Half-Life 2 Reader Review
Half Life 2 does not begin where Half Life left off � unless one counts the unilateral and cryptic conversation with the G-Man. Instead, it begins in the dystopian and frankly Orwellian state of City 17. Mobile cameras monitor the departees of a recently arrived train; the Combine � a rather Gestapo esque foe � mans each street corner with little respect for the citizens - threatening and toying with them, and dishing out beatings to non-compliers. Citizens are forced into an uncomfortable silence out of fear of retribution, thus the fundamental concept of the freedom of speech has been eradicated in this society. Further, a Big Brother figure named Wallace Breen beams down from gigantic screens erected high up in the air � presumably as a psychological form of dominance � and bleats out propaganda, and thus clues to the player, concerning the state Gordon Freeman has been thrust into, the inability for citizens to breed, and the Benefactors - whose identity is a mystery. Valve adopts an extremely indirect method of plot development here and it is truthfully fantastic; nobody explicitly explains the society that Gordon has been forced into, nor does one need to � simply being thrust into it is enough for any player to realise instantly what type of society this is, and how different it is to contemporary society. Quite a lot has changed in the unspecified intervening years between this game and the first instalment, it seems. Though do not expect to unravel any significant explanations as to why, whilst travelling through the game.
Unfortunately for the players, although Valve creates the crust of the game brilliantly in this manner, it unforgivably fails to delve beneath this thin layer and expose the core, and it should be briefly noted that Gordon�s silence does not assist matters here. Amongst other things, this is a considerable disappointment and one of the major reasons, for myself at least, why this game is not a classic.
Red Letter Day
Half Life 2 is remarkable in many aspects, however. The graphics are nothing short of spectacular in some areas. In the first chapter, as you exit the train station you are greeted by the magnificent sight of City 17 � the Citadel, a mysterious alien structure that towers above everything on the skyline, the obelisk with Wallace Breen spouting his propaganda, the detail on each building and character in the environment. Walk a little further and a Strider � a War of the Worlds type tripod enemy � casually saunters past in between two buildings. You will also quickly notice the level of detail on each person�s face within the environment � each responds with quirky emotions that relate to the context of their particular circumstances. Although I do not think the water and scenery looks as advanced as was experienced in Far Cry, the graphics overall possess a gritty realism that is superior to any game at that time. Sound is also usefully placed in scenes to coincide with the relative environment and experience the user will currently be facing � a fast beating track is often played in dangerous situations, for example, and most importantly, it is used sparingly to achieve tension.
In addition, the unrelenting action within the game, albeit completely choreographed, certainly makes for some of the most cinematic experiences one will experience within a video game. Although highly derivative, one of the most memorable moments is the Terminator 1 esque scene toward the latter end of the game where a Strider emerges from under a pile of rubble to tower thirty or so feet above your head. Genuinely scary and brilliant when on one�s first play through the game. In addition, in a horrific and bone tingling chapter named Ravenholm, there was a particularly memorable scene I would like to recite to illustrate just how fantastic this game can occasionally be, despite being highly scripted. As I was attempting to call an excruciatingly slow elevator up to my position, I was resisting an attack from a horde of a new enemy created for this instalment � the skeleton zombie, a considerably faster, boisterous and more demented zombie than its better-known relation. I had quickly extinguished my ammunition in the shotgun and thus decided to retreat into the room behind me whereby I closed the door and experienced a sense of relief at my opportunity to reload and catch my breath. In almost a horror movie fashion, this relief was ultimately na´ve and short-lived as I confusingly heard a smashing of glass. I say confusingly as, upon my entrance I had quickly scanned the room to confirm that there were no windows in this place. At that moment, the horde of skeleton zombies recommenced their demented and frantic attack on me, and it was at that moment that I realised I had failed to look for glass in the ceiling of this room, and the now shattered glass was allowing more and more zombies to pour through this new opening and to take the opportunity to tear me to shreds. Now, although I accept that this �intelligence� of the zombies in using this method of entry was entirely scripted by Valve, this in no way detracts from the experience of both the relief closely followed by the sheer terror when I realised how foolish I had been.
The major drawback of this choreographed gameplay is ultimately its impact upon the replayability and longevity of a game. For instance, if the action is scripted, the second time I play Half Life 2 I will know at exactly what point the Strider emerges from the rubble and there will be no deviation; in a game as scripted as Half Life 2, this is a considerable problem. Ultimately, which side you take on this point will depend on whether you prefer an exciting first attempt, but will little else after that, or a game that, although not as cinematic, allows for extra play and experiences following its completion.
