Summary: Welcome back, Mr. Freeman. Your services are required again. Entry will be a little bumpy, there's some Steam that's making things difficult for everyone, but the ride smooths out from there. Our Benefactors are expecting you, complete with 99 screenshots.
The hype was huge. After the first game, people were expecting Half-Life 2 relatively soon, along with Team Fortress 2. While the latter obviously didn't pan out, Half-Life 2 received so little comment from Valve that interested faded relatively soon. News from Valve was so slow that the E3 2003 demonstration was almost a surprise to everybody.
More surprising than the appearance of Half-Life 2, was the appearance of Half-Life 2. It immediately drew comparisons to Doom 3, and although it lacked the sophisticated per-pixel lighting of id's game, it possessed an advanced physics engine. More than that, the physics weren't just a cosmetic effect for when you shoot an enemy and see his corpse fall realistically, or to see barrels fly far and wide. They were integrated into the gameplay as never before. The biggest shock was left for the end of the demonstration, when Gabe Newell announced to attending press at each session that the game would be ready for September 30, 2003.
Of course, we all know about the hacking of Valve and theft of the source code and game data. Rumors flew around the internet that the supposedly complete stolen version showed how unfinished the final game was. Though we'll never know for sure, Valve announced that the game would be delayed indefinitely until they went through and fiddled with the code.
In the meantime, a golden opportunity was lost. Deus Ex: Invisible War, Thief 3, Far Cry and Doom 3 were all released. Each, in its own way, took a shot at Half-Life 2's mystique and promise. While none of the games offers everything Half-Life 2 promised at the same time, they each had a piece and sometimes more. Though Valve suffered from the loss of time and prestige, ATI arguably suffered more. NVIDIA's graphics cards in late 2003 were incapable of running Half-Life 2 with full features, and certainly at nothing compared to the speed of ATI's Radeon 9500, 9600, 9700 and 9800 line. Half-Life 2 could have been a stepping stone, a way for ATI to launch itself far out of NVIDIA's reach.
And yet, the Half-Life 2 craze continued unabated. ATI cards continued to outsell NVIDIA's, no doubt because they had Steam keys to refund for downloadable copies of Half-Life 2, and in the short term: Counter-Strike: Source. Possibly the only reason that CS: Condition Zero copies left store shelves was because they were a cheaper way of getting your hands on a CS: Source beta.
Though it's just as linear as the original, Half-Life 2 is by far more entertaining. The themed levels are tighter, more focused sequences. With the possible exception of the boat level, Valve has cut the fat and trimmed the game into a much tighter experience. The initial train ride isn't as long, the introductory sequence is planned better, more spaced apart. In fact, if anything, there are times at which the game strains too much to move things on to something "meaningful".
Though the game is a masterpiece in terms of getting the player to suspend disbelief, there are a few moments when it faulters. These are mostly bugs with the physics code and some minor scripted events, but the most jarring occurences are when the game tries to rush along too fast to the next scene. This is particularly annoying since the pacing is excellent in all other respects.
The hurry-up moments also caused this reviewer to start thinking. Thinking as in "huh, how'd they find me?" or "there's no way they're waiting for me again". While this is nowhere nearly as obnoxious as surprise! attack! in Doom 3, it gets tiresome. It would be nice, for once, to be part of a rebel group that isn't outmaneuvered at every turn by the Evil Empire, only to be saved by the One Lone Hero.
For the most part, however, the game does a brilliant job of setting the atmosphere. You do feel like Gordon Freeman, "the one free man", a hero to a rebellious cause. The flavor NPCs behave the way you'd think they would - couples holding each other in nearly abandoned tenements, with no feeling of hope. A woman at the train station in the opening sequence, looking around desperately and asking those who are coming off if no one else was on board. A priest gone mad, who's set all sorts of traps for his zombie "flock". Then there are the dozens of subtler details, the way the rebels are structured, how the populace and cities react to the Combine occupation. It is simply remarkable how believable Gordon's world is.
This is all the more remarkable because at no point during the game is anything explained about the current situation. Everything the player understands about the world is reasoned out from circumstantial evidence. There's no history of what's gone on with Freeman or the world in the meantime. The exact location of City 17, never mind how Gordon, Eli and the rest got there, is a complete mystery.
Yet there are hints and teases, enough to formulate theories on. The G-man is as mysterious as ever, yet more is revealed by his actions at the end of the game and the reactions of people to Gordon, that it's possible to speculate.
SIDEBAR: Spoilers! Personally, I believe the G-man is some sort of being from the future, who uses Gordon to advance some sort of agenda. He's a time-traveler, because people comment on the lack of change in Gordon's appearance, and since he seems to stop time at the end of the game and takes Gordon away. Also, Gordon and Alyx spend a week in teleport while it feels like seconds to them, clearly suggesting some sort of time travel.
Truth be told, other than Valve greatly exaggerating the effect physics will have on gameplay, there's little to complain about. Sure there are nitpicks and some of them are even worth mentioning, but I could just as well spend the rest of the article explaining how tightly orchestrated an experience Half-Life 2 is.
