Half-Life 2 review

“Man of few words, aren’t you?”

Yeah, I was one of those people, the one who hadn’t played a Half-life game.

I originally had The Orange Box about 6 years ago, played the first hour of Half-Life 2, never went back to it and just played Portal instead. So after getting The Orange Box in the XBL Marketplace sale, I decided I would play through 2 and its subsequent episodes to see what I’ve been missing out on.

I never played the original so I’ll be honest and state that I’m not entirely sure what is going on with regards to the story which is clearly my own fault, but I still found it reasonably engaging if not entirely gripping. It basically centers on a resistance faction attempting to rebel against the alien Combine empire who now dominate Earth, which is enough to go on. The characters you encounter throughout the game are well written and interesting; Alyx in particular is a great character who provides the necessary narrative communication and emotional warmth whereas Gordon obviously can’t.

Graphically, this game must have looked sensational when it came out, but now it’s obvious that its been left behind a long time ago. Still, I’m not one for letting technical limitations get in the way of enjoying a game and it still looks serviceable enough for me, it doesn’t look terrible by any means. Just not anything like what we’re used to now.

With regards to how it plays, for someone new to the series I had a fantastic time playing Half-life 2, the shooting is incredibly fast-paced and fun, you seem to glide about the environment picking off headshots with sufficient ease. All the weapons have a great feel to them, the one-hit revolver and the shotgun being the highlights. The Gravity-Gun is the game-changer here, being used for a variety of purposes, solving interesting physic-based puzzles or just employing it in combat, grab a table (for instance) from the room and lob it at an enemy’s head. Great fun.

Throughout the game, you will explore a variety of compelling locales, be it the ruins of City 17 or the haunting Ravenholm area, all have their own distinctive atmospheres and gameplay strategies. For instance, in the expansive, surrounding areas of City 17 you will most likely have to employ the use of long-range weapons, whilst in Ravenholm the shotgun is your only effective means of survival and in the ruins of the City you’ll need heavy-weapons to take down the Striders. The diverse strategies you will utilise throughout the game highlights the hidden complexity of the game itself, it isn’t just about going into an area and shooting without thinking you’re going to have to use some form of different strategy for each area. All the locations are extremely well designed,  but Ravenholm is an absolute stand-out because of how markedly different its tone and design is in comparison to the rest of the game.

Possibly the most stunning aspect of Half-life 2 is how it so effectively conveys the feeling that you’re alone in this battle, this resonates beautifully with the silence of Freeman allowing you to fully absorb the enormity and scale of the daunting challenge that awaits you.

This is keenly demonstrated during those long, arduous journeys you are forced to complete in the numerous vehicles you take control of, this is where Half-life is at its very best. No distractions, no unnecessary dialogue, you’re told where you’re going at the start by a handful of rebels in a safehouse and it’s up to you from then on out to get there. Vulnerability is a key theme during these sections as you are hunted by ferociously-determined gunship, one which you have no means to defeat until much later on. Thus, you have to attempt to lose it by navigating through the perilous tunnels and perilous jumps; it’s a sensational part of the game.

This brings me on to the sound design, a decade on from its original release it’s still hugely atmospheric, for instance the long vehicle sections are largely accompanied by the sound of silence, bar the roar of your engine, perfectly expressing the eerie desolation of your surroundings and the loneliness of your task. Whilst as you progress through the game the mysterious, electronic ambience gives way to a sharp oppressive sound, until the Citadel section which devolves into a furious blend of chaotic warfare. It’s a great soundtrack overall and certainly contributes a lot to the overall experience of the game.

It shows its age in some design choices however, for instance the inability to melee with your weapon its particularly frustrating, for instance be it when you’re attempting to kill an enemy from close-range you’ll have quickly change to your shotgun, whilst destroying vents and boxes can only be done using the crowbar which is a bit of an inconvenience having to switch weapons frequently. Also the vehicle handling proved to be difficult to get to grips with especially the Dune Buggy.

This isn’t a massive criticism of Half-life 2 and considering this is nearly a decade old and most games now still do this it isn’t a huge deal, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. It’s the linearity of your progress, or more specifically the waiting around. For example this is shown throughout the game by waiting for Alyx to catch up and then hack the door so you can go through. It derails any momentum that had been gained through your previous skirmishes but as I’ve already said most games now do this, this is nearly a decade old.

I felt almost daunted when I started to play through Half-life 2, I knew this is one of the most acclaimed games of all time, therefore I had to like it otherwise I would be missing something surely? Turns out, it really is a fantastic game; the minimalist narration combines beautifully with the lonely, oppressive atmosphere that is so expertly crafted for the duration of the game. You can see the confidence of the developer throughout, the expansive environments and near-constant sense of vulnerability highlights the perils of this ‘one long journey’. What a stunning game.

9/10

+ Fun, responsive shooting

+ Physics-based gravity-gun puzzling

+ Varied locales

+ Breaktaking sound design and atmosphere

Vehicle handling