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Hindsight : Half Life 2

Cart: Half Life 2
Cab: Xbox / Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC / Mac
Coin: Valve

It’s not often that a film really lives up to its hype. That’s not to say that said piece of entertainment isn’t outstanding, it’s just that the sense of satisfaction you were hoping for, in hindsight, often seems just that bit out of reach.

The most memorable and utterly mind-blowing celluloid memory that I can recall is of the original Predator film. You see, back then I didn’t read newspapers, websites or any other such medium that might have fed my hype-glands. I even managed to miss the first ten minutes of the film that depicted the mother-ship launching its pod unto Earth. So you can imagine the noise my jaw made as it hit the floor when I finally got to see the Predator sans active-camo.

Now that’s the kind of impact that millions of pounds worth of advertising and viral-marketing can never buy.

Not wishing to get embroiled in a debate over the possibilities of reverse-psychology advertising, the point I’m trying to work my way around to is that the now messianic Half-Life fits into that same category. Oblivious to any fanfare that may or may not have accompanied its arrival and after many hours struggling to get to grips with my very first PC’s graphic-card, I duly spent an entire day without food or drink completely and utterly hooked on the damned thing.

Half Life 2 Screenshot # 1

Big Brother is watching you

For those of you who have never had the pleasure (go and sit in the corner): Half-Life grabbed the FPS genre by the balls and took it in directions that few games since have even come close to. It had an excellent sci-fi story; outstanding voice acting; bleeding-edge graphics; truly memorable and minimalist sound effects; the best A.I. routines the world had ever seen and a seamless progression from beginning to end with the whole story told through the eyes of the protagonist: Gordon Freeman. Valve produced a true showcase, not just of what PCs were capable of, but of what FPS is capable of as a genre, period.

That’s one hell of an act to follow and Valve didn’t take their responsibility lightly. Nearly seven years in the making, Half-Life 2 arrived  after months of inescapable hype and then, somewhat strangely, on the original Xbox a year later – less than a week before the console was to be superseded.

My first reaction at the time, particularly after going through the game on a high-end PC upon release, was one of disbelief. Why didn’t Valve (who interestingly developed the port in-house) use a little more foresight and give the 360 a much-needed killer-app at launch? Why squeeze it onto a relatively weak platform in its dying days? That said: whilst the port was never going to be as good looking as its older brother, the simple fact that Valve managed to force the whole affair onto the Xbox is an outright miracle.

Half-Life 2 starts an unstated number or years after Gordon Freeman left the Black-Mesa facility in a steaming pile of rubble. Effectively kidnapped and now ‘released’ by the mysterious G-Man (the best passive-aggressive game character ever?), Gordon finds himself in a deeply Orwellian and somewhat disturbing depiction of the future: City 17. It’s not long before old faces arrive along with a great deal of self-referential dialogue and humour and events begin to unfold in continually surprising and innovative ways.

Half Life 2 Screenshot # 2

Sci-fi dystopia: is there anything more beautiful?

The facial technology that Valve developed in HL2, coupled with the series’ hallmark voice acting, draws you in like very few games can. So may games claim to have emotive characters; few stick in your mind for more than a few seconds. Here, the characters that you see for a few seconds will stick you for years.

Characters aside, the story itself is somewhat of a disappointment. For the original, Valve had the relative luxury of planning a complete narrative with a beginning, middle and end. This, on the other hand, feels like the middle-part of a trilogy and the overall impact suffers as a result. Think Matrix if at all in doubt. Here’s hoping Gordon won’t dwell on the finer points of existentialism whilst beating his arch-nemesis in part three (that is if it ever gets made).

The point you’re probably most concerned with is the graphics. How do they hold up on the archaic Xbox? Well, for the most part, very well. Obviously textures and resolution were compromised, but the geometry looks intact. Actually, it’s not so much the world that causes the dreadful frame-rate (we must be talking single figures at its worst) but the physics and the A.I.

The physics, which play a strong role in Half-Life 2’s arsenal, have been toned-down slightly, but you’d only notice if you played it side by side with its PC or next-gen counterparts. The arrival of a new wave of enemies often drags the frame-rate down to murky depths, which is made all the more disappointing because the A.I. just doesn’t feel as good as did in the original – and certainly can’t hold a candle to Halo.

Half Life 2 Screenshot # 3

I am not a number; I am a Freeman

Half of the time everything runs just fine. The other half varies from bad to downright ugly. It’s never downright unplayable, but if you’re not the one holding the pad with that in-built sense of what’s happening next, you will find it downright unwatchable at times.

Half-Life 2’s strongest card is its variety. You simply never get bored as each area offers up new challenges and new ways of using the game’s mechanics. Added to that, the level design is so good it’s an offence to call it level-design: Valve do world-design (Bungie: take note).

Although it’s not without its technical faults and the story has some pacing and placing issues, I really can’t recommend this game enough to action-heads. It’s lacking in any multi-player facilities and is about as linear as they come, but you know what: I’m glad.

I’m getting a little tired of ‘linearity’ and ‘single-player’ becoming dirty words; if there was ever evidence to blow these tired and hollow arguments out of the water, this is it.

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Husband. Parent. Gamer. Go figure.

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2 Comments

  1. Agreed, there is nothing wrong with linear games, and they are becoming increasingly ignored in favour of open world games. Trouble is, there are very very few truly high quality open world games with a decent story. Far Cry 3 is one of the best recent games that got open world/pacing/story just right

    • Simon Burns Open world seems to be an excuse for awful story. I just don’t know how you could get around it as the ‘main’ quest ends up playing second fiddle to the sidequests or vice versa and the whole narrative gets bastardised. It’s like cutting up a load of great comics and reading them in a random order.

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