Half-Life 2 has a little bit of built up anticipation surrounding it. Just a little. The best way to describe it is to tell you about my best friend Walt. Walt doesn’t like very many video games and the few he likes he doesn’t exactly follow the production cycle of. That being said, Walt had a dream about Half-Life 2. Of course in his dream, the game consisted of a monk and his long-time companion doing fancy showtunes throughout Europe, but it was a dream about Half-Life 2 none the less. I really wish they would release a version of Half-Life 2 that’s similar to Walt’s dream, but I digress.
So, the anticipation meter had hit the red by the time that Half-Life 2 was unlocked at midnight PST on November 16th. I awoke that morning and was late to work because of the unlocking process. I mean, I HAD to play it before I went to work. I spent the rest of the day fidgeting around the office and wishing that I could get violently ill in front of my boss on command. Finally, quitting time rolled around and I bolted home to get my “murder” on. The down side to the game being released on the 16th is that I was due in for surgery on my septum on the 17th, and boy did I enjoy that. So, once the vomiting blood and complete disorientation subsided, I went back to playing the game, and not a moment too soon. I saved the world from aliens. Again.
Stepping back into the role of Gordon wasn’t a hard transition at all. I can’t think of many people that hated the original Half-Life and I definitely wasn’t one of them. Well, this time Mr. Freeman is back and he’s ready to take care of business, Bachman Turner Overdrive style. Set in the…well, future some time or another, it’s kinda vague in the description department. You’re in the future and there’s some bad mofos all over the place, and as always, you start on a train. This train ride, however, is a lot quicker than the last and once you get off of that train and start walking around the environment, you’ll be stunned by just how beautiful the game is. It won’t seem so impressive at first, but then you’ll open the front doors of the train station and it’ll all hit home. These really are the best graphics I’ve ever seen. The environments are beautiful and the texture work is amazing. We’ve come a long way since the modified Quake 2 engine.
Once you open that front door and wander down the street a ways, the game will take hold and not let go for hours. Once the action starts in full, it doesn’t stop until the game is over, and then it still doesn’t stop. In fact, Half-Life 2 took me prisoner and made me play through parts of it again, which was painless because you can choose to restart the game at any of the chapter points.
The gameplay for Half-Life 2 is a lot like what anyone would expect. The physics are well done and, for the most part, not overdone. In other words, it’s not one of those games where you’ll jump for a mile into the air or barely touch a freight train and make it fly for a hundred yards before it comes to a stop gently on the top of a delicious cream pie; it’s basically well balanced with a couple of minor exceptions that are easily overlooked. Other than the physics and graphics, there isn’t much new under the sun. Half-Life 2 is the same type of game as the original but extremely well designed. So well designed, in fact, that it’s almost perfect and mostly above any sort of real criticism other than one or two nitpicks. I mean, it would have been nice if the game had lasted longer than the eleven hours or so that it took me to finish it. The length was a little disappointing, but it was definitely action packed so it’s not that big of an issue. The only real complaint about the design of the game would be the canals. In an otherwise perfectly laid out game, the canals stick out like a sore thumb. In the interest of not including spoilers in this review, I’ll leave it at that, but man they could have made that level a lot shorter.
Most of the original weapons make a return in Half-Life 2 and are as good as ever, like the SMG and the revolver, but there’s also one really sweet addition: the gravity gun. Unfortunately there isn’t as much crazy environment interaction as the early demos made you believe, but there’s still a good amount of cool stuff to do. In several levels, there are saw blades and others potential weapons that can be lifted and fired through enemies or stuck in different parts of the environment. Another use for the gravity gun is the ability to move objects that would normally be outside of the realm of Gordon to move. This can be done to clear a doorway or as part of some of the game’s many puzzles. There are also a few other things you can do with the gravity gun but we don’t want to ruin that for you.
Moving on, we have the issue of game sound, which shockingly enough is near perfect in Half-Life 2. All of the voice acting is carried out flawlessly and in a very professional manner, and all of the different sound effects are great. The in-game music is a little lame at points, but what do you expect, I mean Halo 2 had Steve Vai for God’s sakes so we can forgive Valve for cheesy music as long as it doesn’t feature a lot of obnoxious guitar noodling. One thing that does aid the voice work immensely is how impressive the character modeling is. I mean it, this game borders on being creepy with how realistic the different people are. With the way their eyes follow you and how lifelike all of the characters expressions are, it’s almost something out of a nightmare. A very attractive and well-realized nightmare, but a nightmare none the less. That’s not to say that the characters are done poorly, just to reiterate, they’re downright amazing but just a little unsettling. You can also see the pock marks on the G-man's face, which is also unsettling but in an entirely different way.
The only other real disappointment about Half-Life 2 is the lack of multiplayer. I know that Counter-Strike Source was released as the multiplayer component for Half-Life 2, but it would have been really awesome to play the game in co-op mode or with a little deathmatch action against a group of friends. In fact, I’m getting a little teary just thinking about a cool co-op mode for Half-Life 2. I need a tissue.
In the end, what’s not to like? It’s a beautiful game with fantastic design and writing that’s a little short but delivers boatloads of action in what time you do end up playing. Half-Life 2 is the kind of game you can easily go back and replay over and over again just for the experience. The sound is excellent and the graphics are top notch, and will surely be the standard for a new generation of FPS games. With the release of the modding tools, we can definitely expect some really awesome new content to be developed by an ever-growing fan-based mod community. Half-Life 2 is all that it claimed to be and more. It may have been a year late, but it doesn’t disappoint. Go get this game.