It’s been a long year and a bit waiting for this one to arrive on a console, but boy was it worth it. No Steam downloading problems, no crashing, and no need for a stupidly expensive PC to play it on – at last I can play Half Life 2 the way I always wanted to, sat in my favourite chair, and seeing it on a decent sized TV screen.
The remarkable conversion to the ageing Xbox didn’t come without cost though; the resolution is obviously way down on what a Ninja PC could play the game at, the frame rate struggles at times, and the controls feel too sensitive… But no more than 2 minutes into this masterpiece of a game you won’t be worrying about these minor problems, as the storyline sucks you in and involves you like no other game this generation, San Andreas, Halo 2 and all.
You once again play as hero/nerd (well, accident-prone research scientist) Gordon Freeman who finds himself on an alien-infested Earth being picked to the bone, its resources depleted, its populace dwindling. You’re thrust into the unenviable role of rescuing the world from the wrong you unleashed back at the Black Mesa facility during the events of the original Half Life, and to start off all you have to fight with in this futuristic nightmare is a crowbar!
Clever use of physics in a console game won’t be new to anyone who played the excellent but mostly overlooked Psi Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy or Second Sight last year, but Valve have used the Havok physics engine like few other game makers. After playing with them for a while (throwing TVs out of windows, balancing concrete blocks on a see-saw) you progress through the game and realise that they aren’t just there for show, and will play a vital part in finding your path through this epic adventure, and ‘epic’ it is by today’s standards at a 16 hour completion time for me. You can pick up, carry and throw many objects but it’s the “Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator” (Gravity Gun) that really sets this game apart, it’s a lifting tool, a weapon and just about the best toy ever too, and despite getting to play with your fair share of handguns and machine guns, Half Life 2 simply wouldn’t have been the same without it. I’d love to give you examples of the many things you can do with it, but they’d just be spoilers and it’s always best to find out for yourself – all part of the experience.
Like Halo 2, Half Life 2 also does an excellent job of incorporating vehicles into the gameplay and the storyline. There’s only the two (an airboat and a buggy that both look like they were made up from a bedsteads and other assorted junk) but the sections that you use these in really breath life into the wheezing first person shooter norm of endless “corridor/room/corridor/big room/another bloody corridor”-type game play. I can see exactly why Bungie made you drive/fly Halo’s vehicles from a third-person (chase) view, but playing from a first person viewpoint in this game works too, and probably keeps you more immersed; you control the vehicle’s movement (backward, forward and steering) with the left stick and aim the weapon with the right, and it’s been converted from mouse and keyboard control remarkably well. The airboat levels worked better than the buggy ones for me, but both are well used and feel like they’re in the game for a reason, rather than being tacked-on for effect *cough* Pariah, Project Snowblind *cough*.
The storyline paints a picture that is little short of an Orwellian nightmare, and the whole thing is greatly enhanced and by the quality of the voice acting (including Robert Guillaume, Louis Gossett Jr, Robert Culp, Michelle Forbes and Merle Dandridge as Alyx), but the voice talent is all brought to life by Half Life 2’s crowning glory, the character models. In-game characters have never looked this good before and smile, frown and communicate with you just like you’d expect them to, with perfect lip-synching. Amazing to behold, and you can’t help but zoom in with a click of the right stick when they’re talking to you – oh, and if you don’t fall in love with Alyx and her Dog then there’s obviously something wrong with you.
Half Life’s AI was always considered to be a bit of a benchmark, and for the most part the enemy (both human and alien) AI in HL2 seems to be quite believable, but from time to time friendlies from the resistance join you to “help” you out, and these guys and gals are even worse than the keystone cops (or even the Rainbow Six Lockdown lot) as they block your view, bumble around in front of you and generally get in your way – at least they’re polite and apologize from time to time. You can order this “squad” of helpers around with a simple press of the black button, but they don’t always follow orders and I tended to use the command just to see if there was anything nasty around the next corner, or just to get rid of them for a while…
HL2’s hugely varied maps (from claustrophobic interiors, city streets, air ducts, sewers, a factory, a prison, rivers, beaches and high-tech installations) don’t always demand good scenery, but the even though the detail has been lowered way down from what was possible on the PC the texturing looks amazing – flaking paint has never looked so real. Water also looks great, but isn’t finished at the edges anywhere near as well as Far Cry Instincts’, or even Halo’s for that matter. Other visual let-downs can be found on the more open, vehicle maps - you don’t have to stray far from the beaten track to find dodgy, paper-thin scenery, which is a bit of a poke in the eye after all the detail that you become used to in other locations.
Unsurprisingly Half Life 2 is without doubt one of my games of the year - Like the original Half Life, an unforgettable experience but this time un-tainted by a crap ending (thank heavens Valve didn’t find the need to resort to any stupid alien planet levels this time around). There are no Xbox Live multiplayer options or even a split screen mode, but to be honest the Xbox creaks and groans just trying to run the one game, so that’s probably just as well. Valve's Source Engine may not be quite as amazing as they claimed, and certainly doesn’t blow away the Halo or Doom 3 engines, but the Source Engine toolset will be made available to third-party developers and it’ll be interesting to see what they come up with on the next generation machines.
Clearly the PS2 couldn’t have handled this game, and this seems a little late on parade for the Xbox with a new Microsoft console just about to arrive – it’s bound to affect sales detrimentally, but whether you’re going to be an early 360 adopter or not this is a game that you need to play, so save some of the 360 budget for this gem, as I’m sure it’ll be one of the ones that plays on that. Unless of course, Mr Freeman is to make an appearance on the new Xbox too…