Half Life 2 Review (Continued)

Where the original Half Life really shined, Half Life 2 shines as well, and for me that means lots of entertaining scripted sequences. Both the dark-ride variety that occur during firefights and the NPC interactions that advance the story in between engagements are a thrill to watch and are what set the Half Life experience apart from the rest. While the shooting action can be repetitive at times, there's always a final reward in the form of some enjoyable NPC dialogue or humorous interaction.

What I would have liked was more in the way of story context. Even after finishing the game, I'm still not quite sure what is going on. Is G-Man a bad guy or not? And why are the Vortigaunts fighting by my side? The story itself feels quite a bit like act two of a three-act play, but that's not terribly bad provided we don't have to wait quite so long for act three.

- Last Update 03/20/10

Half Life 2 Review ★★★★

Ugh. Let me get this out of the way first. Steam sucks. Yes, I know that message boards are full of vitriol for Valve's content-delivery network. Yes, I know that contradicting the masses is a sure-fire way to seem intelligent. I want to be a contrarian and condemn the critics as senseless whiners, but the truth is -- Steam sucks.

Not that I'm opposed to Steam in concept. Standing in line to buy a game while the mall rats scurry about is not a favorite gaming pastime of mine. Although I do like to display game boxes, and find online shopping to be most convenient, there's nothing like downloading your purchase to quench the need for instant gratification. To see how it's done well, look no further than EVE Online.

The problem is with implementation. Installation, key activation and patching took me well over an hour. Every time I want to play I have to check for updates. Even if there are no updates this check takes an annoyingly long time. I can get into City of Heroes faster than I can get into Half Life 2, and that's an online game. It's just unforgivable. You lose a star, Half Life 2.

To continue the kvetching, zones are way too small, and loading times are way too long. If you're going to make the zones this small, at least pack them with content so I'll be spending some time in them. As it is, Half Life 2 has you race through a zone just to load the next. It's important to note this problem as it's cropping up more and more of late. There's a significant challenge to game developers as computational power increases yet hard drive speeds remain relatively unchanged. It's turned Everquest 2 into Everzone 2 and breaks the otherwise excellent immersion in Half Life 2. To see how zoning is done well, look no further than World of Warcraft. Can you tell I've been in an MMORPG phase?

The opening sequence is a huge letdown. The original Half Life's opening tram sequence was like nothing seen before, and Valve had an opportunity to top themselves here and they fumbled badly. While a pair of somewhat similar offerings appear in a late level, there is no wonderment-moment opening the game like in the original. There's also no tutorial - another missed opportunity to awe the gamer.

On the much-heavier plus side, the graphics are almost photorealistic. While the style unfortunately follows the Soviet-era look of industrial rot we've seen so much of lately, rather than the glinty-white future-of-old I came to expect growing up on movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, what we do see here is technically impressive. Even something as mundane as power lines swaying in the breeze make me pause and take note. Frame rates are shockingly good considering the high visual quality. Half Life 2 really shines in this regard. The birds are so believable you'll be tempted to stop and see what they'll do next. A quibble I have is that the setting is so inviting for exploration that I'd love to take some time and casually enjoy the environment, yet there's rarely time to explore without being bothered by enemies or hampered by barriers. I would like to spend some time just being in the place, skipping stones on the water or climbing to the highest point if only just to catch a breathtaking view.

The game's voice acting is another standout. Lou Gosset Jr., Michelle Forbes, Robert Guillaume and Robert Culp headline the stellar cast. Mr. Culp's performance as the coolly intellectual Dr. Breen is particularly noteworthy. The audio is clear and sounds are powerful in 5.1 audio, but music is practically nonexistent. There was a fair amount of stutter on my system, but only when I was snapping one of my many screenshots or initiating a quicksave.

Now to the gameplay. I have to start with the revolutionary gravity gun. This is an original concept and Valve has designed some great levels around this environmentally-dependent weapon. The gun packs massive amounts of fun at times, especially in the later levels where it can be used to take hold of enemies, then toss them to a rapid demise. In the early levels, however, there are too many areas without something for the gun to hold onto, and the inability to rapid fire is a serious drawback to the fun factor. The trick is to throw an object in such a way as to make it easily retrievable for a subsequent attack. When the timing and placement work just right the action is spectacular, and the more standard weapons, especially the .357, are quite satisfying.