Crowbars. Is there anything they can't do?

Valve and Sierra are jointly known for a lot of things, predominantly in releasing games roughly once every three millennia, and good games every four or five ice ages. They're known for being perfectionists, almost to the standards of Blizzard, which are going to release a new game (that isn't an upgrade of World of Warcraft) some point in the future, and will possibly be installed directly into the area around your pancreas, for maximum playability. Valve and Sierra are known for a lot of things, but we, as gamers, will know them mostly for the genius of Half-Life.

The original game was awesome. There is no other word short of me creating one (such as gunilicious) that can describe it. It placed you in the shoes of Gordon Freeman, the greatest, and unluckiest MIT graduate in the history of gun-toting doctors. Even without the mammoth plot, the fantastic areas, the powerful weapons, the fantastic aliens and breaking boxes open with crowbars, the game itself had one defining achievement: it single-handedly revolutionalised gaming by having no cut-scenes. At any point in the game, you could run about, ignoring or listening to the various characters, radio messages and whatnot through the game, shown by the cinematic opening sequence on the train at the start.

Almost every FPS worth its salt since Half-Life incorporated the freedom that it had. Although the game was linear, it created pathways for you to traverse through the use of Deus Ex Machina – doors would be blown shut, scientists would be sucked into air vents, pathways would be destroyed – all so that you have the feeling of massive intelligence when you overcome the obstacles and find your own exit out of a headcrab-infested area.

The game spawned updates, additional missions, countless mods as well as expansion packs with the fantastic ability to play as one of the bad guys and Barney, the Black Mesa security guard. Now, predictably, a sequel has arrived. Will it live up to the hype?

Story 8/10

FPS's are not renowned for their stories. This is the exception.

After the Black Mesa Incident, Dr. Gordon Freeman was taken in by the G-Man, a suit-clad gentleman who had been following him the whole way through his journey. He offered Gordon the chance to leave Xen, the alien world that led the assault on Earth, and follow him. Gordon gladly took the chance, and he awoke, many years later, on a train bound for City 17, a commune of humans policed by the sinister Combine, a humanoid race that keep the humans in line.

Upon arriving, Gordon meets Barney, the aforementioned Black Mesa security guard, who is masquerading as a member of the Combine. Barney helps Gordon get in contact with Dr. Kleiner, a fellow Black Mesa worker, who, with the help of a few others, is creating a resistance against the ruthless Combine, and their human representative, Dr. Breen, the ex-Administrator of Black Mesa. Together, with the help of Gordon, the resistance hopes to destroy the Combine's grip on the humans, and get rid of them once and for all.

In a routine transportation, however, things go, predictably, pear-shaped, and Gordon has to don his HEV suit once again and find a way to save the humans his way. That is, with extreme violence.

The story takes a few twists and turns as Gordon travels along his path to find Eli Vance, another of Black Mesa's scientists, in order to help cull the Combine threat.

Gameplay 10/10

The gameplay is super-awesome to the max on speed with in-your-face attitude… from Hell! Earlier in the game, you get to test out the physics system, which is top-class. The enemies all react accordingly to Rag-Doll physics and a dead baddie will wilt and slump realistically, although sometimes they'll remain standing when shot beside a wall, but a quick shot to the legs stops that, hehehe.

The shootouts are standard point-and-fire routines, but Valve has thrown in loads of extra bits specifically made to make your shooting fun more, uh, funner.

Take for example, one of the opening battles. You can aim your gun and shoot the Combine off their ledges, or you can blast at the various barrels dotted about the place, destroying their structures and sending them hurtling towards the ground. Later, you can take control of gun turrets, control troops to attack the forces, or even control some of the aliens themselves to make your life a bit easier.

Between the battles, there are some neat little puzzles to overcome, such as traversing a tower to open a grate, moving vehicles into new areas, or flying full-speed down a canal to outrun a Combine gunship.

To help you, the resistance has supplied you with some vehicles to make your travel easier, notably a buggy and hoverboat, both with gun turrets so you can snipe enemies on the move.

When not speeding down dilapidated highways and byways, you have an array of weapons to choose from, including handguns, machineguns, shotguns rocket launchers, grenades, bombs and the Gravity Gun. All guns have a primary and secondary fire, the latter of which is usually an explosive of some sort, to help you clear out crowds of enemies.

The Gravity Gun is an awesome tool. With it you can literally rip objects off the walls to fire at the bad guys. You can use anything from radiators, to boxes, to buzzsaws, even use weapons and ammo or health packs if you can't pick them up. You can suck items towards you, even massive ones like wrecked cars, and shoot them away at breakneck speed. If something is too big to pick up, you can fire a concentrated blast of energy at it to move it about. My only gripe is that you can't, say, pull guns out from enemies hands to render them useless, but I suppose that would be asking too much.

The enemies to which you do all this wanton damage are varied and exciting. The old favourites are back: head-crabs, zombies, enemy soldiers, and added are a plethora of aliens, including evolutions of existing bad guys. Ever wondered what a head-crab infested human looks like after a few days? They're in there, stronger and faster than ever. Different breeds of head-crab? Yep, there too, and more dangerous, some with a strong toxin that will reduce your health to one point, meaning they're deadly when coupled with other enemies.

The baddies use the environment to their advantage – the combine move objects for cover and use the natural cover, such as huts, fences and ledges to hide. Some zombies with even hurl boxes, cabinets and doors at you.

The boss battles are amazing, requiring more than just sheer firepower to overcome. In most instances you have to use the area around you to trick the enemy into sustaining damage, or opening an escape route for yourself. The later battles get bigger and better, with massive creatures, reminiscent of War of The Worlds teetering down on you, roaring out alien commands to the troops on the ground.

