Saturday 10 March 2012

Half-Life 2

I've been busy.

It's Half-Life 2, delivered to you by Blog Squirrel nearly eight years after PC Gamer said it was cool. Gordon Freeman is here to show us how to grow a goatee... and there's aliens or something, idk.

So here's a shocker, I don't like Half-Life! Blasphemy... and an exaggeration. Truth is, though I fully respect Valve's critically acclaimed 1998 classic, I honestly don't find Half-Life as much fun as others make it out to be. I've always been reluctant to claim its existence is as important as the likes of Doom or Quake, and though the game certainly stands as a decent shooter, I'd never be the one to say it was "fantastic".

Half-Life never quite felt "finished" to me - as if it were a glorified tech demo, tasked with the sole intention to shock and awe, rather than deliver a long-lasting, memorable gameplay experience. What's more, if you came into the game even a couple of years late, the "shock" and "awe" it thrived upon would fail to make the same impact as it did on release day.

Sure, on one hand it's very difficult to hate Half-Life - it did much good for the world of first person shooters. But I've never grown attached to it like I have with other games, and for something so revolutionary, that must suggest it's a flawed product. Because obviously, I refuse to believe I'm the one with problems. I'm perfect!

My younger self's biggest complaint with the original game was its saving system. Half-Life saved your progress, but it also held on to the low amounts of health and ammo. For a game set in tight corridors, littered with enemies and hazards at every turn, you can imagine the problems this created. Coupled with the long post-death loading times, inevitably you get to a situation where an extended break is necessary to avoid lasting mental damage.

What's more, the game barely changes its setting, and the experience is almost completely devoid of music. It's a chore, and that's not even taking into account the almost identical expansion packs. I can't deny the entertainment value of talking to locked doors, but Half-Life hasn't stood the test of time and I think it's something worth mentioning. Shoot me.

But regardless, back in 2004 I found myself intrigued by its sequel, Half-Life 2, primarily for the same reasons most were. It was the latest example of cutting-edge technology and made huge strides in physics and animation. So what if I couldn't care for the original game - Half-Life 2 defined a new set of standards. You can't ignore standards.

That being said, by the time it was released my computer had been rendered obsolete, so I've technically "ignored" Half-Life 2 for the best part of a decade. Only now can I find out what the fuss was all about. Hurray for living in the past.

Half-Life 2 is a follow-on from the original game, except is set twenty years into the future and... doesn't really feel like a follow-on from the original game at all. It's a post-alien invasion scenario, where Gordon Freeman finds himself fighting a new set of outsiders in an effort to save the planet.

It's... not a sequel.

I'm sure Gabe Newell will disagree, but as Half-Life 2 stands as such a radical departure from its prequel, I really can't bring myself to call it a continuation of the plot. Levels are more open, puzzles are solved with physics guns, and there's a brand new cast of colourful characters, none of whom are seen in the first game (apart from Barney, the bizarre conglomeration of every security guard from Black Mesa rolled into one character).

Rather than crawl around a giant laboratory, Gordon Freeman (a scientist - worth noting because it's a fact often forgotten) is tasked with riding along coastal roads, shooting at people in warehouses and displacing metal barrels. Unlike the first game which is meant to feel fresh and modern, Half-Life 2 has a weird 1940s flavour to it, where blue boiler suits are fashionable and absolutely everything is given a tint of dark green.

The game spends its days forcing you to wander around the outskirts of alien controlled "City 17", eventually leading a resistance squad and taking out what appears to be the enemy headquarters. Your targets are the "Combine" - a race of nasty aliens wearing gas-masks who have taken over the world. You have an HEV suit, a crowbar and headcrabs to battle, but it's otherwise a very different beast to its predecessor. Structured similarly perhaps, but ultimately a whole new experience.

Though many of the first game's problems have been addressed here, the core of Half-Life 2 is still very much the same as Half-Life 1. Gameplay is a mix of frantic action and puzzle solving, with long periods of silence and now, gritty "realism". The package is perhaps "less slow" and "less silent" this time around, but the dreary repetition has not yet left us. Character models and voice actors are still in short supply and the game feels padded for extra hours.

Whereas the goals in Half-Life 1 were simple ("GET OUT OF BLACK MESA"), Half-Life 2 takes a very long time to make up its mind about what it wants to achieve. Much of the game has you wander about on a wild goose chase attempting to reunite parents with daughters (Alyx Vance - the y is an upside-down lambda, aren't we clever!), before the focus shifts towards solving real problems - the alien threat.

The problem is, it takes two thirds of the game for our heroes to formulate this plan. Until this happens, you invest your time traversing around in a giant circle, fighting the same batches of enemies and failing to change the state of play. The conclusion that can be drawn from this escapade is that much of the game is redundant - easily scrapped without fear of damaging the story.

And you'll want to scrap parts as the experience grows tiring after a while. It's a feeling which surfaces very quickly into the game with the tedious vehicle sections spanning several "levels", and is amplified by the battles with gunships and striders. Gunships and striders are the only enemies which require rockets to destroy, and rockets are a rare commodity. This effectively turns these two enemy types into mini-bosses, but the novelty of fighting them wears off after you've encountered them more than twice.

