Half-Life 2

Review by Steerpike
November 2004

I Read Computer Gaming World

In one of the sorriest, most shamelessly pandering obsequies in the history of computer games, PC Gamer magazine decreed Half-Life 2 "the best game ever made" after their reviewer played through a release candidate in one frenzied, supervised, twenty-hour sitting at Valve offices in Washington. Such displays of cloying sycophancy—and the tiki monkey—are why I don't read PC Gamer. Half-Life 2 has gotten more unctuous, fawning press, more prostrate, worshipful liner quotes, more slobbering adulation than any game in history, and in most cases, it's gotten it from journalists who haven't yet played the full game or who have raced through it with a Valve stoolie lurking over their shoulder.

Which isn't to say that Half-Life 2 is bad. It's great—one of the best games of the year, and a paragon of design, technical innovation, writing, acting, style, and gameplay. But to call it "the best game ever," or to make absurd remarks like "nothing will ever be the same," smacks of plauditory ass-kissing the likes of which I thought the games industry had outgrown. Fact is, "ever" hasn't happened yet, and while Half-Life 2 is a really stunning achievement, it has one serious (some would say dealbreaking) flaw, and there are better games in the universe. That said, it's still a strong contender for Game of the Decade.

The long-awaited Half-Life 2 represents the pinnacle of great action shooters because it strictly adheres to the one rule that makes an FPS great, the one rule that so many developers ignore, or break due to ineptitude and then conceal behind a shroud of tacked-on complexity: in a first person shooter, level design is everything.

Valve had to fill its own enormous shoes when producing a sequel to Half-Life. With the bad marketing decisions, the deceptive announcements, the noninteractive demos that were outright fakes, not to mention the code thefts and lawsuits and delays, there was a lot of anger among the fanbase before this game hit—far more anger than was directed at DOOM 3 prior to that oft-delayed title's release. I'll spare you the sad story; read this if you're interested. What it boils down to is that Half-Life was one of the best designed, highest regarded, most well-received, and most popular PC games in history. That's a tough act to follow, but Valve hit this one out of the park. For my money, it is better in every regard than its own forebear—and if it wasn't for that one flaw, I might be calling it "best game ever" too. But that one flaw is a killer; we'll get to it shortly.

Source Material

Half-Life 2 is powered by the proprietary Source engine, which we're likely to see in a number of upcoming titles. Source is a beautiful engine, inferior to DOOM 3 in light and shadow but superior in draw distance, normal maps, reflectivity, and liquid effects. A Direct3D codebase, it seems more forgiving of mediocre systems and ATI cards as well, and it allows a little more low-level control over visual effects than DOOM 3 does. Source takes us another step closer to photorealism. Graphics and animations in this game are fluid and lifelike—one of the many reasons Half-Life was so revered was its use of skeletal animation to bring the Marine death squads to life; human figures look and move even more realistically in this sequel. Half-Life 2 looks so tasty you're tempted to eat it, especially during the sweeping outdoor sequences.

One of the most impressive aspects of Source technology is its astoundingly realistic modeling of human faces and expressions. Valve leapt the Uncanny Valley in a single bound with Half-Life 2, because in this game the human characters look and emote like real people, eschewing the sepulchral death masks we've gotten used to in modern games. All of these computer-generated characters display an entire spectrum of facial responses, from the subtle to the obvious.

Valve employed the Havok physics engine for Half-Life 2 rather than building physics into Source, and I think the move was a good one. Havok has some rough edges, but it's inexpensive and far easier to implement than a completely unique physical model. The nice thing about the physics engine here is that it represents "step two" of physics integration in games: ignoring Trespasser, Max Payne 2 was the first PC game we saw that had real physics. Half-Life 2 is the first game where you use the physics as part of gameplay. For the first time, realistic physics aren't just special effects—you must manipulate the physical world to your advantage.

I ordered and preloaded Half-Life 2 over the Steam network, which I'll get to a little later, and I'm told that those who bought retail copies are having some stability problems that Steam users are not. My experience was almost entirely stable and problem-free; I had one crash during my play-through, and I think that one was my fault. Generally speaking, Half-Life 2 is more stable than most releases. There is an acknowledged bug that causes some of the dialogue to sound as though SHODAN from System Shock were delivering it, but Valve will be releasing a patch over Steam shortly. The only other problem with the sound is that sometimes ambient noises drown out important dialogue, and there aren't separate volume sliders for voices and ambient audio.

The game will take between three and five gigabytes of your hard drive, and it does require that Steam be installed in order to authenticate itself. Once your game is authenticated, Steam is no longer required, though without it you will not be able to play Half-Life 2's multiplayer component.