Your HEV suit is upgraded, this time with a sprint command that uses up some of the suits energy. The flashlight also drains this energy, but it quickly replenishes when out of use. That nice lady who reminds you when you've been damaged is also back, telling you about lacerations, morphine administration and so forth. Your suit also bleeps cheerfully when you need to reload or your ammo is running dry. And don't worry if you shoot all your shells away, your handy-dandy crowbar is back with a vengeance and the game uses a Max Payne style of balancing out the power. When you're low on health, enemies will sometimes drop short refills to keep you topped up, and will lavish ammo on you from their fallen weapons.

As is Half-Life's staple, you'll be given situations where you need to use your cunning in order to move forward, and the characters will forcefully remind you what buttons you need to press and where to find them.
Mixed in are a bunch of awkward but well-made platforming sections which, although frustrating, are a pleasant change to the senseless killing, especially later on.

All in all, the gameplay is excellent, changing here and there to allow you to have a refreshing change of both scenery and action.

Graphics 10/10

The graphics are excellent. Even a year on, looking back on them, they're still cutting edge, beaten only by FEAR and some XBOX360 titles. Every single item, object, gun, character, wall, floor, building, rock, everything is exceptionally well detailed, and lifelike, giving you the illusion that you're walking through an actual world, not a virtual one. Everything in the game reacts to real-world physics, from how they move, roll, their weight, distance they can be thrown, how they float in water, the damage they taken when attacked, etc. Everything also reacts to the damage bullets cause, either by causing holes, blowing up, breaking apart, or simply setting off a shower of sparks.

All the characters react to the overwhelming power of Rag-Doll physics, that is, that they obey real-life physics, and, when they die, instead of having death throes and animations, they simply go limp, as if they were a rag doll. Hence the name. When an enemy dies, you can go over to lay a few more bullets into it, or beat it with the crowbar, just for fun, and watch as the body reacts to each blow realistically. Shoot a Combine soldier on a ledge, and they will fall helplessly to the ground. Hit them at close-range with a shotgun, and they'll fly a few feet. Knock them into water, and their body will float there, suspended by the water. Knock a burning barrel at them, and they'll take off into the air, spiraling to the ground, landing with a sickening crunch.

The facial features of each character are next to none, and all, even minor characters, are fantastically detailed. Sometimes you see the same characters pop up now and again as random civilians, but this is forgivable.

Sound 10/10

The voice acting is excellent, each character's voice truly suits their image and demeanor. The lip-syncing is remarkable, and is rarely inaccurate, if ever. Occasionally, two civilians will talk back and forth in the same voice, which is confusing, but that, again, is forgivable.

The sounds, everything from the gunshots to the pings of ricocheting bullets to the spinning of the Manhack's razor-sharp blades sounds incredibly real. The music is also excellent, rising at the right opportunities and really working you up to go and kick some alien ass.

Presentation 8/10

The HUD is very well presented, showing you your ammo, health, suit power, auxiliary power, weapons etc. It has a nice fade-in fade-out effect when changing the values of the ammo, health etc. All new instructions appears on screen, just to be handy, and you are frequently told, by a nice lady, that you have suffered damage and you'd better heal yourself posthaste.

The menus are all very well presented, showing the latest area in the background to remind you of where you are in the game.

Control 10/10

As with all PC games, you can change about the controls until you're hearts content. Or, at least, until you can control Gordon with the highest efficiency possible. There's the usual forward, backward, strafe buttons, a sprint, use, jump button, as well as primary and secondary fire for your weapon, flashlight, reload and zoom buttons. Not a lot by any degree, and if you have a handy-dandy wheel mouse with five buttons, its even easier to use.

Extra features 3/10

Once you complete the game, there's nothing else to do. You can go back and play any of the various chapters individually, but besides that, there's no extra levels, difficulty or games to unlock. The only thing there is really is multiplayer.

Multiplayer is excellent, however, you will probably never have the opportunity to play it. Although it isn't part of the game, and thus not worth mentioning, the game runs on a service known as Steam, Valve's own anti-piracy software. The premise is genius: in order to play the game, the user must connect to the internet with his or her serial number in order to download the files necessary. This validates the game as well as allows the user to download updates for the game.

However, every time you play the game, you must log on and download some updates. This is a great pain for anyone just wanting to shoot some things, and it is even more annoying for people with no internet, or who are still on 56K. Surely by buying a game, we should be allowed to play it at any time? The service also regularly shuts down and doesn't work, meaning you can't play this fantastic game for weeks on end.

Thus, through this excruciating system, although well-meaning and badly implemented, you can very rarely get a multiplayer game going. It's a shame really, since it really puts a damper on playing so much that by the time you get the game running, you're too frustrated to actually have fun playing it.

Play Time 7/10

The game isn't that long, clocking in at about 15 hours or so, which is very short when you play it in three or four hour bursts to avoid having to go through Steam again. Still, that's 15 hours of one of the best games available on any system.

Replayability 7/10

It's a great game and excellent to replay again, if only to see certain locales again. Using the chapter selection, you can pick your favourite bits and replay them again, without having to trawl through the whole game, until you're heart is content.

Buy or rent? 10/10

Buy. It's simply worth the purchase, since you can't play it any other way. Play it and love it for what it is: an excellent game with a badly-designed interface.

Steam problems aside, Half-Life 2 is a joy to behold. Its top-class graphics, sound, physics and engine will be replicated for years to come on all platforms. Truly a benchmark in videogaming.

Percentage: (The separate scores added together) 75%

Gamespot score: (Not an average) 10/10