H A L F - L I F E 2

Developed By: Valve Software
Published by: Sierra / Vivendi Universal
Players: 1
Official Release Date: 16th November 2004
Formats: PC, Xbox (coming soon)
Three words to sum up the game: Immersive; Obtuse; Varied


Has there ever been a more torturous and cursed development process for a video game, than that of Half-Life 2? It boggles the mind as to how the guys and gals over at Valve Software managed to keep going, even after source code leaks, international embarrassment at the hands of September 30th 2003, year long delays etc. I'm sure everyone and their dog, at some point or another, wondered if Half-Life 2 was ever going to reach the light of day, or join Duke Nukem Forever as what may never be. But they finally did it, after six long years, and while this might seem a predictable time to start spouting how god-damned brilliant this game really is, the excitment is fully justifiable. Because it really is that god-damned brilliant. So mad propz to you Valve.

Half-Life 2 is the sequel to one of the most influential action games of all time, the original Half-Life, which was released in 1998. Storywise, it's been a good number of years since Gordon Freeman "accepted" the mysterious G-man's offer for employment at the end of the first game, and it seems Gordon is now finally ready to wake up. After a cryptic speech from the G-man, Gordon finds himself on a train inbound for City-17, a police state in every sense of the word. Arriving at the train station, a large screen greets Gordon, the face of an official-looking man greeting passengers to the City, claiming it is "safer here" when all other signs point otherwise. NPCs wander around the station, avoiding eye contact, keeping to themselves, all of them wearing identical blue overalls. Security guards tell you to move along when you get close, and will reach for their stun baton if you don't comply. Outside the station, another large screen is present in the courtyard, and an oppresive and forever looming skyscraper sits far in the distance, it's sleek, black form reaching far above the line of clouds, miles above the traditional eastern european architecture that dominates the city. The police seem to be doing a random search of the local apartment blocks, arresting anyone who seems to look suspicious, possibly looking for someone.

It's a powerful opening, made even more-so thanks to the game's unique narrative techniques; once again, you never leave Gordon's eyesight. There are no jarring cut-scenes, setting transitions (save for a short loading session in between maps) or voice overs, and Gordon never speaks. Instead, Valve have opted for more of a "show, don't tell" approach to the game. In order to fully appreciate and understand what has happened since the Black Mesa incident, you must train your eyes to search for clues, small snippets of information gained from a newspaper clipping or propaganda video. While there are other characters who explain certain things to you (who act in a stunningly realistic fashion and have some incredible voice work), they never seem to take the time to explain what has happened. It is because of this obtuseness that the story may seem a little thin around the edges, when all the clues are effectively right in front of you; you just have to find them. Still, the game does seem to raise more questions than it answers, and while the ending hints at greater things to come, you sometimes can't help but think you're being left in the dark on purpose. It's almost patronising on occasions.

Of course, I am not here to discuss the story, I am here to tell you why this game plays as well as it does. And this is because of the sheer amount of things Valve has managed to squeeze into the game. While titles like Doom 3 and Far Cry effectively repeat the same core gameplay over and over for each level, each of Half-Life 2's 14 chapters offers something new and interesting. For example, in the zombie-infested village of Ravenholm, the player doesn't find much ammo, but DOES find a lot of saw blades and large metallic objects. Coupled with the game's star attraction, the gravity gun, and you have a recipe for hours of never-ending zombie slicing fun. The chapter after that, however, has you flying across huge stretches of highway in a turbo-powered buggy, shooting crazed Ant Lions with the attached Tau Cannon. In another, you're leading a squad of soldiers against vast amounts of combine troops (including 50-foot walkers called Striders), and another sees you jetting across drained canals in an airboat, avoiding a gunship's dropped mines in front of you. Thanks to this seemingly never-ending amount of variety, the game throws you along at such a finely constructed pace, you find yourself playing for huge amounts of time, wondering just what the game will throw at you next. ALl of this, of course, is rendered with Valve's proprietary engine, and it looks fantastic; a true testament to the Source engine's capabilities. Screenshots do not do this game justice, it has to be seen to be beleived.

