Publisher: Vivendi Universal
Developer: Valve Software
Release Date: 11/16/2004
Some people say that it’s better late then never for some things, while others disagree. In the case of Half-Life 2, many were quick to assume that the game might not live up to standards after the source code hacker basically destroyed Valve’s fire and passion for their game. But in this review, you’ll find out why Half-Life 2 sets the new benchmark for graphics and game play for not only shooters, but for games in general.
“Wake up Mr. Freeman, wake up…and smell.....the ashes” chants the enigmatic G Man as he drops you into the oppressed City 17 rail line. Once again, you are placed in the now legendary shoes of the “right man in the wrong place”, Gordon Freeman. It has been some time since the final battle on Xen, but the silent protagonist is back to once again fight against a force that bends the literal fabric of time and space itself. You are placed in a city simply known as City 17, where an oppressive force known as the Combine are collaborating with former Black Mesa administrator, Dr. Breen, to bring the city to it’s knees, and to abduct the city’s citizens to employ them in the sickest and most vile of ways. Needless to say, your job is to put this to an end, and the story works almost parallel to the theme of the original Half-Life: overcome the impossible.
It goes without saying that anyone that has seen any screenshot of Half-Life 2 can tell that it is a technological masterpiece. The first focus here would be the graphics, character models, lighting and shading.
When Valve released its first screenshots of Half-Life 2 they were neither gameplay nor cinematics, they were head shots of the games key characters. The transition we saw on these characters in a side by side comparison was enough to blow us away, but Valve’s underlying objective was to show us this would be one of the most impressive features in the game. Through doing research on an extensive study on facial expressions done by Dr. Paul Ekman, Valve has created a facial technology that is unparalleled by any other game or movie technology out right now. Characters faces animate with the exact facial movements and contortions that they should, the emotional impact of this system is greatly amplified by this. But not only their faces, but characters movements are perfectly orchestrated, and don’t feel clunky or odd. Characters will interact with each other seamlessly, which gives birth to a whole new dimension of character relationships. This technique really emphasizes the already obvious relationships between characters, and really makes them appear to exist in real life, in the sense that if one character was not present, the scene would fall apart.
As for lighting and shadows, Valve’s newly developed “Source” engine uses a unique soft light technique that really emphasizes the way that light hits objects. The soft light used for the outside environments of the game really gives it an organic feel, and will really shine through when you reach Nova Prospekt. While DOOM 3 has the upper hand on shadowing, Source does a great job in bringing it’s own specialties to the table, even though lighting doesn’t take such a precedent in Half-Life 2 as it does in DOOM 3 or Metal Gear games. The shadowing gives great effects to faraway characters that approach you from a dark corridor, or gives an ominous glow to a severed body hanging above a burning trash can. No matter how you look at it, Source is one of the best engines used in games right now, and Half-Life 2 uses it to its full potential, and makes it amazing.
For some, the biggest question in their minds is if the game actually holds true to its predecessor's frenetic, and sometimes, very tactical pace of battle that made it such a unique game; the answer is “yes”.
Not only a yes, but a resounding, proclaiming “yes”.
In a nutshell, Half-Life 2’s gameplay pacing is like riding a rollercoaster: it may give you a second to breathe, but you will be holding on to dear life throughout the entire ride. The game sets you in the middle of a conflict that is about to come to a head when the right factor, Gordon himself, is placed in the equation. Thus, the game is paced that the player is only faced with larger and more challenging events as he progresses, giving no time to those who hope for a break.
The first thing that people will notice about the game is that it utilizes the revolutionary Havok physics engine, which almost assimilates with actual real-time physics. Nearly everything in the game that isn’t nailed down, or too heavy, can be manipulated in some way, whether it is advantageous or negative. Not only are the basic physics a blast to play with, but Valve gives the player a Gravity Gun to play with all the heavier objects. For example, you may need to get to a higher ledge, so all you have to do is pile up anything you can find in the environment and try to jump on top of it without it breaking. Or another scenario: you are faced by a huge Combine onslaught, so you grab a few barrels and line up a barricade to hide behind as you fight from behind them; and if they get to close to you, you can grab the barrel with the Gravity Gun, and launch it at them in hopes of killing your target with the centrifugal force of the object. This tactic can also be used against you, so the player will have to watch for foes that try to crush you with barrels and the like. The mere prospect of the physics makes the game feel like you can tackle any situation in any way you would like to, and that freedom gives the player a unique feeling every time they go through the game.