Some of the enemies introduced by this game are welcome additions. The two additional headcrabs are far more annoying than their predecessor in that one is faster, and the other is poisonous and leaves you with minimal health. In addition, the skeleton zombies mentioned above, albeit infuriating, are genuinely scary in darker environments and the War of the Worlds esque Striders are a fantastic, if not derivative addition. The antlions, though it is a mystery exactly how they managed to escape from Klendathu, also make for a brilliant addition for a reason you will find out in your experience through the game. Some foes make a welcome return, such as the Barnacles, the traditional zombies and headcrabs, but one has switched sides � the Vortigaunts, the alien slaves of the original Half Life, are now your allies; though they have not forgotten nor truly forgiven how many of their brethren you slayed on your path to defeat the Nihilanth. The aforementioned Combine, however, is similar to the military enemy in the original Half Life, though with considerably less AI it appears, although as you delve deeper into the game you will encounter a more resistant Combine enemy. In addition, keep alert for the clandestine appearances of the G-Man throughout the game, as he appears an innumerable amount of times in the flesh, through binoculars and on television and video camera screens.
Physics is Fun
One of the most enjoyable and memorable aspects of Half Life 2, however, is undoubtedly the Gravity Gun. This is virtually unrivalled in games and allows the user to manipulate items within the environment for one�s own aims. The beauty of this device is that Valve allows it to be used for various reasons and this allows the device to retain its longevity and usefulness in numerous circumstances. If you want to simply have fun with it, pick up paint tin and thrust it toward an enemy and watch what happens; pick up a saw blade and launch it and see how it maims the enemy; pick up a gas canister and watch as the zombies set alight in, it must be noted, an extremely disturbing sequence. There is virtually nothing in the environment that cannot be moved and used as a weapon, which is useful when you run out of ammunition � it�s certainly less frightful than attacking with the crowbar, though you still can if you so wish. In addition, it can also be used tactically. For instance, there is a scene in the game where you must traverse a section of the desert occupied by the aforementioned antlions. In a scene plagiarised from the movie Tremors, one must stick to the rocks or face the consequence of an antlion attack; in this section, you may use items strewn along the floor to aid your journey here. Further, you can also utilise the gravity gun to catch the enemy�s grenades in mid air, only to power them back from the morass from whence they came. In addition, you can 'grab' equipment crates or dropped ammunition from areas it is impossible or unwise to travel to. It certainly is a novel, and most importantly, useful tool and is one of the major reasons that Half Life 2 will be remembered for a very long time.
The Inevitable Negatives
Unfortunately, Half Life 2 is far from the gaming Utopia that many gamers and indeed reviews will have you believe. The negatives are often ignored or quickly brushed aside � possibly due to the overbearing excitement (and indeed shock that it was not utterly terrible after so many delays, a la Daikatana) that we all experienced when the game was released � when in fact they are a major hindrance to an otherwise brilliant game. Once one forgets the initial excitement surrounding its release and assesses Half Life 2 objectively, the cracks begin to emerge.
A starting point has to be the complete lack of Artificial Intelligence. Truthfully, this fundamental problem simply cannot be ignored or tolerated. One of the reasons that Half Life was originally lauded, was for its fantastic AI experience, especially when fighting the soldiers, who would, amongst other things, use cover intelligently, and throw annoyingly accurate grenades. Indeed, many games have gone on to produce much better AI recently � such as Far Cry and F.E.A.R. � and it is indeed disappointing to see such a terrible AI in this instalment when compared with both its contemporaries and its predecessor. The AI can be both hilarious and infuriating at different points in the game. For instance, when fighting the Combine, they will occasionally take cover, but leave a large portion of their body visible; they occasionally throw some terribly innaccurate grenades and most conveniently, run directly toward you when attacking. Overall, it is rather disappointing and at times hilarious. However, it becomes utterly infuriating towards the latter half of the game when you receive �assistance� from genetic NPC rebel fighters. Up to a maximum of four will join you in your efforts, and do little more than annoy you immensely � and to make matters worse, there is a seemingly never-ending supply of them! For instance, they are not fantastic shots, nor are they particularly intelligent � opting to shoot a Strider with a machine gun, for instance � and they often will block you in small corridors and stairways before slowly opting to move. This is particularly irritating when you are in a close quarters environment and are in the direct line of fire of a Strider, gunship or large amount of Combine forces. Although there is a command to send them to a particular location, they will override that decision within fifteen or so seconds only to be right behind you when you need to retreat most. The AI is so bad here that I honestly wish there was no squad action included within the game.
Another issue is the passion killing loading sequences. You will instantly notice this in the first chapter when as you are --LOADING-- just becoming --LOADING-- engrossed in the action of the game, --LOADING-- a screen will pop up informing you that it is --LOADING--. The first chapter is undoubtedly the worst as the loading screens will be more stretched out as you progress � or perhaps it is because you become used to them. Needless to say, if you see a bland corridor with a door at the end, you will always fear the inevitable --LOADING-- that will pop up.
