Half-Life 2 Review

In a season of anticipated game, Half-Life 2 was probably the most anticipated of all. As a sequel to a beloved game that was released six years ago, Half-Life 2 was a long time in the making and there are certainly some high expectations for the game. This sort of thing is often a recipe for disaster as it can be hard to meet expectations that have been building for so long a time, but happily that is not the case here. For the most part Half-Life 2 lives up to the hype and provides one of the best gameplay experiences to come along in years.

Half-Life 2 takes place an indeterminate time (six years?) after the first game. You once again play as Gordon Freeman, the research physicist who saved the world from aliens in Half-Life. You begin the game on a train to City 17, an urban prison presided over by the nefarious G-Man of Half-Life and run by enforcers for the mysterious Combine. Things have drastically changed on the Earth for humanity and it is the Combine who is now running the show. How this all happened and how you came to be on a train for new arrivals into City 17 are just a few of the mysteries in a plot that raises far more questions than it answers. You just find yourself in an Orwellian/War of the Worlds universe with omnipresent video screens and propaganda broadcast from loudspeakers Big Brother-style where Stormtrooper-style masked jackboots brutalize anyone who so much as puts a toe over the line – just go with the flow and enjoy the ride.

Welcome to City 17.

Half-Life 2 certainly does an amazing job of bringing this nightmare vision of the future to life. City 17 would pass for a pleasant Old World European city if it weren’t for the flying robotic cameras that are everywhere and the tanks rolling down the streets. Combine patrols walk the streets and through the buildings as the gray-jumpsuited human population cowers in dingy, cramped rooms or tentatively watch for approaching patrols through small windows. The attention to detail is amazing and you could spend some time just exploring the area if it weren’t for the Combine troops’ penchant for zapping everyone with cattle prods. Propaganda posters cover the walls, birds land and walk on building ledges, and the people you pass will look at you, acknowledge your presence, and usually have a little something to say to you - you can almost taste the air of hopelessness that hangs over City 17. The character models are incredibly detailed and you can see the expressions on peoples’ faces change as they speak to you. At times it can be surprising to find yourself connecting emotionally with the game’s characters at a level more common in movies than in computer games. This attention to detail and total environmental immersion continues throughout the game even after you move beyond the city and make Half-Life 2 one of the most atmospheric games ever to appear on your PC.

Half-Life 2’s world is further brought to life thanks to its remarkable physics engine. Objects in the game world behave very much like they would in the real-world. You can bump into things and knock them over or pick up objects and throw them. Explosions will send people and debris flying, objects randomly bounce down stairs, crates can be stacked to help you reach high places, and you can even pick up a live grenade and toss it back at your enemy. Half-Life 2 is not the first shooter to incorporate a physics engine to lend a degree of realism to its gameplay, but its engine is more advanced than anything to date. Bouncing objects may not sound like that big of a deal when you read about it, but when you experience it in the game it’s incredible how much more lifelike it makes the game feel.

Half-life 2 spends some time setting the stage for the story, but does so without cutscenes or cinematics. Everything occurs in-game, in-engine with you as an active participant and makes you feel like you’re an active participant rather than a disembodied observer. It’s one thing to sit back and watch a short cutscene and quite another to be a part of the scene to the degree where a character might ask you to be so kind as to reach over and press the button you’re standing next to. Not only is this far more immersive, it makes for a better paced and more engaging experience.

You begin the game on the run from the Combine, at first unarmed and then wielding your trusty crowbar and a small pistol, and the action doesn’t let up much from there until the end of the game. The game is primarily run and gun focused, but there is more puzzle solving involved than you find in most shooters. If you played Half-Life then you’ll recognize some of your enemies including the headcrab, but there are also plenty of new, er, faces to see and shoot. The enemy AI is competent, making good use of cover and giving you a challenge when attacking in numbers. Enemies still exhibit some gaffs though, such as peeking around the same corner, in the same spot, and at regular intervals, and occasionally deciding it’s a good idea to charge straight into your line of fire.