Half Life 2, plain white text on a black background, this simple beginning is what you first see when you click new game, this unassuming opening hides the epic scale of the game that lies ahead. Even now, in 2009, the game remains as a shining example of what can be achieved with the right developer and the right creative vision.
If you played Half Life, you’ll remember the G-man’s statement at the end of the game “it’s time to choose”, the game picks up assuming Gordon Freeman accepted the G-man’s offer and was placed in status. Next thing you know, the G-man is telling you to “rise and shine”. You awake on a train, and find yourself headed toward the bleak and authoritarian city 17. Workers are dressed in austere blue jump suits, and vast screens are dotted all around, broadcasting the propaganda of the city’s ruler Dr. Breen, it’s very 1984, and the dystopian tone is further enhanced as you realise the city is under the control of masked soldiers called “The Combine”
It turns out that the incident at Black Mesa had bigger repercussions than imagined in the first game, the alien forces of the Combine arrived on earth and subdued the nations of earth. Why the G-man has dropped you off at this point isn’t clear at first, especially as you begin the game unarmed and facing a heavily guarded Combine checkpoint, luckily it seems that your allies from the first game are still alive and kicking, and Barney Calhoun, the security guard from Black Mesa shows up disguised as a combine solider and tells you to make your way to Dr Isaac Kleiner’s lab.
The basic gameplay is very reminiscent of the original Half Life, a combination of combat, exploration and puzzle solving. The first few sections of gameplay involve you making your way through the streets and apartment blocks of the City, the setting is interesting, dilapidated eastern European architecture is merged with sci-fi alien technology, there are bio-metric scanners on the doors, spy drones flit around the buildings taking surveillance photos, and quickly you find yourself being pursued by Combine patrols who realise you have escaped.
As you are unarmed you have no choice but to make a run for it, climbing over fences and rooftops, until eventually you are cornered. At this point you are introduced to the games female lead Alyx Vance, who saves you from capture and leads you to Dr Kleiner. From here, you are given a new destination to go to, the Black Mesa east compound where you are to meet the leader of the resistance Dr Eli Vance (that’s right he’s Alyx’s dad).
The game is structured in different chapters, with each one of the games chapters playing out differently to the others, as you reach a new section the game introduces something different, and although in almost every chapter there will be parts when you are forced to go on foot in the standard FPS style. Following you meeting with doctor Kleiner you proceed on foot following a route used by the resistance to help people escape from city 17, but this time round, you are armed and dangerous, and re-united with your Hazardous Environments suit.
The section is long enough to introduce you to the basic equipment in your arsenal, including the trusty crowbar, the pistol and the sub-machine gun, and also lets you do battle against a good variation of foes, such as head crabs, drones, zombies, and the basic Combine grunts. Occasionally you’ll meet up with some members of the resistance, who have come to see Gordon as a messianic figure, and they’ll give you some ammo and send you in the right direction. In fact the section manages to fit in a lot of what you’d except to find in a standard FPS, but before things feel even slightly repetitive, Half Life 2 throws a hovercraft at you.
The fact is that the game would have still been good without the variety that it manages to show, but the hovercraft section and the other vehicle section, whilst still maintaining the gritty dystopian mood of the earlier scenes, changes up the pace and the style of the gameplay dramatically and provide real distinguishing features. The hovercraft thunders along at high speeds and the level design changes into a series of long canals, which are occasionally blocked off, forcing you to go on foot in order to find a way to circumnavigate the problem. Sometimes this will mean fighting your way through an armed checkpoint in order to open a massive iron gate, other times you will have to make use of objects in your environment to create new pathways. The hovercraft handles pretty well, and although you might misjudge your approach to a jump from time to time, it rarely becomes an exercise in frustration. At a mid way junction in the hovercraft section, some resistance members help you out by equipping the machine with a gauss gun, this adds yet another element to the section, and helps you to defeat a Combine attack chopper that serves as a end of level boss.
Upon reaching Black Mesa East, you are introduced to another key character in the storyline in the form of Eli Vance, but more importantly you get your hands on a weapon that will be forever associated with Half Life 2, the gravity gun. Of course you get to put it to good use almost immediately, as the Combine lauch an assault and you are forced to make your escape from Black Mesa East, through the zombie infested town of Ravenholm.
Ravenholm could exist as an independent game from the rest of half life 2, such is the strength of the setting, but instead it contributes yet another impressive asset to Half Life 2. If the rest of the game is a story about heroic resistance against a dictatorial foe, then Ravenholm is ripped straight out of a zombie apocalypse film. The level design is based around making as much use of the gravity gun as possible, using rusty saw blades to decapitate your foes, but there are also ample traps scatter around, allowing you to lure zombies through wall of fire, or drop car wrecks onto them. The gravity gun also gives you several new approaches to the physics based puzzles that confound you, giving you the ability to collect objects that appear to be unreachable. All the while a crazed priest stalks the rooftops, occasionally sniping an enemy that was just about to take a swing at you. It’s the darkest section of the game by far, and the clever introduction of the gravity gun makes it all the more memorable.
After escaping the hell of Ravenholm you’ll enjoy another scripted sequence in which it is revealed that Eli has been captured and sent to a notorious prison Nova Prospekt. To reach it, you have to tackle the deadly Highway 17. In order to make it, you’ll need to use the buggy that the resistance provide you with. This section is just as strong as the hovercraft section, with the buggy handling reasonably well and easily righted after an accident with a quick blast from the gravity gun. The buggy also comes equipped from the off with a gauss gun, which proves useful in taking out the new enemy that blocks the way, the Ant Lions. These creatures bear a strong resemblance to the Starship trooper bugs, and serve as an interesting counterpoint to the other enemies you have so far encountered.
