16th Nov 2004 | 15:21
Pinch yourself, it's not a dream. The words you thought you might never hear have finally been uttered. "Rise and shine
Mr Freeman. Your time has come again." It means this: the most anticipated game in the history of the universe, six years in the making, delayed for over 12 months, is now complete. Gordon Freeman is back in action. The G-Man has spoken. And let me be the first to tell you (sharp intake of breath...) - it was worth the wait.
I must admit, the doubts had started to creep in. Why all the delays? Is the game not good enough? Is Valve in development hell? But thankfully, no - the delays were simply due to the fact that everything had to be as near to perfect as the gods would allow. And believe it or not, they are. This game is so close to flawless it's painful to the eye. It's so beautifully constructed, so immaculate, I can barely bring myself to divulge its details. Everything I write puts a preconception in your minds that may alter the playing experience from the one intended, and that would be doing you a great disservice. But don't worry, I'm not going to give the game away. I'll avoid specifics and give you only the bits you need to know.
The Legend Grows
Like this: best FPS ever. Yes, that's right. It's an honour I was never entirely happy to bestow on the original Half-Life, which, as far as I'm concerned, was just one of a clutch of equally great shooters around that time. But this time I have no hesitation: Half-Life 2 is the best first-person shooter ever. Indeed, it may well be the best action game ever, full stop. It's a huge statement to make, especially in a world of Max Paynes, Quakes, Splinter Cells and Halos. But it's true, and here's why.
Half-Life 2 is simply beautiful. Not only in looks, but in every part of its construction. The environments themselves are breathtaking, diverse and immense, but rather than offering a series of randomly themed missions, Half-Life 2 plays like an 18-hour action film, scripted tight as a drum to make every second as involving and exciting as the last. Where one level of Doom 3 is largely indistinguishable from the next, Half-Life 2 shifts gears dramatically at every turn, with new and unexpected delights tumbling one after the other.
Even the opening level is a revelation, despite the fact that you spend its entirety bereft of weapons. I guarantee you'll spend the first half-hour of the game simply delighting in the world - testing the wonderfully generous physics properties (every loose item in the world can be picked up, thrown and usually destroyed), and marvelling at the looks and behaviour of the inhabitants. I know I spent a good 20 minutes simply throwing suitcases and litter at Combine grunts, then running away when they came at me with a cattle-prod.
It's the only shooter I've ever played where I wasn't frustrated not to have a gun in my hand straight away, wishing the opening stages would stop patronising me and let me shoot something. Here, you barely register the fact, so involving
is the world around you.
When the shooting
does begin, it begins with a vengeance. As dynamic and interactive as the world feels when you're empty-handed,
with a gun in your hand it feels almost unnaturally violent. Every weapon, even the basic pistol, has a substantial, explosive feel to it. Later armaments like the Overwatch Pulse Rifle or SMG make you want to shoot at birds just to hear its thunderous cough.
The way barrels explode, the way wood shatters and splinters, the way blood splatters across propaganda-stained walls - everything you do has a gratifying force behind it. And though much of this is down to the Havok 2.0 physics, which we've seen plenty of times before, it's never been implemented with as much finesse and tightly-wound impact as in Half-Life 2.
Even so, shooting guns is only a small part of the game's rich palette. Certainly, parts of the game find you in familiar territory - gunning down Combine soldiers with headshots, fending off zombies with a crowbar - it's like you never left. But this kind of traditional FPSing occurs only in moments, carefully weighted segments defined by the game's flawless sense of pacing and surprise.
Just as you finish marvelling at one bullet-riddled set-piece, another huge gearshift sees you dodging rocket fire in an amphibious airboat, beating Manhacks (flying buzz saws) away with a crowbar, hurtling along a coastal highway in a turbo-powered dune buggy, building a bridge out of physics objects or leading a squad of rebels in a pitched street-battle. The action shifts and surges marvellously, never giving you time to tire of one gameplay style and always keeping you guessing. If Rome is Total War, Half-Life 2 is total action.
Indeed, the game is so varied, it's difficult to name all the great gaming moments. Think of your favourite moment in any top shooter, and Half-Life 2 will almost certainly have something to equal or better it. Max Payne 2's explosive shootouts and cunningly placed fuel barrels? Matched. Call Of Duty's epic, intense street battles? Beaten. Doom 3's terrifying zombie corridors? Out-spooked, and with the Gravity Gun in hand, a hell of a lot more fun too. Indeed, Half-Life 2 could claim to beat every other shooter out there at its own game, not to mention doing stuff you've never seen before. It is, quite simply, the ultimate shooter experience.
Of course, the action would be but a mindless killing spree without a strong story to hold it all together, and here Half-Life 2 shows perhaps its greatest genius. As promised, I'm not going to give away too much - the script, the plot, the unfolding scenario are all there to be discovered, not read in PC ZONE. But what I will say is it's not what you're expecting (unless you read the leaked script on the Net, in which case you get what you deserve).
