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Half-Life 2 review

Over the last couple of days, I played and finished Half-Life 2.

Yes, I know it came out in November 2004. The thing is, I don't have a PC, and I don't play at work, so I've been playing the Xbox version (as I am one of the select few who even know of its existence). The Xbox version came out in late 2005, but my TV had broken down, and it took me 6 months to find a new one I liked, and then I was playing WoW. I've been playing it on an Xbox 360, although I have no clue whether it was in any way better than the Xbox 1 version. At least the controller was wireless.

It took me about 13 hours or so to finish. It's rare for me to finish games; my frustration threshold is quite low, and my pile of unfinished games is high. But I enjoyed pretty much every minute of the game, just as I enjoyed every minute of Half-Life 1 (up until Xen).

Here are some of my impressions from the game.

On the level of experience design the game is breathtaking, even two years after having seen the first in-game videos. The graphics, sound and technology are all of very high quality, but what impressed me the most were the intangible qualities - the consistency and the integration of the different elements. These are the hardest to achieve, and are what set it apart from most other games.

The level design is awe-inspiring. The amount of stuff that you figure out by yourself and the way the level guides you and shows you information is amazing, as is the use of verticality. What I found impressive in both Half-Life 1 and 2 is how the game leads you on a very heterogeneous path through a very homogeneous environment. You have this feeling of there being, say, an office building with ten identical floors, but the path you take through it will involve elevator shafts (in Half-Life 1), service corridors, ordinary rooms, outside sections, broken down parts, air vents, etc. creating a very rich experience. Re-traversing the same level at a different height felt great too, e.g. walking the streets of Ravenholm, going into a building, working your way up, traversing the rooftops, going through more buildings... and every time somehow Father Grigori pops up in front of you (and always dramatically backlit too). Reusing a smaller surface area like this makes the whole space feel more coherent, plus you get some nice foreshadowing / reuse effects ("Ooo! There's a walkway up there! Hey, that's where I was earlier.") It's harder to do, but much more satisfying and I bet it's cheaper to build too.

Henry Jenkins coined the term environmental storytelling and this is something Half-Life does extremely well. Partially it's the System Shock-like element of finding someone's remains and inferring how they spent their last days or hours. It's not unusual to come across a hiding place with a mattress and some supplies (convenient!) and a headcrab zombie... The headcrab zombies are terrible - their cries are some of the worst zombie sounds I've ever heard.

But beyond that and beyond the way the level design always seems to allow you to see something cool happening at just the right moment, the sci-fi setting and its visual design is one of the best I've ever seen in a game - certainly on a par with movies. The Citadel and its architecture really feels alien. Going into the Citadel was one of the most amazing experiences of the whole game. The story itself was much more subtle and sophisticated than is usual in video games. This wasn't an ironic story, filled with references rather than substance. I came across this quote by Roger Ebert yesterday. He was asked to compare Snakes On A Plane to Casablanca:

“I’m tired of the age of irony…. [I]rony is also just an excuse to avoid doing the heavy lifting of important art, you know? If you don’t go to see great movies, or read great books, or go to great theater, or look at great television, then you don’t have to think about it and you can just master trivia. And then when you’re 35 you can sit around drinking beer with your high school buddies and, you know, chat your life away.”

Half-Life 2 has done more heavy lifting than most games. It feels much more like being inside a sci-fi novel than inside an empty action blockbuster. Most significantly: Dr. Breen, the antagonist, has a valid and legitimate point of view. It made me realize what Deus Ex could have been, at least in terms of a story about transhumanism.

The groundbreaking interactive cut-scenes of Half-Life 1 have been taken to a new level. The facial animations are very readable even on a TV, and there were some impressive little moments (e.g. Alyx giving you a knowing look when Dr. Mossberg is speaking in Black Mesa East). However, for my taste, Eli Vance reminded me just a little too much of Bill Cosby, Barney reminded me just a bit too much of George Clooney, and Dr. Kleiner was just a tad too close to Professor Farnsworth, both in voice and in appearance.

The gameplay is rock solid. Again, the consistency is impressive. Every opponent can be distinguished by sound, silhouette and color, and every opponent has a clear dying sound - you don't realize how nice this is until you play a game that doesn't have this. The weapons are all very satisfying and play different tactical roles (the one weapon I never used was the crossbow). The mixture of exploration, gunfights and puzzle-solving worked very well - in general, the rhythm of the different sections was very well executed in my opinion. Puzzles had a pleasing Zelda-like structure to them - you're presented with a situation, you're given perhaps the barest hint of how you could solve it, and you usually feel smart for figuring it out. They also managed to largely eliminate the feeling of arbitrary scriptedness that plagues many games - if a player can sense your invisible triggers, you're doing something wrong.

The renewal of the gameplay is good too. Meeting the antlions on foot is very different from meeting them in a buggy, and radically changes your perception of the level. Being able to control the antlions was hugely satisfying.

The game does rely heavily on both you and it regularly saving your progress as an error correction mechanism. I got stuck a few times but nothing reading an FAQ or replaying a section couldn't solve. Also: I don't like objects that instantly kill you when you go near them. I would much prefer a knock-back and heavy damage rather than instant death.

The Xbox version is fine. The occasional loading was bearable, even if it did discourage me from backtracking. The frame rate dives a bit after loading, but that's about it. I loved the controls. The only regret was the occasional low texture resolution. Too bad the console port was under-marketed - many people inside the industry reacted with surprise when I said I was playing the game on Xbox, and Gabe Newell said in a recent interview that it was a big disappointment. It makes it less likely there will ever be a native X360 version, or ports of the new episodes.

In the end, of course, Half-Life 2 is highly linear, and you make no interesting decisions beyond the micro/tactical level. But that's the kind of game it is, and it either bothers you or it doesn't. Surprisingly, since I am such a big proponent of more interesting decisions in games like this, it didn't bother me.

My over all impression is that the whole game has been very much designed. You can tell thought has gone into every single aspect. Doing this consistently, over years of development with a big team is, to me, one of the hardest challenges of game development, and Valve pulled it off brilliantly.