My theory is that the padding exists primarily to demonstrate the physics engine - something Half-Life 2 constantly thrusts in your face whenever it can. In some ways it's to be expected - Gordon Freeman is a physicist by trade, and so Newton's laws of motion come with the territory. And make no mistake about it, the features demonstrated here would have been very impressive to watch eight years ago. The problem is that today they struggle to make an impact. A real-time physics is a given in first person shooters in 2012 and it's simply not impressive to watch anymore.

People don't play Doom a decade and a half after release to watch how the engine copes with multiple floors - they play it for the atmosphere, the music and the iconic graphics. Feelings like these don't exist so much in Half-Life 2 - the atmosphere is cold and uninviting, the music is non-existent and nothing is particularly pleasant to look at. It simply doesn't think long-term.

On the plus side, HEV suits having "energy" which needs to be refuelled is a largely redundant feature now. Ammunition is plentiful, as are health packs, and in general the pacing and balance of Half-Life 2 seems far better than what we had before. Yes, life drags on for many hours, but there is still much that can be learnt from this release even today.

What's perhaps most stunning is Half-Life 2's developments in animation, which still feel very fresh in the modern age. Characters behave in a realistic way - no jerky movements or blindly staring into the middle distance, and if it weren't for the low quality textures and awkward pauses, I might even mistake them for real people... maybe.

I also can't really fault the AI. Armies of bugs following me, negotiating tricky hilltops and targeting enemies from afar - it's clever stuff for a game released the same year as Sonic Heroes. And in some cases it's difficult to judge as the armed NPCs are meant to be bad - a good player will be able to keep his crew alive and reap the rewards of ammo and health. Either way, you'd be hard-pressed to claim the game was horrendous.

Graphics are perhaps the biggest offender of Half-Life 2, and though much of this can be excused due to age, there's simply no reason to spray the world with raw sewage. It's a really dull looking title and on occasion seems to go out of its way to promote the blandness - a far cry from the silly scientists in orange jumpsuits seen in the previous adventure.

It's also plagued by other relics, such as tedious loading times. It's also lacking the same attention to detail as the previous outing - the G-Man won't be following you around in the background, and there's not as many bizarre Easter eggs and surprises to be found.

What's more, it recycles sound effects, retaining the low audio quality they had in 1998. The Xbox 360 port also seems to be slightly too loud as well, causing unnecessary distortion as it blurts out of my speakers. Test your products, people!

It's the net result of all of these flaws which means that once again Half-Life 2 feels like a glorified tech demo than something built to constantly entertain. You're never encouraged to forget about your gravity gun, as you'll be constantly hindered by puzzles which rely on it. Things become dangerously predictable and it causes you to stop smiling. A great game shouldn't do that.

All in all, Half-Life 2 is a nice enough release, but I can't honestly say whether it's better than its predecessor. I strongly believe the original game had a clearer vision of what it wanted to be, but there's no denying that Half-Life 2 improves on many areas dramatically. To me, they're both on equal footing... but that means neither class as a Squirrel favourite.

Both Half-Life and Half-Life 2 go through phases of excellence but also of abject tedium - something is missing from both and I can't put my finger on what that might be (a Dreamcast release?!). On the other side of the fence, Portal doesn't seem to have this problem, to the point where I'm almost tempted to label that as the true sequel instead.

Still, The Orange Box is a package worth hunting down, if not just for the tremendous deal it represents. Even five years down the line it's excellent value for money, and you'd be a fool to miss it, Half-Life fan or not.

Bonus Review: Episode One

Because there's little point in making separate posts.

And now we start to encounter the true problems with Half-Life 2, starting (oddly) with "Half-Life 2: Episode One". One for the fans.

Episode One is essentially a level pack for Half-Life 2, except there's one vital difference between it and its predecessor - it should not exist. Whereas Half-Life 2's flaws can be balanced out by the fact it was a milestone release in FPS gaming, Half-Life 2: Episode One was released a year and a half down the road, where much of the series' strengths were starting to become standards. I don't plan to balance anything this time around.

Episode One is a pretty bad game, worse if you don't consider it to be an expansion. Now don't get me wrong, it mostly builds and improves on Half-Life 2 in an attempt to make something smaller but better, and in theory there's no reason why I couldn't be on board with that concept... but I'm not.

When Episode One debuted on the PC, the game brought forward new lighting systems, along with better AI, improved animations and various other tiny tweaks. So yes, in 2006, we could at least say its release was sort-of worthwhile. Unfortunately for its sake, good chunks of what it brought forward were back-ported into standard Half-Life 2 for the 360 release, and thus can only really rely on gameplay and design to stand out among the crowd these days. The problem is, both areas generally suck in comparison.

The biggest change to this one is Alyx Vance. Once a plot device to slow the game down, she now follows you on your journey as an armed friend. This isn't so much a terrible idea as it is an odd one - as I discussed above, Half-Life 2 was already a vastly different game to its predecessor - to integrate squad-based combat into the core experience makes the links even more tenuous than they were before. Though that's if you still care about consistency of course.

