Reviewed: January 14, 2005
Released: November 16, 2004
It’s very rare when a first-party game based on a new engine actually rises to the occasion. Let’s face it, while Quake and Unreal were good games, they were more of a “see what our engine can do – now please license it” calling card. Even the recently released Doom 3 is more of a showcase of technology rather than a landmark achievement in gameplay.
But with Half-Life 2 the wizards at Valve weren’t just content to create a new engine, they wanted to create a masterpiece, an epic first-person shooter that would redefine a genre that had grown stale many years ago. And they’ve succeeded on every level setting the bar so high no one is likely to match it for quite some time.
Half-Life 2 breaks new ground on just about every front starting with the delivery system. This is one of the first titles that can be purchased and delivered solely through electronic means. In fact, for those who pre-ordered Half-Life 2, they had most, if not all of the game already on their hard drives prior to launch date, simply standing by for their activation code. Meanwhile, thousands of others gathered in lines at retail outlets across the nation to wait for the stroke of midnight, many of whom had been standing in similar lines a week before for Halo 2.
Half-Life 2 also comes in two flavors, the "game only" box and the super-deluxe $80 Collector's Edition that throws in a T-Shirt and a DVD with Half-Life 2, a remastered version of the original Half-Life game using the new Source engine, and Counter-Strike Source – yes, you guessed it, remastered using the new Source engine.
Counter-Strike fans will likely never make it to the Half-Life portion of the package. The transformation of this cult-classic is mind-blowing and many of your favorite levels from the original have been completely remade using the new engine. The results are indescribable. Half-Life, on the other hand, is more of a cosmetic facelift of environments and textures. It’s not as earth-shattering as I would have hoped, but I did enjoy reminiscing during the opening tram ride even though I didn’t play much past the first chapter.
Considering this game has been in development for many years I was surprised to see the relatively realistic system requirements. Chance are, if you have a computer that is at least a year old you can play this game with no upgrades, and if you are like me and have recently built up your system to handle games like Far Cry and Doom 3 prepare to be dazzled.
Regardless of whether you purchase your copy online or at a store you will need to get acquainted with Steam, the client that runs on your taskbar and not only ensures you have a legal copy of the game, but also keeps you apprised of updates for any Steam-supported games. It doesn’t take too much of your system resources and you can easily unload it from memory if you don’t plan on playing any Steam games for a while.
After the initial installation (file copy) there was about another 15-20 minutes of online updates and authorization before I was able to enter the fantastic world of Half-Life 2.
Half-Life 2 is about two things, story and gameplay and it excels at both. The story revolves around Gordon Freeman, the hero from the original adventure who, when we last left him, was caught in some inter-dimensional rift. We join Gordon in the passenger car of a train as it pulls into the station. After a cryptic encounter with the infamous G-Man, we are left to explore this wonderful and dangerous new world, now under the rule of alien Combine forces.
From the moment you step off the train you are immersed in a totally believable world, not just because the graphics are gorgeous enough to make your eyes bleed, but because of the intricate physics engine that will have you wasting the first hour of gameplay throwing cans and bottles at the patrolling guards then running away from them when they chase after you.
Much like the first Half-Life, this one is rife with scripted events that bring the world to life. You’ll see a guy getting hassled about his luggage, people waiting in lines, and once outside, you’ll just see people going nervously about their business. The game creates a very oppressive atmosphere, one that you would expect with alien garrisons patrolling every street.
The first section of the game is designed as a tutorial, not so much on how to play the game, but rather how to interact with the world and the realistic physics. You won’t even have a health bar for the first 20-30 minutes, so death isn’t even an option, but that doesn't make the game any less exciting.
The gameplay is an eclectic mix of traditional run and gun shooting with some really clever twists. Yes, there are jumping puzzles and even a few crate-stacking puzzles, but they are few and the physics engine is so exquisite that you won’t mind doing them.
