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Old 11-16-2004, 10:46 AM   #1
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Half-Life 2 Review

Half-Life 2 Review from IGN

Could Valve's labor of love possibly live up to the hype?


November 15, 2004 - I wanted to make this review short and sweet, but it's hard to stop writing, even when excluding facts that could potentially contaminate an exceptionally well thought-out gaming experience. There's just so much to say. Half-Life 2 is, simply put, the best single-player shooter ever released for the PC. It does so many things right in so many ways that it might be possible to write a thesis on the topic of Half-Life 2 compared to other single player shooters. What Valve has created is simply a masterpiece -- a work of art in the genre. Not only does it engage the mind with mysterious happenings, vagaries, and mostly intelligent dialogue, but also captures the senses with a superb visual style made possible by brilliant technology. And once the initial shock of it all wears off and it becomes possible to peel back the polished layers of sight and sound, there is an excellent shooter here. Half-Life 2 doesn't do anything particularly new; it doesn't really innovate in many ways. But what it does is set a new height for all other designers of first-person shooters to reach. It still isn't exactly perfect, but it's about as close as I've seen in my tenure here.

Before I really get into the review, you should know the background of how this game was reviewed. Valve did not want to send out copies of their game (for fairly obvious reasons) before it was released to the public. In order to play the game, I, and several of my colleagues throughout the industry, took a trip up to Seattle to visit Valve in order to have some private time with the title. I was given a little room to myself where I could close the door, turn off the lights, click my little red slippers, and pretend that I was sitting at home. It worked for the most part, largely because I was so engrossed with the game that when I came out of my trance I often had to take a moment to get my bearings. Obviously, Valve was happy to bring me into a controlled environment for ideal playing conditions.

The system that I played the game on had these specs:

- ASUS P4C800-E dlx motherboard
- Intel P4 3.2GHz CPU
- 2.0GB DDR400 dual-channel RAM
- Radeon 9800PRO 128MB video
- Creative Audigy 2 ZS sound
- Western Digital 160GB SATA HD


Obviously, since we were only allowed to play the game at Valve, this is the only system that we've had the chance to play with. That said, at 1280 resolution, the game ran flawlessly, even in the most extreme environments with tons of geometry and lots of objects moving around, both with and without AI. The Source engine is an impressive piece of software from the outside looking in. There's a large chance my brain would melt like Velveeta in a microwave should someone try to explain its inner workings.

What's particularly impressive about the game running so well is that it does so without compromising any part of gameplay or design. Environments are complex, colorful, and highly detailed; AI is certainly impressive in that NPCs work as teams, flank, react to sound and movement, and then engage with lifelike aggression. But like I said, we're going to have to wait and see what the game runs like on a more standard system after it's released. Therefore, you can look for an additional supplement to this review about how the game runs on lower-end systems after we've had the chance to check.

The other problem with reviewing the game up at Valve is the simple fact that we couldn't test out Steam and how well the product registration system necessary to playing Half-Life 2works. I'm not exceedingly happy about the forced registration even if it is understandable in today's climate of highly pirated games, though I can't say I believe this will stop ultra-determined hackers from cracking the game regardless.

Still, no matter what you think of Valve's business policies, Half-Life 2 is a "must buy" game. If you're a fan of the series, that was already obvious. Heck, if you're a PC gamer chances are you're going to get it at some point anyway. But if you're new or skeptical of the genre and want to see a prime example of the power and excitement of a first-person shooter, this is it. And it begins with the continuation of a story.


Wake Up and Smell the Ashes...

Last time we left Gordon Freeman, the unlikely scientist-hero from the first Half-Life, he was traveling. Yes, just traveling. The mystery was where he was traveling to and why all of the incidents at Black Mesa had happened (not to mention why the game was rife with so many horrific jumping puzzles towards the end). Half-Life 2 begins with Gordon arriving via train with the G-Man teasing his mind with sickly whispers of warning. The last stop of the arriving train is City 17, a bastion of the alien Combine forces, yet another mystery themselves.

