Released: November 16 2004
Half-Life 2 is the sequel to the original Half-Life. In eastern Europe's City 17, nearly 20 years after the original game, theoretical physicist and badass Gordon Freeman is awoken from stasis by the mysterious G-Man and turned loose. The Black Mesa Incident resulted in a massive invasion of Earth by the alien forces of Xen, who are now running the place. Gordon joins up with some old friends from Black Mesa, as well as City 17's resistance movement, in an attempt to free the city.
Half-Life 2 received overwhelmingly positive reviews, settling at 96% on Metacritic and going on to be crowned one of the greatest PC game of all time. When it came out, the graphics and physics were exceptional. Critics also loved the setting and narrative, calling it one of the strongest stories of the FPS genre.
Half-Life 2 has received many small bug fixes and updates to the Source engine, from release all the way up to March 2011. The biggest changes were updating the engine to a 64-bit version in 2005, and later adding some new achievements.
With an excellent combination of writing, animation, and voice acting, each major character has clearly defined motivations and personality. Alyx and Eli Vance, Barney, Dr. Kleiner, and even the robot Dog all have their own quirks and unique physicality. And when Alyx and Barney stick with you to help fight, they somehow manage to almost never get in the way, which is very nice. There's also a lot of little things that help to build character, like Dr. Kleiner's love of his de-beaked headcrab pet, or Eli making little winks and subtle hints that Gordon and Alyx should get together (if you know what I mean) which is an amusing source of embarrassment for Alyx.
HL2 has a few fantastic vehicle sequences. Part of what makes them great is that you don't have to be in your car or boat from the beginning to the end of the sequence — there's a lot of free roam where you can hop out and explore, and some segments where you have to open up a path to continue down the road. These sequences make the game world feel much bigger and more real than it would otherwise: there are long open spaces with nothing much in them, which works fine in a fast vehicle but would kind of suck on foot.
There are two sequences in particular that I really love. One is on your little fan boat where you have no weapons. Overwatch catches sight of you and they send soldiers, armoured trucks, and helicopters to take you down, and you race through the concrete canals trying to evade their fire.
The second is in your dune buggy where you have to race against an oncoming train to clear the bridge before you get run over. Intense.
Contributing to those vehicle sequences, and a number of other really intense bits, is the game's music. It's kind of techno-ey (don't cite me on that, I am by no means a music nerd). It's fast-paced in all the right places and really gets the adrenaline rushing. The only downside is that it usually cuts off suddenly when you hit a loading area.
Half-Life 2 has a lot of cool weapons but this one is by far the coolest. FPS games give you a crappy melee weapon for when you run out of ammo. In HL2, you have your trusty crowbar, but also the gravity gun, which doesn't consume any type of ammo. It picks up objects from the environment and hurls them at enemies with deadly force. At first it's pretty neat to toss around rocks and chairs and garbage cans, but when you realize that you can pick up and throw saw blades and steel spikes and explosives and even thrown grenades, well, things get a little more interesting.
Also, at a certain point in the game, your gravity gun gets a big upgrade. You really feel powerful when you're tearing machinery off walls and throwing soldiers into each other.
Dr. Wallace Breen
Dr. Breen is an excellent sympathetic villain. At first he's just the public face of the enemy and a traitor to humanity, but you come to learn that Breen is working with the aliens because he truly believes that it's the best and only option for humanity's survival. You don't have to agree with him, but you can certainly understand his logic: the aliens are so overwhelmingly powerful that they took over the planet in seven hours, so maybe it really is better to surrender in exchange for survival.
Half-Life 2 is a sci-fi action game with a great atmosphere... and suddenly it turns into a horror movie. The Ravenholm sequence is dark and terrifying and bloody and apocalyptic and utterly fantastic. Your only human interaction is an insane priest who “tends to his flock” by blowing them to pieces with a shotgun. The variants of the headcrab zombies are scary, but particularly the fast zombie and its horrifying scream.
The sequence is especially terrifying when you're going for the “clear Ravenholm using only the gravity gun” achievement. You can bypass many groups of zombies, but occasionally you do have to stand and fight, and those times are against ten or twelve fast zombies with almost nothing to throw. Really nerve-wracking.
The antlions of the coast are a huge nuisance — giant hostile bugs that keep spawning as long as you stay on the sand. There's an entire level built around trying to avoid attracting too many of them.
And then you get to control them with extracted pheromones, and you have a bug army to do your bidding. Awwwww yeahhhhh.
Time of Day
I like subtleties, and there's one awesome thing to notice in HL2. As you play through the game, the time of day gradually changes. It's the middle of the day when you enter City 17; evening on your boat trip; night at Black Mesa East and Ravenholm; etc. It gives a sense of time passing without anyone ever explicitly saying “Gordon, it's been two whole days since you arrived”.
Show, Don't Tell
Half-Life 2 makes great use of this writer's mantra. Things are often introduced a little before you actually have to deal with them yourself. For example, before you get to control the ant lions, you learn that they're weak individually, but there are infinity of them; and that they won't approach machines called “thumpers”. Once you do control them, you're thrown a few thumpers before you actually have to deal with them in a combat situation, just in case you forgot that the ant lions can't pass them. When you come up against automated turrets, the first ones you find aren't facing you, so you get to see what they can do before they're pointed at you.
Unlike many FPS games, Half-Life 2 encourages exploration. Not to say it isn't a linear game — there's one main path and you can't really deviate from it, but there's a lot of room to explore the fringes of that path for ammo and secrets. There are a bunch of minor events and combats that are only triggered if you explore certain areas, like ambushes on the coast road or surprise zombie attacks. It's a nice balance of freedom and linearity.
Why am I putting this highly-praised and at-the-time groundbreaking feature in the neutral category? Because Half-Life 2 came out almost eight years ago. At the time it was amazing, but now just about every game has physics on par with or better than HL2's. The game uses a lot of physics puzzles which were really cool and innovative when the game came out, but a lot of them end up feeling pretty basic so many years after release.
If anyone's planning to shout or rant at me for putting this here, please don't — the point of this review is to tell you how good the game is now, not how good it was eight years ago.
There are only a few voices and face models for the generic citizens. This can get a bit annoying, especially when the game tries to get you to sympathize with or feel for the citizens, since you'll be seeing and hearing the exact same faces and voices in a little while anyway.
Half the time I can't climb off the ladder when I reach the top. I'm left trying to jump or wiggle off the ladder, which often results in a serious chunk of fall damage. Ugh.
Half-Life 2 suffers the common problem of your NPC allies ALWAYS GETTING IN YOUR WAY. If you push them enough they'll move, and you can command them to move to a certain location, so it's not as bad as in some games, but it's impossible to remember to get them out of the way every time.
Oddly, Alyx and Barney are much more willing to move out of your way than ant lions or generic rebels, so I have no bad feelings about them.
Recommendation: Play it.
Half-Life 2 is still one of the best FPS games for plot and character development, despite its age. It's a little less linear and more open than a lot of FPS games, and has a bunch of events and combats that are only triggered by exploring off the main path. The music really helps make certain sequences feel intense. Plus its graphics have aged pretty well, leaving it looking a fair bit better than most contemporary games. Overall it's a great game and I highly recommend it.