Wake up Mr. Freeman...
There comes a time in every gamers life when they are given something that's the subject of much hype and marketing, it leaves that kind of lasting impression that it's going to fall flat on its face and bomb like a 1000 lead turkeys. Half-Life 2 looked wonderful from all the E3 and show demos but no one got to see a playable version of it, critics swarmed like flies and most of them said it was all 'glitz' and 'glamour'.
Want to find out why I think they were wrong, then read on?
The rule of Sequels
There are a few games that can make the leap to a successful sequel and that number is getting smaller and smaller each year, as technology increases and developers become more aware of what can and can't be done with our favourite gaming platforms we find several things lacking in the new games - graphical glamour and eye-candy come in first over gameplay and innovation.
Half-Life 2 does what many new games fail to do and what established franchises have missed out on, it combines cutting-edge state-of-the-art graphics and visual dynamics with bone-crunching and rapid-fire action sequences that you'd expect from a big-budget Hollywood movie.
To put it bluntly - Half-Life 2 raises the bar so far out of sight that both Valve and other developers are going to have to use a rocket to get to it.
Stranded between worlds, Gordon Freeman has been sleeping for a long time - his part in the Black Mesa incident has not gone unnoticed, far from it, he's now labelled as a dangerous and subversive fragment of Earth's old history. This is where you come in, there's no manual with the game and there's no idea of what's really going on apart from a few tid-bits of text on the back of the box - Half-Life 2 tells the story as you play it.
From the opening (visually stunning) in-game engine cinematic you are drawn into a bleak and futuristic Earth under the powerful hand of a dark oppressor. You as Gordon haven't a clue why you're there and to be frank, as a player, you don't have much to go on - this touch is brilliant and adds to the immersion and atmosphere in droves.
Welcome back to good solid FPS enjoyment where the order of the day is to progress through the story, level by level and solve a variety of puzzles and encounters. That might sound a bit tried and tested, the old cliché and so forth - but it works and it works so well you'll be gnawing your fingernails wanting to get to the next bit.
It might sound a lot like linear gameplay but think of each 'chunk' of the level and story is quite large and often there are a few routes you can take to avoid certain confrontations. This isn't a MMORPG so it's quite permissible to shuffle the player along a certain path as long as they don't really feel hemmed in all the time.
The best way to describe the initial levels of the game are akin to a rock slide or an avalanche, you start with barely a rumble and a bit of a tumble of stone, the next thing you're doing is running for your life away from a full-scale thunderous downpour of death.
Where Half-Life 2's gameplay really excels is the interaction with the environment to even the odds. At times you feel woefully out gunned and out positioned by the enemy, a stray shot into a barrel of flammable liquid can set up for an explosion, one that can chain to other barrels and before the enemy can say 'ARGH' they're blown clear across the skyline. Since Half-Life 2 employs the Havok 2 physics engine this allows for a variety of objects and surfaces to interact with each other - wood is wood, metal is metal and plastic is plastic and so on.
Half-Life 2 also re-introduces vehicular enemies and several rides for you to play around with.
So to summarise: gameplay is intense and frenetic with sporadic outbursts of environmentally based puzzle solving, and no I am not going to even spoil a single one of these since there's a lot of effort gone into setting them up to surprise the player.
I thought I'd seen some stunning graphics on the E3 show demos and screenshots, but nothing prepares you for the sheer graphical beauty that is Half-Life 2. Even on my machine which isn't an Uber Gaming rig (Until next year) the game looks absolutely stunning and runs like a dream.
With all the bells and whistles enabled, all the options turned on the world around you has been rendered in such a high-definition and with such skill as to appear almost real. You can almost smell the decay of some of the later areas, the run-down filthy domiciles of human beings trapped in an oppressive Orwellian nightmare.
There are so many special effects that the game is best described as a visual feast for the eyes and leave it at that, it would be hard to pick just one particle effect or blur or glow that stood out from the rest of them, without spoiling certain game moments.
Half-Life 2 is drop-dead gorgeous, it's like that certain red-head that you saw when you noticed girls for the first time who you're still with now, or that bloke you had a crush on who you later married and lived with happily ever after.
The level design for the game is tight and it shows why the second game is such an improvement over the first. Everything has been placed with a meticulous attention to detail and it smacks of design skill and commitment.
Valve wanted us to believe we were on a different Earth and they succeeded beautifully by combining the special effects and wonderful surfaces with a top-notch architectural design which produces a breathtaking and stunning vista. The moment you finally step out of the door and see the City for the first time you'll spend as much time as I did just looking about in bewilderment.
With this lavish level design also comes the fiendish puzzle-layers of Valve that have studied their physics system and put together some nice buoyancy and weight-related problems for Mr. Freeman to solve on his journey.
From every railing to stone platform, console and beyond Half-Life 2 is designed with an almost insane level of detail. It's hard to find a single thing wrong with it, in-fact Valve must have studied book after book on buildings and their design along with reviewing thousands of photographs just to get the look and feel of the environments spot on.
Character Graphics, Models and Design
The source engine for Half-Life 2 is capable of making some of the most realistic looking game characters ever seen. The developers have managed to endow every creature, character and so-forth in Half-Life 2 with an almost unnatural set of expressions and personality.
The 'briefcase' man is back and he's particularly impressive to see in action, he's even better now as they have tweaked him considerably since the E3 and other show demos. It really is the first time that proper facial expressions have appeared on game characters, their eyes and other features move as if they were human (Those that are human of course).
The model design for everything in Half-Life 2 is top-notch and there's nothing really more that can be said about it, the clothing is superb and the little touches on the characters brings them to life in a way that has not been seen before.