In fact, that's about the only knock that can be made on the game - it is very linear. Not as claustrophobic and rail-like as Doom 3 or even Call of Duty, but there's no disguising that this is a very, very linear game. However, it is precisely that linearity that permits it to be so impressive. The scripting is tight down to the last second, it hardly ever hits a fault no matter what the player does.
There are compromises made, such as certain NPCs being unkillable, but don't expect Barney to lead you through an entire level while you sit back and collect ammo. Valve has permitted the player to interact with rather basic groups on two occasions. On one map, Gordon has access to a colony of some very lethal Ant Lions. He can summon them almost anywhere on that map and command them to attack certain objectives or follow him. In the city, at several points our hero is joined by nameless rebel NPCs. These guys aren't nearly as useful as ant lions, but they do provide a very stirring sense of realism. Like the AI, they react to grenades, take cover and fire decently. The medics will even give out health packs to the NPCs and Freeman.
And yet, though this is completely subjective, it seems as though Half-Life 2's AI is much more dependent on level design and proper scripting than Halo 2's AI is. In Halo 2, the AI - both enemy and friendly - seemed considerably more competent and friendly. Valve's coding shows a touch too much rigidity in AI behavior. It spots the player too easily, it's too insistent on firing certain weapons beyond their effective range, like the SMG, instead of closing in, unlike Halo 2.
However, there's far more similarity between Halo 2 and Half-Life 2 than differences. AI and teammates both chatter. Of course, the difference is that in Halo 2 this is mostly for comic effect and atmosphere. Half-Life 2 takes itself far too seriously to permit even the gentlest humor into the game during action, and the talk from Combine forces is menacing, right down to their modulated voices.
Killing a Civil Protection trooper, for example, sets off a loud (and remarkably annoying) alarm, followed by a broadcast report from what sounds to be a dispatcher. She reports the death and sometimes location, and instructs troops to contain. Valve should definitely have spent the extra change to get some more variety in the speech, however.
The similarities extend to gameplay as well. Both games are very linear but try not to make this obvious by not constantly pointing an arrow in the proper direction, but the end result is the same. Doors are locked, paths are barred, and only one route remains. Yes, the player has to discover it, but that doesn't make it any less linear. In fact, many routes won't open until all the enemies in the room are killed - a la Halo 2. Valve manages to set up some interesting fights and disguises the fact that this is a room-by-room sweep most of the time. For variety, there are boat and buggy levels thrown in, as well as sequences which have Gordon running rather than running and gunning.
The game makes it very obvious at what points our dear Dr. Freeman is supposed to fight a Strider or Gunship. There will be an RPG launcher ready and a crate of unlimited RPG ammo nearby, and the map won't progress until the Strider(s) or Gunship(s) are dealt with.
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.
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.
Other than the fact that everyone's played Counter-Strike, the biggest issue with CSS is that it is so full of exploits. All the old ones, like skywalking, are still in the game. There are new ones too, many of them very serious, being discovered daily it seems. With all the problems that Counter-Strike has had with cheating and hackers, one would have hoped that Valve would at least eliminate the old exploits.
Speaking of the boxed version, there are other issues with it as well. The most famous is these is the 4th CD error, which occurs if the user tries to install HL2 without Counter-Strike. It won't work. You need to install HL2 and CSS, and later uninstall CSS if you don't want it. There've been scattered reports of authentication failures for the CD version as well, though these aren't consistent enough to harp over. However, after all this extra development time, the last problems we were expecting were such basic installation issues. Oh and Vivendi - why do a CD check if Steam authenticates anyway?
Steam & Installation
Is Half-Life 2 perfect? Hardly. Revolutionary? Not at all. For all of marketing's attempts to make you think otherwise, this is still just Half-Life but with fancy graphics and physics. The level design has been cleaned up, the fat has been trimmed and Valve has really upped the production values, but anyone with a clear eye can see that this is still Half-Life. And that's great in our book. Of course, if that doesn't work for you, this isn't your game.
Half-Life 2 is clearly the game of the year. It's more polished, refined and spit-shined than any game since StarCraft. The areas where it's lacking, like the installation and authentication issues, or multiplayer, are clearly not the focus of the game. The most remarkable thing about Half-Life 2 is that it manages to perfectly recapture that magical feeling from the original of being there. City 17 feels like part of a complete world, with people adapting to the rigors of life there, with a nascent rebellion coming to fruition, with Combine cameras flying around taking pictures of everyone, the voice of dispatch calling in extra troops to the scene of a Civil Protector's death - it's completely believable.
So few sequels can recapture the magic of the original. Doom 2, Baldur's Gate 2, Wing Commander 2 and Civilization II are about the only ones that spring to mind. Others get close, but are too different or simply not quite there. Half-Life 2 being great is a far more impressive achievement than it seems, because it had to live up to the hype.
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