Narrative Plus

The Half-Life franchise has always represented the future of first-person gaming—intensely cinematic, narrative experiences that draw you into the game as though you were playing your favorite movie. Recognizing the strengths of its paradigm, Valve doesn't deviate significantly from it in this sequel. However, the game's one devastating flaw is based in its fiction, so we'll break it down into two parts: the good and the bad. Here's the good.

Half-Life 2 puts you once again in the hazard suit of Dr. Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist who inadvertently triggered—then thwarted—an extradimensional alien invasion in the first installment. At the end of Half-Life, Gordon found himself forced into employment as a government stooge under the authority of a mysterious G-man who seems to transcend reality in general.

Gordon appears to have been in stasis since the Black Mesa disaster of Half-Life—he awakens to the G-man calling him back to duty and finds himself in Eastern Europe, in an Orwellian nightmare of urbania called City-17, one of the few remaining human settlements on Earth. Though he hasn't aged a day, it seems that years have passed since Gordon's adventures at Black Mesa.

In the intervening period, a new alien horror called the Combine has assaulted the Earth and enslaved the species. A sort of anti-Viagra energy field bans reproduction, human beings themselves are treated as little more than an infestation, and the Combine has overrun the entire planet. Dr. Breen, the former chief administrator of the Black Mesa facility, has negotiated a losing peace with the Combine, in order—he claims—to ensure the survival of humanity. His actual reasons are slightly more sinister.

The propaganda-state nightmare is brilliantly realized in the opening chapters of Half-Life 2, which are some of the best designed and most unsettling environments ever made interactive. The collapsing cityscape, with its crumbling buildings, blowing garbage, gas-masked, cattle prod-wielding riot police, and ubiquitous monitors blaring constant agitprop from Breen all represent the sort of visceral impact that many filmmakers wish they could achieve.

You're marked as a fugitive almost immediately upon your arrival in City-17, and you must turn to the human resistance movement for help. Among those fighting the Combine are former Black Mesa alums Dr. Kleiner, Dr. Vance and his daughter Alyx, and Barney Calhoun, the security guard from Half-Life Opposing Force. These characters represent the core of the story, as they are the crux of the resistance and humanity's last chance.

Half-Life 2 is without question the best-written, best-acted game I've ever played. The cast includes Robert Guillaume, Lou Gossett Jr., Michelle Forbes, Robert Culp, and Broadway star Merle Dandridge; all of these highly talented actors take their roles seriously and play their parts to the hilt. The dialogue is snappy, the human relationships well-evoked, and the story could have been very engaging.

Narrative Minus

The story could have been engaging, that is, if it didn't display signs of massive cuts. It looks to me like at least 50% of Half-Life 2 was excised in order to make ship; yawning holes in the story stand as silent proof of this.

Absolutely no background is provided, nor is any effort ever made to explain some of the major plot points. We never find out how or when or why the Combine attacked, how Drs. Vance and Kleiner, Barney, and Alyx managed to escape Black Mesa, or how they wound up in City-17. Everyone in the resistance seems to know who Gordon is, but no one asks him where he's been—at least fifteen years have passed since Black Mesa, as Alyx was apparently a little girl back then and is definitely a grownup now.

You're never told what the Combine is or what it wants (indeed, you never actually see a Combine alien; combat is all with Combine war machines or human collaborators). Further, some of the Xen aliens—the invaders from the original Half-Life—are working with the resistance against the Combine, but their sudden willingness to ally with humanity is never explained. Other Xen aliens, like the headcrabs, now seem to be part of the Combine—despite the fact that it is ostensibly unrelated to Xen—and the Xen Vortigaunts have thrown their lot in with the humans. It makes no sense.

As in the first game, Gordon Freeman doesn't have a single word of dialogue in Half-Life 2. It was okay in the original, because all dialogue was kept to a minimum. In this game, however, the silent protagonist is strangely off-putting. Characters ask Gordon questions or make remarks that clearly call for a response, and they get silence in return. Rather than making Gordon seem mysterious or cipher-like, it actually just makes him seem rude. It worked in System Shock 2 because your character is being talked at. In this game, he's being talked to, and his failure to respond is very jarring.

Then there is the issue of the Combine Wall, which for some reason touched a nerve with me. I was first introduced to the Combine Wall at a Half-Life 2 prerelease demonstration last spring, when they went on and on about it, but if I hadn't attended that event I would have had no idea what it was or why it was there. Here's the sitch: late in the game, the Combine apparently decides that Gordon must be eliminated regardless of the cost and unleashes its most devastating weapon—a big metal wall that rings the city. Not very scary. Thing is, though, the wall moves—and it's encroaching, step by step, crushing everything in its path. Allowed to continue unchecked, it would eventually destroy City-17, along with everything and everyone in it.

