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Half-Life 2, Valve, 2004

When a game faces high expectations, there's often no possible way for it to live up to the hype and to the vision in the minds of the fans of what the game could be. Add to that the fact that the original Half-Life was one of the best-selling first-person shooters of all time, and its later multiplayer component, Counterstrike, is still the most-played online shooter, and the expectations for a sequel were not only high, they were stratospheric. And it seemed as if 2003 would be the year for the game, with many promises on Valve's part as to a certain release date. I had my doubts, considering Valve's record with release dates. Of course the game slipped. But 2003 also saw the theft of most of the source code of the game (a story that is outside the scope of this review, but is worth looking up), and a possibly convenient excuse for going back to the drawing board.

Then when Half-Life 2 finally came out, the game was saddled with an online verification system that doubled as a content delivery system, called Steam. You could purchase Half-Life 2 through Steam, all electronically, or buy the boxed game in the store and subsequently create a Steam account and verify the game. This verification was required every time you loaded up the game. Not only was Steam completely overloaded the first day of Half-Life 2's release -- understandably in the face of hundreds of thousands of people wanting to play -- but nowhere did Steam ever indicate how long the process would take. On top of everything else, Steam functions as an automatic patching service, and I was trying to get the game installed via a dial-up connection. I bought the boxed version and it took in excess of five hours before I could play. Not one minute of those five hours was a happy moment. More on Steam later.

When I finally started playing the game, I came to a quick realization: all of Valve's sins were forgiven, all expectations were fulfilled, and Steam was already a distant memory. Half-Life 2 is one of the most polished and playable games ever released. It certainly has its share of flaws, but it's also almost everything that Valve promised it would be. The process of making the game and releasing it was an arduous one, but in this case, the ends justify the means.

Gordon Freeman, the hero of the first game, returns, but to a much different world. Humans are an oppressed species; some humans have sold out to the new alien overlords, and these quislings are called the Combine. Gordon arrives at City 17, an Eastern European city, without much of a clue as to what is happening. The last he knew, he had defeated the aliens (at the end of the first game); what the hell is happening?

One of the beauties of the storyline of Half-Life 2 is that you don't find out very much. There is clearly a deep narrative going on, of which you get glimpses here and there. This kind of sly cloaking is an old tactic, and in most cases, a wise one. Alien invasion stories have become the worst kind of cliché, an excuse to not think too hard about the story you are telling. Gordon gets breathlessly shuttled from one place to the next, from one firefight to the next. He sees bits and pieces, he meets crucial characters and moves on, and he has a massive impact on the state of affairs in this world only to get the rug yanked out from under him at the last minute. Valve gets to have it both ways: aliens have invaded and Gordon has free licence to lay waste around him, but the story doesn't reduce down to "kill all monsters and move on."

So what's the game like? As I've said, Gordon arrives at City 17, and he soon meets up with some members of the human resistance. He will run into many allies during the game, which is a neat trick. Unlike many first-person shooters, Half-Life 2 feels like a world that is actually populated. As expected, this world has its share of enemies, everything from zombies to aliens to human soldiers (and some great surprises), but it also has quite few people who help Gordon in various ways. And the characters in the game stop and talk to you, and the lips synch up to the speech and the faces have a more realistic feeling than previous games.

Valve has also paid meticulous attention to the details of the world that Gordon moves through. City 17 seems to be carefully modelled after a crumbling Soviet Bloc town; it gave me a feeling of Chernobyl or a place like that, still functioning maybe but doomed in some way. Aliens and the Combine have wrecked much of the town, but the bits that are left are recognizable by their function, old apartment blocks or city plazas or a loading dock on the water. There's also a great setpiece that takes place on and under a massive bridge. Valve also does well with the final scenes inside the alien buildings, which is a hard thing to do (and it's something that they failed at with similar scenes in the first game).

Many of the weapons from the first game return, including Gordon's trademark crowbar. He gets the crowbar in Half-Life 2 in one of those cheesy scenes that still somehow works. The most important addition is the gravity gun. About a third of the way through, Gordon's friend Alyx shows him how to use an experimental weapon that manipulates objects in the area. Gordon can now pull objects towards him, push them away, or else hold them at the tip of the gun and then propel them away violently. It's a weapon that would only work with the painstaking use of real-world physics in the game. All objects act as they are supposed to according to laws of physics (not always true, of course, but Half-Life 2 gets closer to this goal than almost any other game I can think of). This leads to all kinds of interesting possibilities during gameplay. For one thing, you'd think zombies would learn to clean up all those loose saw blades lying around their haunts.

Yes, the game is polished, and yes, Valve delivered on what they promised for the game. All the same, I still have some of the same complaints for the sequel as I did for the original. Valve favours the on-a-rail style of gameplay; there's really no way for Gordon to deviate from the course set for him. The main advantage of this structure is that Valve can manage the game experience down to the tiniest moment. It's like the fast food process that is set up to deliver a maximum amount of flavour per bite, every bite, but how nutritious is it? For the game, this sense of excessive stage management can suffocate the gameplay. Valve manages to open out the gameplay a bit with the gravity gun, which lets the players try out whatever crazy tricks pop into their heads. But the storyline is nailed down to within an inch of its life. As it possibly had to be for a game of this scope and ambition to function at all. I guess I have an idealistic vision in my head of the world, only glimpsed in pieces in Half-Life 2, as a place where I can wander around doing whatever I want.

To wrap up, a few words about Steam. Logging in is much easier now, but I would still only recommend the game for people with a broadband connection. The patch that the automatic patching facility of the service tries to deliver has only increased the size. This means that Valve is fixing problems as they can, which is good, but it's bad news for anyone with a slow connection. These are growing pains of a service that I actually wish all the best for, despite complaints. Making a game as advanced and polished as Half-Life 2 is not cheap, and Steam means Valve gets to keep more of the money from their game. It's an expensive art form, and not one that I would want to see disappear.


Last modified: March 6, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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