There are some exciting driving segments, both in a buggy and an airboat that skims across rivers and toxic sludge. Some of these are very long but they are broken up with frequent stops along the way to solve a puzzle, clear your path, or kill a few soldiers. There are also exciting scripted assaults near the end of the game where you team up with AI-controlled NPC’s and work with them to retake the city. You can even give them limited commands.
And there are also a few fiendishly difficult “defend your location” segments where you have to position automated turrets in key locations and hold off wave after wave of Combine. One of the more exciting segments is defending a checkpoint and lighthouse from incoming assault teams being flown in by dropship.
Half-Life 2 mixes up all of these various styles of gameplay to keep things fresh from level to level. Valve has even thrown in a large number of secret areas stocked with extra health and ammo and cleverly indicated with the lambda symbol. And for the keenly observant gamer, there are a dozen or so locations where you can catch the G-Man observing your progress.
Gordon gets to use several weapons during his adventure ranging from the invaluable (and now famous) crowbar, to standard pistols, and rifles, then we move up to the rocket launcher that can now be aimed after its fired. Just point the red laser dot on the target and the missile will eventually get there.
Another innovative weapon is the gravity gun that allows you to “suck up” objects then repel them as projectiles. You can use this to rip a radiator from the wall and shoot it at a group of advancing soldiers or get creative and start flinging rotary saw blades as slicing discs of death. It can even be used as a tool to collect ammo from behind bars or otherwise unreachable locations.
Perhaps the most creative part of the Half-Life 2, and certainly one of my favorite sequences, is during the latter half of the game where after a lengthy level of avoiding and fighting off deadly waves of ant lions you actually get to lead them into battle.
Ant Lions are giant insect-like creatures (think Starship Troopers) that burrow out of the ground at the slightest rhythmic tremor and devour the offender, usually after ripping them to shreds with their mandibles. There are some creative scenarios that have you jumping from rock to rock or creating makeshift bridges out of debris to avoid contact with the ground, or using giant “thumpers” to keep the ant lions at bay.
Eventually, you will kill one of the queens and harvest her pheromone sack. With a gentle squeeze you can summon your own army of ant lions and order them to attack anyone you desire. This is where the game gets delightfully fun in an evil sort of way, at least until a new queen shows up to challenge your rule.
Puzzles are of the environmental variety. You might have to stack bricks on one side of a seesaw to create a ramp so you can reach a high ledge or interact with the levels to ignite a gas leak or drop a car on a zombie. One section has you driving down a long seaside road with periodic energy shield roadblocks. You will need to kill the guards and find a creative way to deactivate these shields to continue your journey. There is also a stomach-churning level that has you jumping across the support structure of a massive bridge.
Combat is a huge portion of Half-Life 2 and the enemy is not only strong in numbers, they fight smart. Enemies will seek cover and use advanced tactics. If you clear a turret a new soldier will take his place. They will try to flank your position and if you are using automated turrets they will try to disable them with grenades rather than charge blindly into their line of fire. On normal difficulty I had to curse their intelligence on several occasions, but I ultimately relished the challenge and defeating the Combine is a rewarding experience.
First off, this is one of the only games that I know of that natively supports widescreen aspect ratios. This normally isn’t an issue for most gamers, but I have a 24” 16:10 monitor as well as the capability to output to my 46” HDTV using a DVI cable, so Valve made at least one gamer very happy and I’m sure others out there will enjoy the added support.
Once you pick your aspect ratio you are given a set of resolutions that fall within those settings. Imagine my surprise when I found that Half-Life 2 ran at playable framerates at 1920x1200 on my AMD 3200XP with a gig of ram and a GeForce 6800…for the most part. Ultimately, I settled on 1600x1024 for blinding framerates at maximum detail from start to finish, even during the fast boat and buggy driving segments. All of the debate over ATI vs. Nvidia regarding this title over the past year has been a total waste of time.
All technical issues aside, Half-Life 2 looks freakishly amazing from an artistic standpoint. This is as photo-realistic as any game to date and the level of immersion is unparalleled to anything I have played. It’s dark and dirty urban environments are right on par with Far Cry’s lush tropical paradise.