Whereas the Combine are tactical and work as a team to fight you using a variety of ranged weapons, and the zombies are all about brute force and durability, the Ant Lions simply descend upon you with a bestial ferocity and limitless numbers, the long open spaces of the highway put you at a massive disadvantage where even the speed of the buggy isn’t a guarantee of safety against them. They are however held back by giant drilling machines that can be found at intervals along the highway, making the highway section a tense flight from safe zone to safe zone trying to make sure you don’t flip the buggy one too many times. Where there are no ant lions the Combine has set up massive force field generators to prevent you from moving forward, meaning you must disembark to shut them down, along the way you also help to defend a resistance outpost from a gunship attack, the gunship being a unique Combine bio-mechanical craft, that hovers in the air like a cross between an insect and a helicopter. When also confronted with dropships loaded with combine soldiers, and having to struggle precariously across the broken underside of a bridge, Highway 17 provides an epic challenge.
At this point the scale of the game really starts to impress, Highway 17 is a big level, and the costal road stretches on impressively both ahead and behind you, with dozens of interesting landmarks like abandoned houses, or burnt out car wrecks. At points you’ll drive down long dark tunnels (which often serve as loading points) before bursting out into daylight at the far end and realising there is still an impressive stretch of road ahead, and when you consider that the hovercraft section prior to this was equally vast, and yet somehow the bleak depressed nature of the surrounds has not become repetitive, the size and realism of the world begins to sink in. What’s more, you’re not even half way through the game yet.
There is still more to do before you reach the Nova Prospekt, and clever subversion of the Ant Lions aids you, but even after battling your way through to Eli, he is swept from your grasp at the last second. The prison, holds several excellent set pieces in which you work side by side with Alyx, and is also the location of a major plot event, but mostly it’s a return to intense on foot combat.
Finally you make your way back to City 17, where a full blown insurrection is taking place, the battles become more intense and ammunition for heavy weapons becomes common place, just in time, because the Combine lets lose its most destructive war machines, as you head for the citadel that serves as the HQ for the Combine on earth, and the private office of Dr. Breen. The strider is another bio-mechanical creature, taking some influence from the walkers in war of the worlds, and towering over the battlefield. They take a lot of punishment but luckily you gain the ability to lead resistance members, which works simply but effectively, as you battle for the streets, and move toward the conclusion of the game, at the top of the citadel.
The final stretch of the game, is as expected, different from previous sections. You are restricted to a single super charged gun that makes the destruction of Combine foes a breeze, and you are treated to an immense tour of the inside of the citadel that reveals their disturbing extraterrestrial nature to a much greater extent than you witnessed at any prior point. The final confrontation, is not what many would expect but typical of the intelligent design that forms the backbone of the game, and there is, as always, a good twist in the tale, which of course is resolved in later episodes, but that’s something to save for another review.
The real underlying strength and success of the game comes from the fact that while any of the sections would have been good enough to expand into a full game individually, somehow, the game feels stylistically unified. The lack of cut scenes, and the way that everything is seen from the viewpoint of Gordon Freeman, makes for an excellent method of storytelling that helps to drive the game forward and yet keeps at least some of the pace of the game in the hands of the player. Gordon Freeman may not speak, but the strength of character shown by the rest of the cast is commendable and if anything helps to build up the personality of our voiceless protagonist. The script is a far cry from the cheesy b-movie rate stuff that plagues other games, and ever last detail, from the G-man’s mysterious introductory speech to the propaganda that Dr. Breen spouts to the masses is intelligent and persuasive, and posses some interesting questions for the player.
Although the other sections of the game take place mainly on foot, in the same style as the second chapter, enough new weapons, foes and concepts are held back, so that each new section provides new discoveries, and introduces new elements to the gameplay. Whether it be setting up turrets in the Nova Prospekt prison, using Ant Lion pheromones to command a swarm of the vicious beasties against the Combine or battling your way into the central Citadel at the games finale, there is never a moment when the pacing of the game does not keep you hooked.
The variations in enemies, from the spindly yet monstrous Striders, right down to the head crabs, each provide a different experience and challenge something which is critical in any FPS that wants to define itself as extraordinary. The enemy AI is also magnificent, each foe acting as you would expect them to act if they were actual beings, sometimes coming into conflict with each other, and even the resistance members who fight alongside you are useful, and a welcome boost after the many hours spent fighting alone through dark zombie infested tunnels.
Of course the source engine has produced many fantastic multiplayer games, such as Counter Strike: Source, or Team Fortress 2. But Half life 2, is essentially a single player game, there is so much to do and so much diversity contained in the game, that I didn’t feel that multiplayer could improve upon the experience I had. The first few chapters alone contained the basics of an FPS, and the combat, movement and puzzles are all polished off to the highest standard. That same formula is injected into every section at frequent intervals, meaning that the driving sections or the puzzle sections, never detract from the FPS experience.
Half Life 2 is a paragon FPS, this is the standard that other games have been compared to, it has some fiendishly clever level design, unique and powerful characters, interesting and varied foes to pitch you against, and it creates an identity for itself beyond what was established in Half Life. This means even today it is hard to find a game on the shelves that can offer the complete experience that Half Life 2 does, there is a reason why it is still the highest scoring PC game of all time on Metacritic. Gordon Freeman is still the King, Long live the King.