within.

Funny how the game that doesn’t want to innovate still manages to surprise me around every turn. With Half-Life 2, the geniuses at Valve have demonstrated that they are the masters of all ends of the FPS universe.

Suskie's avatar
Staff review by Mike Suskie (July 04, 2008)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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