Half-Life 2 is a major departure from the first game. Instead of little snippets from nearby scientists and security guards, the game has a full-fledged story with long dialog sequences, and recurring characters. It takes place in “City 17,” which is run by Dr. Breen, who is widely visible on screens throughout the city. When he speaks, he promises immortality, but as the plot progresses, you discover he has been accused of genocide. The game is a huge graphical step up, with Valve Software building the game on top of its new Source engine. Finally, the game wins big in length; this is one of the longest shooters I have ever played. HL2 reminds us that PC has always done first-person shooters better than consoles.
Going back to graphics, the Source engine is capable of wide-open vistas, which could include your allies, and non-hostile, or hostile guards depending on how far along you are. The face-rendering technology is especially impressive. It’s actually reminiscent of Shenmue for Dreamcast. You can make out every detail and wrinkle. Lighting and shadows are good–I barely remember shadows in the first game. The darkest of areas can be illuminated by the flashlight, but it costs “auxiliary power.” Finally, there is excellent bump-mapping on some of the bricks, giving the illusion of 3D on a 2D brick texture.
There are two long driving sequences, which other critics complained about being too long, but I rather enjoyed. In the first third of the game, you pilot a makeshift boat, and come across simple puzzles that hinder progress until you solve them. There are enemies here and there, but generally the boat ride is a joyride. It was here that I first spotted the “G-Man” (government man) after the beginning of the game. I later learned that the G-Man keeps popping up in the strangest of places if you know where to look. There is also a driving sequence with a makeshift car, and the driving sequence is mostly a joyride as well.
Though I did enjoy the lengthy driving sequences, I have to confess that the game is long. If you really know what you’re doing, it’s still a ten-hour game. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it could be double that. It was a really big deal in 2004 for a shooter to be this long,though I didn’t grow tired of it, and it’s quite nice that we get additional content on top of HL2: there’s Episode One and Episode Two, as well as the Lost Coast expansion, though that’s less of a game. I first played Half-Life 2 on a computer, and was living in an apartment with a roommate. I had been playing so long that my roommate’s cat decided it would be good to stand in front of my monitor, obstructing my view.
Locations could have been more varied. Instead, a lot of time is spent around City 17. Still there are glorious places like Ravenholm, where you put the newly found Gravity Gun to use–a gun that can pick up boxes, circular saws, radiators, and more, and throw them straight in front of you, at an enemy for instance. There is also a fun sequence in a prison compound, where you use sentry guns to automatically take down opponents. The game ends in the Citadel, the giant skyscraper in the center of City 17.
I have still said little about characters and story, but, in a nutshell, Alyx Vance is your sidekick, daughter of Eli Vance, who dates back to the first Half-Life as a scientist. Alyx is good at computer hacking, and you are good at taking down guards. Alyx appears in both of the episode games too. People complained that Episode Two still ends on a cliffhanger, while others are still begging Valve for Half-Life 3. Regardless, Half-Life 2 was a thrill in its day and it has held up remarkably well. It’s $10 on Steam, and $20 for the Orange Box, which also includes both episodes, as well as Portal and Team Fortress 2. Highly recommended.