Half-Life 2 is technically amazing and a really inspired title that feels like a true follow-up to one of the greatest titles ever released.
The original Half-Life was Valve’s debut title and it quickly became an instant classic and a masterpiece. Like Doom, the game represented a reinvention of the genre, as it was incredibly well designed and was one of the most influential games of all time. Its sense of immersion was absolute, there was nothing that interrupted the story, no fancy CGI movies, no considerable stops, nothing. Every sequence included was generated by the in-game engine and the player could interact with almost anything in the environment, these changes were revolutionary and affected the way we play first-person shooters nowadays. It took Valve several years to develop a direct sequel and fortunately, Half-life 2 is technically amazing, a really inspired title that feels like a true follow-up to one of the greatest titles ever released. For many people, some of the included features may seem common or even familiar, but still, these minor details are unimportant considering that this shooter is one of the most engaging and fun of the last years.
Like in the original Half-Life here you assume the role of Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist who previously fought aliens and soldiers. At the beginning of this sequel you face mysterious G-man, the same character from the previous game. Half-Life had two possible endings to choose from, you could either die or you could work for the infamous G-man. The sequel starts from there; you’re on a train as it enters a new place called City 17. This is an urban center where terrible things happen; a group of soldiers imprisoned people who belong to a defeated faction. There aren’t any clear clues of how many years have passes since the Black Mesa incident, but in any way, most people you encounter make reference to it and even recognize Doctor Freeman. It doesn’t take a long time to see that the Combine is the main enemy here, as they are part of an unknown government who wants to rule the world. There are many soldiers patrolling the city at all times, making sure there aren’t any rebellious groups. All these factors create a very unique atmosphere and the sense of danger is present at all times, and this approach is incredibly effective.
What’s also amazing is that this sense of immersion the game offers never goes away, as you always play from Gordon Freeman’s perspective and all the cinematic sequences blend in seamlessly with the story. Fortunately, there aren’t many long loading times that interrupt the pace of the game and the plot is divided in various chapters. Also, when a new chapter begins the game won’t even pause, at least not on newer PCs. Unlike most current shooters, Half-Life 2’s single-player campaign is quite long, and it’ll take you between 15 and 20 hours to complete.
Just like the original, this sequel feels really cinematic, as if you were watching a sci-fi movie. At the same time and even though this game is amazing, Half-Life 2 plays safe and it’s really obvious that developers decided not to take many unnecessary risks. So the formula remains pretty much the same, you run around shooting enemies, you’ll solve a puzzle or two and you’ll move on to a new section to repeat the process once again. In any way, this approach is really effective and engaging, and the combination of these parts is really well accomplished. The introduction of the game is almost perfect and I won’t describe it here for the people who haven’t played it yet. But even when the intro of Half-Life 2 is quite new and innovative, the rest of the game has an incredible sense of déjà vu when compared to the original.
Once you get your suit and a bunch of powerful weapons, you embark on a quest to kill enemies. Like in previous games in the series, you can pick up health or recharge your suit at the various energy stations scattered around. Many enemies are also similar to the ones you’ve seen before (like the Headcrabs) while others are completely new (wait until you see a Strider). Your arsenal, though, has some really unique weapons. Of course you’ll see many recycled ones like the submachine gun, your regular magnum pistol, crossbow and the always popular crossbar, but there are also three new weapons for you to use. These are: the pulse rifle, the pheropod and the innovative gravity one. The first one is an energy rifle with a powerful secondary attack. The second one is also known as the “bug bait” and it lets you summon the vicious ant lions to fight for you. And the last one lets you manipulate certain objects and some enemies.
The inclusion of the gravity gun is great, mainly because it lets you see what the new Source graphics engine is capable of. Fortunately, you’ll spend much time playing with this gun or thinking about new ways in which you can use it. For example, you can pick up a grenade and throw it back at your opponent, and you can also use it to solve one of the many included puzzles. Most puzzles are quite intelligent and challenging but never impossible to solve, at least if you’ve played many first-person shooters. Also, there are some weak jumping puzzles at certain point in the game. Another noteworthy inclusion is vehicles. There are only two of them: an airboat and a buggy, but driving them is extremely engaging and fun. When you use one of these you may find an obstacle that requires you to jump out, kill some enemies, solve a puzzle (for example, turning a crack or push a button to open a gate) and proceed to the next destination.
Even though you’ll fight on your own most of the times, near the end of the game you’ll be a part of a team, mostly humans. It’s really fun to fight against the Combine with the help of some rebels as this provides the game with some incredible large-scale battles. The AI of your companions isn’t very good, as they’ll annoyingly get in the way when you try to avoid incoming attacks and medics will refuse to heal you when you most need to, but most of the times they’ll defend you. Here you can probably see the inspiration of newer co-operative games like Left 4 Dead.
Some people complained a lot about Half-Life 2’s story, but I think this is one of the game’s strongest points. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t as good as the plot from the original Half-Life, but that isn’t disappointing. What you also shouldn’t expect, though, is a clear answer to some of the questions you may have about the story of the first game. While there are many hints about what’s going on, there really isn’t any clear development of it and by the end of the game you’ll be wondering the same things you were when you first started playing.
Some of the enemies have an inconsistent behavior and their AI isn’t surprisingly developed. They’ll charge at you, making them easy targets. Others are much more intelligent, though, as they seek cover, try to surround you and then shoot you in a way you weren’t expecting it. Some of the bigger enemies act much more aggressively and can be really difficult to take down, the ant lions for example come in hordes and they pursue you even when you’re shooting directly at them. The Strider can be much more fearsome, this tall enemies fire at you and they can even kill you with their spear-like legs. By the end of the game you’ll get to use only one weapon which is extremely overpowered and there’s simply no way that regular enemies can defeat you while you use it, so this experience can be quite diminishing.
A really good save system is used, but you can also regularly quick save the game when you see fit. You may find additional checkpoints at some specific points in the game and they work quite well most of the times. This lets you play the game without having to obsessively worry about where you should save the game. Another option is to restart a specific chapter you previously beat, and even though this may be really inconvenient, is interesting to do it once you finished the game once.
Graphically, Half-Life 2 is really impressive. The use of the Source engine is extraordinary, and this cutting edge technology became so popular that it was used by games like Left 4 Dead, Alien Swarm, Portal, Portal 2, Dota 2 and more. This engine manages to create really lifelike environments and the facial expressions it pulls off are simply superb. You’ll be able notice how a character reacts according to their emotions and this is one of the best features of the game. Furthermore, the textures look sharp, each surface has a different reflection and shader effects are really good. Level design is excellent, and everything in them is done really smoothly like the transitions between day and night cycles. If you have a suiting hardware that can handle it, you have to play this game. Something that really stands out is the fantastic use of physics which is really well integrated into the game. When you pick up a barrel and then you drop it, it behaves in a very realistic way.
Gordon Freeman never speaks, but voice acting is amazing and it works really well for the rest of the characters, even when you’re character never says anything back. The rest of the sound effects are quite good also, each weapon emits the sound it should, when you step on metal or sand this is reflected in the sounds you listen. The soundtrack doesn’t have many tracks, but the little music you hear adjusts accordingly to the situation, mainly because it emphasis certain moments.
In conclusion, Half-Life 2 offers one of the most engaging and strongest single-player campaigns of the last years. It’s surprising how Valve was able to recapture the same sense of immersion the original Half-Life had. Yes, it may not be the same groundbreaking experience you once played and you were expecting for, but this package has so many new features that it’s impressive. Not only this sequel is fun, it also happens to have one of the best and most used graphics engine ever. And that is an achievement on itself.