The level of detail is astounding whether you are looking at complex arrays of monitors and electronic devices, or playing with the miniature, but fully functional, teleportation device in the professor’s lab. And don’t even get me started about the water. Water is the most overrated method of qualifying graphics, but the H2O in Half-Life 2 looks so real it looks fake.
The levels are massive and the draw distance is clear out to the visible horizon. You’ll see all of the architecture with which you can interact then layered behind that is something akin to a painting, but when you actually reach that area it all turns into fully explorable 3D architecture. A great example is the towering structure that rises into the clouds. It appears to be part of a massive scenic backdrop until you take that fateful elevator ride to the top.
Lighting is outstanding and there is a definitive passage of time that is reflected with various night and day conditions. You start off in the morning then the sun starts to sink and things get a twilight glow to them then the sun goes down for some moonlight beach adventures and a prison assault.
Special effects use every trick in the book starting with the aforementioned water then moving on to volumetric smoke and dust and some of the most realistic fire you have ever seen. Setting off a chain reaction of explosive drums is like the Forth of July. The damage model is extensive and everything in the game can be damaged or destroyed, so feel free to put that crowbar and gravity gun to good use.
The partially transparent HUD is minimal and kept to the outer borders of the screen so as not to interfere with the spectacular visuals. Status icons will occasionally appear to indicate fire or radiation damage. Menus are simple to navigate and there is a clever load screen technique used where a scene starts off all blurry then slowly comes into focus as the level is loaded.
Last but certainly not least is the exquisite character modeling, particularly in the face. Each character is designed with 40 separate facial muscles that are controlled by special software designed by a research psychiatrist that depicts authentic emotions, and the lips are automatically synched to the speech in real-time for any language the character might be speaking. The eyes gleam with a radiosity technique that make them appear totally lifelike. Bottom line, you have never seen characters that look or react as real as they do in Half-Life 2.
The audio has been given the same quality treatment that the visuals received. There is full support for all the latest audio technology right up to 7.1 surround sound if you have an Audigy ZS and the speakers to handle it.
The music is more ambient and environmetnal than musical and creates an ominous sense of depression and oppression for most of the game. Most of the audio presentation is reserved for the stunning sound effects and vocal work. The group of voice actors assembled for this project deliver a performance worthy of the material. The story is very intricate with some very dramatic moments and even a few plot twists and you will quickly become emotionally involved with the events and the characters.
Sound effects range from traditional weapons fire and engine noises to the more futuristic hums over hovercraft, alien languages, the powerful pulse weapon of the striders, and the zap of the gravity gun. There is the subtle click of the Geiger counter when you are near toxic sludge, and the whir of those flying sentry droids with their razor-sharp blades will send a chill down your spine. And we can’t forget the wet sucking sounds of those ceiling pods that grab you with their snaking tongues and pull you into their gaping maw. Disgusting!
It appears that at least for now, Valve has figured out a way to discourage casual piracy with their Steam authentication system, but that hasn’t stopped them from charging a rather high $54 price for this new game, although if you look hard enough you can find it on sale for $40. The Collector’s Edition is a nice alternate offering although at $80 I found it a bit expensive, and judging from the stacks of them still on store shelves, so do others. I did enjoy the convenience of having everything on a single DVD rather than multiple CD’s.
But price is hardly an issue when we are dealing with a landmark achievement, a moment in gaming history that rivals the first time we played games like Quake or Halo. You’ll easily get 20 hours of solid enjoyment from this game and if you get the Collector’s Edition and you enjoy Counter-Strike…well, prepare to quit your day job and break-up with your significant other.
We’ve been waiting a long time for Half-Life 2 to finally arrive and now that it has I can say without hesitation it is the finest FPS game you can play on the PC. It certainly looks better than the dark Doom 3 and for sheer gameplay, there is no competition for sheer variety and physical interaction with the detailed environments.
Valve’s Source engine is what makes this game possible and it’s only a matter of time before we see it used for even greater effect. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines has already taken a shot and with great results, but nothing yet has come close to matching, let alone surpassing the wonder that is Half-Life 2.