For the rest of the story, you'll have to play the game yourself. I'm absolutely dedicated to getting through this review with your chance at an untarnished gaming experience intact. That means no spoilers. Suffice to say, there are lots of twists to curl your brain along the way, some a bit more predictable than others, but all welcome and interesting.

While the writing and plot points will act as fly paper to your attention, the real winner here is the way the story is presented. Through the eyes of Gordon Freeman, you'll experience roughly 17-20 hours of consciousness which tests your senses and captures your mind. The simplicity and style with which this story is presented are perhaps the most graceful maneuvers of the many that Valve has carried out. From the moment you take your first steps off of that train and into the station at City 17, you'll begin to be tutored in the ways of this bizarre eastern European city. Public service announcements, private conversations, and the actions of characters around you, whether part of the Combine or simply waylaid citizens, create a stifling and threatening feeling that City 17 has become some sort of elaborate prison preaching the chance for freedom and opportunity without choice or desire.

While I was ultimately left a little bit frustrated by the open-endedness, the journey to get to the end of the story was assuredly interesting and opened up the doors to many more possibilities. It's easy to start speculating about this or that, just don't let it drive you nuts. The deeper you get, the darker and more intriguing it becomes until you get to the end... which you'll have to see for yourself.

This frightening vision of the future is only made stronger by a stunning visual style that manages to express artistic vision while coming as close to reality as I've seen in my decades of playing video games. One of the most stunning moments comes with the first steps out from the train station and into the city proper. It's the wild realization of a fantastic dream. The Combine citadel looms on the horizon as a testament to their power, authority, and technological capabilities. It's both impressive and oppressive at the same time, serving its purpose with more presence than an army of a Combine soldiers and Striders ever could.

Light plays a significant role in the beauty of Half-Life 2, not only because of its quality, but because of the way that it tracks the passage of time. Each passing level brings the sun down a bit more until you're encased in an eerie canopy of unease at just the right moment in the game. The brighter points allow for the exquisite detail of the textures found everywhere in the game to become more apparent while the colors of the city and contrasting nature of the combine soldiers and citadel keeps them strikingly outside of the norm and easily identifiable as enemy. There are some moments where the visuals won't knock your socks off, but those moments usually happen in the dark.

On the more personal side of the visuals sit the lifelike characters found everywhere in Half-Life 2. Much of the life comes from the very human animations for running, climbing, jumping, reacting to pain, and so on. Gone are the days of Half-Life's chunky animation sets. Doubtless many of you have already seen the fluidity of motion in Counter-Strike: Source, the multiplayer portion of Half-Life 2 already released to those who pre-ordered over Steam, but even that game is hard to compare.

Scripted sequences that serve as cut-scenes (though they don't ever really "cut" per se -- the game never leaves the perspective of Gordon Freeman) bring out the true human touch of the animations. Alyx's (the female lead) special animations for these scenes in particular have a soft and careful quality about them that makes her character deeper and stronger than it would have been otherwise. When you consider the facial quality and animation of these main characters along with the rest, it's easy to see how far past any other character models Valve has gone. During these story-telling scenes, you'll catch yourself moving in as close as possible to stare at the realistic models. You can almost see the pores in their skin and the life force behind their eyes if you let your imagination run, especially when they start talking and the excellent voice acting and lip synching brings their countenances to life.

Some of the credit for the enjoyment of the visuals is certainly due to the interface, which very closely resembles that of the original. The only things on screen are those that have to be there. Health, suit power, and ammunition are the only permanent visuals and are shoved far enough out of the way so as not to block the view. Occasionally pick-ups will flash on the right and auxiliary power, if being used, on the left. Valve didn't want the interface to distract you from the experience of the game, and they did a good job with providing information while making you still feel like you're in the body of Gordon Freeman.

Super Scientist to the Rescue!

If there's one thing that I think all players of Half-Life have wondered, it's how the hell did an unassuming scientist named Gordon Freeman turn into a super soldier capable of destroying legions of zombies, aliens, and special operations forces? It isn't a question that I'm at liberty to answer, not that I necessarily have an answer anyway. Gordon is a bit of an enigma as is his increasingly bizarre situation. Regardless of his personal nature and background, Gordon is a bastion of hope for the people of City 17 who have heard his name and waited for his arrival for many years.