At the centre of all this is the almighty gravity gun, which you pick up around a third of the way through the game. Without this weapon, Half-Life 2 would still be a finely crafted, excellently paced FPS. But the gravity gun adds such a huge dimension to the gameplay that by the end of the game, you can't imagine doing anything without it. With the ability to pretty much pick up anything not bolted to the ground and throw it at enemies, it has to be one of the best weapons ever devised. Yet, as the game progresses, the weapon suddenly becomes much more than just an offensive device. You use it to make your buggy the right way up if you crash, or to create make-shift bridges to avoid stepping on sand (for reasons which I will not divulge), and can even be used to reach boxes of ammo and health from over fences and out-of-reach places. The uses are endless, and thanks to an incredible physics system, everything has a realistic sense of weight. Even without the gravity gun, you can pick things up on your own, using Gordon's hands; but you're not able to pick them up from great distances and fire them off at a huge velocity, nor can you lift very heavy things like washing machines and large pieces of wood. It's a fantastic tool, and may end up replacing the crowbar as the Half-Life series' iconic weapon (assuming it does become a series, which it most likely will).

The gravity gun isn't the only weapon available, thankfully. While it is fun to rip off a radiator from walls and throw them at people, it isn't always best suited for a situation. The rest of the weapons on offer are mostly the trademark FPS standards many come to expect from the genre, such as a sub-machine gun, a rocket launcher (with guiding laser sight, so you can swing a rocket around in mid-flight), and an awesome shotgun. There are a couple of interesting additions as well, more specifically the pulse rifle and bugbait, to accompany the standard armoury you'll be carrying around. First off, the pulse rifle, while it may seem like a normal machine gun, is probably the best machine gun I've used in a game for a long time. The accuracy is spot on, the reload is non-existent, and the sound provides the sort of kickback you'd expect from this behemoth of a weapon. Granted, there isn't much ammo for it, but when you do get to use it, it's very fun to use. The other note-worthy weapon on offer is the bug bait, which can be used to control a species of alien called the Ant Lions. Using this bug bait, you can instruct them as to where they go and who they attack by simply throwing one of the pods as you would a grenade. While it seems simple enough, it's a surprising amount of fun to send them in front of turret fire so you can sneak around them. However, not all ant lions respond o the bug bait, such as the Ant Lion Guard, which don't seem to be too happy with you sending it's children to their death over and over again.

However, what would be the point of having weapons without anything to try it out on? Well, there are plenty of enemies to use these things on, and while a few have been cut since we've seen them in previews and such (the Hydra for example) , there are still a great number of things to fight. For example, as well as the standard type of zombie, there are now two other types, one being a frightening dog-like version that jumps across rooftops at an incredible speed and pummels you up close. The other is a slow poison zombie, which throws poison black headcrabs at you. Being an arachnophobic myself, I found these headcrabs to be utterly terrifying; huge, hairy, black headcrabs that slowly stalk you before jumping at you from out of the corners, hissing at you like a venomous snake. The most common type of enemy are the combine forces; the police and soldiers of the alien race that has seemingly taken over Earth. While their AI isn't anything revolutionary, they still do a pretty good job of trying to kill you. I've been witness to a number of flankings and grenade flushes over my time with the game, and they're always fun to fight with. The only oddity is that they don't seem to run away when wounded, unlike the US marines in the original Half-Life. But for the most part, the AI of the human enemies seems to do it's job. A few enemies return from the original game, including headcrabs and barnacles, as well as the alien slaves, who seem to have joined your side of the struggle.

However, a discussion of AI in Half-Life 2 can't finish without mentioning the dissappointing friendly AI. Yes, they are able to give you cover fire and take out large squads of enemies just as well as the combine forces can take out you. The problem is that they become a large nuisance in tight, cramped areas, where they will constantly block your path and refuse to move out of the way. Instead, they will just move ahead of you a few paces saying "Sorry Freeman" over and over. In the wider, open streets and courtyards, they're a joy to fight alongside with, giving you medipacks and ammo and covering you when you hide. But in the buildings and such, they simply didn't seem to work. You can command any friendlies following you to go to a certain areas, but that is the extent of giving commands, and they always seem to end up following you anyway.

