We've read up on all the hype, we've spent countless amounts of megabytes on screenshots and gameplay videos, and we've all been caught up in a release date blunder that seemed, at the time, to have eliminated all hope. Who are we?
The answer is, of course, the Half Life fan. Despite all the hype and all the conflicts, from the delays to the code leak, the fans that Valve so passionately aim to please have stayed as eager as ever for the release of Half Life 2. At the stroke of midnight on Tuesday the 16th of November 2004 Western US time, gamers finally got their wish when Half Life 2 was released on Valve's online content delivery system 'Steam', with boxed copies in stores shortly after (some earlier). Is it all hype? Does it really feel like a game that took 5 years and millions upon millions of dollars to make? Is it revolutionary?
The player must once again take on the role of Gordon Freeman in an attempt to save mankind from the Xen alien force, and the 'Combine', a force controlled by your typical 'big brother' outfit, although the game doesn't do a great job of initially explaining that. Along with you this time, however, is a whole army of resistance, or "the underground", aiding you in your quest to rid the earth of the suppression. The specifics are not really brought forward immediately, but generally, there isn't much else to know, you have evolving missions to complete that aren't usually entirely clear until you finish them, which are all generally predefined. What this does is create a linear storyline; this is not a dynamic world influenced by your actions, atleast not in a storyline sense, but very much a traditional FPS which takes you on a ride down a single train track.
Similar to what we've seen in titles like Far Cry and Deus Ex 2, Half Life 2 adopts impressive true physics in its engine, which basically means objects interact dynamically with their surrounding environment. Not only is the fundamental implementation of the physics engine impressive, but the way the game utilises this engine is even more so - throughout the game expect to solve puzzles based on object weight and projection, and don't be surprised to see your enemies take advantage of the physics too. On top of this, there is even a weapon in the game which allows you to utilise the power of the physics engine dubbed the 'Gravity Gun' - I'll spare you the details as the experience is very unique, but expect to be impressed. The end result here is basically the best physics engine you'll experienced in an FPS to date, with very few quirks and maximum achievement.
The all-round feel and experience gathered from Half Life 2 is sensational. The way you pound bullets into the bad guys almost effortlessly to the incredible AI showcased by the computer is all very fresh, despite the fact the PC is never in short supply of quality FPS titles. Even though there will be a lot of enemies to face on your way, don't think this game is based on the "Quantity over Quality" model of play, as these enemies can be quite clever and will often surprise you. The fans of the series will also appreciate that Valve left a lot of the original game's sounds in, giving it a very familiar feel almost to the point it brings up flashbacks.
Another aspect of the "feel" which HL2 gets right is the environments and general atmosphere they create. When you move from scene to scene, level to level, the environments change dramatically, each one creating a very distinct impression thanks to its unique design and execution. Although the game is linear, the level design is quite open in some regards creating an authentic atmosphere that doesn't have any obvious limitations you'd see in a typical computer game. When you progress through Raven Town, for example, it really feels like you're carefully moving through a dark evil infested town, not just a few buildings contained by four gigantic walls.
Valve put big emphasis on the characters in Half Life 2 and that shows in the end result. Besides a very impressive facial expression and lip syncing system, which does wonders for the life like feel of the characters, the general all round impression given is that these characters are very real, atleast when you are immersed into the game. It is hard to put it down to any one aspect, but when you start to wonder if Steam is being used to give control of these characters to Valve employees without you knowing, well, then you know you have a pretty good experience on your hands.
Just when you think you've seen it all, however, Half Life 2 surprises you with something new. For example, quite late into the game you will experience squad based combat for the first time, giving you the power to direct members to locations or to follow you for support. Since Gordon is a highly respected figure in the eyes of the "underground", members usually volunteer to support you, however, these freedom fighters are very aggressive and they don't mind playing the role of "cannon fodder", often getting themselves killed by either following your every command no matter how insane, or by taking on enemies they can't possibly defeat. While the squad based combat is a nice addition, it is hard not to treat them as expendable decoys or human shields, as they are often replaced very easily and very quickly. Another example of a surprise is the fact somewhat late in the game again a very unlikely enemy will become an "ally", but not through conventional methods. I'll leave that one for you to find out yourself, but again, it is very surprising.