Obviously, he's going to have to kick a lot more ass before the day is done. While there are some old friends coming back to visit, like the head crabs and ceiling barnacle, there are plenty of new enemies to be wary of, including two new types of headcrabs, different soldier types for the Combine, gigantic Starship Trooper-like ant lions, and several new vehicles. All of these enemies, whether biological or mechanical, have different levels of intelligence to confound your combat skills.

Some of the enemies are a bit more involved than others. Head crabs and the zombies they create, regardless of their type, all have a singular drive to attack and devour. Combine forces, on the other hand, have much more complex procedures to exact punishment on naysayers of their regime. Fighting the Combine forces, which can be anywhere from simple soldiers to giant Tripods, is the best part of the experience. They're smart and well-placed around the levels, but still have unflinching dedication to their duties. Frankly, they're just really, really fun to battle with. There are sections of this game that will have you laughing with joy and battle frenzy. It's supremely satisfying to finish off Combine forces because of their quality of their AI and adaptability.

The fun of battle isn't simply the enemy AI, either. Much of the fun comes from the perfect feel from each of the weapons and the impact of the sound of the action around you. The blast and recoil of each gun fits perfectly and your brain will vibrate from the impact. Hitting enemies creates satisfying animations, lovely bloody splatter against the wall, and death moans. Downing Combine vehicles brings curious sounds that will have you speculating as to their true nature. Everything in the game has weight and bearing to the story, even the small details such as this.

You'll definitely need to use all of the weapons at your disposal as enemies are able to navigate environments and use cover to their advantage no matter how much you screw with it. And screw with it you will. Probably the most impressive feature of Half-Life 2 is the amazing use of physics. Valve did not use physics as a simple tool for visual gratification. It's used to great effect in battle, tricky situations, and puzzles.

In terms of battle, it's quickly understandable how absolutely excitingly gloriously entertaining this really is. When Gordon breaks out the gravity gun, it's all about using the environment to your advantage. If an enemy hides behind a car, flip it over on top of him. If ammo is in short supply simply use the gravity gun to pick up and fling deadly objects at enemies, including exploding barrels, saw blades, and more. Block entrances to doorways with bookcases and tables. Use metal objects as bullet shields. The varieties of options that open to you are immense and only limited by your style of play and creativity. I encourage everyone who plays this game to experiment heavily with this wonderful device. It's totally rad. RAD I say!

But the physics aren't simply used as a combat tool; puzzles that require problem solving using the physics engine are a great part of the gameplay. Figuring out how to manipulate objects in the game world to progress using what essentially are real-world rules of physics is a hell of a lot more fun than the jumping puzzles plaguing the first game. Don't get me wrong, there are some jumping puzzles, but Half-Life 2's jumping puzzles have a major difference. They're much, much easier. I think I fell to my death once in the entire game simply because of operator error. Most jumping puzzles in the game actually have a "safety net" underneath that will only damage instead of kill. Better yet, some of these puzzles require even more use of the physics to complete safely. In any case, there aren't a ton of the more cerebral physics-based puzzles, but the ones that are there are interesting. If anything, I wish there had been more of these puzzles to mull over along the way.

When I think back on the pace and variety of gameplay, which includes both normal combat and puzzles, it's amazing how many different styles of shooters Valve was able to fit into one package. The game moves from one place to another, all with very different styles and challenges. One moment you'll be driving a buggy shooting enemies on the road and the next you'll be leading a group of ant lions into battle. Sometimes you'll be running from enemies, sometimes you'll be leading a charge with human resistance by your side. Sometimes you'll be fighting against vehicles in city areas while others will bring throngs of zombies moaning for your blood. If I absolutely had to complain about any of the level design or gameplay, I might say that the driving segments lasted for a bit too long. Thankfully they're broken up by bits of combat, but they were probably among the least exciting moments. But even those least thrilling moments were still active and fun.