In the grand scheme of things though, this is a small criticism, and for those of you who are still wondering whether the game lives up to it's hype, I can safely say without hyperbole that it exceeds it. There are so many things I could talk about that make this game so essential, but to do so would to spoil the surprise of discovering it yourself. Everything from the graphics, sound and varied gameplay has been balanced and tweaked to almost perfection. You can really tell that six years of hard work has been poured into this game, and the perfectionist attitude of Valve Software has pulled off. Not only is this game one of the best action titles of the year, I feel inclined to say that it's simply one of the best games I've ever played, period. And to think, this is really only Valve's second game, a company still in it's infancy in terms of pure production output. Imagine what they'll accomplish in the years, and hopefully decades, to come.

For those who have asked for my system specs and settings, I am running on an AMD ATHLON XP 2600+ powered system, with 512MB PC2100 RAM and a Radeon 9600 Pro. I can run this game at full quality settings, with trilinear filtering and 2x. Anti-aliasing (all configurable from within the game's menus), and it runs at an almost constant 30 frames per second at a 1280x1024 monitor resolution. This game is no where near as demanding as Doom 3, and in my opinion looks a lot better. If you have a smewhat modern PC, it should run fine, even if some of the pretty shader effects might be deactivated. The minimum specs are a 1.3Ghz CPU, a Direct X 7 level graphics card, and 256MB of RAM. I have heard from people who only barely meet these requirements and, despite having to set things at low settings, they comment that it still looks and plays fantastic on their machine.

Half-Life 2 is also remarkable in its inextricable link to Valve's Steam application. One can either buy the game at a store in the normal way, or one can buy it via Valve's much lauded and derided online content delivery system. The retail version of the game is little more than the large download (over a gigabyte) and the Steam client placed onto physical media. Even buying it from the store, and even when you just want to play the single-player game, you must still register a Steam account and log in to it from the computer you plan on playing the game from at least once.

There was a curious period immediately before the release of the game when Vivendi, the plastic disc publisher of the game, decided to delay the release for a time. Under the terms of their contract with Valve, they could do this for up to six months, and any online release over Steam had to take place at exactly the same moment as games would start being sold in stores. The date of November 16th was eventually decided upon, and all was well. A few people managed to buy early release copies of the game, but this did them not a whit of good. You see, people had already been allowed to download the game over Steam, and since the retail version is not really any different, neither version would be allowed to authenticate until the appointed time. When that time did roll around, the Steam authentication servers were rocked greatly from all fronts, but things generally went smoothly.

This online activation scheme has the obvious effect of making the game not work for those people who do not have home Internet access, but it can be argued that these people are not part of Valve's market. (In fact, such an argument is a truism: Since they cannot play the game, they aren't part of the market. QED.) However, as even simple dial-up access is sufficient to activate the retail copy of the game, the impact on sales should be minimal. Also, most of Valve's dedicated fanbase already have Steam accounts, as Valve made the ingenious move of switching the first Half-Life over to the service last summer and shutting off the non-Steam multiplayer server trackers. This forced the massive userbase of Counter-Strike and Half-Life's other assorted mods to use this new and largely experimental service, which had the double effect of acclimatizing people to the service, and of letting Valve work out the biggest kinks with a massive army of conscripted beta-testers before its big test (namely, the release of Half-Life 2).

So it was that the release of Half-Life 2 has gone remarkably well. There are a few issues that have cropped up, but (based on anecdotal evidence) these issues are limited to two or so specific problems, which bodes quite well for Valve releasing a patch or two to clear them up. The first of these problems is a crash issue: certain people have reported that the game crashes at a specific point (which seems to be different for each person) every time they try to play through it. The second is a mere slowdown issue, which is similar, but merely causes slowdown instead of a crash at those points. It's even possible that these are the same problem. (Update: And a patch has now been released which seems to have fixed it, a mere week or so after the release.)

HL2 has shown that Steam works, and that Valve knows what they are doing. More power to 'em.

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