Half-Life 2 review

Written by Julian Schoffel on . Posted in Action

Half-Life 2 game image

I originally reviewed Half-Life 2 back in November of 2004. I was given a day at Vivendi’s Sydney offices to play through as much of the game as I could. I had loved the original Half-Life and had high hopes for the sequel but I certainly wasn’t prepared for just how good Half-Life 2 would actually turn out to be…

A face appeared, it was the mysterious ‘G-Man’ from the original Half-Life. He spoke with a strange, almost alien intonation and it was hard to tell if he was being encouraging or scornful. Either way he was talking directly to the character of Gordon Freeman. The G-Man’s cryptic speech ended on an ominous note: “Wake up and smell the ashes.” So began Half-Life 2 one of the most beguiling games I’ve ever played.

Assume the role of the enigmatic “Gordon Freeman”

In Half-Life 2 players re-assumed control of enigmatic scientist Gordon Freeman. Once again Valve had made his character as unobtrusive as possible: we never saw him and he never spoke. In this way Freeman and the player effectively became one and the same: what we knew, he knew and vice-versa. So when Freeman got off the train at City 17, he, like us, had no idea what had been happening on earth since the inter-dimensional catastrophe at Black Mesa all those years ago. As it happens things were bad, very bad…

City 17 was an Orwellian nightmare in which humans had been totally subjugated by a pitiless authority known as ‘The Combine.’ Wretched citizens were herded around like sheep, totally at the mercy of sadistic Overwatch Guards. To make matters worse the aliens unleashed at Black Mesa now roamed the earth terrorising the general populace. Yet one small thread of hope remained: Gordon Freeman. Could he rise to the occasion? Could he become the messianic hero earth so desperately needed? It was in your hands…

Thankfully Freeman wasn’t alone in his quest and some of his greatest allies turned out to be old friends. Yes, two of the most endearing characters from Half-Life made a return appearance: absent-minded scientist, Dr Kleiner, and stoic security guard, Barney Calhoun. Kleiner had even adopted a defanged head-crab, ‘Lamar,’ as a pet. Watching him trying to coax Lamar to jump onto his bald head had me in fits of laughter. In fact Half-Life 2 was peppered with affectionate allusions to its predecessor and apart from the obvious visual references there were also familiar musical cues and sound-effects. For Half-Life fans this inevitably invoked a sentimental response: something akin to meeting a long lost acquaintance and realising how much you missed them.

Valve are masterful storytellers

But what was the magical ingredient that elevated Half-Life 2 so far above the competition? Two words: dramatic pacing. Half-Life 2 effortlessly transitioned between moments of calm and moments of adrenalised, white-knuckle action. It was almost as if the folks at Valve Software had attended a Robert McKee seminar on scriptwriting. These dramatic turning points were devastatingly effective at keeping players emotionally engaged with what was happening onscreen.

While many 3D action/adventure offerings followed an unimaginative, repetitive pattern (i.e. Doom 3), Half-Life 2’s gameplay was incredibly diverse and created the illusion of freedom. Whether Freeman was running for his life in City 17, creeping through a tangled network of tunnels, climbing over rooftops in a ghastly, trap-riddled town or scaling the underbelly of an enormous bridge, the game always felt fresh. Apart from its startling variety of locations and activities Half-Life 2 also featured an array of challenging puzzles, many of which revolved around the game’s spectacular physics engine.

Valve may have a flair for storytelling but they also possess remarkable technical expertise. The latter resulted in the most realistic physics engine ever to grace a computer game! I’m not talking about the superficial ‘rag-doll’ drivel that other games tried to pass off as physics: I’m talking about a world in which every object was realistically governed by gravity, weight and mass. In Half-Life 2 the laws of physics permeated every facet of gameplay and players constantly had to find ways of manipulating objects to overcome obstacles. Examples of this included: placing buoyant containers under a submerged ramp to elevate it; using a massive crane to knock down a raised walkway; creating a makeshift shield by holding up a metallic trolley with the Gravity Gun; the list was endless.

Urban decay never looked so damned good!

Half-Life 2’s visual style was anchored in reality. Players negotiated vast, decaying cityscapes replete with crumbling buildings, graffiti-scrawled walls and piles of garbage; labyrinthine canals littered with rotting hulls and rusting girders; a desolate coastline dotted with deserted houses and destroyed bridges; to name but a few. These everyday settings made the game’s otherworldly creatures all the more disconcerting. Half-Life 2 may not have had the awesome lighting effects of Doom 3 but it still looked magnificent!

Of particular note was the amazing level of facial detail on the character models: the plastic features so prevalent in other games had been replaced with pores, whiskers and wrinkles. These characters looked so uncannily real they triggered powerful emotional responses in the player: I challenge you not to have found ‘Alyx Vance’ attractive or the G-Man repugnant but strangely charismatic. To cap it all off the voice-acting was uniformly superb!

Half-Life 2 had one major omission: it contained no built-in multiplayer component of any kind! Sure the game shipped with ‘Counter-Strike: Source,’ but this was a separate, self-contained product. So with a six year development cycle how could Valve possibly have left out a multiplayer component? Rumour has it they spent so much time developing ‘Steam,’ their online direct distribution system, they neglected Half-Life 2’s multiplayer entirely. Whatever the reason it was a glaring oversight.

Half-Life 2 was poignant, exciting and utterly compelling: it was, quite simply, one of the best single-player games I’ve ever played!

Review Summary
Score: 97%
Info: With the benefit of 8 years of hindsight I can now see that my original review was rather gushy but I still feel comfortable with my conclusions – Half-Life 2 really was that good! And yes you may have noticed that the main review image is actually from Half-Life 2: Episode One, but it was in my archive of old screenshots, looked great and still manages to showcase Half-Life 2’s graphics engine so I thought “What the hell…”
The Good: Enthralling storyline. Intriguing use of physics. Great visuals. Diverse gameplay. Oozes atomosphere. Engaging cast of characters.
The Bad: Initially shipped with no multiplayer component of any kind.

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Julian Schoffel

From 1994 to 2007 Julian was a contributing editor for Australian PC User Magazine. He has also written for numerous publications which include Australian Personal Computer, PC PowerPlay, Hyper, Ralph, Megazone, The Disc, PlayNow, TechLife, The Sydney Morning Herald and IGN.

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