For PC gamers, the original Half-Life was the ultimate first-person shooter of its time. It was a testament to genius design, presentation, gameplay and story telling. You knew that after stepping into the shoes of Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist and the main character, the genre would be changed forever.
Does Valve's (released by Vivendi Universal) honor its predecessor?
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
As in Half-Life, you again are Gordon Freeman, an MIT graduate who can handle firearms with alarming competence (which makes one wonder what, exactly, he majored in at MIT).
The game begins as you are being addressed by the G-Man, a mysterious employer-figure.
You are his slave.
He's taken you to a future (perhaps parallel) Earth where humans are rounded up into concentration camps and privacy does not exist. City 17, the name of the area you and humanity inhabit, bears a terrifying resemblance to Nazi-era internment camps.
Think Philip K. Dick and "Man In The High Castle."
Among the survivors of Humankind, now reduced to battered tribes, Gordon has become a legend.
The aliens who've taken over, called the Combine, look and act like shock troops. Humans are forced into fenced areas. The whole place is an Orwellian hell where detainees are bloodied during interrogations and beaten with cattle prods when they misbehave or irritate the police.
Your mission is to save humanity from the Combine overlords.
A Beautiful Hell
Half-Life 2's graphics will rock your face off repeatedly. Valve succeeded in creating a nearly seamless world. Everything, including light, is lifelike. When you walk through a garden or town square, sunlight is wrapped around tree branches.
The characters walk, talk and act as though they were real. Their bodies and faces are constructed organically in the digital medium. When someone is speaking to you, you can see laugh-lines form and skin pull tight when they smile or frown in an almost disturbingly natural way. Your enemies are like people, unpredictable, as likely to evade gunfire as they are to try to kill you.
You can hear the wisps of their echoes and footsteps while you hide. You can see their images refracted through water.
Monsters will howl for your flesh, and you'll be nervous about the darkened corridor that lies ahead.
One is consumed.
It never feels like you're playing a game. It feels like you are Gordon Freeman come to save the human race.
Open The Pod Bay Doors, Hal
It almost seems as though the game doesn't know it's a game. The characters in Half-Life 2, friend and foe alike, have the capacity to act as they see fit. They aren't just actors on the digital stage; they change it.
Enemies will do whatever they can to get you. If you've slammed a door to escape a monster, that beast will find a way through any obstacle to achieve its goal of making you extremely not alive. They're driven by an AI (the artificial intelligence behind the game) that behaves as if it's not content to be anything less than real.
You, the player, are the alien in Half-Life 2.
That Snafu That You Do
As good as this game is, there were a few things that I viewed as critical errors.
During one mission, there is a seemingly endless sequence where you have to pilot an airboat vehicle that is intensely annoying. Vehicles in games are cool if you aren't forced to use them. It's the option, the freedom to take the wheel if the gamer chooses to, that makes it interesting and ultimately fun.
If I wanted a driving simulator, I would buy one.
The plot of the game also leaves something to be desired. Elements seem to be missing.
And Steam, a separate piece of software, caused me so much irritation that I think I have a rash. It's a poor launch for the program, regardless that it's required for playing Half-Life 2 in the first place. Steam may be there to curb software piracy, but it can be immensely frustrating.
As of December 1st, Valve is offering a free update to Half-Life 2, allowing for a new Deathmatch mode. Previously, there had been none. Valve also updated the Counter-Strike engine to Source, which is a vast improvemnt.
Combat Scientist At The Ready
Regardless of these disappointments, the game is worthwhile. Even phenomenal.
Half-Life 2 gets stuck in your head.
You'll find yourself loading it up again because of alien headcrabs, zombies, giant organic-looking ships and characters who entice you. You'll go back because every battle is different, and you want to see how the AI reacts when you try this or that.
If nothing else, you'll go back just to observe the world inside the game.
Grab your crowbar and your degree.
By William Vitka
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