Product Type: Vivendi PC games
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We remember the Freeman...
Half-Life 2 (PC)
Member Name: clownfoot
Half-Life 2 (PC)
Date: 28/09/11, updated on 12/01/12 (109 review reads)
Advantages: Possibly the greatest game ever made. It's not Modern Warfare 2...
Disadvantages: ...there are no disadvantages silly.
The problem with being the sequel to one of the greatest games ever made is that you're the sequel to one of the greatest games ever made. Just how in the blue hell are you supposed to top the original resonance cascade and Gordon Freeman's rise from PhD boffin to gun-totting, alien arse-kicking hero of awesomeness? Even the most erudite Vortigaunt is likely to scratch his nuts in irritation whilst pondering the answer to such an impossible conundrum. Yet, fear not mere mortals. Gaming Gods Valve were on the case and considering they rarely, if at all, goof up, Half-Life 2 must surely have been in safe hands. However, John Romero (of Doom and Quake fame) was also considered a first-person shooter game-making genius before the sheer awfulness of Daikatana, so perhaps we shouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves with the superlatives just yet.
"Rise and shine, Mr Freeman. Rise... and shine." With the G-Man's cryptic words ringing in Gordon's ears, the man with the crow-bar is finally awoken from his lengthy stint in stasis and re-inserted into a world much changed following the Black Mesa incident. His time has come again, apparently. Gordon may have prevented one hostile alien takeover, but the portals created by the original resonance cascade did not close, remaining open for any charlatan or shit with a big enough army to plough through, exploit and enslave humanity. Just like the Combine have managed during Gordon's extended rest. Stepping off the train into the dour, oppressive atmosphere of City 17, unarmed and unknown, Gordon's insertion is primarily to save humanity. Again. Not bad for a theoretical physicist turned one-man army...
Beginning at the exact point the original game left off with Gordon in stasis, albeit some 15 years later, is a pretty good start on the track to besting your forefather. If you're going to borrow a plot device from anywhere else you may as well borrow it from Aliens (curiously a sequel that out does the original - coincidence?). The art of successful sequel-making is usually best attributed to more of the same, yet entirely different. So whilst the stasis concept allows for Gordon's first step into City 17 to be a world away from the journey through the bowels of Black Mesa, there really is little change in the main game dynamics.
Firstly, it remains a glorious first person shooter with magnificent depth. City 17 and the world beyond are highly immersive arenas continuing in the vein of the original that story progression is just as central to blowing the shit out of everything for maximum entertainment. As before, the initial chapters set about enveloping the player in a bewildering environment lacking the nice tidy answers and spoon-feeding common within the genre, and introduces some wonderful little touches that give the world definition instead. The video screen of Dr Wallace Breen (former head of Black Mesa) welcoming new arrivals to the safety of City 17 is offset by Combine troops lining humans up against a wall for nefarious purposes further into the city. Not everything is as Breen would have you believe. Mechanised striders briskly moving between the city's tower blocks and a routine sweep and clear of one building all add to the feeling of a dishevelled European state run by Stasi type overlords.
Again there are no objectives, no cut-scenes, no inventory page; everything is shown within Gordon's (your) eye-view. Barney and Dr Eli Vance (who frequented Gordon's original adventure) show up to fill in the gaps about what happened at Black Mesa and the aftermath following Gordon's disappearance, before providing the initial inertia (and crowbar) that moves the storyline in that familiar unrelenting way. Similar to the original, a good hour will have passed drinking in the surroundings before Gordon is thrust into action in attempting to escape the City. By this time you're so immersed in the Half-Life universe that putting the mouse and keyboard away for the evening will be the last thing on your mind. This is how movie-styled gaming should work!
Once it does arrive, as before, the action is pretty much spot on. Scripted events burst into thrilling skirmishes (with the obligatory pounding music) benefitting from classy AI that renders enemies complete bastards to take down. The Combine will throw grenades, dodge the one's you chuck at them, communicate with each other and attempt to out flank you, back off if you're getting on top and duck behind cover. Tactical nous and strategy are required to get through each set piece - there are no moronic enemies running into your line-of-sight here - and the AI is smart enough that no one single battle ever turns out the same. Attempt to re-load from a save point and the enemies will not appear in the exact same locations as the previous run-in. After all, this isn't some sloppy, shite FPS experience, like Modern Warfare 2.
