|The good old crowbar makes a welcome return for all your crate bashing needs|
Valve are programming geniuses. It amazes me to see a game engine that pretty much handles every single thing you throw at it, and never once breaks a sweat.
You name it, it's here. Photorealistic textures. Beautifully detailed indoor settings. Massive outdoor environments. 100% realistic physics on every single object. Real-time shadows. Gorgeous bump-mapping. Water that reflects and distorts. Weapons that handle perfectly. Fully controllable vehicles. Characters that look and act alive. Full 5.1 surround sound. And best of all, a constantly smooth frame-rate at all times. It's not only the best looking game I've ever seen, but it's the fastest too.
At the same time it doesn't look bewilderingly different to the first Half-Life. I mean the HUD, the crosshair and even the weapons are pretty much identical - it's just all been perfected and modernised.
That really sums up Half-Life 2 in a nutshell; it's not only a stunning game in its own right, but a sodding good sequel too.
The Making of...
The tale of Half-Life 2 is already one of the most interesting and infamous of all-time in the gaming industry. Fresh off the release of their debut title some six years ago - the original Half-Life - Valve went to work on HL2 almost immediately.
Since then, Valve's history has been somewhat spotty. Their other project, Team Fortress 2, was put back more and more until it eventually disappeared. A stream of third party Half-Life expansions came out, yet we had no real clue as to what Valve themselves were up to. Then there was the rocky launch of Steam. Finally, there was the eventual announcement of the Half-Life sequel. Then the hacking of the sequel. Then the delay of the sequel. Then the other
delay of the sequel. And the other, and the other, and...well, it was starting to look like Valve may be one hit wonders for a while.
|It would seem that water this good takes a long time to code|
Luckily, all these turbulent events have a very happy ending, 'cos now that it's finally here, I can happily report that Half-Life 2 is, excuse my bluntness, fucking brilliant. In a period when huge amounts of long-awaited games are finally arriving after years upon years of development hell - everything from Halo 2 to Doom III to San Andreas - HL2 is the only one so far to 100% live up to the hype. Not that any of those other games let me down hugely by any means, I've enjoyed pretty much the whole lot, but there's always constantly been an element of "Oh this is nice...not as nice as I'd hoped, mind you".
HL2 has none of that. It's a work of astonishing beauty. Nothing can touch it, in fact. It's proof of what's possible when deadlines are non-existent, and developers are free to worry about nothing other than the quality of their final product. Most importantly of all, it was
worth the wait.
Wake Up, Mr Freeman
The first Half-Life was so
damn good - there's a reason why it's been the benchmark for all other first person games ever since. Considering HL2 is only Valve's second real title though, and it's taken so long to arrive, I must admit I'd forgotten just how damn talented they are over the past six years. After just the first five minutes of seeing HL2 in action though, all those memories came flooding back in full force. Immediately you're reminded why they have the reputation they do. Why the world has been awaiting this game with such bated breath for so long. What brilliant artists, skilful coders and deranged story tellers they can be when given the chance. It's quite clear from HL2's exceptional opening, that once again you're in good hands, and they're gonna do everything they can to give you an experience you're gonna remember forever.
|All the old HL characters make a welcome return. Even this creepy fuck|
I could barely describe the plot even I wanted to, mind you. It's not that it doesn't exist, or is lacking in any way - but much like a good head-fuck of a movie, it just doesn't give you all the answers up front, leaving you with more blanks to fill in yourself than not. I will say this, it appears to start directly after the last one ended, and yet a good 10 years seem to have passed at the same time.
How is this possible? It's just one of many mysteries that, to be honest, are barely explained. Everyone will have their own thoughts and takes on it by game's end though. The final few moments certainly drop a few minor hints towards Gordon Freeman's role in all this.
In the meantime though, you really only need to concentrate on the gunning down of the evil Combine forces for the majority of the time, and how you can best serve your scientist friends who return from the first game.
Beyond that, there's really no need for me to tell you a whole lot about the plot, the characters and the levels - you simply need to see and experience them all first hand for the full effect.
|Oh yeah, that's right you dirty bitch! Eat my physics!|
The physics engine just makes such an epic impact on this game. Every single shot you make, every grenade you chuck, every footstep you take, all of it has some affect on the gameworld. To calculate so many items and yet remain so smooth and lifelike is an amazing feat alone, but it's then the designers' vision and ability to think up exciting and unique ways to actually use
these physics that really excite. It's that which truly elevates HL2 into the most kinetic and visually exciting game ever seen.
There's no better example of that than the gravity gun - a weapon that will no doubt go down as one of the all-time greats for many years to come. With it in tow, you can manipulate and exploit items as they were meant to be, picking them up, chucking 'em and smashing them to pieces for hours on end. Hand on my heart, it never for one moment ever gets old. I love the feeling of hurling a sodding great big radiator through a kitchen doorway and seeing all the pots and pans come crashing to the floor.
