Half-Life 2
by Kjilly



Half-Life 2. The second most disappointing game in my personal history (a crown which will likely forever belong to Deus Ex: Invisible War). Before we start, I think it's important to point out that disappointment isn't entirely synonymous with being bad. I don't think Half-Life 2 is a *bad* game, it's one of the better FPSs to come out, I can't really deny that... However, it didn't live up to even a single expectation I had. I suppose I loved the first game too much, and every cut-corner valve took seared itself into my experience with it.

A little history.

I think it's important for everyone to realise this is only Valve's second game. Their only previous title being, of course, Half-Life. Everything else people have associated with Valve over the years (Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat, Opposing Force, etc.) were actually created and are still maintained by different people. Half-Life hit around the end of 1998, and a few months after that Valve started stirring up a lot of hype about a game called Team Fortress 2. The scope of the TF2 saga is beyond this article, but let's just say that by 2000 it had completely disappeared off the radar, and still remains as nothing more than a vaporware project. Nobody outside of Valve really knows if it exists any more or if it'll ever see the light of day.

Although that may seem slightly off-tangent to the discussion, the point here is: Valve later claimed it had stopped work on TF2 due to shifting focus to Half-Life 2. In essence, this pits the beginning of HL2's development cycle at around mid to late 1999. In other words, a full 5 years of development would be expended before HL2's final release. And what did we get after those 5 years? Well, let's break it down a bit and look at some things in detail...

Music
Half-Life had probably one of the best soundtracks I'd ever heard. At the time, it was light-years ahead of the stuff around elsewhere. Full quality CD music played at key times which actually ADDED to the experience of many of the game's set-pieces instead of being an omnipresent background track.

Half-Life 2? Well, in the first of Valve's corner-cutting exercises, the vast bulk of the true 'music' in HL2 was actually just the stuff from Half-Life 1. The majority of the new stuff is just background ambience, with little to no actual tune in there. Out of all these songs ripped from the first game, only the end credits musical track was adjusted. I quite like the remix, if they'd done more of it with the other 'borrowed' tracks it could've been quite good.

As it stands, while there are a few new compositions in Half-Life 2, only a couple are worthy of note and most don't stand up to the stuff that was originally produced for the first game.

Score: 3/5 - A couple of nice tunes here and there, way too much reliance on 'old hat'.


Sound
When I played Half-Life 2 (the day of release), I was unfortunately victim of a very widespread sound bug which would cause endless stuttering and static whenever anything remotely exciting happened on-screen. This wasn't a fault in my hardware, which was more than ample, but a problem a great many users suffered from due to sloppy programming. I still don't know if this has been fixed, I'd imagine it has since then but this review's all about first impressions.

Although I think a lot of the sounds were high quality (some are again borrowed from Half-Life, but mostly the effects were new and quite good), it's hard to appreciate anything that's constantly cutting off and causing your speakers to screech like a stuck pig. Any attempt at ambience and losing me in the 'game world' was totally lost as my guns f-f-f-f-fir-r-re-ed-d and combine d-d-d-i-ie-ee-dd-dd-e-e-dd.

I think they went a bit too overboard with the combine radio chatter too - it follows the Half-Life marine's doctrine in that respect, but where HL's marines were grainy but legible, the combine have way too much bass in their voice and mumble too much for you to discern what they're actually saying. Ultimately it's more distracting than 'cool' as the Marine's chatter was.

Other than that, it's hard to pick faults with the sounds themselves. A lot of them fitted well, and some where truly excellent (I loved the strider's death wail and stuff), just a pity it was all so badly executed.

Score: 2/5 - Some overall great sound effects let down by a shitty audio engine.


Weapons
Central to many a great FPS experience is the stuff at the bottom of your screen. They are, after all, how you will be 'interacting' with it for 99% of the time. So imagine my utter disappointment at the overly crappy Half-Life 2 arsenal.

Not only was every single weapon there a rehash of what was in Half-Life (save for 2 - more on them in a bit), they were vastly inferior too. All the more interesting Half-Life weapons were missing. What happened to the gauss gun, the trip mines, the satchel charges, the alien 'snarks'? Half-Life's weapon's layout is one of the most unique and impressive ever created and they literally discarded anything worthy of note.