The world of Half-Life 2 is very different from the one we left behind. Many years have passed, and the events since have seemingly cast Black Mesa into insignificance. Where Gordon has been is only hinted at - somewhere away from the affairs of the world it seems - but upon his return, the battlefield has shifted.
It's no longer a simple case of Xen versus human. Under the aegis of a mysterious alien-human tyranny known as the Combine, the world has been transformed into a terrifying police state. Think 1984 meets cold war Russia meets Star Wars-era Galactic Empire, replete with Stormtrooper-like Combine soldiers.
I'll stop there, mainly because I'm being deliberately light on details, but also because the game itself is even more obscure. Most of the back-story and political situation are shown rather than told, with the details left to you to decipher. You're never spoon-fed or patronised - there's no clumsy PDA device with reams of emails to trawl through or a mysterious helper character giving you clues over a voice-com. The narrative simply emerges naturally through the course of the gameplay.
The whole thing is extremely elegant, and manages to keep you intrigued long after you've finished playing. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that after 30-something years, the medium of gaming has finally found its true narrative voice - a mode of storytelling that doesn't mimic cinema or graphic novels or anime, but rather blends elements of all of them to create something unique to videogames. The original Half-Life may be famed for weaving narrative seamlessly into the gameplay, but that was a clumsy hack job compared to Half-Life 2. Deus Ex, Half-Life, Max Payne 2, Halo - all these were but stepping-stones: this, for me, is when interactive storytelling comes of age.
Mix 'n' Match
The secret is not just in the way the game intersperses the action with in-game scripted conversations, but in the whole way scenarios are created to reveal narrative information. Half-Life 2 mixes snatches of overheard conversation,
music and audio cues, announcements blurting from loudspeakers, graffiti and posters on walls, momentary interactions with incidental characters and all sorts of other information encoded in the environment around you.
Witness the moment when you don your new HEV suit, the Mark 5, in which the scene and setting, combined with a single expertly placed audio cue, conspire to create a great gaming moment. And out of something that would, in any other game, be the bit when you picked up your equipment at the start of a level.
It's a simple example, but the point is Half-Life 2 is different - better. It may well be our Citizen Kane. Either way, it's showing the way forward for storytelling in games - you'll want to play the whole thing again as soon as you finish.
Having A Barney
Like any story, the characters play a hugely important part in the success of the game, and here Half-Life 2 also shines. Barney, Gordon's old pal from Black Mesa, is a prime example. If this were a Hollywood action film, he'd be the one who died at the end of Act Two, being at once the heroic everyman and the comic sidekick. Though he only appears on the odd occasion, he's impossible not to like, and the way he jokes around and gently mocks Gordon gives us plenty of insight into Gordon's own character (despite the fact that Freeman never speaks).
There's clearly a lot of mutual respect and friendship there, which adds that much more tension when Barney gets into a bit of trouble later in the game. He's also a funny bugger - his running gags and talk of 'head-humpers' provide many of the game's lighter moments.
Alyx Vance, the new female character, is equally well realised. As you'd expect, she's both sexy and intelligent. However, Valve hasn't relied solely on this to get you to care for her, imbuing the character with real charm and humanity. There's no trace of the victim or damsel about her - in fact, she has to save Gordon's arse on a couple of occasions, so you can forget about any of those annoying 'defend the useless woman' type missions. Alyx's pet robot, Dog, is also a creation of sheer brilliance, but I'll let you discover him for yourself.
But what, I hear you ask, about the graphics? Are they as good as Doom 3? Frankly, I couldn't care less. If you bothered to measure it, Half-Life 2 may not be as flashy in terms of dynamic lighting and pixel-shading or whatever, but the two games are utterly different, especially as the bulk of Half-Life 2 takes place outdoors. (Personally, I thought Doom 3 had a slightly plasticky look to it anyway.) If it's any help, it looks a darn sight better than Far Cry, but the basic point is Half-Life 2 is stunning.
A lot of this is down to the atmosphere and complexity of the environments, which are astonishing in their attention
to detail. City 17 alone is a breathtaking achievement, and the first time you step out of the train station into the plaza, there's a moment of near disbelief to rival the waterfall scene in Unreal. Everything is beautifully designed, from the smallest milk crate to the largest alien tripod. The facial animation is a revelation. What's more, enemies are diverse and frequently terrifying (poison zombies and fast zombies particularly so).
And the physics - my word, the physics. Apart from the sheer energy given to the game by the explosive, kinetic nature of things, the physics engine is applied in a host of cool ways to produce new gameplay. One is in the area of puzzles, which are only occasional but usually rely on the application of some sort of physics property in their solution. You might have to stack bricks on a seesaw to lift you up to an otherwise inaccessible shelf; you might have to use floating barrels to make a bridge across troubled water. In every case, the results are ingenious.
