Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Half-Life 2 - First Impressions

I've finally started playing Half-Life 2, after a lengthy download period via Valve's Steam content management system. I know I'm only slightly over two years too late to the HL2 party to write down 'first impressions', but I felt like jotting down my thoughts nonetheless.

First impressions are everything, and things didn't start well - the first 10 minutes or so were a bit mixed. First, starting the game seemed to take forever; the Steam system has to sign on to your account before the game itself starts loading; I've decided to play 'offline' from now on. Then, the game took several minutes to start up. Once it did though, things began to improve. The menus (which have a dynamic view of a game environment for a backdrop) were similar to the original game, and setting things up took no time at all. Starting the game again resulted in waiting for the first level to load. The loading times aren't horrendous, it's just that compared to Tomb Raider: Legend and even the original Half Life, they're quite slow. And then, the game started.

Once again, you get to fill the shoes of scientist Gordon Freeman. The game begins with the creepy G-Man, now sporting detailed skin and realistic facial animation, telling you that you're basically back in the thick of things. You end up on a train that stops at City 17, a place that looks like a war ravaged East European town. The graphics are excellent, both in terms of design and technology. The game is incredibly atmospheric - decrepit old buildings with moss (or something) growing on the walls, cobbled streets with outgrowths of grass, an abandoned children's playground, a believable town layout, and so on. The physics are quite good as well, though I've yet to get the much ballyhooed gravity gun! The sound design is also excellent, from gunfire to the sound of doors being kicked in and people being clubbed with batons!

A lot of information is cleverly conveyed via background elements - as with the original game, there are no direct cut-scenes, you are pretty much always in control of Freeman even during the moments of exposition. The setting and situation are immediately made clear via the ubiquitous video screens featuring looped recordings of a Doctor Breen explaining (as propaganda) how City 17 is one of the last developed refuges on earth and the centre of the administration. It becomes apparent that Breen is working with some kind of occupying force, presumably alien, and that everything that is happening is supposedly for the further development of mankind, including a 'suppression field' that somehow prevents reproduction. Aliens you fought in the first game are now being used as slave labour. There's a strong military presence in the city called the Combine, and the people are clearly oppressed and unhappy. There's also a resistance force sneaking people out of the city, seemingly headed by Freeman's colleagues from the first game.

After a leisurely introductory period where you can get your bearings, the game throws you into the deep end without warning. This is what was so great about Half-Life 1, and it seems 2 continues in the same vein. It's like playing out an action movie, only it feels dynamic even though it's all scripted, and the result is exhilarating. After stumbling into a housing complex you're not authorized to be in, the Combine come after you. Residents try to help you out as you run to the roof, and you can hear them being beaten and shot in the background as you make your escape. I didn't bother to sit in one place and see what happens if the Combine catches up, I was so swept up in it all. Once on the roof, you get to run along from rooftop to rooftop while soldiers behind you and on the street start using you for target practice until you finally manage to get away by darting into a building through an open window.

You find an underground layer of the resistance where Dr. Kleiner and Barney the security guard from the first game, and Alyx, daughter of one of the other scientists, have been working on perfecting a teleportation device. You finally get your HEV suit back, and your classic weapon, the crowbar! The three of them have a humourous conversation; most impressive were the reactions of the characters, who make facial expressions and movements in tune with the conversation, and you can just stand next to any one of them and they sort of glance at you while doing it, with those impressively realistic looking eyes (really, they shimmer!). The voice acting is also really good, with the voice cast playing it straight but not overly seriously.

Later, when you finally get a handgun, you get to engage in gunfights with the Combine while fleeing through underground tunnels and around a set of railroad tracks complete with running trains. And that's about as far as I got...

It's just really engaging stuff, and while I've been out of gaming for a while, I suspect it's still up there with the best of them in terms of quality. Heck, I'd say the original which is nearly a decade old is still immensely playable! Half-Life 2 is atmospheric and exciting and has stunning graphics, involving storytelling techniques, an intriguing storyline thus far, and is bigger in scope and better than the original in nearly every way. I've yet to determine whether the gun battles are quite as exciting as those against the soldiers in the first game, but it's early days yet.

Hopefully, the game will maintain this level of quality throughout, and won't pull the same stunt as the original game by transporting you to an alien planet where you get to jump around on moving platforms like Mario!

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