The Xbox has been the only console from this generation that has been home to some great first-person shooters. The PlayStation 2 and GameCube have certainly dabbled in the genre, but never with the same success. The fact that no Xbox game has beaten Halo, though, is somewhat depressing, although testament to Bungie's stunning launch title. Well, the 2004 PC Game of the Year (many websites agree) has finally made its way to the Xbox and Mr Freeman has a few things to say to the now rather cocky Master Chief.
It seems pointless to spend a thousand words explaining why Half-Life 2 is so good, partly because we've already done so, but also because you probably already know how great the game is. Yes, we weren't lying when we gave the game a 10/10 last year, and neither were the hundreds of other publications who pushed their scoring system to the limit. Even in a year that has seen some truly great PC first-person shooters hit the market, none of them hold a candle to last year's Half-Life 2, but that's irrelevant here. What's the Xbox version like?
Short answer: Very good. Long answer: A port of a truly stunning game, but not without its fair share of problems. For all intents and purposes Half-Life 2 on the Xbox is exactly the same game as it was on the PC. Without running the two side-by-side I'll say with some confidence that nothing has been cut, so you still get the great physics (manifesting in some great puzzles, the legendary Gravity gun and all manner of lovely set-pieces), vast environments, intriguing story, fun vehicle sections and all the rest. If you were worried that you'd be playing a mere shell of the original PC game, you can rest easy.
'.. the stuttering bug is obviously nowhere to be seen...'
If your PC fakes a heart attack when you head over to steampowered.com you'll be very pleased with this Xbox version. While I've personally had no problems with Steam (Valve's digital delivery service) you won't have to worry about any of that here, and the stuttering bug (not that I experienced that on PC either) is obviously nowhere to be seen either. Controls have been translated to the Xbox pad without any issues, with only hard core PC gamers really likely to cause a fuss (although they wouldn't be playing this version anyway). Aiming is smooth and doesn't feel twitchy like many console first-person shooters, and the button layout has been well thought out. Weapon selection, for example, is controlled via the d-pad and it works very well.
So, all brilliance aside we come to the only serious flaw: the frame rate. Slightly downgraded visuals are to be expected, and the Xbox version of the game is no worse because of some muddy textures and a lower resolution, but the frame rate on many occasions might just be enough to put people off. Of all the big FPS games on the Xbox, including the port of Doom 3, Half-Life 2 is by far the chuggiest. It's not a constant problem, and really only rears its ugly head during intense action sequences, but these are also the situations where you'd benefit from some smoother action. How this affects your experience will depend entirely on how tolerant you are towards a sporadic frame rate, but you do get used to it. It's a disappointing flaw, but not a deal breaker.
As an Xbox title Half-Life 2 is really quite a stunning achievement. The environments are diverse and insanely detailed, the characters are life-like and feature stunning facial animations, and the load times that plagued the PC game even seem a little quicker here. The frame rate inconsistencies aside, Valve has done an amazing job bringing such a technically accomplished title to the now rather aged Xbox. However, one feature of the PC game isn't in the Xbox version: online play. While a port of Counter Strike: Source being included in the package would have been wishful thinking (seeing as it's a standalone product on the PC) some simple Half-Life 2: Deathmatch would have been a nice addition. It's not great loss, but something that's missing all the same.
While it would have been great to see an all singing and dancing version of the game appear on the Xbox 360, the huge number of Xbox owners who don't dabble in PC gaming shouldn't let the arrival of the Xbox's younger brother put them off from taking a look at Half-Life 2. A stunning fifteen-hour adventure with Gordon Freeman and co is about the best swansong a console could ask for.