There are very few times in life when one is able to sit down with a videogame and, over the course of 16 hours, feel waves of wonder, delight, and pure unfettered joy. Valve's Half-Life 2 on PC, and now on Xbox, is such a game.
Built for the PC and released in fall 2004, Half-Life 2 arrives on Xbox one year later with positive signs of skill, artistry, and technical know-how. Originally requiring five times the amount of RAM available on Xbox, Valve's internal development team realized a streaming engine solution that retains the entire single-player experience from the original PC game and in some cases improves upon its PC brethren. The final retail build of Half-Life 2 on Xbox is a clean, striking looking game that shines in both an artistic and a technical sense. Yes, one wonders what Valve could have accomplished given an extra year on Xbox 360, but on Xbox, the final game makes one wonder just how they did it.
Half-Life 2 on Xbox is identical to the PC version in content: It's a single-player first-person shooter that follows the harrowing, story-driven adventures of one Gordon Freeman. There are no multiplayer missions, there is no co-op component, and Half-Life 2 is not online. It's a complete single-player, story-based first-person shooter. Like the first Half-Life, the plot of Half-Life 2 is relatively simple even if its themes run deep. As a research physicist with the uncanny knack for performing heroic deeds without really knowing how you did them, Gordon Freeman returns from the original Black Mesa experiments via the ethereal powers of the G-Man to a ghastly, dystopian reality. Dark New World
As is Valve's way, which is to purposely keep the fine details of its bleak science-fiction narrative shrouded, you awake some years after the end of the first game (about six or so) on a slow-moving train that chugs into City 17. You learn that aliens have taken over Earth, and their invasion is a slow, tortuous, and life-draining one. The creatures have retained Black Mesa's administrator, Dr. Wallace Breen, as their mouthpiece, and as their agent and administrator, he's become an ambassador of inhumanity, using invasive monitors positioned throughout the cities to make the bad medicine of humanity's death taste sweeter.
The opening scene in Half-Life 2 is brilliant and salient. You appear on a train, though one commuter comments that he didn't see you actually getting onboard. The citizens of City 17 all wear drab clothing, the tones in their voices ring with despair, fear, and hopelessness. People are transferred regularly from city to city without explanation, their spouses are taken without reason, and all of humanity is prevented from pro-creating. By entering the train station and walking into the square of the city, you can hear the hopelessness through the tones of peoples' voices and see it in the characters' facial expressions. The detailed work Valve has done to create expressive emotional characters, well ahead of everyone else in the industry, is made all the more powerful by superb voice actors and by an artistic team that's created profoundly stark surroundings.
Quickly, however, you're awakened to the fact that you have friends in an underground resistance, who see you as a mythical savior. You'll first meet Barney Calhoun (also from Black Mesa), who's working as part of the "Civil Protection," service, and after Doctors Kleiner and Vance, scientists from Black Mesa, as well as new characters Dr. Judith Mossman and Eli's daughter, Alyx. Alyx is a tech demo all on her own, but her presence in Half-Life 2 is far more valuable than that. She leads you through the basics, explaining the current state of affairs and continues to shed light on your ongoing mission to save humanity. Much like the videogame characters of a generation past, Gordon Freeman doesn't talk. He is a palette or a role or a blank slate into which you, the player, must step into. While many games have succeeded in adding voices to lead characters, Half-Life 2's silent style works brilliantly. Instead of hearing a lot of chatter to develop your character, Freeman's role enables you to step into it and become the character, and Valve's NPCs complement that role with skill and believability. They fill you in with average-sounding talk, but almost all of the conversation you'll hear from seemingly random NPCs helps fill in the storyline with details. Half-Life's 2 subtle story-telling devices require gamers to listen, which becomes an interesting game all on its own. It's part of Valve's way to feed you just enough information so you can come to a knowledgeable conclusion without having to spoon feed you. Valve uses the medium of videogames to tell a great but simple account in a compelling and perfectly integrated way. This story stands out as a perfect example of how game stories should be told.
The early preview builds of Half-Life 2 didn't show off the game's technical qualities well because those versions of the game simply weren't done. The final, reviewable build, however, portrays Valve's technical success. Half-Life 2 on Xbox runs at a smooth 30 fps with little to no aliasing, no shimmering, and a smooth-moving, uninterrupted single-player experience. It's true, however. There are sections in the game, like in the PC version, where a chain of exploding barrels hurls thousands of polygons into the air and bodies break into parts and flop lifelessly onto uneven ground as the Havok engine does its thing -- and the framerate does suffer. But this is one game where even the minor technical flaws fade when you see the chain explosions, the bodies splitting into pieces, and the parts fly -- and that's because the excellent physics engine has been ported over intact, and what a physics engine it is. Many developers have tinkered with and fully explored physics in a game, but none have come away with the distinction, believability and coherence that Valve has. You could easily spend several hours just playing with the physics, and the level Ravenholm plays like a physics house of horrors.
Performance-wise, the PC version is adjustable depending on your system. So if your set-up is burly and God-like in power, you will probably have a better looking version of Half-Life 2 than the one on Xbox. Then again, you will also probably have a better looking version of Half-Life 2 than most people who own PCs. Without getting into number comparisons, Half-Life 2 on Xbox runs better than an average PC computer, with high particle physics on, but without the high resolution graphics dialed all to 10. The texture maps are clean and the detail is there -- you'll see it Alyx's facial expressions, the side of mountains, in the peeling paint of cells in Nova Prospekt, or the smooth bloody contours of the pained crab-head zombies in Ravenholm. But it's not equal to the best running PC.
