- Title: Half-Life 2
- Developer: Valve
- Publisher: Vivendi Universal Games
- Reviewer: Zonk
- Score: 9/10
With all those caveats out of the way, Half-Life 2 is an incredibly impressive experience. In playing the game you step again into the role of Gordon Freeman, a scientist who originally worked at the Black Mesa facility. The first chapter of the game finds you arriving via train in the dystopian atmosphere of City 17, a ramshackle series of buildings raised from the remains of a now mostly destroyed civilization. A mysterious organization known as the Combine exerts control through police forces and alien troops. Via televised transmissions the citizenry is controlled mentally, spiritually, and even reproductively. From the first moment you enter the game Valve does an excellent job of imposing a sense of despair and barely contained anger rippling within the populace of City 17. What we are not imparted with is a sense of what has happened to Freeman since the events of the previous game. While clues are unearthed during the course of the game as to what has occurred, there are no firm answers to the many questions players are likely to have. With confirmation already in the news that Valve has begun work on Half-Life 3, the impression that you're left with is that this only part of a larger story. The story stands well on its own, but don't expect to come away from the game with all your questions resolved.
The new graphics engine that Valve created for their second game, Source, is an incredible achievement. The level of detail in the game is nothing short of breathtaking. From the reflectivity of water and tile flooring to the incredible facial animations, the game engine places Gordon Freeman directly into the world and makes exploration a joy. One of the best moments of the early game comes in a lobby. You emerge from the depths of the train station and face one last room before the freedom of open air. It is dusty and decrepit, filled with lost souls looking for nourishment rations handed out by inhuman robotic servants. Light pours into the room from windows set high in the external wall, and these amazing shafts of light fill the room. Motes float inside the light beams, lending an almost reverential air to what is essentially a ruin.
Once you step outside the door of the train station, your moments to stop and enjoy the beauty of your surroundings are few and far between. Almost immediately you as Gordon are connected up with the Underground Railroad, populated with peoples not willing to submit peacefully to the Combine. You reconnect with old friends from the previous game and after an experiment accident, you find yourself on the run from Combine forces. The instant the crowbar returns to your hands is truly a sweet moment. From there you move through the urban landscape of City 17, hop an airboat to duke it out with Combine troops in flooded waterways, and explore the Lovecraftian ruins of a small town inhabited by alien hunters and a mad priest. The game keeps you engaged with a constantly changing backdrop of locations and a series of pretty memorable characters. I was particularly impressed by the voice actors, all of whom do an excellent job of getting across what their characters are about. Each of the non-player characters has a nice moment to talk to you and make an impression. Dr. Vance's daughter Alyx is actually the one who introduces you to the gravity gun, and the quirky time spent with her may be the funniest, best written part of the game.
The visuals in the game are astounding, but the auditory experience is fairly impressive as well. The musical moments in the game are few and far between, and are used to accentuate tense or impressive moments. The music tends towards electronic stings and they raise your heart rate by a good deal when they're used. The sound effects range from pretty standard clinks and clunks to the viscerally gripping howls of stalking predators. The atmosphere in the town of Ravenholme, where the predators live, is phenomenally creepy all around, and is conjured by the pervasive sound environment. The weapon sound effects are all very competently executed, with the satisfying blast of the revolver being a personal favorite.