The Combine Wall is one of the most chilling representations of malevolent automation I've ever seen. It's the sort of thing that KY-fueled dystopian sci-fi nuts dream about: a faceless, inexorable horror that cannot be stopped, cannot be slowed, cannot be reasoned with, and cannot be escaped. But in the game, no one even mentions the Combine Wall. It's just there, slowly squishing the city, and no explanation of what it is or what it means is ever offered. To throw away such a thrummingly powerful image of mechafascist horror is just ... wasteful. Writers dream of coming up with something as menacing as the Combine Wall, and Valve just tossed it aside like a piece of narrative flotsam.

The ending is so anticlimactic and nonsensical that I can only assume it was not originally intended to be the ending. There is literally no warning that the game is about to end, not even the whisper of a suggestion that you're facing the final encounter. Indeed, the "final encounter" isn't really an encounter at all—there is no opponent in the classic sense, and you're given a weapon of such devastating power that you barely even realize you're fighting before what passes for your final adversary is defeated. Once that occurs, you're treated to a brief and puzzling finale that actually manages to create a closure deficit. I was flabbergasted when the credits rolled; I had no idea that I was at the end of the game, because it feels like it ends in the middle.

For a game that places such weight on story, there's little excuse for this. Half-Life 2 had the opportunity to be one of the most stirring narrative statements about techno-despotism ever, and the designers blew it. I can only assume that the story comes across as so bizarre because they cut the bejesus out of this game; if it was actually intended to be that way, then the people who wrote it should turn in their Writers Guild cards right now.

In the end, it's obvious that the story of Half-Life 2 is the middle chapter of a three-part saga, and like all middle chapters, it's highly unsatisfying.

Where's the Beef?

From a gameplay perspective, though, Half-Life 2 is impeccable. It sports fabulous level design, good action, and excellent pacing. The gameplay is refocused slightly; where Half-Life was riddled with jumping puzzles and "miniboss" battle/puzzle sequences, here the concentration is more combat-oriented, with fewer boss-like encounters and far fewer jumping puzzles. On one hand that's nice; jumping puzzles belong in Prince of Persia and nowhere else as far as I'm concerned. I did miss the large-opponent facets, though; there are no encounters along the lines of the sound-sensitive clanking monster in Half-Life's Blast Pit level. Interestingly, Half-Life 2 is also more progress-driven, where its predecessor was objective-driven. In most cases, your goal is to get from point A to point B, not to turn on the power or launch a satellite or get help or what have you. You also almost never return to areas you have already visited. It doesn't really affect the tenor of the game, but it surprised me, given that Half-Life was one of the pioneers of seamless, objective-driven play.

Game structure is the same, short loading screens separating sections of each titled chapter. The action is carefully tuned to keep you busy and on your toes without becoming ho-hum or irritating, as each mission and game section calls for a different play style and evokes different emotional responses: levels range from creepy as hell to intense and adrenaline-packed, from claustrophobic to crushingly open. I could have done with more variety among the enemies, and I certainly felt that the AI in this game wasn't on par with the award-winning intelligence of the Half-Life death squads. Still, it was far from weak, and the game remains challenging and fun throughout. I only found myself frustrated once, during a way-too-long sequence in which I had to set up sentry guns to defend a specific area—the section was far too difficult, and the game's "pick up objects with your hands" controls leave a lot to be desired.

Many of the favorite weapons from Half-Life make a return: Gordon's crowbar, the Magnum, crossbow, and others. The big conversation piece will be the Gravity Gun, a tool that allows you to manipulate objects, pull and push them, and fling them with great force at your enemies. The Gravity Gun is where the physics of the game really come into play: you use it to clear rubble, stop machines, stack things, and alter the landscape to your advantage. There's something quite satisfying about using the Gravity Gun to hold a washing machine before you as a shield, then hurling said washing machine into a horde of oncoming foes. Indeed, physics play such a prominent role in this game that it can be confusing to long-time gamers; we're so used to such options simply not being available in video games that we don't try them. It took me ages to realize that I could wedge a 2×4 into a ventilator fan to stop it, or use a crane to drop a shipping crate on a squad of enemies. It just didn't occur to me, because it wouldn't have been possible in most game technologies up to this point. But it's very neat.

Two breathless vehicle sequences are included, one in the world's sturdiest dune buggy and the other in a fan-powered airboat. You also have multiple opportunities to do battle with Combine vehicles, from their heavy troop dropships to the holy-crap-what-is-that-thing Strider battletanks, to which screenshots do not do justice; you have to see them in motion. Like everything else in the game, the vehicle missions were tuned with an eye toward pacing and fun—many games assume that simply having a vehicle sequence is worth extra credit even if that sequence sucks; here, that you're driving a vehicle isn't the end all and be all of the experience.