Compared to any Xbox game, however, Half-Life 2 looks damn good. Straight-up texture resolution comparisons don't tell Half-Life 2's graphic tale that well. The artists at Valve has imagined and delivered a world that's simultaneously realistic and artistic. The world of Half-Life 2 is familiar. It looks real. The architecture is incredibly well done, whether we're talking about a simple set of buildings, houses, or the natural contours of a mountainside. There are amazing looking backyards in Half-Life 2. Ill-kept lawns with tire-swings and a little bit of rubbish here and there never looked so good. Valve's artists have taken the time to paint and brush every surface to give it a special burnished, aged look. They've created piles of junk and broken down cars in a junkyard in a way that not only looks good, but functions as part of the level design, thus incorporating the artwork into the fundamental framework of the game -- and seamlessly. When you see that pile of junk or that stack of rusted cars, you think, "Oh, junk." Not "Oh, annoying obstacle of artifice."
The things that bugged me in the preview build that I had hoped would be fixed have been fixed. The sense of motion in earlier builds felt like one was roller-skating across a landscape, and Valve has toned that motion down to a more realistic walking motion. This helps not only in making the game feel real, but also in functionality, too. I can stop and dart and aim with precision. Also, though I didn't rigorously test the game for hundreds of hours, I found that all of the spots where the collision detection was weak before have been tended to. You won't get stuck in odd places anymore and have to re-start the game. Like any PC game that heads to a console, the lack of a mouse equals the lack of pixel-perfect precision. It's not fair, it's not nice, but that's the fact, Jack. Having side that, Valve has adeptly mapped the controls to the Xbox controller, intuitively and without any fuss. Switching weapons is done efficiently via the Dpad, with the light machine gun on the right, the crowbar below, the grenade on the left and the pistol on top. All other weapons extend one notch in each direction on the Dpad. Switching weapons is quick and easy, and unlike a certain other two-syllable first-person shooter that's a sequel, you can carry as many weapons as you like. The biggest difference here is that there always seems to be less ammo for each weapon, whereas in Bungie's title there is always enough ammo, but never enough guns. Weapons feature alternative fire; you've got a sprint button via X, reload with B, jump with Y, flashlight with the white button, and crouch by depressing the right analog.
Improving on the PC version, the initial load time into the game is shorter, and the load times between sections are also shorter. Each one is only 15 seconds. And for the record, the initial load time for Half-Life 2 is way shorter than is the initial load time for Halo 2.
Game as Art
The most impressive thing about Half-Life 2, however, is the vast quality and quantity of mission types that seamlessly blend into one another. In the 16-17 hours it takes to beat Valve's epic story, you'll cover such incredibly diverse ground you'll have to strain your brain to remember every single area. The game takes on an epic sensibility because of this. At first, you just feel like you're sneaking through a bunch of buildings, but soon thereafter, you'll say to yourself, "Damn, I fought the Combine in the sewers, braved zombie freaks in Ravenholm, escaped the hordes of beasts in the mines, zapped the AntLions in Highway 17, battled to the death with a helicopter boss in the canals -- after having covered dozens of miles speeding through the canals -- climbed across a huge spanning bridge and battled with attack ships, tamed the AntLions, and...well, the list really does go on and on. The amount of diversity and totally imaginative level types is mind-blowing. Certainly, Half-Life 2 is a first-person shooter, but it packs a healthy amount of driving (both of which are bootstrap contraptions that are brilliant in their own way), exploring, platforming and puzzle-solving to get to the next step.
The driving sections are unique because you pilot a hoverboat and a buggy, both of which have mounted weapons, and both of which are supposedly scraped together out of the little resources the resistance has. This logic plays into the way they both handle. Neither are sports car quality, but the funky handling and not so great steering radii play into the vehicles' nature. The buggy is even funnier because it looks like it runs on a lawnmower engine, but it sounds like it's a 300 horse-powered, eight-cylinder GTO.
Valve's designers genuinely pushed the envelope in level design too. There are so many amazing things to do, I literally sat back several times and said out loud to myself, "That's so f*cking cool." While many people don't like the level Ravenholm because it's an ode to survival horror games, what an ode it is. Ravenholm is soaked in eerie, anxiety-propelling and scary sections that easily puts to shame many survival horror games that are supposed to specialize in that type of thing. If that's not your thing, the mines are awesome, Highway 17 is amazing, and so is playing with Dog, making it through Nova Prospekt, and getting through Sandtraps, which quickly became a big favorite or mine. And then the AntLion part! God damn. No two levels are alike and you're constantly changing environments. You'll hit the sewers, the rooftops, insides of buildings, and you'll venture along beaches, mountainsides, across giant bridges, and in graveyards to boot.
Another reason Half-Life 2 is so intrinsically attractive is its vast bestiary and the attack behaviors behind each one. You're not just fighting the Combine, you know. But while we're on the subject, the Combine has a healthy range of AI behaviors. They'll hurl explosive barrels at you, dump barrels in the water holes to fish you out; they'll appear in various forms, from attack ships to snipers to whatever. You'll face AntLions, three kinds of headcrab-controlled zombies, plus super-fast howlers that jump across buildings and leap at you with speed and surprising agility. You'll face attack ships that are part creature, part machine, but that look like mechanical beetles. You'll face off against giant charging ants, and you'll even learn to tame giant ants to do your bidding. Expanding the use of phsyics to an even greater degree are the playful and totally enjoyable physics puzzles. These will have you smiling at the intrinsically child-like gameplay that runs right through the spine of Half-Life 2.
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