Half-Life 2 Reader Review
"Hey guys, I’ve just seen this awesome film – its called The Lord of the Rings!"
Not likely to be met with the most rapt of responses from friends and colleagues. There is a special exhilaration about experiencing something when it is new, that, regardless of quality, fades over time. The thrill of the unknown, a fresh assault on the senses. So while it is relieving that Valve’s Game of the Year (© everyone) has finally made it to Xbox, the 12-month wait has somewhat dulled the impact.
With owners of gerbil-powered rust-bucket PCs (“Hello!”) having to sulk through countless 10/10 reviews last November, and be relentlessly regaled by war stories from the streets of City 17, it almost feels like old news; maybe it shouldn’t matter any more. Yet this is a game almost universally rated as a better single-player experience than Halo 2 (released within days of each other last year). And with the familiar faces of the PC FPS (flak-) cannon – Unreal, Doom, and Quake – all posting less-than-revolutionary updates in the year since, Half Life 2 remains the benchmark in PC corridor action. So it should matter – done properly, this port is potentially the best single-player console FPS ever.
After a visually impressive but strangely… em-pha…..sised introduction from the haggard G-Man (bad hair, carries a briefcase, you know the one), we slip behind Gordon Freeman’s best pair of black spectacles to enter the police-state of City 17. The iconic Black Mesa monorail entrance sequence that opened Valve’s original is briefly mimicked here, though the first thing that strikes you about the initial scenes here is the frame rate. While it seems petty to not look past technical shortcomings to see the artistic achievements beyond, it is impossible to ignore in the early sections of the game – from someone who is not greatly influenced by graphics, it really was the first thing that struck me.
Alighting (real people don’t use that word, do they?) the train, the immediate urge is a childlike desire to touch anything and everything to test out the much vaunted new (i.e. old) physics engine. In the early stages, throwing a drinks can at a wall (or Combine guard, if you dare), and watching it bounce and roll exactly how you expect it to, incites wide-eyed glee. Year-old reviews will tell you this, and you are reading the same sentiments right now, but it is something so significant that you cannot appreciate it fully until you act it out with your own fingers and see it with your own eyes. Simply put, every moveable object in this game truly exists. Real world actions are no longer resembled - they are recreated. Inanimate objects no longer imitate life, but represent life. From simple barrels and boxes, to bodies and barricades – everything you touch behaves how it would in ‘real life’ (that thing outside).
It changes the way you think. Or rather it returns you to rational logical thought, unlearning years of unnatural gaming habits. You need to hold a seesaw in a certain position – simple physics: the further from the pivot you position the counterweights, the greater the torque, thus greater the weight it can sustain on the opposite side. Obvious. This doesn’t mean you need to be a rocket scientist to play the game – just have a basic grasp of how the world behaves around you. It is a refreshing change to be able to use common sense to solve gaming puzzles.
The visuals, while at times asking a little too much of the ageing Xbox, are still packed with features and delightful attention to detail. The trail of bubbles following a fizzing bullet when underwater is a great touch, while the peeling paint and graffiti of individual City 17 apartments show how much care must go into making something look so uncared for. The sound meanwhile is nothing short of visceral. Taking cover from Combine helicopter fire early on, beneath a sheet of corrugated iron, and the rattle and ping of bullets on your hot tin roof feel brutally close. The radio chatter of Combine guards is suitably inhuman and intimidating, while your citizen allies all respond with realistic if not particularly helpful remarks.
Speech is one thing though – behaviour is rather more fundamental to creating the illusion of tactical combat. The enemies, on Normal setting, are rarely more than static fodder. Often unaware of your presence until your shotgun shell hits their face, guards behave with an alarming lack of teamwork, sometimes simply standing in open ground unloading their weapon clips. The generous auto-aim and stuttering frame rate means dealing with foes is generally a case of popping from cover, centring an enemy and clamping the trigger. A few instances of intelligent use of cover do raise the overall Combine aptitude – to somewhere above docile but below intimidating. Other enemies range from annoying (Scanners) to abundant (Headcrabs) or both (Ant Lions), but while the targets are uninspiring, there are some novel ways of annihilating them.
The basic weapon set is functional, the shotgun and magnum suitably weighty, but once you pick up the Combine Pulse Rifle, you will barely need to use another gun for the entire game. The real fun comes when you get to use the surroundings as weapons – using the incredible Gravity Gun: flinging saw blades and carpentry at zombies throats and crushing guards by launching tables into their chests – surely more satisfying than any bullet-based weapon. Later in the game some certain heavy-moving equipment (not to be spoiled here) finds itself in your carnageous charge, and again soldier-squashing ensues.
Inevitably some sections of the game satisfy more than others – the claustrophobic corridors of the Nova Prospekt prison are a certain highlight, while the vehicle sections are not only fiddly to control, but at times reduce the frame rate to a crawl. Compared to Halo’s array of fun, manoeuvrable and destructive vehicles, the two here feel like token efforts. There are certain areas of the Ravenholm and Citadel levels that may also leave you frustrated due to unclear signposting or a scarcity of ammunition.
Health pickups are plentiful, which promotes a rather gung-ho attitude, in a way undermining the situations Gordon is placed in. Personally, I feel a recharging shield (naming no names) is a far superior method of balancing risk and reward, reassuring a player that any lost health can be regained, but that they must seek cover to achieve it. A number of times during Half Life 2, I killed myself with grenades after clearing an area but taking significant damage, because I knew I could reload a checkpoint and repeat the process with more health intact. This procedure removes the player from City 17 back to the real world, where rather than single-handedly save humanity from tyrannous oppressors, you’re actually just trying to complete a game with the minimum amount of fuss. Spoils the atmosphere somewhat.
The save system allows such behaviour, with frequent checkpoints. It is generally a helpful structure, and save points usually occur in safe zones. Until the one time it doesn’t, which may be intensely infuriating or mildly maddening depending on the situation. Play length clocks in around the 11-hour mark, give or take time for playing with the Gravity Gun or getting impossibly stuck (google> half life 2 walkthrough. Only twice, honest). It is not a massive game, and with only limited replayability in most sections, without an online mode this is not terrific value for money.
Overall the experience is undeniably tainted by the technological restraints of the hardware. You can see the game underneath the congealed flab the Xbox glazes over it, but it definitely feels like you’re not getting the full force of the experience. A wonderful game – groundbreaking in several ways, even more so when it was actually made – but one not without its flaws, regardless of the hardware.
8 / 10