Late in the game, you also have the opportunity to control squads of support troops, who will generally obey your simple commands and fight alongside you. They're essentially expendable cannon fodder, sadly, since their AI walks them right into a sniper's path or right under a Strider's clawed foot. They never get stuck on things or block your way, though, and their pathing is stellar. It's also nice to have a medic in the field who can patch you up during an extended encounter with those Striders.

I was surprised by one review that described the game as easy; I'm pretty good at first-person shooters and found it plenty challenging. Even so, this game is a 15- or 20-hour experience, which is increasingly becoming the norm in major releases. Like it or not, games are now too complicated and too expensive to make; it's no longer realistic to produce a 75-hour epic in a reasonable amount of time.

Steamy Scenes

Valve's Steam network now controls all online play related to Half-Life and its offspring and represents the future of game distribution, whether you like it or not (I don't). A gamer can download the Steam client, buy a copy of Half-Life 2, load it over Steam, and be playing immediately. Steam manages all of your files and keeps games organized within its own directory. Nicely, Valve did include a feature that allows you to write any purchased game's source files to disk in case you're worried about having continued access to the game in the long term.

Half-Life 2's multiplayer component is currently limited to Counterstrike Source, a total conversion of that popular Half-Life mod to the Source engine. There are only a handful of CS:Source maps available right now, but Steam does have a number of features that help rein in the rampant cheating that so ruined the 1.x versions of the game. I got over my addiction to Counterstrike some years ago, and while I found this update fun, it still contains most of the flaws that the original did, and it is still played largely by dorks and losers who can't be older than eleven and act like they're four. CS:Source comes free with all versions of Half-Life 2, but you have to buy the Silver (or Gold) package if you want access to the rest of the Steam library, including other multiplayer games such as the ever-popular Day of Defeat. Other popular Half-Life mods, such as the underappreciated Natural Selection, have not yet been ported to Source but probably will be soon.

The Silver and Gold packages also include Half-Life Source, which is what it sounds like: a complete version of the original Half-Life on the Source engine. I realize that this is just gravy, but it might have been wiser for Valve to put a little more effort into this conversion. Half-Life is still a hugely popular game, and I was looking forward to playing through it again with fancy Source graphics. Unfortunately, all of the textures and models from the original Half-Life—which now looks pretty dated—are used in this update. Indeed, aside from the water and a few minor physics effects, it looks and plays exactly like the Quake 2-powered original.

Goodbye, Dr. Freeman

It may seem in this review that I harbor some ambivalence toward Half-Life 2, but that's really not the case. This is a really, really impressive game, a triumph for Valve and a validation of the cinematic style of gameplay that the company has always espoused. There are a few minuscule play issues that I wish were different, and of course I wish it had been longer, but otherwise any action shooter fan should be very impressed by this game.

Obviously I have strong feelings about the nonsensical story thread, and I'm really pretty angry at Valve for allowing the game out the door with such gaping holes in the plot. I also wish more time had been devoted to fleshing out some of the characters. Still, the story is just one part of a larger whole, and the story of Half-Life 2 makes me mad not so much for what it is or is not, but for what it could have been. Another ten hours of play and a narrative that didn't show signs of such massive tinkering would have produced a far better game.

2004 has been an odd year. In my opinion, it's been rather disappointing as far as PC game releases are concerned; a lot of expected games didn't ship, and some highly anticipated titles turned out to be worthless. And yet 2004 has also borne witness to some of the most significant releases in PC gaming history. More importantly, it has turned the PC around once again—there are fewer console ports, more PC-only titles, and a general feeling in the industry that the PC may not be as dead as everyone thought.

Half-Life 2 is part of that major release cycle. The inevitable comparisons to DOOM 3 are already filtering in; frankly I'd say the two games are so different that there really is no way to correlate them. DOOM 3 was what it was, and was what it claimed to be: fun, scary, violent, and pretty. They never promised us anything more than that, so I didn't hold it to a standard to which it never aspired. Half-Life 2, meanwhile, did aspire to greatness, promising a level of immersiveness, a level of control over the environment, and a level of technology that claimed would turn the gaming world on its ear. And it will turn it on its ear—not so much for what Half-Life 2 does, though that's impressive enough, but for what it will inspire in the next generation of games. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Valve Software
Publisher: Vivendi Universal
Release Date: November 2004

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

1.2 GHz Processor (2.4 GHz preferred)
256 MB RAM (512 MB preferred)
DirectX 7 capable graphics card (DirectX 9 preferred)
Windows 2000/XP/ME/98
Mouse
Keyboard
Internet Connection
CD or DVD rom drive (retail version only)

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