Added to this similar feel are new elements that breathe fresh life into proceedings. This is where Valve succeeds where most others fail; generating sheer variety in level design. Two levels featuring a hover-craft and buggy, which allow Gordon to zoom around expansive environments outside City 17, are great fun balancing involving puzzles (using a crane to move the buggy to a higher ground) with high-octane action sequences (a brilliantly conceived helicopter gunship chase). If there is one disappointing aspect that could be directed the sequels way it's with the reduced amount of weaponry available. Gone is the Alien firepower from the original, along with the likes of the rail-gun. However, Valve has simply replaced these items with refreshing and original concepts. The plasma rifle is a neat addition; the Antlion pheromone is simple genius. Throw this Antlion queen body-part like a grenade and a horde of Antlions appear at the location it lands to fight alongside Gordon. It opens up a whole raft of additional tactics from the typical point and shoot style engagement. For instance, under heavy fire from a big fecking gun with no way past unless you want to be turned into mincemeat, the Antlions are perfect cannon fodder and a handy distraction for Gordon to dodge to more convenient cover. Furthermore, chuck the pheromone into a group of Combine and just watch the Antlions tear them a new one. Marvellous!
Yet this is nothing compared to the uniqueness of surely the best and most intriguing weapon ever crafted for an FPS title. The gravity gun seems like a little bit of a novelty at first, designed purely to show off the wonderful physics implementation of Valve's Source engine. It simply pulls objects within range towards the gun that can either be fired away or dropped to the floor. That's it. However, you soon realise that the gravity gun potential and the game world are hugely inter-linked, providing a whole set of entirely new gameplay options. Sure it does the basics, such as retrieving ammo and health kits from out of reach places or crafting makeshift pathways across a desert teaming with Antlion's underneath. But the real show stopper is the combat options that become available with the gravity gun. So how about pulling a fridge off the wall to use as a shield from enemy fire and, when close enough, flinging it as a piece of shrapnel death towards the Combine motherhumpers. Cool, huh? Oil drums can be fired as grenades, circular saws used to slice enemies open; in fact, any piece of debris lying about can be picked up and used as a weapon, transforming the gaming environment into something much more deadly.
The gravity gun ensures the Ravenholme section of Half-Life 2, an area that resembles a gothic horror novel filled with the terrors of the Black Mesa's resonance cascade, is one of the best designed (and most chilling) levels ever seen in the genre. A bombed out, abandoned town devoid of civilians (apart from one deranged priest) but host to a horde of head-crab zombies is made evermore difficult by the lack of ammo for your regular weapons. The gravity gun becomes vital in slicing, dicing, pummelling and burning your way through this most absorbing chapter. Half Life 2 would no doubt be a great game without it, but with the gravity gun's added dimension it just reaches a whole new level of awesome.
Ravenholme itself is just one of Half Life 2's many 'wow' moments, yet there are so many more spine-tingling encounters in the game that you'll be creaming in your jeans with glee throughout the whole experience. The sentry gun sequence in Nova Prospekt is not only feck hard, but a truly adrenaline pumping experience. Few other games manage such an ingenious close-encounters battle with such refined success. A roof-top battle against the striders observed in the games prologue is simply beyond superlatives and yet this is bettered by a sequence in the city square that can only be described as War of the Worlds on shitloads of cocaine. Bringing such behemoth machines down with a solitary rocket launcher, whilst hiding in the havoc and destruction caused by their obliterating weaponry, is absolute gaming heaven.
Even in the games more subtle moments there is poise and purpose. Taking a serene ride through the bowels of the City 17 citadel (yet another 'wow' moment) merely adds more style and substance to the magnificent storyline. Frequent conversation with the Vortigaunts enlightens one further to Gordon's being (and their dichotomy with the elusive G-Man). Small touches such as drop-ships touching down and having enemies disembark to engage Gordon elevates the game mechanics away from the annoyance of poorer titles where enemies can just spawn randomly. And unlike much of the next gen console first person shooters, it's not all over in a couple of seconds like a teenager rifling through his Dad's collection of porn. Half-Life 2 is much classier than that.
So, if you have somehow managed to miss the underlying message to all this, Half Life 2 is the perfect sequel. More of the same, but with added bits that make it reek of awesomeness. Sure, some will moan that come the end there is no conventional boss to defeat (like any of the strider or gunship battles are in any way a piece of piss) and that there remain a number of unresolved questions, this really doesn't prevent Half-Life 2 from being constantly challenging, highly immersive and, on more than the odd occasion, absolutely spectacular beyond mortal words. Resonance cascade topped. Grab your crowbar and rock on!
Overall - The measure by which all other single-player first person shooters are judged. Kneel before the Freeman!
Hardware requirements - released in 2004, Half-Life 2 will run on all modern PCs with a half-decent graphics card.
Where to buy - Download it from Steam for just £6.99 or purchase as part of The Orange Box (the greatest compilation box-set ever released) for £14.99.
© clownfoot, September 2011.
Summary: Gordon Freeman. Crowbar. Arse-kicking. Obviously!