Genre: First-Person Shooter
Release Date: November 15, 2005
Buy 'HALF-LIFE 2': Xbox
First-person shooters are one of the few genres to successfully and repeatedly bridge the console-PC gap. Few and far between are the shooters that end up on just one or the other, and if one is ever a blockbuster, it's safe to bet that it will eventually show up across the platform pond. Despite frequently landing on multiple platforms, games aren't always equally suited for both. PCs, with their mouse and keyboard configuration, offer a far more precise interface which allows players to accurately place bullets exactly where they want. Consoles typically offer a simpler control scheme, opening up the game to the general masses while also offering what might be considered a more comfortable playing experience. There is something to be said about being able to sit on your couch, relax, and blow off some faces.
Half-Life 2 is one of those titles that struck the PC world first and has recently arrived on the Xbox. It also happens to be one of the most technologically demanding titles to date, forcing PC users to upgrade numerous components just to be able to admire its beauty at full capacity. Despite the vast difference in raw power, Valve has managed to achieve the impossible and streamline Half-Life 2 to run flawlessly on the Xbox. Putting the theoretical hardware issues aside, it seems as if Half-Life 2 could have been designed with the Xbox in mind from the get-go and is only now arriving where it was meant to be.
Players take on the role of Gordon Freeman, a "timid" scientist turned lone wolf hero in a dystopic future. Having slipped into a void after the Black Mesa incident six years ago, Gordon awakes to the mysterious G-Man's soothing voice that essentially tells him that it's about time to head back to hell. With little formality, Gordon is sent back to the world he left behind ... or what's left of it. By all appearances, it seems that while Gordon may have won the battle during the Black Mesa incident, humanity by and large lost the war. The world has become a totalitarian state controlled by a militant alien presence; a group of freedom fighters dubbed the "Underground Railroad" are the last hope for humanity, while Gordon is the last hope for the freedom fighters.
From the very first moments of the game, the reality of the world was supplanted with stark prominence. Hanging above a modern train station is a large screen displaying the image of a stately man spouting propaganda in the name of the aliens in a manner that should be familiar to just about any fan of sci-fi movies. This, however, is merely a taste of things to come, and within a short amount of time, the world is painted in such a vivid manner that it may not only seem like a plausible future, but perhaps the only possible one. Hyperbole aside, the story is top-notch and full of interesting plot twists and lovable, hateable characters.
Most first-person shooters on the PC require the accuracy and "twitch"-friendly control interface of a mouse and keyboard, but Half-Life 2 doesn't suffer from this dilemma, as for the most part, it is a casual FPS. The term "casual" is especially applicable here, as the game matches definition in both gameplay and features; the general gameplay is completely lacking the "twitch" necessity, and most of the combat can be facilitated with far more broad shots. It also lacks the competitive components of multiplayer, which is typically a huge focus for most FPS games. Instead of splitting the focus between a strong multiplayer game and a strong single-player, Half-Life 2 unapologetically strives to provide the best single-player campaign, and it does a remarkable job.
The control is tight and responsive, although a little less forgiving than some console FPS games, such as Halo 2. Most FPS games on consoles make use of a fairly liberal amount of auto-aim, where Half-Life 2 has close to none. However, the lack of auto-aim isn't as noticeable as it would be in a game that featured multiplayer content, so its exclusion can be forgiven. HL2 utilizes the standard controller layout for FPS games: looking is mapped to the right analog, moving to the left, firing to the right trigger, and alternate fire to the left. The dash button has been mapped to X and allows a brief burst of speed. The drawback? This burst of speed draws off of the power suit's auxiliary reserve, a reserve that also feeds the flashlight.
The weapons are one of the more interesting parts of HL2 (not to say that there were any particularly uninteresting parts). There is, of course, the standard affair of weapons – shotgun, assault rifle or machine gun, and hand guns – but beyond that, the weapons grow far more unique and interesting. The rocket launcher, for example, incorporates a laser-targeting feature whereby the player can paint an intended recipient with the focus of a laser after firing in order to ensure accuracy. The Antlion command sphere is another entertaining weapon that allows Freeman to utilize arachnid aliens to assault his enemies. The pinnacle is perhaps the gravity gun, a slightly more utilitarian piece than an all-out weapon, but its uses are far-reaching. The gravity gun is utilized in a large portion of the non-combat gameplay, as it allows Freeman to manipulate, carry, and even launch a large number of the objects in the world.
This is where the Havok engine comes into play; while most games use physics engines primarily to manipulate bodies, HL2 uses its physics for so much more. There are many physics-laden puzzles strewn throughout the game; puzzles present ample opportunity to make use of the gravity gun and the Havok physics engine in fun and unique ways. One moment may have Freeman stacking crates to climb to the second floor of a building, where the next has him placing buoyant barrels beneath a partially submerged platform in order to ascend an obstacle. The most remarkable thing about any of these tasks is how the objects react just as you'd expect them to in the real world. Barrels and boxes bob in the water, and poorly placed crates will topple and fall. Thanks to the extremely well-handled use of physics, each and every interaction with seemingly inconsequential elements of the background end up being enjoyable and realistic.
