Production Values, Nitpicks
The quality of sound, music and art in Half-Life 2 is top notch, bar none. No game, not even Blizzard's titles, have speech that's as good. Half-Life 2 is full of talking, though usually in bursts at the start and end of a map sequence - more rarely in between. The speech comes across on radio, TV, and most often in person. Whoever the voice actors are, they really deserve a commendation for being so convincing and consistent.
Similarly, the music is utterly top-notch. In fact, I'd say it's better than GTA:SA, because it always fits the moment. San Andreas may have fancy licensed music, but Half-Life 2 never fails to deliver an ominous or stirring tune at exactly
the right moment. Even on those occasions where the threat of death is overblown, the music retains its effectiveness because so often it plays along with the intense combat, it becomes a Pavlovian reflex to get on edge when you hear it.
Sound effects are generally great but they do have a few exceptions. The Combine assault rifle has to be the deadliest-sounding gun we've ever heard, though the SMG and pistol sound weak. A lot of sounds are either re-used from Half-Life, or more likely, are very similar in order to maintain familiarity. The way Gordon runs across metal or smashes against wood crates with his crowbar, for example, is almost identical to the original game. Normally, we might be tempted to give a knock on the developer for not updating the sound effects, but these are still excellent and give a sense of continuity to the series.
The performance of the game is utterly amazing. Although this isn't a surprised on the review system - a P4 3.0C with 1GB of RAM and a GF 6800 Ultra Extreme - we've heard of constant praise from everyone, including those with 2GHz systems and GeForce 5700 Ultra cards. Obviously the GeForce FX series and earlier cards can't run the game in DX9 mode or at premium detail levels, but Valve has optimized enough that people aren't complaining about it unless they try to set quality too high.
For all that's good, there are still faults with the game.
Valve has to be the only developer on the planet that believes - after years of World War 2 games teaching us otherwise - that handguns are sniper rifles. The two most accurate guns in the game are - in order - the revolver, and the pistol. If you see someone you want to kill really far away, the revolver's a good bet. In fact, Valve seems to think that handguns are not only the most accurate weapons in the world, they're the most powerful. A revolver hits harder than anything except a shotgun, crossbow or grenade (rocket-propelled or otherwise). The pistol takes fewer shots to kill an enemy than an SMG. This is the kind of subtle annoyance that nibbles at but never manages to ruin suspension of disbelief, unless you kill a Combine trooper on a rooftop at 500 meters with the revolver, in a single hit. Incidentally, forget the crossbow - if you're zooming out to hit something, the bolt's too slow to reach it. Oh, and the ammo loadouts are completely arbitrary. The relatively compact revolver is limited to 18 rounds total, simply for the sake of game balance.
There's also a level ripped straight out of "Tremors" where the player isn't supposed to touch sand, or he'll be gangbanged by a gaggle of Ant Lions. The solution to this? Stilts? Jumping between rock mounds? No... apparently, in an attempt to show off the physics engine, Valve has the player dragging and tossing along various boards in order to make a path for himself. For some reason, the Ant Lions ignore the shuffling of these items on the sand, as long as old Gordo doesn't step on it.
In fact, most of the time that the physics engine gets any play, it is in a deliberate situation, where Valve makes it obvious you should shoot the barrels which will cause the bridge with the guys to fall down. Of course, if you did this at any other bridge than the scripted bridge, nothing would happen. Fortunately, there are subtler and less obvious situations in which the physics get use. For example, the roof-hanging-mouths-with-long-sticky-tongue things can be now convinced to try to eat anything, including explosive barrels. Just pop the barrel at the right time and you can clear a path through a cluster of those. Also, the last levels of the game are ridiculously intensive with the gravity gun. It has to be seen to be believed. The physics aren't without bugs either. Several times, Gordon got stuck between a moveable object and world geometry, or between two pieces of world geometry itself.
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