Half-Life 2

I have no idea why I'm writing yet another review for Half-life 2, since most people have already either played it or read enough other reviews that mine isn't going to add much to the fray, but I wanted to jot down some of my ideas for later reference anyways. First off, let me get this out of the way: it's the best shooter ever (BSE). In fact, you could argue it's the BEST SHOOTER EVAR!!11 It's really, really good.

Introduction

The ironic -- or possibly tragically irresponsible -- thing is that I never played the original Half-life, which until now was probably considered the BSE. For some reason I was completely disinterested in Half-life, likely because I was burned out on shooters as a genre when it came out (a by-product of working on Quake 2 and Quake 3). So, given that, I might not have the same perspective on HL2 as many others.

My gaming rig for this review was a Gateway M505XL (reviewed earlier) laptop with a 1.5GHz Pentium-M processor, ATI Radeon 9600 Mobility graphics, and 768MB RAM. The screen is a widescreen 1280x800 LCD.

Installation

In case you haven't heard, Valve is pioneering the electronic distribution of AAA titles using their Steam technology. A lot of people have bitched and moaned about this, but I'm leaning towards being pro-Steam. Earlier when I talked about the CopyProtectionDilemma I mentioned that on-line authentication would be a reasonable system for most people. A lot of people still really want to "own" the CD and thus "know" that they can run their software no matter what happens to the authentication company (e.g. imagine if you had to authenticate your copy of Thief 2 developed by the now defunct Looking Glass). I sympathize with that position, but I also realize that if you go that route, you end up having to do crappy things like Starforce, SafeDisc?, or SecuROM, which also screw the consumer.

For me, it comes down to this -- do I mind having to connect to Valve? No. Do I mind that I might not be able to play Half-life 2 again in ten years? In theory, yes. But really...I'd much rather be able to play a game that doesn't require a CD in the drive if it means that I theoretically can't play it when the company goes out of business. That's just my preference.

Installation consists of installing Steam (which was very simple) and then selecting Half-life 2 from the menu. I then went off and did other work for a few hours while it downloaded and unlocked my copy. I was in no rush to play it right fucking now OMG I can't wait''' so having to wait didn't freak me out. Steam will autopatch the game for you, and since Valve seems to be positioning Half-life 2 as a platform instead of just a game, I'm confident that they'll keep updating it. That's a good thing -- most games still don't patch for you during installation, forcing you to hunt around for patches from various publisher or developer Web sites (for example, the patch for System Shock 2 isn't even hosted by Irrational Games, you have to go to a "file download" service in order to get it -- annoying).

The game also detected that I had out of date ATI drivers -- which was a problem since ATI doesn't release end user Mobility drivers, and Gateway hasn't updated its drivers in about a year. Thankfully, the Omega drivers came to the rescue and the warning went away.

Game Play

Without attempting to be flippant, Half-Life 2 is your basic, run of the mill shooter. In fact, you could accuse it of being "old-school". It adheres fairly strictly to shooter conventions of yore, while at the same time advancing the underlying technology and overall polish significantly. This is an important point, because the taxonomy of shooters has changed quite a bit since the original Half-life. We've seen the introduction of "tactical" shooters such as Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, and SOCOM; shooters with RPG-lite elements like Deus Ex and NOLF; "stealth" shooters like Splinter Cell and Hitman; and, of course, the continued evolution of the set-piece shooters like Call of Duty and Halo. And many shooters now include vehicle sequences (to mixed opinions).

Half-life 2 lacks any RPG or stealth elements. Hell, you can't even lean. There will be no sneaking about or "many paths to the same result" -- you're pretty much on rails. You have an arsenal of weapons that you can switch between trivially. There are crates. Shit loads of crates. And powerups you can run over. It is the ultimate refinement of the run-and-gun set piece shooter.

Now, there's a school of thought that says that this is okay -- it's a sub-genre of shooter, and therefore it makes design decisions that are reasonable within this genre. With so many different variations on the shooter theme, the "run-and-gun" is a valid classification. However, I'm not altogether comfortable with this, because suddenly vehicle sequences -- which I'm very lukewarm about -- are de rigeur for even run-and-gun games. Call of Duty, NOLF2, and Halo all had vehicle elements and boy did I just want to skip past those parts. So the definition of "run-and-gun" seems to be somewhat arbitrary -- you can have dune buggies, but not leaning? You have to have crates, but you can't have stats?

Which leaves the other school of thought, which says that this type of strict classification is, as the vernacular goes, "gay". The state of the art in shooter design has advanced considerably in the past six years, so crates, no leaning, no stealth, and highly linear levels are inexcusable to some. I see their point, but I don't necessarily agree.

So, for better or for worse, HL2 is the zenith of set-piece run-and-gun shooters. This means that each level is very linear with almost no exploration, in the tradition of Call of Duty and Splinter Cell. You are guided down a very narrow course for each level, experiencing things the way the designers intended, with almost no opportunity to stray. They manage to do this without making the game feel like it's completely on rails -- there's an interesting phenomenon where you feel like you're wandering around aimlessly but always manage to end up where you're supposed to be. In the entire game I think I wandered aimlessly trying to find the next trigger sequence twice.