That stuff's great, sure, but it's the more inventive usage which is even cooler. The flying land mine robot things for instance, and the fact you literally have to rip them off you and hurl them into the sea to kill 'em. Or the fully working traps of Ravenholm such as the whirring fan blades and colossal car crushers. Seeing this stuff in motion strikes the perfect balance of amazement and hilarity, we've never really seen a world move so realistically in a game before. There's no doubt in my mind that you could actually create a 100% accurately working bike in this game, applying pressure to the pedals and seeing it move accordingly - in fact, there's an assignment to the modding community right there.
|Which kitchen utensil shall I smash to hell and back first?|
One glorious aspect that many will probably overlook are the puzzles though. The combat's great and the big explosions are nice, but there are also now numerous methodical, riveting brain-stormers blocking your path too, and it'll take a cunning mixture of logic and exploitation of the physics to see you through. Even though HL2 is purely a linear game, the environment itself does have a certain sandbox element to it due to that gravity gun, and you'll actually find many of these puzzles have numerous solutions as a result.
In one instance I found myself in a booby-trapped room full of at least 20 laser trip wires - breaking just one of them resulted in death via sentry gun. After trying every single trick under the sun to duck, jump and manoeuvre my way through the room, I just couldn't for the life of me do it without triggering those damn wires. Out of options, I backtracked through the level for five minutes until I found a metal desk from a fair while earlier, and with the help of the gravity gun, managed to create a make-shift ramp over the trip wires using the desk. Now I could happily jump over the whole lot and continue on with the game. Such a devious and tricky solution was probably not the one Valve had in mind when designing the level, but the fact it worked never the less was just one of a hundred reasons why I had a fucking great big grin on my face from the beginning of this game to the end.
|This is Dog. Try not to upset him. You'll very much regret it|
Another reason was the character of Alyx...or more importantly, her pet robot known as Dog. Without giving away too much, let me just tell you Dog has one or two stand-out fight scenes throughout the game - sequences I doubt will ever be matched for pure and downright coolness.
Such moments are heavily scripted, but then again HL2, much like the original, is a game that demonstrates heavy scripting and linearity are not necessarily a bad thing in video games - as long as it furthers the gameplay and doesn't hinder it. I love freedom as much as the next person, but the creation of a tightly knit story can certainly benefit from heavy scripting when it's done right like this.
Not So Hot
|Half-Life 2 has its fair share of arse-moisteningly scary moments|
The AI seems just as good as in the first game, but I'd argue that the wide open outdoor environments on offer here don't show it off as well as the much tighter corridor settings of Half-Life.
It's a small shame to fight so few aliens throughout HL2's campaign too, but at the same time, those Combine soldiers are about as cool a video game villain as you could possibly imagine. I must have wiped out thousands upon thousands of the suckers throughout the course of the game, and in every single way possible too, yet it never, ever got tiresome. The other new enemies are very memorable as well, and I defy anyone not to shat themselves on first seeing the new hyper-energised headcrab victims.
The single biggest aspect letting the campaign down is the reliance on vehicles in my opinion. The fact you spend the first half of the game in vehicles for the most part is both a blessing and a curse in fact. On the one hand, it gives the game a much different feel to its predecessor. Rather than rehash the dingy corridors and air-vents of the original all over again, we have that same Half-Life feel but in a completely new and original setting here, and it gives the sequel a huge amount of character of its own. I'd simply argue that the beauty of Half-Life is in the close-up combat sections is all, and burning around on a beach buggy just isn't as cool as the gunning down of troops and solving puzzles.
|These vehicle bits are great fun, but there are arguably too many of them|
Still, you're too busy being wowed by the incredible game world to worry about that for the majority of the game. In fact, HL2 is a rare title that continues to surprise and wow as it progresses. There's always a new toy to play with, a new setting to explore, and a new twist to the story. Right up to the Borg-like final level, you'll be well and truly captivated.
Having just completed it in all but a couple of days, I think its short game time has a lot more to do with my sheer addiction, than any kind of lack of length on the developers' part. It's just so damn good you can't stop playing the sucker.
Steaming Pile of Goodness
|Want to set huge bugs on unsuspecting victims? Source engine makes it so|
What's great about the Source engine, as you'll see when I chat about Vampire: Bloodlines soon, is how it can easily be adapted and expanded to handle other types of games at will, and that's what's really exciting about the whole Source phenomenon right now. I mean we already have a new version of Counter-Strike out, with Day of Defeat coming soon. Valve have also hinted at Steam-only content to expand the single player portion of HL2, as well as possible expansion packs played out from other characters' perspectives. Then there's the modding community, and the endless potential that holds. There's just so many possible avenues ripe for exploration now that this technology is released, and I genuinely can't wait to see what comes next.
As for HL2 itself, it'll become the new landmark PC game for all others to match up against I feel. At this point in time, it's already putting all its peers to shame. Doom III feels like a hollow wreck of its former self. Far Cry nothing more than a right old chugger that's unplayably jerky. Pacific Assault an unpolished, unfinished mess. Even its biggest competition, Halo 2, for all its much hyped "war on Earth" setting, feels like a small punch up in the school playground compared to HL2's much more successful take on an epic Earthen war-torn feel.
It's fun, it's beautiful, it's inventive. Fuck, it's probably the best game ever.