As you progress through the game, you will be presented with challenges that will be based on your knowledge of physics, and your mastery of jumping. Through the first portion of the game, it will be focused on a more solitary approach to these scenarios, but in the latter half, you will be given fellow rebels that will follow you until they die. You will be able to command them by aiming at a location and pressing the C key to send them there. Even though these characters are basically a dime a dozen, which means you will never get attached to one, it facilitates the story in that part of the game, and I think that Valve hit it right on the mark with this one. Some of the best moments in the game are fighting alongside a squadron of rebels in intense street battles, some which will take your breath away. The AI of the rebels is a nice balanced mix of fighting when the time is right, and retreating when the going gets a little too tough. Their main problem is that in tight corridors, it will become a huge traffic jam with Gordon trying to push past 4 other rebels, which can become frustrating. Also, the AI is a bit dumb in a portion of the game where you are faced with snipers, most of them couldn’t even finish their obligatory, “Hey, Dr. Freeman, I’m coming with you!” before a bullet ripped through their skull.
One of the more surprisng elements in the game is that you are also given two vehicles to travel long distances, the Hoverboat and the Dune Buggy. While some may be wary of the prospect of a FPS game tackling a driving simulation, as was I, those doubts were washed away by the great handling of both vehicles, and the excellent level design that surrounded them. Even driving at blistering speeds is a ton of fun once you get the hang of the driving mechanics.
Half-Life 2 also brings back plenty of nostalgia with its weapons cache, as old favorites return, and innovative newcomers prove themselves in a variety of ways. Gordon’s infamous crowbar makes its return, along with the pistol, sub-machinegun, shotgun and grenades. On the other hand, the new load-out contains the Gravity Gun, Bugbait, and the Overwatch. While we have covered the Gravity Gun, the Bugbait and Overwatch need appropriate explainations. The Bugbait gives Gordon the power to manipulate the early foes of the game, the Antlions. He can now throw the spherical “bait” to a location, and the Antlions will either travel to that location, or fight to the death with the approaching forces. This tactic will allow you to use the Antlions as a distraction, allowing you to get past some harder spots, or it will allow you to have a helping hand in a major battle.
On the other hand, the Overwatch is parallel to the sub-machinegun, yet its accuracy and secondary feature, which produces a pure energy sphere that evaporates any soldier that is unlucky enough to get in contact with it (including you), make it the suppression weapon of choice. Without these three weapons, the regular cache would have become stagnant very early on in the game.
But last but not least, we have the audio presentation. The original Half-Life was sprinkled with short clips of techno, creepy, and ambient sounds that placed a certain emphasis on specific areas, which made them really stand out. Half-Life 2 retains this tradition with a similar philosophy, but also uses their recycling method once again. There are some returning themes along with some newer ones, but some of the newcomers are easily forgettable, regrettably. Even with that disappointment, the tracks kick in at the right moment of combat or surprise, and really get your adrenaline pumping when you are in the middle of an intense firefight. But what is the most surprising about the game is its top of the line voice acting that rivals most games out right now.
Valve has employed several big names to voice their characters, such as Broadway star Merle Dandridge as the voice of Alyx, who does an amazing job bringing Alyx to life. Some other contributors are underground comic legend Harry S. Robins as Dr. Kleiner, Michael Shapiro as the enigmatic G-Man and Barney Calhoun, and Robert Culp as Dr. Breen. This all-star cast really made the game come together in a fashion that I had never beheld before, the amount of care and precision done in the voice work made the characters seem like they were people we would see in everyday life. Their dialogue doesn’t consist of witty quips and the like, but real life conversations that are totally believable.
One problem that I found with the game happens to be the integral part of the first game: its storyline. While for the most part, the story holds together well, and is told in an incredible fashion, but there are small holes and unanswered questions that really bugged me; especially towards the end of the game with the exit of certain characters. Also, not to spoil anything, but the ending is a bit anticlimactic, and leaves a gaping hole for the player to interpret where the next piece in the puzzle is left to place. Overall, its an incredible storyline, but the small holes may bug some of the hardcore Half-Life fans, such as myself.
In essence, Half-Life 2 is a game that has set a new benchmark for PC games to follow, and also some themes that console developers should adopt as well. This is possibly the number one must-have game since the original Half-Life exploded on to the scene 6 years ago, there is no other game that can match it. Missing out on the opportunity to play this game is the same as missing out on a defining moment in the PC gaming timeline.
Half Life 2: Raising The Bar
Publisher: Prima Games
MSRP: 34.99 USD
Take a look behind Valves masterpiece in this beautifully crafted hard-bound book filled with 288 pages of art, interviews, and concepts printed on high-quality paper.
I found this book to be very nicely done, where the emphasis was more on presenting the visual masterpiece that is the Half-Life series, along with plenty of text that is almost entirely comprised of words spoken directly from Valve themselves. The book begins with the development of the original Half Life, and ends with every bit of information you could ever want about Half-Life 2. The price may be steep, but if you are a hardcore Half-Life fan like myself, the money is well spent on this publication.
Want the book now? Visit Prima Games.com right now to purchase a copy.
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Published on: 2005-03-12 (12906 reads)[ Go Back ]