A major criticism that has been levelled at Half Life 2 is the pacing concerning the vehicle sections in the game, consisting of both the hoverboat and buggy sections, possibly with more emphasis on the former. Bearing in mind that Half Life 2 is relatively short to an experienced gamer � around twelve or so hours � these vehicle sections will occupy probably a quarter, if not more, of that time. The first two chapters of the game are brilliant at laying the foundations of the environment, and pass by relatively quickly. However, the following two chapters are excruciatingly long, frankly dull and are unforgivably barren in the plot department. Couple this with the later chapters consisting of the buggy and overall it is not a particularly entertaining way to pass a quarter of the journey. The main issue with these sections is that they are incredibly repetitive, often consisting of traversing large sections only to find a blockade that one must clear, or a door that one must open (whilst disposing of the enemy and solving an incredibly easy puzzle, of course). Further, in the hoverboat section it teases you in that you finally believe that you have finished, only for a gun to be installed as you are sent on your merry way, your face crimson! Although these occasional stops to clear a blockade provide welcome breaks in the action, it defeats its purpose when the premise is constantly repeated throughout the game.
What would have improved these sections, other than making them shorter, would have been to introduce more characters or indeed information about the main characters along the way. The only people you will meet during this long journey � barring a stereotypically well-spoken Englishman � are generic NPCs. This was an ideal opportunity for some characterisation of new or the existing characters that was completely missed. In addition, during your journey, you will encounter numerous abandoned houses and resistance fortholds � in not one do you find any discarded literature, diaries, notes or video recordings that would advance the plot and ultimately make these sections more interesting. I am thinking more along the lines of Deus Ex�s datacubes, Doom 3�s video and audio recordings. Ironically, it highlights just what is most important to Half Life 2 in that each house is devoid of anything related to a plot, but possesses an abudance of tables, chairs and other items to manipulate with your gravity gun.
The Plot � and the dichotomy of opinion
This is one of my major criticisms with this game, and accordingly, there is a dichotomy of opinion regarding it. One party claims that the game possesses a cogent and compelling story, it is just told indirectly and not spoon-fed; the other party claims that the game simply has no plot. The appropriate answer is that both are correct. What little of a plot this game possesses is told indirectly � it is told as you experience the environment for the first time in City 17, as you listen to Breen�s comments to the citizens, as you hear the odd bit of dialogue from the citizens, and as you read the notice board consisting of newspaper headlines and photographs on Eli Vance and Kleiner�s wall. Half Life 2 fantastically lays the foundations for the game here, but it completely fails to delve any deeper than this. To illustrate, originally the game was to possess a scene in Kleiner�s lab whereby the player was told, with the use of video slides, just what had happened in the intervening years between this game and its predecessor. This was removed for pacing issues, but unfortunately, as intelligent as the decision to remove it may be, its omission leaves a void that simply was not filled elsewhere.
It must also be noted that Gordon Freeman�s silence simply does not work in this game for this reason. The rationale for his muted nature is that you are Gordon Freeman, and that by having the protagonist speak, it would detract from your personal experience and involvement with what occurs during the game. However, in this game I simply do not feel like Gordon � if I was thrust unwittingly ten or so years into the future, I would not be so devoid of curiosity as to my surroundings and to what had occurred to the world I once knew since I was last awake. In the original Half Life, Gordon�s silence conveniently worked in that there was considerably less dialogue and main characters, and most importantly, the world he was in was confined in both informational and physical terms � Black Mesa simply did not possesses the opportunity of outside sources of information that City 17 possessed. It must be said, however, that I was never particularly fond of the idea of Gordon�s silence, even in the first game, as other games allow their protagonists to speak without any problems � an example being the comparison of the mute in Grand Theft Auto 3 and Tommy Vercetti in Vice City. However, Valve could have maintained their stance on Gordon�s silence had there been enough outside sources of information to mitigate this muted deficiency. Examples include less generic NPC characters, which one could actually become attached to as they informed you of their experiences, more dialogue with the main and subsidiary characters, more sources of indirect plot development during both the vehicle sections and elsewhere, are but a few missed opportunities. The climax of this was ultimately summed up in the distinctly average and cryptic ending.
Despite these negatives, it must be noted that Half Life 2 is a very good game, and exceptional at what it excels in. Although it is a highly derivative experience, from movies and novels such as The Terminator, War of the Worlds, Tremors, Starship Troopers and Orwell�s 1984, amongst numerous others I suspect, it is generally a considerably fun experience throughout, and frankly they have taken small segments from some of the best works to create a fantastic environment. Additionally, although the game is highly linear, this is what one must have expected following its predecessor, and truthfully goes hand-in-hand with its cinematic sequences, although, that being said, I cannot say I would not prefer the open ended variety of Deus Ex, or the large levels of Far Cry, included somehow within this game. Even though the level of cinematic action, spectacular graphics and unique gravity gun are novel to this genre, they simply cannot mitigate the deficiencies mentioned above. These prevent it from achieving, for me at least, the accolade of the greatest FPS ever � it is far from that (that title is still held by Deus Ex, for me) � but what it is is a highly enjoyable and action romp through an excellently created, though skin deep, environment. Ultimately it is a pleasing addition to its predecessor and the genre as a whole, and one that simply should not be missed by any gamer.
As to the score, I feel that this is a completely personal and subjective element � I would implore you to read what I have written and make your own minds up on both this, and your experience in the game. I personally, however, would give it a very high eight, so when rounded up it appropriately and deservedly becomes 9/10.
9 / 10