It's hard to believe that it's been almost a year since Valve unleashed Half-Life 2 on the PC. The sequel to what many consider to be one of the greatest action games ever made proved to be a huge success in its own right, thanks to its mix of amazing cutting-edge technology, storytelling, and sheer immersiveness. Now, a year later, Valve is close to releasing the Xbox version of Half-Life 2, and there are lots of people wondering if the developer can take a game that pushed the PC to its limits and translate it successfully to the Xbox. Well, we'll find out soon enough, as we recently received our review copy of Half-Life 2. And we figured that before we give you the full review, we'll give you a peek at what to expect. You can also get a taste of the game in motion with our latest gameplay movies.
The original Half-Life was released in 1998, and it was a game that single-handedly revolutionized what a first-person shooter could be. Prior to Half-Life, most shooters were all about nonstop action, and the only thing you had to worry about was shooting everything that moved. Half-Life changed that by introducing many concepts that we take for granted today. It placed you at the controls of the equivalent of a big-budget Hollywood sci-fi/action/horror movie, and the game put as much of a premium on immersing you in the experience as it did on letting you shoot things. You played the scientist-turned-soldier Gordon Freeman, and you had to reverse an alien invasion caused by an experiment gone awry at the top secret military facility Black Mesa. At the end of Half-Life, you were whisked away to work for the G-Man, the mysterious figure who greets you at the beginning of Half-Life 2.
Half-Life 2 picks up sometime after the end of Half-Life, and it's clear that something has gone wrong on Earth. Instead of averting an invasion, it turns out that Gordon only managed to temporarily avert it. Gordon returns to Earth only to discover that an alien force known as the Combine has conquered the planet and has herded the remaining human survivors into bleak urban prison camps, such as City 17, which is where you start the game. Of course, from that point you'll have to pick up your trusty crowbar (Half-Life's signature weapon), as well as other toys, and battle to try to save humanity once again. This will involve battling tons of enemies, from the Combine's soldiers to headcrabs (the scary little critters from the first game), zombies, giant antlions, and much, much more.
The thing to keep in mind about Half-Life 2 is that this is a game that's all about putting you into Gordon Freeman's shoes. Unlike other games, where famous Hollywood actors are brought in to "voice" your character, Gordon doesn't utter a word. Nor are there any third-person cutscenes that show you what's going on in other locations. The entire game takes place from Gordon's perspective, and Gordon himself is just a blank slate for you to project yourself onto. And believe us when we say that you've rarely encountered a game that's as immersive as this one. Half-Life 2 features some amazing technology, such as facial animation that brings characters to life like never before (it also helps that they're voiced by such talented and notable voice actors as Robert Guillaume, Robert Culp, and Michelle Forbes), but it also has a fairly sophisticated physics system that makes objects behave realistically. And, of course, it has a very impressive graphics engine to power it all.
In terms of gameplay, the Xbox version is literally identical to the PC version, from what we can tell. Unlike other ports or translations, where the designers have to trim down the content or story to make it work on the console, it appears that Valve has managed to squeeze literally everything that was in the PC version into the Xbox, which itself is really impressive. Half-Life 2 on the PC had a lot of content, and all of it seems to be in the Xbox version, at least in the early levels that we've seen thus far. The beginning of the game is eerily atmospheric, as its sets the stage for what's to come. In the opening, you'll discover that humanity is on the verge of being beaten, though there are still a few flickers of resistance left, and it's up to you to lead the charge. One of the interesting aspects of the story is that, by now, Gordon Freeman has now become a legendary figure, and your sudden reappearance does much to galvanize the resistance.
The game's controls translate fairly well to the Xbox, which isn't a surprise, since Halo proved that you can have an excellent first-person shooter experience on the system. And if you've played Halo or any other major shooter on the system, then many of Half-Life 2's controls will be very familiar to you. For example, the right trigger fires your weapon, the A button jumps, the white button turns your flashlight on, and so on. There are a few differences, but it doesn't take too long to adjust to them. Meanwhile, the default controls feel a bit too loose for our tastes, but you can go in to the settings to adjust them to your preferences.
Valve did an excellent job retrofitting the Source graphics engine to work on the Xbox, though it obviously runs at a lower resolution and, unfortunately, a lower frame rate. Additionally, the textures obviously aren't as sharp or crisp as they are in the PC version, considering the limited amount of memory the Xbox has to work with. Still, the Xbox version looks pretty sharp for an Xbox game. More impressively, the Xbox version has the same number of brief in-game level loads that the PC version had. The game does have one long loading sequence the very first time you put it in your Xbox, but you won't encounter it again after that. The brief in-mission level loads (like when you go from one portion of a level to another) last a bit longer than in the PC version, but they're not unreasonable.
Visually, Half-Life 2 for the Xbox doesn't quite stack up to the PC version. But then again, if you played the game on the PC, you don't really need to play it again on the Xbox. The game will undoubtedly appeal to those who don't have a PC, or those who simply don't want to bother with all the hardware hassles of PC gaming, such as updating your video card drivers or your hardware. Unfortunately, Half-Life 2 on the Xbox does not have native widescreen support, and if there's a game that screams for widescreen support, it's this one. However, we suspect that widescreen would have probably resulted in a big performance hit, and the game, while generally smooth, struggles with the frame rate quite a bit.
If you're familiar with the PC version of Half-Life 2, then you know that it shipped with Counter-Strike Source, an updated version of what is arguably the most popular online action game on the planet. That's not the case with Half-Life 2 for the Xbox, as Valve decided to include only the single-player portion of the game. In the documentation that came with our review copy, Valve notes that Counter-Strike is already available for the Xbox. So, unfortunately, the Xbox Live crowd won't be seeing Counter-Strike Source...at least not soon (as Valve hints that it is looking toward "bringing our new online games to the next-generation of consoles").
From what we've seen thus far, Half-Life 2 looks to be a pretty good, though straightforward, translation of the excellent PC game. And while we'd normally be a bit disappointed by not getting anything new or custom-built for the Xbox, we must admit that Half-Life 2 on the PC was already a pretty great game. For now, we plan on playing through the rest of the Xbox version to see if it measures up to its storied PC counterpart. So far it's looking pretty good. Half-Life 2 will ship for the Xbox in two weeks.