It certainly doesn't help matters that practically every 'reused' weapon is inferior to it's Half-Life ancestor. The only one I can say was really improved was the crossbow. Everything else is either too weak and inaccurate or suffers from a lack of ammo. The rocket launcher, for instance, remains a totally useless item until you find one of those god-damn stupid 'infinite ammo' crates, probably one of the worst possible implementations any game trying to create a 'realistic' game world could have.

So that leaves us with the two truly 'new' weapons. The much-lauded gravity gun and the bugbait (the combine rifle doesn't count to me as it's just an inferior version of the Opposing Force M249 SAW). Even then it's fair to discard the bugbait as a weapon as it's useless in a 'direct' sense, and only works in one part of the game. So that leaves the gravity gun, about the only truly new addition to the game and probably one of the most over-rated items ever to have existed. Although some people fell in love with the ability to throw tins of paint and other useless items around, I pretty much found it useless. Ok, it was useful in two areas. Ravenholm with the sawblades (can't really fault slicing zombies in half with it) and the ending (hey let's rip off Unreal 2's crappy idea of giving you a ridiculously overpowered superweapon and remove any challenge left in the game).

Overall what it was (a tool that you had no real option but to use in certain areas - picking up sawblades due to no ammo or stupid limpet mine things which you had no other way of disposing of) largely overshadowed what it was promised it would be (a tool which allows you to interact with nearly every part of the game environment however you see fit).

I suppose the bitterest part of this is that anyone who followed that leaked beta saga will know they had a few interesting ideas going with it - the gauss gun was there, as was an interesting combine sniper-rifle and the stun baton among a few others.

Score: 2/5 - Saw blades and the ability to stick people to walls with the crossbow are all that it has going for it.


AI
It's still fact that Half-Life has some of the best AI ever coded in a FPS. I think it's fair to say that only really Halo and Far Cry have come close. Considering that it's around 7 years old now, I think that's pretty impressive.

So Valve looked upon this monumental achievement, took everything they'd done then tore it into little pieces and set it on fire.

In place of the marines that'd retreat when they'd run out of ammo, would fire from a kneeling position to make them harder to hit and consistently flush you out with grenades we have a bunch of idiots that'd track you down then just stand still.

Circle round them, throw grenades, shoot them a couple of times, watch them run out of ammo... It doesn't matter, they'll just stand rooted to the spot, totally motionless except to turn and face you. Ok, they get slightly more intelligent later on in the game (however the above is perfectly true for your first few hours of play) but the combine are some of the most laughably bad opponents I've seen in a game. Certainly nothing that holds a candle to either the mighty Half-Life marines or those killer female assassins.

Even one of the later sequences with a strider (the one where it emerges in the tunnel with you) was ruined by shitty AI as it harmlessly pelted the car I was hiding behind with a never-ending stream of bullets while my AI squadmates stood casually in the open 5 feet away from me firing rockets at it until it died.

And the squadmates themselves... God, don't get me started. Whoever decided it'd be a great idea to pack 5 people into a number of narrow corridors for a few hours should be shot. Some of the worst and most frustrating 'squad' action I've ever seen in a game.

I don't know what's worst. The fact that this game wins awards for it's non-existant AI, the bullshit Valve spouted about it at E3 (omigosh it understands the environment! No scripted sequences!) or the fact that the source 'remake' of Half-Life reuses the shitty HL2 AI and makes the Marines and stuff dumber.

Score 2/5 - About on par with iD's 1993 achievements with Doom. Only without the fun of watching your enemies turn on each other.


Physics
The big 'thing' about Half-Life 2 that everyone's hung up on. As if being able to throw a couple of cans at people to piss them off hasn't been done before (Deus Ex anyone? Plus Deus Ex had dog/cat stomping). It's buggy as hell too. Apparently Dr. Freeman weighs no more than 4 bricks, and bricks with holes in at that. Is his suit filled with helium or something?

Ragdolls are something I don't really like too much. I like a nice death animation, not for something to instantly transform from a fully animated, living, breathing character to a sack of suds the second the health counter hits 0.

Ok, some of it is impressive. And it is about the first time people have really tried to make physics affect more parts of the game world than just grenades and spent bullet casings.