Now, I don't mind Alyx Vance as a character, but during the Episode One campaign I began to formulate questions which have not yet been answered, namely regarding the reason as to why Gordon Freeman is in Episode One at all Whereas in Half-Life 2 you spent your days ghosting around trying to avoid eye contact, here Alyx is dictating the rules and interacting with NPCs. She's more immersed in the game than you are.

So it's as if the roles have been swapped. You're no longer Gordon Freeman - you're the G-Man, watching a game being played out in front of you, while opening passages to allow it to continue. In reality this is very much Alyx's adventure - you simply tag along for the ride and do all of the shooting. It don't know if that was the intention of Episode One, but it's certainly strayed far from the series' roots regardless.

But despite your views on whether you should be controlling members of the Vance family instead, Episode One struggles because... it's more of the same. And considering the fact I was sick of "the same" by the end of Half-Life 2, I find it very difficult to get behind this one. There are no new settings and no new goals, and as far as I can make out, there is but one new enemy - "Zombines" - essentially headcrabs attached to Combine units. Imaginative!

I found Episode One to be really tedious, offering nothing of value bar a new chapter in the story. A story which, if written properly the first time around, wouldn't need new chapters in the first place. There's also a lot of running around in the dark and a stupid naming scheme to get caught up in. Could have been handled better I think.

So yes, I can't really recommend Half-Life 2: Episode One, but I don't need to - it's part of The Orange Box so you'll get it anyway. Moving on.

Extra Bonus Review: Episode Two

So if you're like me and decided to plough through Half-Life 2 and Episode One in succession, there's a good chance that by Episode Two, you might be growing a little weary of the series. Well good news, this release stands as an improvement. Hurray.

This is a much better attempt at expanding Half-Life 2 - still perhaps not all that necessary, but something I would gladly take over Episode One. On the cards tonight are noticeably different environments and brand new enemies. It would be music to my ears... if the series made much use of the speakers.

Whereas there's still not a huge amount of change to be seen in Episode Two, this one at least seems to show some genuine effort on Valve's part. Episode Two is far less boring and repetitive than the previous episode, and is let down solely by the assets it recycles. And that bit at the end when you're fighting striders against all odds - that was clumsy at best.

Again the same basic formulae of past games remains, and there's very little in terms of surprises, but it's undeniable that great deal more thought has gone into this one. The levels are more intelligently designed and the gameplay is more balanced (even re-introducing vehicle sections) - it's just "better" than Episode One in every possible way, and noticeably longer too.

Perhaps most notably, Episode Two doesn't binge on the physics engine as much as previous entries in the series. There are still plenty of occasions where gravity is put to good use, but it's no longer a focal point of the adventure. Neither, for that matter, is Alyx Vance, as she goes on her own little quests leaving Gordon to fend for himself. Episode Two doesn't reinvent the wheel, but I suppose it was never really meant to. The problem, like Episode One, comes down to the fact that Half-Life 2 shouldn't need expansion packs in the first place. The good ideas prop up an ultimately stupid concept.

The environments are fresh and interesting, and the new enemies can put up a good fight. The game does itself a lot of favours by not recycling City 17, and becomes a much more compelling experience for it. I actually want to see what the conclusion to this story arc is now, and that must mean something, surely.

In conclusion I think Half-Life 2 is a game worth investing in. But despite what the internet may say, I fail to see it as one to worship. Whereas there is certainly a lot to admire here and it certainly fares better than a lot of recent games in the genre, I can't bring myself to join the bandwagon of praise. There is still too much I dislike, but though this is not FPS gold, it could easily get a podium position if pushed.

But of course, one of the reasons they fail to impress is that they share a disc with one of the best games I've played in recent times. More on that later.


  1. That first screenshot makes me want to point my finger and scream "HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAX!"

  2. I have to disagree with your HL1 opinion (not that I want a fight over it mind you...) but atmosphere and a sense of directionless panic to escape was something I really got from original Half-Life. I bought Half-Life on a recommendation from the "nerd" behind the counter at a local games store at the same time I was purchasing Shogo: Mobile Armour division ( which turned out to be a terrible if not entertaining game for the anime inclined.

    Half-Life was the first truely compelling game that I finished from start to end without losing interest mid way. It was the first time I felt an actual flutter of excitement and fear. I'll never forget the first time I squealed like a girl at the first headcrab that jumped at my head, or even the overhead radio chatter from the marines actually coordinating their attack and flushing me out with a grenade into the open.

    I'm a person who plays for the thrill of the hunt. Multiplayer and outwitting your friends in a fps show down was where it was at for me. So to play a Single player story from front to back was something really special for me. And that something special was HL's AI. The hours I replayed a section of HL to find out how dynamic the AI could be and to never spot a pattern to their play style...WOW! Kudos to Valve for Half-Life, a memory for which my appreciation of games and gaming is better for it.

    .... and yeah Half-Life 2 + DLC sucks... (Tech Demo agree'd)