Nearly seven years after the original groundbreaking entry into the first-person shooter market, Half-Life finally has a sequel. One of the best FPS titles ever released, Half-Life spawned many different variations and modifications, not to mention expansion packs. Yet after seven years, both the physics and graphics engine are definitely showing their age. Fortunately, that is where Half-Life 2, one of the most anticipated titles in recent history comes into play. Featuring some of the most intensive graphics ever produced, and a physics engine so realistic that it would baffle Einstein himself, Half-Life 2 is the defining benchmark for future titles in the genre.
It goes without saying that this has been one of the most anticipated titles in recent memory. Valve has been very secretive about the title throughout its development, and slowly key points began to emerge from the darkness. The story begins after the original; you are Gordon Freeman, awakened from a cryogenic sleep by the G-Man, your mysterious boss from the end of the Black Mesa adventure. The game opens on a train; Freeman is heading towards a repressed community called City 17. The city is patrolled by a clan of ominous looking guards, as depressed civilians walk lifelessly around the streets. The earth has been taken over by the Combine, a highly-advanced alien race, and as the plot unfolds you will discover more than you ever bargained for. As with the original, the storyline is linear and event driven, players are restricted to a fairly linear environment. If the game offered a more dynamic storyline with multiple endings similar to that of Deus Ex, it would be the ultimate combination, but with the complexity of the plot in Half-Life 2 it simply isn't possible. Albeit the storyline isn't quite as intriguing as the first, expect to see the Black Mesa facility in all its glory once again, and bump into a few familiar faces along the way.
Half-Life 2 begins a bit slowly. The installation footprint is massive, and Valve has taken a different route in distributing Half-Life 2. The software is available in a retail box or by digital download through their proprietary Steam platform. Steam is Valve's new authentication and copyright enforcement tool, allowing easy updates to the game and combining all of their future products into one digital distribution channel. Unfortunately, with this kind of simplicity, issues are bound to arise. Steam has been known to be troublesome, with reports of users unable to connect to the servers during high-traffic periods. I've only experienced this a few times, and it seems to resolve itself after a few attempts. These types of problems are especially troublesome considering every player must register through Steam, including those with the retail-box. The game must be authenticated with Valve before it is launched, even for single-player action. Steam has its advantages though, and once all of its minor quirks are worked out, it will be a much more reliable system to work with. After the lengthy install, a long process of decrypting of the data files begins, and finally the launch. Expect an installation time of at least fifteen to thirty minutes, perhaps more depending on your system specifications.
Unlike the previous version of Half-Life, the retail version did not initially launch with multiplayer support. Valve has recently added a Half-Life: Deathmatch mode available through Steam where players can step online and battle it out with all the new weaponry and physics. Unfortunately, at this point the online gameplay is a bit "laggy" due to the overhead of such a highly advanced graphics and physics engine, but is highly addictive nonetheless.
Graphically, Half-Life 2 is one of the most advanced titles ever produced. Environments are extremely-detailed, and facial expressions are second-to-none. The amount of time and detail put into each character, especially the body language and facial detail are outstanding. Characters lips move and their faces twitch realistically as they speak, and their facial expressions convey a sense of feeling and emotion. As with the character models, the environments are highly detailed as well. The lighting effects for some of the areas are unfortunately a bit dark, but textures and the variety of different landscapes are superb. Reflective water effects are absolutely mind-blowing. Visuals are one of the strongest elements in Half-Life 2, and that is an understatement.
Half-Life 2 introduces a variety of new weapons and gadgets, as well as a bunch of old favorites. Players can use a number of weapons, everything from a trusty old crowbar to some new highly advanced weaponry such as the gravity gun. The gravity gun is an all-new innovative idea in the first-person shooter, it allows players to pick up crates, barrels, boats, pretty much anything imaginable, and hurl them at your enemies with incredible force. There is nothing more enjoyable than crushing a Combine soldier with a flaming barrel, only to have it explode into a million fragments of razor-sharp metal. Of course, combined with the gravity gun are the usual assortment of weaponry; pistols, machine-guns, and the effective old shotgun.
The audio in Half-Life 2 is comparatively one of weaker points of the game. The sound effects are quite good, and the voiceovers are superb, but I really wasn't blown away in this area as much as I was with the other aspects of the title. A lot of the sound effects are very similar to the first, I guess it's good to have similarities, but some of these effects are a bit dated. I also had a few problems with the sound effects using a four-speaker system, issues only getting sound out of two speakers. With that said, the engine is still quite good and far from a letdown.
The physics engine in Half-Life 2 is where the title really shines. Objects are modeled to precise detail, and the engine allow for a complete six degrees of freedom. The engine was designed and developed by Valve from the ground up over the last several years, and includes realistic weighting, texturing, and behavioral modeling. Explosions are highly realistic, as wood splinters into little fragments, steel barrels become shrapnel, and even cardboard boxes fold as one would expect. With the addition of the gravity gun, players can really experiment with the physics by firing barrels, tables, chairs, and even toilets around like a rag doll. Bodies can shred in cutters, heads explode; the physic engine seems to have no bounds. It's a strange feeling firing a steel heating radiator at a headless zombie as it crawls towards you, splattering it into all oblivion. The freedom in Half-Life 2 is immeasurable, and by far one of its strongest elements.
Expect to run into a variety of different enemies throughout your journey. Half-Life 2 offers a wide variety of different characters, from the classic headcrabs to highly lethal antlions, and even a massive spider-like creature whose danger level is extreme to say the least. You can also expect to bump into a few old friends from Black Mesa, including the G-Man, Barney the trusty security guard, among others. Albeit the new characters are innovative and quite unique, some of them such as the robotic cutters are simply an annoyance, listening to their high-pitched squeal as they grind through steel bars. The game offers a lot in terms of characters, especially enemies, and is overall a definite improvement over the original.
The enemies may vary in variety and appearance, but how to they fare in combat? Half-Life 2 offers a highly-dynamic AI system, enemy units will think creatively in how to reach and attack you. You can't really hide in Half-Life 2, as Combine solders won't hesitate to throw a grenade or two in your direction. You may find yourself running a lot though, as the storyline doesn't really allow for you to simply kill every enemy. You'll often be badly outnumbered and often running away is the best solution. In some cases it would be more fun to simply blow everything to high heaven, but it wouldn't make for much of a storyline.
One of the new elements in Half-Life 2 is the addition of vehicles. They may be crude in appearance, rusty steel beams welded together, but you can expect to drive a few highly-armed buggies around the landscape blowing up anything that stands in your way. This element adds a new dynamic to the series, a welcomed new change into the Half-Life franchise.
It goes without saying that Half-Life 2 is one of the, if not the best first person shooter on the market today. With a massive fan base, nearly seven years in the making, and reports of over forty million spent on its development, it's hard to expect anything less from Valve. Combine outstanding gameplay, highly enjoyable physics, and top-notch graphics, and you'll end up with a game that is pretty close to revolutionizing the genre. That game is Half-Life 2.