There is very little blunt force exposition, so the combination of no explanation and the constant push by the invisible hand makes this feel, literally, like an amusement park ride. You're shepherded from one cool set piece to another, inexorably driven forward either by NPCs or by combat. Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I'm sure some gamers wished they could have "solved" each encounter their own way.

Oh, and before you get your hopes up, there are jumping puzzles. Lots of jumping puzzles. But nothing too hideous, and I notoriously suck at jumping puzzles. Basically you end up walking over the standard set of pipes, girders, broken bridges, and moving platforms. This blended well with the levels and never felt entirely out of place.

The game conspicuously lacked basic instruction -- you have to figure out what you can do by looking at the key bindings. I'm not a big fan of separate tutorials, but I do like it when a game teaches me the basics as I muddle through the early parts of the first level. Valve may have been relying on prior shooter experience, but with the size of the market that they're targeting I had expected something more. You never learn how to use your flashlight, for example.

And before I forget, the big "hook" for this game is the accurate physics. Everything is physically modeled correctly, and it shows. You can stack things, break things, move things, and it all feels right. Watching a barrel tip over a bridge, or pulling a crate out of the bottom of a stack of crates is just a wonderful thing to witness. This is so basic, but it's taken forever to reach this point. It's a big enough element that they devoted an entire weapon, the grav gun, to the manipulation of objects, and this is really what sets the game apart from everything else.

Without the physics, this would have simply been another highly competent shooter on the order of Call of Duty. But the physics just push this over the edge (no pun intended). The only other game with a similar physics hook that was as effective is Silent Storm. In some ways HL2 is sort of the game that Trespasser wanted to be.

Setting

The setting is the generic dystopian oppressive future of America that all nerds have read and seen countless times before. The story is, to say the least, perplexing if you're not paying attention. And even if you are paying attention, you're going to have to fill in a lot of gaps using nothing but conjecture and assumptions. The ending of the game, for example, is disturbingly unsatisfying since you're basically whisked away immediately after the final battle -- no denouement, go directly from blowing your wad to passing out. No cuddling here.

Like all good games, HL2 steals fairly liberally from various science fiction classics. There are "ant lions" which are a combination of Zergling and Starship Trooper bugs. There are "turrets", i.e. sentry guns from Aliens. "Quick zombies" a la 28 Days. You have the X-Files-like G-Man who is pulling strings and always one step ahead of you. There are also some pretty scary as shit horror settings (Ravenholm), creepy on a par with early Silent Hill.

Zombies may be cliched as hell, but when done right, they still make me wet myself.

My major complaint with the setting and story is that they just don't make you give a shit. You arrive out of the ether (literally) into this world, with no understanding of what's going on, and you just blithely do what the NPCs tell you to do. "Hey, Gordon, long time no see...go save the world! Here's a crowbar!" At no point do you ever understand why you give a shit what's going on, mostly because Valve never gives you a reason to care. There's this intellectual revulsion at the enslavement of humanity, but that's not a very personal thing. So what I found is that this lack of empathy removed any narrative desire to continue playing the game. Instead my compulsion to play was driven strictly by curiousity and awe -- "Go save Eli Vance? What fucking ever, show me the dune buggy!!" Each mission needed to be completed just so I could see what the next mission would look like.

One other thing -- the game gets progressively better as it goes on. It has a very slow start in terms of gameplay as Valve just tries to establish the setting, and for the first hour I was very "meh" about the game. But as it progressed I found myself getting more and more sucked in, and by the third or fourth hour I was pretty much thinking abot the game non-stop. So do not give up on the game until after you get the gravity gun.

Technology

Technologically Half-life 2 is an amazing tour de force. Not so much because of astounding graphics -- they're very high quality but not necessarily Oh Emm Gee level (except for the water, which is the best water rendering in a game I've seen) -- but because of the gameplay related elements. Subtle things, like incredibly well scripted sequences and competent AI, and more overt things like the physics. These often add up to second order effects -- you can't really point to one thing and go "Wow, how'd they do that?!" Instead, you point at something and think, "Wow, good job!" There really is no mystery to much of the technology of game development, it really boils down to execution, and they executed splendidly. The AI path finding never puked on me, unlike, say, most other shooters. No matter where I went, squad mates would keep up. And while people have griped that your squad mates can get in your way, they forget to notice that this is the only game (that I'm aware of) where they apologize then get the fuck out of your way. Thank God for the little things.

Subtitling is available for the audio tracks but, get this, it does closed captioning similar to television -- it prints out audio cues as well. So you can play with the sound muted reasonably well. A very nice touch.

Summary

Half-life 2 is a great game, assuming you can live with a couple of their design choices. If you want "more" from a shooter, such as RPG, squad tactical, or stealth elements, then you will be disappointed. If you wished that certain shooter design idioms such as crates, health, powerups, and the ability to carry nine huge ass firearms simultaneously would go away, you will probably be disappointed. If you wanted a story spoon fed to you, then again, you'll probably be disappointed.

But if you want a pure "run and gun" shooter experience that offers incredibly detailed environments, interesting new mechanics (the grav gun), and gorgeous artwork and graphics, then you'll love this. It's like Call of Duty taken to the next order of magnitude. It's an amazing game within its genre, and while it does have a few minor flaws, it's still clearly the best shooter ever made. There's not even a close second at this point.

Score: 5/5