Score 4/5 - The best implementation of someone else's physics engine seen yet (You think Valve coded that themselves? http://www.havok.com/clients/valve.php)


Graphics
At times Half-Life 2 is absolutely amazing. At other times it's awful. It's a strange mix of fancy DirectX 9 water and texture effects and ancient Quake 1 rendering code. Some of the beachside parts are almost photorealistic, others (like certain parts of Ravenholm) wouldn't look too out of place in Duke Nukem 3D.

At any rate, even at its best it's lightyears behind Far Cry and Doom 3. Its open areas just don't match up to Far Cry's stunning and vast tropical vistas, and Doom 3's indoor rendering is unlikely to be topped any time soon. The glass/water refraction in certain places beats both Far Cry and Doom 3, but it's so processor-hungry it's used only very sparingly and such a minor feature itself isn't enough to warrant proclaiming it as being superior to either of those.

Score: 3/5 - Competent in places, but never enough to get that excited about.


Storyline
It sucks plain and simple. I've heard an amazing amount of bullshit over how Valve not forcing a storyline onto the player makes it good. Sooooo no storyline is a good one now?

I mean seriously. An alien invasion from another dimension 3 years prior to Gordon's arrival, we lose, they're in charge and 'borging' us. That's it. That's the storyline. Doom 2's ran along similar lines.

No explanations given as to why a minor scientist who went missing at a top-secret US research lab that got buried under a nuclear explosion is now so popular. No explanation what the hell all these people are doing in Europe. Or how the Xen alien slaves got here. Or anything.

Trying to tie the events in Half-Life 2 to the first game is a totally pointless exercise. The plot holes are enormous, the ending sucks with no real resolution (that's the only 'alien portal' on the entire Earth? How the hell did they even get there in the first place?).

If the game had just one more chapter at the end which had gone into a bit more detail + boss fight it may have been all better. But it didn't.

Score: 1/5 - About on par with iD's 1994 achievements with Doom 2. Only with more plot holes.


Gameplay
Something of a mixed bag. I didn't really find it all that good until after the extraordinarily tedious buggy journey. After that point it improved markedly until the very last chapter. Before that the only things of note were Ravenholm (overrated) and the jet-ski chase sequence.

I despised the entire buggy chapter, it's easily one of the low points in the game. Drive 5 minutes through featureless and linear open area>reach checkpoint>get out of buggy>kill bunch of guys>flip switch, find batteries etc.>open gate>repeat. Awful, awful design. It's a real shame too, they could've really made something of those open areas but they didn't. All you have is a bunch of infinitely spawning bugs and a lot of pretty boring driving to do to until you reach the next checkpoint.

After that point, it becomes a whole lot better. Some of the set pieces are literally fantastic, even taking into account the piss-poor AI on display. Overall it's just a letdown. For every minute of superb action in the game there's at least 5 minutes of pointless driving or trying to push your way past useless AI comrades.

Score: 3/5 - Some truly great moments ruined by a lot of pretty bland or irritating ones.


End Comment
If Half-Life had never existed, this game probably would've been a lot better for me. However, being a direct sequel and failing to either meet or improve many of the standards set in Half-Life totally ruined the experience. With over 5 years of development and Valve's massive funding it could've - and should've - been so much more. I still regard Half-Life as THE FPS. Half-Life 2 should've been perfect.

But it just wasn't. It relied too much on rehashing old content and failed consistently throughout to add anything particularly new to it. About the only thing that saves it from total obscurity for me are a couple of the enemies present in the game (the striders and combine gunships). Without either one of these the game would've been little more than nothing.

Valve promised the world with this title too. But practically everything they said about it was a lie. The most disappointing of which was the claims about the AI. From stating that a soldier would "understand that you'd blocked up the door with a table and be able to kick it open" to the striders "understanding they can't get past that bridge so they crouch under it", it was all just bullshit. They're as dumb as anything else, the only time they do anything cool is if it's scripted.

For anyone who followed Half-Life, TF2 and the progress of HL2 so closely this game could only ever be a disappointment. It's still not a BAD game, and it has a few excellent moments... Just way too many parts of it are inferior to it's ancestor you can't help but feel a little cheated. They had 6 years to make this, that they couldn't even manage to meet the standards of the original is just inexcusable really.


Overall:




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