Game: Half-Life 2
Developer: Valve
Publisher: Valve
Year: 2004
Reviewed: 2008
Platform: PC
Genre: FPS
Reviewer: ValkyrDeath

In 1998, Valve Software unleashed the original Half-Life onto an unsuspecting gaming public, and changed the FPS genre for the better in doing so. It was innovative in its use of scripted sequences to tell the story while keeping the player in first person view, rather than using cutscenes. It also removed the separate isolated levels of many games of the time, meaning the entire game played out in a coherent world. It was widely considered to be the best game ever, so in releasing the sequel six years later, Valve had a lot to live up to. Fortunately, they not only succeeded in that task, but proved their skill by beating their previous achievement, creating another incredible game that yet again innovates in several areas.

Half-Life 2 Burning Zombie
Zombie Killing Methods #21: The fire cage.

Firstly there’s the graphics. Several games had impressed with graphics in 2004. Far Cry had been impressive with the huge scale of the levels, but they came at the price of steep hardware requirements and they always had a slightly cartoonish feel. Doom 3 got lots of praise for its graphics, with the fancy lighting and shadows, but all it really succeeded in doing was making all the monsters look like they were plastic toys. Half-Life 2 came along and put everything else at the time to shame. It was way ahead in every respect, and managed to make the environments feel like actual locations, with realistically dirty looking textures and run down abandoned buildings. Now, over 3 years after its release, it might not quite hold up to some of the latest releases in terms of technical quality, but it still looks good, and the realism of the locations still stands out even now.

Adding even further to the game is the physics engine. Practically everything in the environments can be moved in a realistic way. Pick something up and throw it and it will fly through the air and fall to the ground in the same way the corresponding object actually would. The physics in Half-Life 2 still stand up amongst the best even today. What the game excels at is making them an important part of the gameplay, by introducing the gravity gun (or the Zero-Point Energy Manipulator if you want to get technical about it.) Primary fire punches objects out of the way, (particularly useful whenever those annoying headcrabs turn up) while secondary fire actually picks the object up and allows you to throw it at high speed. It might sound like a gimmick, but after you’ve got it you’ll find yourself using it all the time, sometimes even when you don’t even need to. Shotgunning zombies might be fun, but slicing them in half by throwing buzzsaw blades at them is even better. It creates a different feel to the game than the standard FPS when instead of just using the machine gun, you can wrench a radiator off the wall and throw it at the head of a Combine soldier, or grab a table and use it as a shield. The gravity gun is one of the most interesting weapons created for an FPS game, and genuinely improves the whole experience.

Half-Life 2 Buggy
The latest model Rolls-Royce was aiming for a minimalist look.

Graphics and physics would only be technical achievements if they were utilised for a poorly designed game. Fortunately, as can be expected from Valve, the level design is fantastic. It’s clear that they spent a lot of time perfecting everything; there doesn’t seem to be a bug in sight (except the swarms of Antlions in some sections) and absolutely everything seems to be placed to maximise the enjoyment. Also advancing on what the original Half-Life did is the storytelling. Again, everything is kept in the first-person perspective, but now, a greater focus is placed on actual characters, who are so well created that you can become attached to them despite their relatively low number of appearances considering the length of the game. The storyline takes place in a well realised Orwellian dystopia, and while it doesn’t have the most complex plot in gaming, it draws you into the game world and gets you involved.

Going back to the level design, the game is like the original again in that every level flows on from the previous one. But where the original game was almost entirely set in one environment, Half-Life 2 manages to add an incredible amount of variety to the experience. From ruined streets to the dark, zombie-infested town of Ravenholm, the environments are diverse. But it’s not just the environments; they even manage to change the gameplay from time to time. The best sections to do this are the two vehicle segments, once in an air boat and once in a buggy. There are also some interesting sections later in the game where you’ll get different unexpected things to try, which I won’t go into detail about here, since they’re far more fun to find out about while playing.

All of this makes Half-Life 2 almost certainly the best single-player FPS ever created, and one of the best games all round. On top of all the things mentioned earlier, the game also continues Valve’s excellent support for mods, and by now, there are large numbers of high quality mods available when the main game is finished. Finding any flaws in the game is incredibly difficult, and if I did finally manage to think of any, they’d definitely be very minor. The only major down side is that the game eventually comes to an end. Highly recommended to absolutely everyone. And there’s never been a better gaming bargain than the current Orange Box release, so if there’s any FPS fans who don’t already have this game, there’s no excuse. Buy it now, or the Great Ancient Gods of Gaming shall be angry and wreak vengeance upon the unholy Halo lovers!

Save System: Save anywhere.
Graphics: Only very slightly dated even over 3 years on, it still looks fantastic.
Sound: Sound effects fit the actions perfectly, and the voice acting is some of the best to be heard in a game.
Bugs: I didn’t find any gameplay bugs at all.
Gameplay: Some of the most exciting, well balanced FPS action around.
Storyline: Not the greatest ever, but still very good, and it gets you involved with the characters and fits the whole feel of the game.

Arbitrary Final Score: 5 stars

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