Regarding character and other graphics, skin looks like skin and cloth looks like cloth, metal looks and behaves like metal and some of the vehicle designs are truly inspiring and frightening, especially when they're gunning for you.
You only have to look at the screens of some of the people you're likely to meet to see how much detail the developers have put into all graphical and design aspects of this game.
There are various levels of AI that govern the actions of the characters and once again Valve have gone to great lengths to ensure these are as finely tuned as they can possibly be. From the enemy soldier AI to your allies they will try and think, use cover, create obstacles and definitely utilise things like exploding barrels and heavy objects (especially in the case of the headcrab-zombies).
It's quite something to be pursued by the enemy in this game since they will actively hunt you down and attempt to flank, they're much more intelligent than the soldiers from the original game and they will run to emplaced weapons if there's one near-by.
The AI is also based on the creature in question, headcrabs will use their jump attack but they also have a new trick, one which I will leave for you to find out. The headcrab-zombies are much more fearsome now, though on the easier difficulty levels they can be decked with a few well placed crowbar hits.
As stated before everything reacts with everything else, objects in the game world have weights, mass and their own space. This has allowed Valve to come up with obstacles and puzzles that aren't just about finding a passkey to a locked door or finding a hidden switch.
For example, two metal baskets are before you, one of them is higher than the other and is out of reach. After a quick search you find a basket on the ground with a couple of house-bricks in connected to the other by a simple rope/pulley system. Removing the bricks allows the pulley to lower the basket of goodies to the ground.
Simple but effective.
Explosives hurl bodies around with true physical effects, I have even seen soldiers taken out by flying debris from a chain-reaction explosion across the way from them. Various weapons also seem to have a physical effect attached, shoot someone with a piddly pistol and they'll hardly feel it - blast them with a face full of magnum and they'll drop like a stone, usually pinwheeling backwards a little.
As for the Gravity Gun, I shan't spoil it but it has to be one of the best weapons in the game - period. Being able to pick up various objects and hurl them about thanks to the physics system is a true pleasure - as are the results.
So with floating wood and plastic, heavy chunks of metal and some other surprises the developers once again immerse us in the world they have created, score one more for the immersion cause!
Aurally Half-Life 2 delivers with some of the chunkiest spot effects and atmospheric sounds in a game yet, the whine of the enemy attack helicopter as it powers up its twin-guns is a true pant-browning sound that will have you running for the nearest cover as the spa-tang of high-speed projectiles makes a deafening sound as they ricochet off the various surfaces.
The developers have added a sound to every surface and every different kind of object makes a sound based on the level of interaction.
Shoot a metal wall with a gun and you'll get a nice 'spa-tang' and the bullet bounces off.
Hit it with the crowbar and you'll get a rattling 'twang' as the crowbar dinks off the surface. This level of auditory detail serves to push the envelope even more and drag the player right in with Gordon, you'll be ducking bullets with him as you sit by your PC and play the game.
Top-notch audio sounds for all aspects of the game, weapons, vehicles and even the enemy radio-chatter as you listen in on their 'security' broadcasts propel the level of immersion even further for this title.
A good musical score that intelligently sets the scene for a conflict going from a slow almost ponderous, doom-laden walk to a frenetic adrenaline-charged battle. The music doesn't give the game away either, it kicks in only after all hell has broken loose and not before. In this way Half-Life 2 has managed to get away from the trap that most other games have fallen into, by heightening tension just before the action, it tips the player off to the danger ahead.
Half-Life 2 steers well clear of this.
Brilliant performances by some of the best voice actors in the business, no expense has been spared to make sure that this area of the game is as polished as the others. From the 'briefcase' man's halting 'Agent Smith' style intro rhetoric to a few old friends you'll meet early on, the VA on this game is top notch shining stuff.
While Half-Life 2 is an unashamedly addictive and mind-bending singleplayer experience it comes with Counter Strike, remade. Using the Source Engine for their game Valve have rebuilt and recoded the original CS to make use of the new games improved horsepower and special features.
I was never a huge fan of CS, more a Team Fortress man myself and would have dearly loved to see TF: 2 done on the Half-Life 2 Source engine, but I can report that the new CS is fast, furious and most of all fun (The few times I have played this new incarnation).
I would have also liked to see the original Half-Life deathmatch make its way back onto the servers as well, but since we're getting two games for the price of one - I am not going to complain. CS is gorgeous and it should be since it is using the same tech as Half-Life 2.
That's a wrap
Ok. So that's it, when all said and done. Is Half-Life 2 worth the money or are you better off waiting for something else?
Half-Life 2 is the new King of the First Person Shooter and it's nice to see a singleplayer game with as much depth, story and gameplay as this one. Half-Life 2 positively beats down the other games with the crowbar of Dr. Freeman and leaves them whimpering on the floor.
Am I a Half-Life fanboy?
Am I a Half-Life 2 fanboy?
Am I a gamer that is totally blown away with this game and sharing my point of view on it, heck yes. But you'll have to find out for yourself because no doubt there'll be those people that are blinkered by their hatred of Steam and of Valve themselves and the Half-Life brand that'll miss out on one of the new classics of our time.
Half-Life 2 has redefined the genre of FPS and it's now the benchmark from which all games must follow suit.
It's not too easy and it's not too hard, the learning curve on the game is just about right. Why then does it not have a 100%?
I'd like to give it 99% or 100% I really would but there's the minor niggle of Steam which comes with it if you don't have a net connection, quite simply, you can't play the game.
It's also missing the classic Half-Life deathmatch and Counter Strike may not be everyone's cup of tea.
Simple reasons, but I consider them valid points.