As both a passionate gamer and a member of the often jaded media, it's easy to get blase with upcoming big releases -- especially when they're over-hyped rehashes of prior generation's concepts. To some extent, sequels generally follow this institution, but occasionally something comes along that is so far out there it literally drops your jaw with excitement. This case definitely falls into the latter category. For a company whose only other major release was the original Half Life, Valve has pushed the boundaries with fresh, bold gameplay that stays true to the legendary legacy.
Half Life 2 picks up where the original left off. After conquering the Black Mesa research facility and the horrific events that unfolded during a botched experiment, the geeky protagonist, Gordon Freeman, manages to escape. Unfortunately, as is the case with most sequels, anyone who hasn't played the original may have a little trouble following characters and background information, and the same is true of Half Life 2. The game opens to the unknown G-Man's raspy voice awakening you from an unknown period of slumber and commanding you to 'wake up and smell the ashes' -- presumably those of the new world. As with Half Life, the opening scene finds you travelling on a train, unaware where you're going, and what you're supposed to do.
Back to the Source
Valve has really differentiated what is essentially another first person shooter with some major gameplay advances, specifically the scalability and functionality of the Source engine. You will spend the first ten or so minutes of playing the game at the train station admiring everything around you. You'll be picking up bottles, suitcases and public phone handsets and throwing them around -- just because you can. There's something strangely satisfying about walking up to one of the guards and breaking a bottle over their head, then high tailing it before he can use his trusty taser on you. Looking around the train station you will also see one of the many large displays featured in the game and hear the barking of propaganda belting from the speakers. You'll find queues of people waiting to pass through security checkpoints and you'll obediently file in behind them as the guards usher you through. It all amounts to the sort of atmosphere some studios can only dream of having in their games -- and all within the first ten minutes of gameplay.
Despite being a very linear game, the original Half Life didn't use cutscenes to tell the story, nor did loading the next level cause you to warp to another chapter in the game. The story unfolded in real time, with only you deciding when to move through it. Half Life 2 continues this trend, both in its linear storyline and progressive save system. On the flipside, where Half Life kept the loading times at a minimum, you'll be waiting around thirty seconds at each load, even on a high end system (our test rig was a 3.2GHz PC with 1GB of DDR400 and a RADEON 9800XT).
Load times aside, however, the engine is so scalable that even those on 1.6GHz systems with a Ti4200 or Ti4600 will be able to play at the default 1024x768 resolution and medium or low quality detail with a playable number of frames per second. It also does a fantastic job rendering rusty doors in factories and large open plan areas, and uses volumetric fog to produce a gorgeous array of effects. The high quality textures that have been used produce accurate world environments destructible down to the smallest degree and work in conjunction with the physics engine, wood will splinter, and sandstone produces dust particles. The rippling, translucent water is hands down, the most amazing effect we have ever seen in a game.
Aside from the environmental effects, Half Life 2 manages to up the ante on character interaction by using scarily realistic modelling, including the most incredible facial animations and accurate lip synching around -- characters even express emotions such as concern or happiness. The cinematic music score also plays a huge role in capturing the essence of the game - playing fast-paced audio during chase scenes or eerie silences before headcrabs jump out from behind boxes.
A pinata of gameplay
Valve are quoting anywhere from 15 to 25 hours of actual gameplay and, depending on how much exploring you'd like to do around the vast maps, this will give you a good run for your money. Many of the weapons from the original have been recycled, including the sub machinegun, shotgun, crossbow (great for hanging people from walls) and the iconic crowbar. Although anyone who has played the original game will be familiar with the weapons, the Source engine gives each a whole new dynamic. Joining the old favourites is a pulse rifle, zero-gravity gun and the Pheropod, which allows you to summon Ant Lions to do your bidding.
The gravity gun is an amazing addition to the game -- it'll let you pick up large objects and throw them around. Is someone shooting at you from a distance? Pick up a barrel and hold it front of you as you walk by. You'll also need it to solve puzzles, such as stacking things to get over small walls and force fields in order to progress through the level.
While it's clearly cemented in the first person shooter genre, you'll also venture into large open spaces, often piloting vehicles such as the airboat and buggy. Hooning down a water-filled canal or getting massive airtime over floodgates has never been so exciting, and you'll want to reload and do it again.
The enemy AI is also reasonably good, with enemies scrambling for cover when under attack, calling for backup, and attempting to flee from grenades by taking cover. That said, it's still not a huge improvement over its predecessor's AI and we were expecting far more in this area.
Your purchase options are possibly more diverse than any other game that has appeared before it. You can get it via an ATI graphics card redemption coupon, retail purchase or through Valve's online delivery engine, Steam. No matter which option you choose, you will need to be connected to the internet during installation for CD key authentication, and decrypting and unpacking the game can take anywhere up to 45 minutes depending on your internet connection. The game is available in one of three flavours: the bronze edition, offering Half-Life 2 and Counter Strike: Source; Silver adding Half-Life: Source and Day of Defeat: Source; and the Gold version adding posters, a strategy guide, a soundtrack, hat and more. Valve has also added a deathmatch mode, which was notably absent in the game's initial release.
For a game in development for six years, Valve really has produced a polished and exceptionally fun game. As multiplayer is the lifeblood of any game's longevity, and Counter-Strike still is testament to this, the newly released SDK should deliver a whole range of mods and add-ons for the online community and possibly the single player campaign. Ultimately, this is by far the pinnacle of PC gaming, and there is no excuse not to play it.