Half-Life 2 Reader Review
Itís not often that a film really lives up to its hype. Thatís not to say that said piece of entertainment isnít outstanding, itís just that the sense of satisfaction you were hoping for, in hindsight, often seems just that bit out of reach. Damn you, Orange Wednesdays. Ironically, the most memorable and utterly mind blowing celluloid memory I can recall is from the original Predator film. You see, back then I didnít read newspapers or websites or any other such medium that might have fed my corporate hype glands. Heck, I even missed the first ten minutes that showed the mothership launching the alien into the jungle. So you can imagine the noise my jaw made when it hit the floor, when I finally got to see the predator Ďsansí active camo. Now thatís the kind of impact that millions of pounds worth of advertising can never buy.
Not wishing to get embroiled in a debate over the possibilities of reverse psychology advertising, the point Iím trying to work my way round to is that the now messianic Half-Life fits into that same category over in my Ďgame experienceí section. Oblivious to any fanfare that may or may not have accompanied itís arrival and after many hours struggling to get to grips with my very first PC's graphic card drivers, I duly spent fifteen hours, without food or drink, utterly hooked on the damn thing.
For those of you who have never had the pleasure (go sit in the corner): Half-Life grabbed the FPS genre by the balls and took it in directions that few games since have even come close to. It had an excellent sci-fi story; outstanding voice acting; superb graphics (for itís time); truly memorable yet minimalist sound effects; the best A.I. routines the world had seen at that time and a seamless progression from beginning to end with the whole story told through the eyes of the protagonist: Gordon Freeman. Valve produced a true showcase, not just for what PCs were capable of at that time, but for what FPS is capable of as a genre, period.
Thatís one hell of an act to follow and Valve have not taken the responsibility lightly. Nearly 7 years in the making, Half-Life 2 arrived on the PC last year after months of inescapable hype and it now lands on the Xbox a year later and less than a week before the console is to be superseded.
My first reaction, particularly after going through the game on a high-end PC last year, is one of disbelief. Why didnít Valve, who interestingly developed the port in-house, not use a little more foresight and give the 360 a much-needed killer-app at launch? Why squeeze it onto a relatively weak platform in its dying days? That said, whilst the port was never going to be as good looking as itís older brother, the simple fact that Valve managed to squeeze the whole thing, without cutting any narrative corners, onto the Xbox is a bloominí miracle.
Half-Life 2 starts an un-stated number or years after Gordon Freeman left the Black-Mesa facility and the world it punched a hole into, in a steaming pile of rubble. Effectively kidnapped and now Ďreleasedí by the mysterious G-Man, Gordon finds himself in a very Orwellian and somewhat disturbing depiction of the future: City 17. Itís not long before some old faces arrive along with a great deal of self-referential dialogue and humour though and soon after events unfold in continually surprising and innovative ways. The facial technology that Valve developed, along with Half-Lifeís hallmark voice acting, draws you in like very few games can. So may FPS nowadays claim to have emotive characters; few stick in your mind for more than a few seconds. Here, the characters that you see for a few seconds will stick you for years.
Strong digital actors aside; the story itself is somewhat of a disappointment. For the original, Valve had the relative luxury of planning a complete narrative with a beginning, middle and end. This on the other hand feels like the middle part of a trilogy and the overall impact suffers as a consequence. Heck, itís got to be nigh on impossible to achieve the same feeling of completeness that a single journey can get away with, but Iím a gamer who wants to feel complete (such irony). Think Matrix if at all in doubt. Hereís hoping Gordon wonít dwell on the finer points of existentialism whilst beating his arch nemesis in part three.
The point youíre probably most concerned with is the graphics. How do they hold up? Well, for the most part, very well. Obviously textures and resolution have been compromised, but the geometry looks intact. Actually, itís not so much the world that causes the dreadful framerate (we must be talking single figures at itís worst) but the physics and the A.I. The physics, which play a strong role in Half-Life 2ís arsenal, have been toned down slightly, but youíd only notice if you played it side by side with its PC counterpart. The arrival of a new wave of enemies often drags the framerate down to murky depths, which is made all the more disappointing because the A.I. just doesnít feel as good as did in the original (and certainly canít hold a candle to Halo). Half of the time everything runs just fine. The other half varies from bad to downright ugly. Itís never downright unplayable, but if youíre not the one holding the pad with that in-built sense of whatís happening next, you will find it downright unwatchable at times.
Aside from the simple fact that this provides you with a chance to get back into Valves amazingly sublime world, complete with the same sound effects that slip into your ears like an old friend, Half-Life 2ís strongest card is itís variety. You simply never get bored as each area offers up new challenges and new ways of using the games mechanics. Added to that, the level design is so good itís an offence to call it level design: Valve do world design (Bungie take note).
Although itís not without itís technical faults and the story has some pacing and placing issues, I really canít recommend this game enough to action-heads. Itís lacking in any multi-player facilities and is about as linear as they come but, you know what: Iím glad. Iím getting a little tired of Ďlinearityí and Ďsingle-playerí becoming dirty words. If there was ever evidence to blow the arguments against them out of the water, this is it.
Itís just a shame I saw it coming.
8 / 10