It Gets Better...
What's more, the greatest weapon in the game (and perhaps ever) is the so-called Zero Point Energy Gun or Gravity Gun. This sublime manipulator turns the game world into an interactive wonderland, enabling you to vacuum up any loose item and hurl it away with explosive force. The uses of the device range from clearing roadblocks by pushing cars off a cliff, to sucking Manhacks in and smashing them against a wall. So great is this device, the game could happily have shipped without any other weapon (crowbar notwithstanding).
There are even a few moments of humour to be had. As you might have seen in the pre-release movies, the Ravenholm level encourages you to pick up circular saw blades and hurl them through packs of zombies, shredding them as you go. Chopping two or three zombies in half with one blade is probably the most satisfying thing you'll ever do in a game, but the added ability to paint them white with tins of paint adds a comic touch. Beyond such ingenuity, Half-Life 2 must be commended for its sheer technical soundness. There's some really boring low-level stuff that the game simply gets right where so many others fail. Take ladders: the problem of falling off ladders or having trouble getting on the top rung doesn't exist in Half-Life 2. Boring I know, but pleasing nonetheless.
Or how about difficulty levels? The game offers the standard three difficulty modes, but here you can change between them on-the-fly, right in the middle of a heavy firefight if you want to (and there are many of these, rest assured).
Even locked doors - often a source of frustration in a game - are neatly explained by the fact that the Combine has installed repressive security measures in the city. This game has thought of everything.
Hang On A Minute...
Indeed, the only possible area of concern I have is with the AI. Expectations are high, given that the original game had the best AI of its day - but I'd have to say on that basis, we're a tiny bit disappointed. This isn't to say there's anything quantifiably wrong with the AI - it's extremely competent - it's just not the leap forward we might have expected.
I'm talking mainly about the human enemies. Where the aliens and friendly characters are concerned, I have no complaints, but the Combine soldiers could have used better survival instincts. It's not that they do anything wrong, but occasionally they just seem a bit dense - reluctant to take cover, eager to rush head-on into a shotgun blast. On the upside they're very chatty - issuing orders and giving constant situation updates over their headsets - but other than that there's nothing too astonishing about them.
With every other part of the game rising to such amazing heights, we expected more. Retreating and regrouping, dragging off wounded comrades with one arm while laying down cover fire with the other, backtracking, flanking, mounting an organised charge... It just doesn't happen. Fortunately, it doesn't betray the experience too much.
Elsewhere, there are some great AI touches. The way the huge alien tripods track your movements is excellent, especially when they bend down to aim into your otherwise impregnable hiding place. The way zombies throw barrels at you, the way Ant Lions flock and swarm, the way friendly troops move and coordinate - it's all suitably impressive.
Of course, no matter how brilliant this game is, some miserable detractors are always going to find fault with it. In an effort to pre-empt the backlash, I racked my brains to name five things that are wrong with Half-Life 2. I managed it, eventually.
First, as mentioned, there's the AI, which is occasionally merely competent rather than awe-inspiring. Second, there are loading times between level areas that can last up to five or ten seconds (appalling I know). Third, the control interface is a bit old-fashioned. In fact, it's identical to Half-Life, which is great in terms of familiarity, but a bit limiting. Primarily, there's no lean function, which means you have to do a lot of old-fashioned strafing to take cover (see 'Missed Opportunity'). Fourth - getting more tenuous now - the game has no multiplayer component to speak of. Unless of course, you count Counter-Strike: Source, TFC: Source and Day Of Defeat: Source, which is a hell of a lot more than you got with Half-Life. Plus, the mod scene is about to burst a testicle in its eagerness to fill the rest.
Finally, the closing battle sequence is a tad on the easy side, and could be perceived as a teensy bit of an anticlimax. But saying that, the entire level leading up to the final battle is utter brilliance and puts a clever twist on your weapon loadout.
Other than that I can only imagine what people will find wrong with this game. It's too easy? Too hard? Too linear?
Too, er... Violent?
Quite clearly, it's none of these things. It is in fact, a virtually flawless experience, a sublime, cinematic thrill-ride that you'll want to play again and again. As some indication, when I first played the game, the excited game fan in me wanted to award it 100 per cent!
The score I settled on is the sober, cynical games reviewer in me insisting on taking off points for the few shortcomings I found. But in the realms of excellence we're taking about, the score matters little. Half-Life 2 is simply the most essential gaming experience of the year, the game the entire FPS genre has been building towards for the past decade, and one of the defining moments of the videogame medium as a whole. Play it, enjoy it, savour it. Games may never get this good again.