My only other complaint with the gameplay, though it seems not to be shared by some of my colleagues in the industry, is that the AI of friendly groups could be a bit aggravating. For the most part, especially in battle, they act intelligently, seeking cover and firing positions, and indeed help with the fight. But when running from place to place, especially in close quarters, they have a tendency to bunch closely behind you and therefore block you into rooms you only meant to quickly search. If there had been a "stay put" command, most of this could have been alleviated easily. There is a "go here" command, but they'll change that command themselves in order to follow. It wasn't a huge problem, but there were some moments when they would step out and get killed simply because they wouldn't stay put when I needed them to.
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Old 11-16-2004, 10:46 AM   #2
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Gordon Fights Alone

Finally, it should be noted that Half-Life 2 does not come with a multiplayer version of itself, meaning the multiplayer included is not based on the single player game. Instead, Valve has opted to give Counter-Strike a new coat of paint with Counter-Strike: Source (basically the original CS redone with Source Engine graphical enhancements) and repackage it as the multiplayer component of Half-Life 2. Once you play the game, you'll understand my disappointment of not having a multiplayer portion set in the Half-Life 2 universe, especially considering the varied uses of the gravity gun. There have been some tidings of a gravity gun based multiplayer level that may or may not be released shortly. If that's not the case, I'm sure mod makers will get on this immediately. There are just too many opportunities for interesting multiplayer experiences.

Counter-Strike: Source may be great for all of the old Counter-Strike players, but I really think new players are still going to have an incredibly hard time getting into the game and being successful against people that have had years to play it.

Yes, there have been map changes that modify the layout enough to initially confuse some old players whose hiding spots have disappeared, and the layout of junctures have changed so veterans might not approach them as successfully as they have in the past causing some discontent among existing players, but those can all be learned quickly. In fact, they have been learned quickly. It's still just as difficult to get in as a new player and learn the ropes with any kind of even keel since others have basically been playing the multiplayer portion of Half-Life 2 for years.

Still, all told, Counter-Strike was and is a very solid multiplayer shooter. There is strategy and more than a little bit of skill involved. The new animations and polish to the textures add a new depth and style that wasn't available before. I'm sure it will be a very welcome addition to players that have wanted to experience better looking games but were too scared to leave their precious CS.


Closing Comments

I've already managed to say more than I wanted to. It really is hard to stop talking about a game that is so good. It's hard not to share your excitement about something that should end up being unanimously enjoyed.
Like I said before, it doesn't do a whole lot differently than other games in the shooter genre in terms of pure gameplay innovation, but it takes existing styles, then mixes, matches and makes them better. It sets the standard in all areas, especially the use of physics as a gameplay tool instead of merely a visual treat for gamers.

If you're a fan of Half-Life, action games in general, or are looking for a way to get into PC gaming, this is it. It'll hook you, reel you in, and hold you captive for serious hours of hardcore brilliance. This is gaming at its best and shows that the future holds no bounds when the might of technology, precision of design, and touch of artistry work in tandem.

-- Dan Adams

Ratings: Description:
out of 10

9.5 Presentation
The story unfolds in a near flawless fashion. It's weird that Gordon never speaks, but easily forgotten. You'll be hooked by the storytelling and drawn into the action naturally.

10.0 Graphics
Half-Life 2 has usurped DOOM 3's place as the best-looking game on the PC. It's astounding from both a technical and an artistic standpoint.

9.5 Sound
Once again, simply top notch work. Gunfire, the sounds of Combine vehicles, the alertness of guards, voice acting, and all else can't be faulted in any significant way.

9.5 Gameplay
A near flawless implementation of a first-person shooter. A mix of intelligent and frantic combat, puzzles, driving, and squad control creates great variation and paces the game perfectly.

9.0 Lasting Appeal
I want to play Half-Life 2 again and again. It's just that much fun. I do wish there had been more HL specific multiplayer, though.

9.7 OVERALL:
(out of 10 / not an average)


9.5 Average Reader Score
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