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Platform

PC

 

Genre

Shooter

 

Publisher

Vivendi

 

Developer

Valve

 

ESRB

M (Mature)

 

Released

November 2004

 

- Great graphics and a physics engine to match

- Awesome gameplay

- Really puts you in the action

- Familiar characters return

- Good inventory of weapons

- Counter-Strike Source for multiplayer

- Mod community is sure to take the ball and run with it

 

 

- The conclusion is maddening

 

 

Review: Half-Life (PC)

Review: Painkiller (PC)

Review: Doom 3 (PC)

Review: Call of Duty - United Offensive (PC)

Review: Far Cry (PC)

 

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Half-Life 2

Score: 10 / 10

 

Not everyone will like Half-Life 2 – instead they’ll love every second of it.  That is, apart from an agonizing conclusion, which practically guarantees you’ll be counting down the years until the next Half-Life.

 

half-life 2 review          half-life 2 review

 

Half-Life 2 (HL2) opens with a quick (and pretty ambiguous) monologue from the mysterious G-man – the suitcase-carrying gentleman from the first game that made an offer that just couldn’t be refused.  As Gordon Freeman, you’re taken by train to City 17, under the control of the alien Combine, and the mysteries start to boil from there.  The story itself is played out entirely from Freeman’s point of view so any transition scenes or plot points are seen through his eyes.  And you’re only getting half the story if you don’t take the time to absorb the incredible ambience and clues within the game world that fill in some of the blanks that the scripted “cutscenes” make.  Even taking my time – listening to the pervasive radio broadcasts, paying attention to conversations – as the game progressed I still couldn’t piece together exactly what the Combine Overwatch was/is planning for Earth.  There are glimpses near the end of the game of units that remain tantalizing out of reach or close enough to really describe.  There’s the distinct impression that there’s a whole lot more going on here than meets the eye.

 

And speaking of eyes, this is an easy game to look at.  True, the “flashlight physics” may not be as advanced as Doom III – shadows only get cast from fixed light sources – but the sense of actually being in the game world has never been this good.  Even on the minimum hardware specs HL2 manages to shine.

 

Inseparable from this world is a physics engine, which is nothing less than groundbreaking.  Do you spend a ton of ammo trying to takedown a bridge full of Combine soldiers?  Or just put a couple of slugs into the pile of explosive barrels underneath the bridge and watch the whole thing blast into the sky?  I got into the habit very quickly of looking for environmental advantages or “things to fling” when the Gravity Gun is acquired. (More on the weapons later.)  There are a few instances of questionable physics during some of the vehicle portions of the game, like miraculously remaining seated after a flip, but mostly you’ll be impressed.  Things float, you have to adjust sniping shots for distance and so on.  There’s one part of the game that features an electromagnetic crane and I spent at least 30 minutes reloading a quicksave just so I could play around with heaving shipping containers around!

 

half-life 2 review           half-life 2 review

 

The enemy AI isn’t as impressive but it still manages to present a challenge.  Most times you have to deal with numbers rather than intelligent AI.  At least it feels like that during some of the more heated confrontations.  Enemies still take cover or will flush you out with a grenade but there are a lot of instances of Combine forces rushing toward rather than away from Freeman’s bullets.  However, even the headcrab zombies will use objects in the environment – hurling barrels and the like.  Basically, you never know exactly how an enemy is going to respond.

 

The enemy variety is great.  The headcrabs return (along with a few frightening variants that can spell instant death if you’re not paying attention) but most of the opposition is new.  The massive Blue Behemoth from the first game is nowhere to be found and the energy expelling Vortigons are working with the humans in a non-combat role but the new enemies, particularly the manatee-shaped gunship, the awe-inspiring striders, and the pesky whirling-blade headhunters more than make up for any void the original baddies left.  Then there are the ant lions…

 

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One tool you get to use actually controls the sand-dwelling ant lions.  But until that tool is acquired, the sight of open sand should be enough to send shivers up your spine.  Another tool is the ultra-gimmicky and ultra-cool Gravity Gun, which quickly become my weapon on choice.  Yes, walking around with a metal barrel does obscure your view but next to the crossbow (which shoots red hot pieces of rebar) and a double blast from the shotgun, nothing takes down a Combine 

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soldier faster than a barrel to the head.  And enemy grenades suddenly become useful instead of dreadful since they can be fired back at the enemy with the Gravity Gun (as long as you’re quick on the draw).  Everyone will develop their own preferences and style but some areas require certain weapons to be used.  For example, when facing off against a pair of striders you want to use the rocket launcher, because as cool as the .57 Magnum is it just won’t do the job.

 

Besides Freeman’s complement of weapons, at times he has limited command over a squad of fighters.  The commands are the very basic “Go there, come back” and they tend to get in the way a lot but having some back-up makes the game world that much more believable (and provides other targets for the Combine).

 

Another help to creating a believable world are the varied locations that Freeman travels through.  Unlike the first game where Freeman spent most of his time indoors with the occasional sprint across a minefield or billy-goat cliffing-jumping, Half-Life 2 has Freeman going from dusty depressing cityscapes, to ocean beaches, stretches of highway, an abandoned prison, underneath a massive bridge, and buildings in-between to the final confrontation in the citadel that dominates the skyline of City 17.  There also a nightmarish excursion an area called Ravenholm that’s a clear nod to Neil Manke’s They Hunger Half-Life mods.

 

Or it may not be.

 

In this writer’s opinion there’s plenty here for fans of the previous game to appreciate.  Characters from Black Mesa return including Barney in a more heroic role and Dr. Kleiner with a very odd pet.  New characters include Alyx Vance and her hilariously loyal protector, Dog.  All the characters are animated believably; the facial features in particular and are many light-years beyond the original Half-Life.

 

half-life 2 review          half-life 2 review

 

The audio design truly adds another level of immersion to the experience.  Although there are many, many examples (like the banshee scream of the Combine manatee gunship or the tht-tht-tht-tht of an ant lion in flight), maybe the best one is what happens when a grenade goes off close to Freeman.  You’ll hear half a bang then a high-pitched whine to simulate ringing in your ears.  Often this is accompanied by a blinding flash.  Flailing around blind and deaf is almost a guarantee you’ll be hitting the quickload key.

 

There has to one weakness present – something that can flaw the overall experience.  And from the other reviews I’ve read multiplayer seemed to be the flaw.  Instead of a Half-Life 2 themed multiplayer or Team Fortress 2.0, Valve gives us Counter-Strike Source, an engine update of a game I’ve probably dropped 1,000 hours into over the last three years.  If you were anticipating a wildly new multiplayer experience you’ll be a tad disappointed, but for me, I’m well on my way to 2,000 hours of Counter-Strike.  So no complaints on the multiplayer side and the mod community is certain to churn out more variety.  (I’m hoping for a version of soccer or basketball using Gravity Guns.) (NOTE: Very recently, Half-Life 2 Deathmatch was been added -- downloads automatically with Steam.)

 

Half-Life 2 isn’t flawless, just like any great work of art, but that doesn’t make it any less of a masterpiece.  And you just know it will be updated endlessly: mods, niggling with the details over time, an expansion pack or two.  So not only is it a masterpiece you’ll also be playing it for a long, long time.

 

- Omni

(December 5, 2004)

 

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