The stages largely emphasize the physics-heavy gameplay while also complementing the setting, theme and story. The stages blend into each other in a fairly seamless way, there are no illogical transitions between stages – aqueducts lead to beachfronts, which segue into highways and then back to fortified scientific complexes. Not once did any of the stages betray the beautiful illusion being created by the story. Even when the player is teleporting from one area to another, it seems normal and natural, as if perhaps teleportation could be in use today.
Another facet of the stages that is incredibly impressive is the sheer variety of seemingly minute details. These details are mostly cosmetic covering fairly inconspicuous objects, many of which you may have around you at this moment. Some examples would be fire sprinklers placed across the ceiling of an old apartment complex, frequent computer towers and monitors obviously outdated and no longer in use, old bottles in alleys, and so much more. There is almost never an area that isn't littered with countless objects that you can interact with and even fling at enemies as a make-shift weapon (saw blades and cinderblocks are among my personal favorites).
The vast majority of HL2 is spent fighting aliens of some sort or another, although many of them are human in appearance. The humanoid aliens are the ones toting weapons and wearing extremely SWAT-like uniforms; they also tend to be among the easiest of the bunch. From there, we enter into the realm of zombie-like creatures, humans that have had their brain tapped by alien creatures. The zombies you initially encounter are relatively easy, slow-moving, shambling creatures that merely take a lot to kill. From there, they get a bit more troublesome; some have shed most of their skin and unnecessary organs, run extremely fast, and hurl their bodies as if they were rag dolls.
The final type of zombies would be the carriers, who are covered with "head crabs" and take the most shots to kill by far. Head crabs are a mix between the Aliens' face suckers and a strange four-legged spider; they jump around and can be terribly frustrating to kill. There are many others, but they all have a couple of things in common – they are largely unique, interesting, and they all want to kill you. I almost forgot the single most annoying enemy I fought, the Antlions. They come up from the ground, jump, and fly, but worst of all, they can be difficult to get away from, much less target and kill. Ironically enough, one of my favorite parts of HL2 focuses heavily on the Antlions; the player is forced to jump from rocks to planks to whatever they can in order to avoid contact with the ground. If the player slips up and touches the ground, then a Tremors-like occurrence ensues, with monsters coming up from the ground to feast.
Freeman's unlikely compatriots are as varied and interesting as the creatures he kills. Being a physicist himself, the first friends are scientists. While they're not the type to bring with you into battle, they seem to be great at messing up when it comes to teleporting someone around (they can't seem to get that right, not even once). During the course of the journey, the player will be assisted by a large number of "freedom fighters," including some aliens. Towards the end, the player will have a number of people and even Antlions fighting alongside him. The Antlions function as a weapon more than an autonomous unit and by using what can best be described as an alien scent gland, Freeman can target enemies for them to kill. The humans who fight with Freeman, however, function very similarly to those in a tactical FPS. Think Rainbow Six, in the future ... against aliens.
For the most part, the voice acting is exceptional and well beyond my expectations. The characters interact with each other in a more realistic fashion than the actors in some plays to which I was recently subjected. Amazing voice acting is one thing, but the writing is also superb, and the dialogue and lines are on par with any movie currently playing in the theatres. One of the minor exceptions to the vocal excellence is that of the helpers, who seem to only know how to say one or two phrases and relish saying them over and over again.
Outside of the vocal sections, the audio is equally superb. For the most part, ambient noise is innocuous as it is supposed to be, but when it is noticeable, it sounds perfectly viable for the area. Music is absent for most of the game, but at certain key moments, there are energetic and well-placed musical swells. The music that does fade in is techno-ish and very well done. Where the audio really shines is the sound effects. The audio is tied as heavily into the physics system as the physics are themselves; whether an object is composed of wood, metal, or stone, the sounds made upon impact are all convincing. In an FPS game, gunfire can make or break the sound, and Half-Life 2 is no slouch when it comes to the sounds of explosion-propelled lead. Gunfire originating from the player and anything extremely close is very loud and has the impact necessary to impress upon the listener the power of a gun. At range, the sound grows milder, more muffled, and sort of resembles muted firecrackers. Speech also utilizes distance-related factors; walking away from a sound source will yield quieter sound.
Graphically, things are as impressive as could be expected from an Xbox that's pushing the limits close to their breaking point. The character models have well-animated facial expressions that move in a believable manner during speech. Not a single thing moved in a shaky, blocky, or otherwise awkward way, unless it was supposed to. In general, the textures are a bit below what is possible on the Xbox, but they are still good enough to be commendable. When one takes the sheer number of interactive objects and enemies into account and the fact that there is not a drop of slowdown in the game, the graphics are exceedingly impressive.
For any sci-fi nut, Half-Life 2 presents a future that has been created with such astounding detail and believable realism that the game had me hooked from the outset. Try as I might, I could not find a notable fault in this excellent example of a single player FPS game. Even when compared to the available titles in the X360 library, HL2 blows most of them out of the water, thanks to its story, presentation and overall enjoyable cinematic quality. If you haven't played it yet or aren't usually into FPS titles, I would highly recommend that you give Half-Life 2 a try.
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