Review by Steerpike
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 sycophancyand the tiki monkeyare 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 greatone
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
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 hitfar 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 forebearand 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.
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 lifelikeone 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
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 effectsyou 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
The Half-Life franchise has always represented the future
of first-person gamingintensely 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 triggeredthen
thwartedan 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-Lifehe 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 orderhe claimsto 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.
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 beenat 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 aliensthe invaders from the original Half-Lifeare
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 Combinedespite
the fact that it is ostensibly unrelated to Xenand the Xen
Vortigaunts have thrown their lot in with the humans. It makes no
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 weapona big metal wall that rings the city.
Not very scary. Thing is, though, the wall movesand
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 allthere 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,
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
areathe 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 funmany
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.
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-Lifewhich now looks pretty
datedare 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 againthere 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 earnot
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.
Release Date: November 2004
Four Fat Chicks Links
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256 MB RAM (512 MB preferred)
DirectX 7 capable graphics card (DirectX 9 preferred)
CD or DVD rom drive (retail version only)
Where to Find It
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