Half-Life 2 Review

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Graphics: 10
Sound : 10
Gameplay : 9.5
Multiplayer : N/A
Overall : 9.7
Review by Stevie Smith
Half-Life 2 throws the player into an eerily realistic, theoretically conceivable, and visually staggering George Orwell-inspired game world where a certain Dr. Gordon Freeman—rogue physicist and survivor of the original game’s Black Mesa incident—arrives at central City 17, only to be swiftly steered into the hands of a resistance force working to bring down the suppressive administration. And from the point where he’s smuggled free of the government’s relentless big brother-esque gaze, the hunt is on to stop the one true ‘Free-man’ before he can locate the resistance leader, destroy order, and wreak his own infamous brand of liberating havoc.

Bungie’s Halo arrived as an Xbox launch title on November 15th 2001, at the very birth of Microsoft’s quest for console glory. Now, some 4 years later, and with every major FPS release in that timeline sited as a possible “Halo killer”, it’s somewhat ironic that the twilight of the console’s life sees it finally receive a game to better the master (chief). It’s also a relative disgrace that 4 years of gaming development has failed to improve or expand on the achievements of a launch title; not even Bungie’s much-lauded sequel surpassed the original Halo—though near-sighted, media-bloated fan boys would tell you differently. Halo promised so much for the future of gaming, a future that never arrived as consumers suffered growing prices and shrinking quality. In that respect, Half-Life 2 may be seen as too little, too late—though there’s certainly no arguing with its supreme PC accomplishments—but here on the Xbox, it does, in no uncertain terms, kill Halo stone dead.

Let’s look at what you receive in return for the cover price. You get a single-player campaign that lasts between 15-20 hours. That’s it. That’s all. What a rip-off! Where’s the multiplayer mode that overshadows the central story and is the game’s obvious development point? Where are the masses of unlockable features, the artwork galleries, the documentaries, the bonus levels, banal costume changes, and downloadable content? For the most part, padding exists to serve a clearly defined function: add padding where needed. Half-Life 2 neither has, nor needs, any of the aforementioned elements. After only a few minutes of play, you’ll have completely forgotten any initial reservations, and when you eventually come up for air, food, and a change of underwear at the game’s climax, your only wish will be to ramp up the difficulty and start all over again.

In terms of presentation, detail, atmosphere, and immersion, Half-Life 2 is simply unsurpassed in its level of creative achievement. Every environment is dense with obvious love, and every scene is beautifully paced, subtly lit, and crammed with layered ambience. Weaponry reeks of powerful authenticity in both visual action and aural repercussion. Enemy A.I. is unfailingly ruthless and single-minded without ever leaning into the realms of predictability, while squad A.I. is faithful, effective and easy to command. The sheer inventiveness laced throughout puzzling environments is always joyously implemented but never overly difficult to fathom—and discovering the correct solution never fails to inspire admiration.

Though it’s primarily a first-person shooter, Half-Life 2 has varied gameplay ambitions, all of which it fulfils with complete conviction and an almost arrogant ease. Unlike Halo’s use of overly repetitive alien interiors, or Doom 3’s heavily shadowed and quickly tiresome shock tactics, Half-Life 2 always offers somewhere new to experience fresh gameplay moments. Claustrophobic apartment blocks, sprawling city streets, creature-infested mineshafts, the inner workings of gargantuan machinery, crawl spaces, sewer systems, winding highways, coastal landscapes, ruined twilight towns, besieged countryside settlements…there’s no end to the variety, and it’s all sickeningly good. Moreover, players can enjoy all of the above on foot, in an all-terrain airboat, and a turbo-imbued dune buggy. Allies can also be gathered and commanded in a simple squad mechanic—be they human or alien. But, again, unlike standard genre editions, Half-Life 2 also dips expertly into uncharted areas such as considered environment manipulation to engineer pathways of progression, and the careful usage of amassed weaponry—specifically the Gravity Gun—to make that manipulation a reality. Ultimately, the differing approaches required by the game keep its pacing wonderfully uneven, forcing an alertness from the player that will inspire a concentration level not replicated since Halo first rewrote the rule book.

Gameplay action is seamless throughout, and save times and level loading is minimal in relation to flow distraction. Vehicle physics are both realistic in representation and fabulously simplistic in terms of control. Multi-tiered weapon selection is assigned to the controller’s analog directional pad and, because Freeman’s arsenal gathers steadily, the selection process quickly becomes second nature. Overall difficulty also grows steadily, but ammo and health is never too far away to cope, except during the infested “We don’t go the Ravenholm” where the player quickly depletes every projectile weapon and is cleverly forced to place reliance on the inexhaustible Gravity Gun—something which reveals unknown qualities best served at the game’s finale.

Despite the glowing recommendations expounded thus far, no game is without fault, and although Half-Life 2’s detractions are certainly minor they should still be aired by way of counterbalance to the incessant drooling. As a port from a high-end PC format, the action does occasionally suffer from slowdown, particularly toward the game’s end. There are also movement stutters when navigating close spaces or tight passageways, where Freeman seems to momentarily stick in a positional sense. The most notable criticism must be levelled at the ‘interaction’ button. Though generally without fault, there are instances when trying to climb or descend a ladder where the action simply refuses to activate for unbearably long moments—this can be especially bothersome when striving to avoid the pursuit of enemy attackers. However, these are extremely minor errors in an otherwise amazing package.

Half-Life 2 has impeccable style, an unrivalled elegance, and a frighteningly realistic aesthetic that no other game can even attempt to rival. Videogame reviews so often deal in sways of subjective opinion and viewpoints of contention; every reviewer evaluates attributes differently. But, for once, let us deal with cold, hard facts told with a simple yet absolute finality. Discussion of the following statement is not an option; it’s a statement of fact, not opinion. Half-Life 2 is not only the best Xbox game of 2005, it’s also the best console game—ever.