Monday, September 17, 2007

Half-Life 2 (2004)

Half-Life 2 (2004)

I wrote about my first impressions of 'Half-Life 2' an eon ago. Sadly the limited amount of time I had available precluded me from playing the game as much as I would have liked, with the end result being a frustratingly drawn out gaming experience. Nevertheless, I finally managed to finish the game and am ready for the world to hear my thoughts!

'Half-Life 2', is the sequel to the legendary, revolutionary 1999 FPS 'Half-Life' (which was revolutionary in the way it used existing technology to craft a uniquely involving gaming experience). HL2 continues the story of Gordon Freeman, who has been in stasis since the events of the first game. It's some time in the future, and the world has been taken over by alien overlords called the Combine. Gordon - i.e. the player surrogate - finds himself in an East European looking city where the people are subjugated in a police state headed by one of the scientists from the Black Mesa Facility, Dr. Breen, who is collaborating with the aliens. Gordon is soon aided by Barney, a security guard from the first game, who gets Gordon up to speed on current events and introduces him to members of the resistance, including Dr. Eli Vance of Black Mesa and his daughter Alyx. It also turns out that, following his heroics in the first game, Gordon is now seen as a messianic figure by the resistance and his return has rekindled their hopes of overthrowing the Combine.

The story that follows is a standard action adventure as Gordon has to run from point A to B to save people and aid the resistance, with further details about the Combine situation being doled out on occasion. In the first game the scope was small - a portal to another world opened up at a research facility, hostile aliens came to Earth, military forces were sent in to clean up the mess, and a shady guy in a suit seemed to know all about what was going on - but this time round it's a much larger story, and Gordon's role in events is relatively minor. This aspect of the game is quite frustrating; by the game's end, you'll learn very little more about the big picture than you learn from the first few levels. Presumably the subsequent 'episodes' provide more details, but it's disappointing from a narrative viewpoint. And while the flow of the game is quite smooth and levels segue well, the first half of the game descends into a repetitive routine where you find yourself running from one resistance base to the next. Fortunately the second half mixes things up and is more involving.

The level design cleverly introduces you to the game engine in the early stages by essentially being 'on rails' and forcing you to complete simple tasks, thereby learning the game mechanics. It also shows off the stunning design and production values (probably aged by now, but to my out of touch self it was good stuff) by letting you experience a detailed city environment right from the get go before sending you off into the comparatively dull levels of canals, deserts, and tunnels. The macabre Ravenholm level, which sits in between some of the less interesting levels, is quite cool however and prevents tedium from setting in. Things get much better when you return to buildings and city landscapes again, and fortunately there are no alien levels with tricky jumping sequences as there were in HL1! The game is, overall, very atmospheric thanks to the level design, graphics, and sound. The voice acting is also of a very high quality throughout. The design of the various units and creatures is also excellent and it all gels together nicely to create a compelling universe.

'Half-Life 2' features a nice balance between different gameplay elements, with exploration, gun battles, narrative elements and the occasional puzzle cropping up regularly and never overstaying their welcome. The physics engine used isn't completely realistic but it adds a lot to the believability of environments, and the incorporation of the gravity gun is terrific, particularly in the awesome last few levels where you get to go crazy with it! The set pieces throughout the game are impressive, with 'scripted' events and thrilling sequences such as ones where you have to defend a position against hordes of baddies or take out giant tripodal alien machines called 'Striders'. The combat, sadly, doesn't seem as fun as I remember HL1 being, with the enemy AI being fairly unimpressive. Maybe it's just nostalgia, but I remember feeling like I was actually taking on intelligent adversaries in part 1, while in HL2 they just seem to stand around or run predictably and get killed (and I wasn't playing on the easiest difficulty setting, either). The same can be said for the new 'team based' combat where you get allies following you around - their inclusion is fun for a while and useful at times, but they don't seem particularly smart, occasionally running into enemy fire without the slightest hint of concern.

Other new gameplay elements introduced into the sequel include vehicles, which are fun for a while but grow tiresome fairly quickly, and a very cool gimmick where you get to control a bunch of alien 'antlions' using 'pheromone pods' and maneuver them into taking out your enemies for you! Not so cool is the inclusion of a few 'infinite enemy' sequences, where the bad guys just keep on coming at you until you move on to another part of the level. Some of the new alien baddies are also very annoying, like the weird skinless howling creature and the guy that throws poisonous face huggers at you. The selection of weapons is very similar to HL1 with the exception of the gravity gun, and this is no bad thing as the weapons in the first part were very cool. As always, the best weapons are the tried and true submachine gun, pistol, and shotgun, though the new pulse rifle is also very effective. And of course, there's Freeman's trademark crowbar, still useful for walloping head crabs and zombies!

Overall, 'Half-Life 2' is an excellent though somewhat flawed game that isn't quite up to the amazing standard of the first part (though, when I replay that it'll probably seem ancient, but hey, it was superior in its time). The storyline in particular is less satisfying, and the ending is a frustrating cliffhanger that doesn't offer the simple and satisfying closure of part 1. I was entertained for the most part, but was occasionally bored and annoyed for stretches as well. Some of my frustrations with the game were undoubtedly the result of the stop start way in which I played the game; coming back to a game after a month away is always a bit difficult! The second half of the game does redeem the missteps of the first and the overall experience is, all things considered, pretty terrific. I'm looking forward to playing the sequel episodes, which I shall hopefully finish before the decade is out!

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