Valve’s flagship IP has returned for a second major instalment to continue the saga of Gordon Freeman and showcase a cutting-edge physics engine – but is it more sizzle than steak?
Half-Life 2 continues the formula that has won its fellow Valve titles such critical acclaim by following a silent protagonist through a seemingly-seamless gameworld as they, and our first-person-perspective selves, venture through a world of spectacular setpiece action sequences that push the boundaries of the Source Engine as we follow along with a plot that remains remarkable subtle considering how frequently it deals with cosmic aberrations, grotesque body horror, and the technocratic enslavement of the human race.
The silent protagonist presented for our gaming pleasure this time is Dr. Gordon Freeman, a bespectacled MIT graduate stomping mutely around from within an armoured hazard suit that puts him on a comparable levelling, combat-wise, with the equally-faceless, gasmask-suited thug soldiers patrolling the dystopian streets. Your makeshift herosuit moves simply and controls easily – if you’re familiar with pretty much any other Valve game, or indeed, almost any FPS from the past twenty years, you find the basic WASD system to be no challenge at all to master. If, by chance, you’ve never played a PC game before and have come to Half-Life to see what all the fuss is about, then rest assured – Valve will still masterfully introduce all the necessary concepts to you in an opening sequence so well-crafted and refined you might never even notice you had been tutorialised at all.
Once you’ve become familiar with the keyboard layout and mouse controls, you will be prepared to step out into the first wide-open outdoor environments of the game, and it is at this point you will most likely want to take a gander at your audio-visual options. As usual, Valve have included a large suite of variable settings, and you might consider turning down some of the lighting, water effect, and render-distance, HL2 is by no means heavy on the hardware by modern standards, but you might just save yourself a framerate drop or two in certain areas, and in a game focused on bringing top-shelf gameplay rather than fixating on having the shiniest graphics anyway, you won’t be missing much, if anything.
Your sudden plunge into this oppressive world leaves you with little time to take in the scenery before unavoidable plot-shenanigans require you to flee your starting locale, the amount of weaponry you pick up on your way out and the whole armies’ worth of cannon-fodder baddies in hot pursuit almost threaten to turn your underdog nerd protagonist into the hero of a bullethell shooter. However, this too does not last, and you soon find yourself part of a run-and-gun hovercraft chase that in practice is a lot less exciting than it sounds – this sets the approach followed by much of the game, rapid shifts of gameplay from one somewhat gimmicky sequence to the next, including a survival-horror segment out of absolutely nowhere and a stop-start-stop-start-stop-start dune buggy roadtrip that, emblematic of much of the game, drags on for just long enough to become tiresome, and then some.
By the end of the game, you’ll be carrying a whole arsenal about your person, and while many of the weapons are fun and beautifully cathartic – the punchy one-shot-kill revolver, scoped crossbow that fires white-hot rods, guided missile launcher and ability to summon giant killer ants were all favourites – but the game makes the best guns so situational they’re useless, or makes the ammunition for them so scarce you need to resort to using any one of the several generic and rather samey machine-pistols dropped en masse by the crapshoot AI goons instead.
For a game that spends around fourteen hours utilising large, open, levels, it was so surprising to see so much of the last half-hour or so of gameplay be literally on-rails, before slamming into one of the most abrupt (but by no means, conclusive) and confusing endings in all of fiction. If you’re so inclined, you’ll be able to sweet through the game a second time to pick up all of the few remaining Achievements and perhaps a more solid understanding of the story – naturally Valve gave their golden goose full integration with the Trading Card system, even though, in my entirely subjective opinion, the Cards, Badges, and Emoticons are nothing to write home about.
Half-Life 2 is not a bad game, it delivers another large part of a competent (if complicated) story, and is clearly very technically impressive in both design and execution as it holds up Valve’s usual high standard, doesn’t weight very heavily on the hardware (at least not until you start exploring a world of prequels, episodic sequels and spin-off titles).
I recommend playing this game for yourself – and it’s a bargain if you find it bundled alongside a handful of other Valve titles during a sale - but if you’ve come here looking for “gaming’s best story”, or the “best characters”, you may end up being let down.