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You might not realise this, but it’s actually more difficult to review a very good game than it is to review a very bad one. With bad games it’s usually obvious what’s wrong, – graphical errors, frustrating level design, soulless repetition, cringe-worthy sound effects – but unfortunately for reviewers, Half Life 2 falls foul of none of these things. It’s a game which sets out to cast the player into a world so believable that they take everything for granted – and it succeeds. It’s a world that’s so well conceived in its dystopia it would impress Orwell himself – it’s a world called City 17 and for the next fifteen or so hours you’ll be taking up unquestioning residency.
Unquestioning acceptance of the game environment is where HL2 excels – physics for example. It doesn’t become noticeable until you’re instructed to pile up some crates in order to escape through a window, but in Half Life 2, physics play an important role – a very important role. While other games before it have incorporated the Havoc 2.0 physics engine, Half Life 2 is the first to make Newton’s laws work for their worth, instead of serving merely as incidental effects that have no bearing on the game. While Max Payne 2 would be the same game with or without boxes that fall over when grazed, Half Life 2 lives and breathes physics. So impressive is this new way of thinking, that it makes other games look positively lazy by comparison. But most of all, the game physics aren’t just tacked on, they’re not just integral to the game, they ARE the game.
Indeed, nothing typifies the core fundamentals of the game more than the gravity gun. Not only does it give the player the ability to manipulate things, like crates and barrels, it also allows them to use the game’s worldly objects as weapons, hurling them with great force and, one might add, satisfaction, at the opposition; heavy objects can do damage, while saw blades and other such sharp items prove suitably lethal. But don’t think you’ll get off lightly. Some enemies will do the same to you, knocking over fixed gun emplacements or tossing barrels your way – just a few examples of the core fundamentals of the way the game implements physics. Of course, none of the physics-based weaponry is included at the expense of conventional small arms, which HL2 features as prominently as one might expect. The usual array of pistols, shotguns and machineguns are present, as well as more exotic numbers, such as the Combine rifle and laser-guided RPG, each looking and sounding just right. Interestingly, the player can only carry a relatively small supply of ammo – this works well, encouraging the player to experiment with a variety of weapons, as well as giving them a tangible reason to use the Gravity Gun.
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In other words, physics can be fun, but that doesn’t just mean the maiming of enemies. Puzzles too revolve around physics. Anything which can be interacted with will no doubt be called into play, whether it is small bits of rubbish, cement blocks or giant industrial cranes – Half Life 2 has got some big ideas and rarely is there an occasion where it fails to impress or excite, often both at once. You’ll even be expected to upright your buggy should it roll onto its side, and the potential for creating your own little ramps or movie sets with world objects is amusingly abundant (even if further expansion of this would have been welcome).
Half Life 2 is a game of great scale, and while this is something it’s got in common with its predecessor, the sequel delivers on a larger scale than has ever been attempted before, even outclassing the relatively epic Far Cry. Vast swathes of beach, countryside, disused roads, bridges, cliffs, waterways and installations instil a sense of awe and atmosphere that outclasses all other efforts, and better yet, each of them can be traversed, climbed and explored. The game always has something new to show the player, keeping the excitement ticking over with literally no time for boredom as one location segues into another and all out action gives way to lateral thinking, and spatial awareness comes into play.
Of course, this excitement is helped dramatically by the powerful atmosphere the game offers. Valve, the creators of the Black Mesa facility, have once again expertly crafted a believable and immersive game world. City 17 itself feels darkly foreboding, its streets and buildings packed with Combine soldiers keeping a careful watch over the population and ordering them around, all while Dr Breen – seemingly the central figure at the top of the Overwatch hierarchy, and former Black Mesa administrator – looks down on the city from the central citadel tower, reaching far into the sky. Indeed, few other games can get close to how immersive HL2 is – few other games can make the player feel the excitement of taking on aggressive helicopters, the tension of exploring the desolate Ravenholm, while also letting them explore isolated buildings atop cliff edges, or the underside of a huge steel bridge. If there’s any downside to all of this, it’s that the game is nothing if not linear – pervasive the atmosphere may be, but it still struggles to hide the single track nature of the game.
Vehicles are well integrated into the game, although not as naturally as in Far Cry. Vehicle ‘sections’ appear as self-contained, well sign-posted chapters in the game. While being excellent fun to play, they are nevertheless one of the most insistent reminders of the linear structure of the game. Regardless of this, each vehicle section is interspersed with buildings and other facilities to investigate – which ultimately proves to be one of the most appealing aspects of the entire game. HL2 encourages the player to explore, with the vehicle sections taking advantage of this best.
Naturally, the Source engine is one of the most impressive aspects of Half Life 2. Already licensed for other games, and powering new iterations of all the most popular Half Life mods, it is truly impressive, even after all the recent offerings on the FPS scene. Convincingly modelling a wide range of surfaces – metal, stone, sand, wood – and quite possibly the most breathtaking water effects ever modelled in real-time, it’s an engine that thrives on being convincing. Equally adept at indoor and outdoor environments, it has a highly impressive draw distance while managing to remain as scaleable as Valve claimed.
It’s also thanks to Source that Half Life 2 boasts such lifelike, expressive and emotional characters. The level of detail in facial expressions is unheard of – frowns, smiles, surprise, determination… characters portray them all, with elegance and conviction. The game revives old characters like Barney, Dr Kleiner and Dr Vance, and introduces new faces, like Vance’s daughter Alyx, along the way. Quite aside from the facial expressions, the characters themselves are well developed through witty and well acted dialogue. You quickly become emotionally involved with these characters, effectively engaging you in the game world on yet another level. As in the original game, HL2 has no cut-scenes, and once again shows just how natural it is to observe narrative exposition from Gordon’s perspective.
Beyond that, there’s little to no criticism that can be levelled at Half Life 2. It’s perhaps not as long as it could have been, but the sheer scale and scope of the game world makes up for this. On just about every level, the game pulls you into the world of Gordon Freeman. Is it groundbreaking? On a number of levels – it’s one of the most polished games ever produced, arguably the most atmospheric game ever produced and it incorporates physics in ways other developers haven’t even imagined, and it does all this effortlessly. Compared to Half Life 2, other games just look lazy. You’ll take for granted things like intelligent enemy AI, cunning level design and useable physics, so much so that other games, which fail to incorporate such base elements, are bound to look silly as a result. Most of all, it shows just how graphics can enhance the emotional impact of a game. The detailed facial animations create some of the most convincing characters ever seen in a game. It’s linear, but no worse for it. Certainly, the linearity goes no way towards ruining the sense of immersion, which remains strong right the way through the game – never letting up, never making you feel like you are anywhere other that deep within the game. It’s been a long wait, but it’s been worth it. Hal-Life 2 is the new benchmark for first person shooters.