As mentioned before, most of the missions are evolving in the sense you don't really know what you have to do until you get there, atleast for the primary missions. Since this is a linear storyline experience you basically follow the path ahead and soak in the experience on the way. Although this may sound bland, the game really excels as far as variation goes; Half Life 2 does a much better job than the original in the range of tasks at hand. The main reason why it is so impressive at this is because such variation couldn't be achieved without the power of the Source engine, and since it is arguably the most advanced 3D engine ever built for the PC, such variation can't really be found anywhere else - if you thought Far Cry didn't do enough to utilize its engine, you will not feel the same way about Half Life 2, because it really does a great job in showcasing the best technology a PC can handle.
Unfortunately though (and I'm treading on thin ice here in the way of a spoiler but I'll try my best) the game's finish is really quite disappointing. It is well known that Valve plan to develop a Half Life 3, but with Half Life 2 taking 5+ years to develop, ending it the way they did is quite bold of Valve, and not really in a good way. I can understand that Valve want to create a story that continues from game to game, but I can honestly say I was a little taken back when I saw the credits roll up the screen, I knew I was nearing the ending, but I didn't know I was AT the ending. The only solution I can imagine is maybe Valve plan to release an addon pack in the not to distant future that will continue the story, but if that's not the case and we have to wait until HL3 to continue on, I think a lot of people will need to redo HL2 as the ending wasn't very memorable at all; for such a traditional style FPS structure wise, I guess I was expecting a more traditional ending. After all, I personally don't think it is up to the current game in a series to leave a story open for succession, it is really up to the next version to explain why the last game wasn't the end of the story.
Although Valve did not include multiplayer as an official game mode, if you look around the various Half Life communities online you will start to notice reports of HL2 multiplayer gaming being possible with a few minor modifications. I guess with the overwhelming modding community we saw with the original Half Life, Valve decided that any multiplayer effort in HL2 will be overshadowed by a mod shortly after, but regardless, even a basic official MP mode would have been welcome to atleast pass the time.
Despite the fact we have not had a shortage of impressive looking FPS titles for the PC in recent times, you will be hard pressed to find a FPS that looks better than Half Life 2 when it is played at its max settings. Besides the awesome model detail and the life like animations, the game uses its environment extremely well, creating real worlds on your computer screen with unmatched atmosphere's, which can also be contributed towards the excellent music featured, setting every scene with precision. Naturally, a good PC will be needed to take advantage of Half Life 2's full graphical power, we played the game on an Athlon 64 3000+ and Radeon X800XT which did the job fine, but obviously not everyone has that hardware. However, with that said, from the various gamers that I've been talking to, even mid range systems seem to be able to make Half Life 2 look impressive with good performance, so any respectable gaming rig should provide ample power for an enjoyable experience.
The question remains though, is Half Life 2 revolutionary? The answer to that, in case the above paragraphs didn't make it clear enough, is simply yes. Not only is this arguably the best FPS to hit the PC ever, which in itself revolutionises how we think of the FPS genre from now on, the technology behind Half Life 2 is revolutionary in the sense mods based on this engine will continue to provide excellent gaming for years to come. It is never easy for a sequel title to surpass its original creation in every way, but I can confidently say Half Life 2, in respect to the current PC gaming world, is more impressive than Half Life was in respect to its gaming world, and that is a huge achievement by Valve. Whilst the best experience is certainly on a beefy PC, and Steam still has its quirks here and there, the actual in-game experience of Half Life 2 has to be played to be believed, although when it comes down to it, the more impressive aspects are certainly the technical aspects, elements like the linear storyline and plot are probably not as impressive as some gamers had hoped, and in same cases as with the ending, generally a little disappointing. Nevertheless, if there was ever a PC title that you absolutely, positively must own, Half Life 2 is it, there is no doubting that.