Half Life 2
As a huge fan of the original Half Life, I was incredibly apprehensive approaching its sequel. Sure, I'd heard great things, but you hear positive consensus about a great deal of games that when you actually play, turn out to disappoint you. I was incredibly relieved to discover in my first few minutes of play, that Half Life 2 is one of those few sequels that manages to live up to the standard set by its predecessor.
Half Life 2 again follows the escapades of scientist and unlikely hero; Gordon Freeman. Following his adventures at Black Mesa, a long time has passed. You are again called upon to save humanity and are plunged back into the fray by the mysterious G-man (a recurring character from the first game) to save Earth from the clutches of the evil Combine, a mysterious force that has managed to conquer the planet and enslave its population. Clearly the storyline gives the gamer a familiar scenario to overcome, but there is so much more to Half Life 2 than just that.
What first hits you when you pick up and play Half Life 2 is the graphical difference between it and the original. Even now, a couple of years after its release, this game still has the power to blow you away with its breathtaking visuals. It is obvious that Half Life 2 is a work of passion, of love for gaming, as it really does go all out to deliver the best gaming experience possible. The diversity of levels is astounding, and the graphics perfectly complement this, capturing an essence of realism not unearthed to the same extent in the previous chapter, but all the while maintaining that traditional Half Life feel. From the bustling City 17, to the zombie-infested Ravenholm, to wide expanses of wasteland, the level design in this game is phenomenal, and it adds a great deal to the enjoyment that you experience. Such stellar level design makes great strides towards creating a sense of atmosphere that was so prominent in the original. A common feature of many FPS games is that they all have a similar art style throughout, and as such, many of the levels appear very similar, and get rather repetitive and mundane after a couple of hours of play. Whilst Half Life 2 does have continuity in terms of art style, each level is so vastly different to the one that preceded it; it feels like every chapter is its own game, adding greatly to the excitement factor, and keeping the gamer hooked from start to finish.
In terms of gameplay, again, Half Life 2 pulls out all the stops. You of course have recurring elements of gameplay that have been carried through; bashing through openings with the crowbar, crawling through air vents, carefully manoeuvring around ledges. In many ways it is pleasing to see that they didn't deviate too much from the original game. Usually with a sequel, in an attempt to make the game look new and exciting, developers ruin the very essence of what made the games good in the first place. I was pleased to see that Valve has managed to balance the old elements with the new elements exceptionally well, as it doesn't feel like a clone of the original Half Life, but it feels like it belongs to the same family. Which is how, in a perfect world, all sequels should be. The game has a great deal of variety in terms of gameplay also, from basic shoot-em-up elements, to introducing puzzles and vehicle sequences, all of which captivate the interest of the gamer, and make sure that the experience is as exciting in the last minute as it is in the first. Simply put, Half Life 2 is a great deal of fun to play, and I was pleased to see that just as much emphasis was put upon delivering an enjoyable gaming experience, as was placed upon the need for nice, shiny graphics. Again, in this aspect, Half Life 2 appears to have got the balance just right.
The great wealth of enemies available to fight was a great surprise to me. I expected what is the norm for most games; a few core enemies interspersed with extra characters every couple of levels. Half Life 2 goes above and beyond the call of duty, introducing a huge army of evil creatures, from the headcrabs and barnacles featured in the previous game, to new additions, such as the ferocious ant lions. The Combine soldiers also add a sense of familiarity, as you are fighting against soldiers, a common enemy of the genre, but one that is as adept and proficient in the use of weaponry as you are, which makes for some tense combat situations. This is aided by the fact that the AI in the game is top notch, as at some key moments you are really put up against it, and have to use a variety of tactics to come out on top.
The story, I hasten to add, was somewhat of a disappointment. I touched on this notion previously, that while it carries on elements featured in the original, and features recurring characters; Half Life 2 makes little effort to fill us in on what has happened to Freeman since the debacle of the previous game. As an avid fan of the original, this annoyed me, as I expected the game to fill me in on certain questions that were raised previously. This does create a sense of mystery that works relatively well as an accompaniment to the storyline, but in reality it would have been better to see some elements of the story drawn to a conclusion, as you get the sense that Half Life 2 was merely paving the way for future sequels. The story that it does contain is hardly groundbreaking, the Combine are effectively futuristic terrorists, and in this sense Half Life 2 does little to move away from what is the basis of so many cliché FPS games. In this sense it is a shame that the developers weren't daring enough to introduce something as revolutionary as the gameplay and graphics managed, and instead opted to take the easy way out.
That said, the notion of Freeman being the reluctant hero does work incredibly well, and the diversity of environments carries through what would otherwise be a pretty mundane and predictable adventure. There is little emotional development of the character of Freeman, which would have been nice to see, as it was a factor also absent from the previous game. This isn't aided by the fact that the character never speaks, or the lack of cinematic cut scenes. You would've thought that Half Life 2 would have been the perfect opportunity to flesh out his role a bit more, but this was not seized. I think that the reasoning behind this was that it was supposed to let the gamer take on the role of Freeman; we see everything from his perspective. However, in my view, instead of achieving this effect, it just made out what potentially could have been a very interesting character, into a rather bland one, devoid of all emotion. But that is nitpicking the concept of the first game just as much as this one, so it is hardly Half Life 2's fault for including this factor of continuity.
Whilst the gameplay and graphics may be some of the best, and clearly show that time and effort have been put into the game, they are not as innovative as what was achieved through the original game. Half Life revolutionised the genre, in many ways it was unfair to pit the sequel up against its predecessor, but it is clear that Half Life 2 makes little effort to reciprocate this notion of trying out something new, and instead goes for the safe approach. This is a boring, but nonetheless understandable option. That said, there are new elements of Half Life 2 that do add a great deal to the enjoyment factor. Vehicles are a neat addition, and definitely help to break up the segments of blasting through hordes of Combine soldiers. The Gravity Gun also adds a whole new aspect to the game, flinging around crates and objects offers an extremely refreshing break from the non-stop action gameplay, and the game itself puts a great deal of emphasis on this weapon as an aid to help solving puzzles and defeating certain enemies. It also gives an opportunity to show off the remarkable physics engine that is in place. This addition I feel is one of the game's strongest, it really adds to the sci-fi aspect of the game and is just plain fun, an element all too lacking in games of the recent generations.
However, another element through which Half Life 2 falls down is the actual difficulty of the game. This is not saying that the game is a walk in the park, by no means is that the case. Particularly on hard mode, you have to be an avid gamer, familiar with the genre, to make it through in one piece. That said, the game is incredibly inconsistent. I found myself frequently getting stuck on puzzles at early points in the game, which was made extremely frustrating by the fact that the learning curve was especially sharp. This was followed by incredibly easy parts that could simply be waltzed through with the aid of a shotgun or other powerful weapon. I think the duration of the game was sufficiently long, but Half Life 2 did not build up the difficulty throughout the experience, and I think it suffers as a result of this. The ending was pitifully easy; I don't know what happened to the frustratingly difficult bosses of old but I want them back. It felt like an achievement to finally complete the game, but it was a hollow achievement. I wanted the difficulty of the game, the time and effort that the developers put in, to culminate at the end with one terrific boss fight. Alas, this was not the case, and if you were expecting an emphatic conclusion, you will be sorely disappointed.
That said, Half Life 2 is still an amazing game in so many different aspects. It is a masterpiece of the modern age, and I advocate that anybody who is even the slightest bit interested in the world of videogames would find something to enjoy in Half Life 2, whether you are a fan of the series, or just starting out. Pure gaming fun throughout; a brilliant feat of development, Half Life 2 would make an excellent addition to anyone's collection.