Originally posted in January 2006.
With games like Doom 3, Halo 2, and Far Cry: Instincts, we’ve seen plenty of great first-person-shooters on the Xbox. But believe me when I say that none of these games can even come close to topping the unforgettable experience that Half-Life 2 offers.
In Half-Life 2, you are again playing the game through the eyes of Gordon Freeman, a.k.a. “the one free man”. The story is pretty easy to follow even if you haven’t played the first Half-Life: an alien race known as the Combine have taken over the earth, and it’s up to Gordon and a handful of freedom fighters to destroy the Combine and restore freedom to humanity. The game’s beginning sets the stage perfectly: after a brief commentary by the “G-man” from the end of the first game, you will find yourself on a train entering City 17, one of the cities oppressed by the Combine. This opening sequence is very cinematic, since you see everything from Dr. Freeman’s point of view. Half-Life 2 contains absolutely no cut-scenes whatsoever; every bit of story and action takes place during the gameplay. The game achieves an unbelievable level of immersion and really makes you feel as if you’re in the middle of the action. This may sound familiar, but trust me when I say that Half-Life 2 takes presentation to the next level. When you’re playing the game, you aren’t just a spectator, you’re not just manipulating an avatar: you ARE Gordon Freeman, and you ARE traveling through another world. The characters in Half-Life 2 also help pull you into the experience, and they contribute to making the game world feel very alive. As sappy as it sounds, you will come to care about all of the characters and what happens to them. Not only that, but Half-Life 2 manages to create an almost overwhelming sense of urgency, and you begin to truly care about what’s going on, and completing your objective seems very important. While playing the game, there were times when my hands were shaking as I raced to complete an objective. I found myself laughing out loud at certain sequences, and I even jumped out of my seat once or twice. No matter the situation, the feeling of complete immersion never lets up.
Half-Life 2 is, at its core, a first-person-shooter, meaning that the first thing it needs to focus on is the weapons, the enemies, and the action. And let me tell you, the action is intense. This game offers some of the most thrilling firefights and action-packed moments that I’ve ever experienced in an FPS, or in any other action game for that matter. It almost makes me wish that there were more all-out shooting moments. This is not a “stand there and shoot” kind of game. Forget the lame FPS games that feel like a shooting gallery. The enemy AI in Half-Life 2 is extremely clever, and you’ll need to use your wits and the environment to survive. Every weapon, even smaller ones like the standard pistol, feels immensely powerful, which contributes to the intense feel of the combat. You’ll rarely be short on weapons or ammo, as Dr. Freeman has a very impressive arsenal that includes a crowbar (good for smashing through objects, including enemies), an SMG, a crossbow that fires glowing hot bolts (yikes!) and the infamous “gravity gun”. The gravity gun is without a doubt the most hilariously fun weapon in the entire game. This unique weapon has the ability to pick up almost every object in the game (besides your enemies.). You’ll need to use the gravity gun often to conserve ammo, defeat enemies, and solve some of the game’s many puzzles. Low on SMG bullets? Just lift up a table with the gravity gun and send it rocketing toward your enemy. Can’t reach a ledge that holds valuable items? Stack up some crates and furniture and voila: you’ve created a makeshift staircase. Expect to see gravity gun imitations in many games to come.
Of course, Half-Life 2 is far from a straightforward shoot ‘em up. In between fighting, you’ll use the game’s brilliant physics engine to solve sometimes dangerous puzzles, explore the game’s well-designed environments, and even take control of vehicles at times. The game’s characters, physics, and environments make the game world feel incredibly real and alive. You never once feel as if you’re playing on a grid.
Overall, Half-Life 2 has very good pacing. The game does a good job of keeping you interested and eager to see what happens next. However, things can get a little confusing at times. While playing, there’s never much question where you need to go or what you need to do, but it’s not always clear why. Sure, I understand that I have to stack these crates here and kill those enemies there, but what am I trying to accomplish? What is my ultimate goal? Where am I trying to go? It would have been a bit more helpful if the game would give you a better sense of what your objectives are. Another thing that I found irritating was the amount of loading in the game. Although loading times in Half-Life 2 are pleasantly short, I found them to be a bit too frequent, especially during the vehicle sequences. Nothing breaks up a game’s pacing like racing through a field full of enemies at breakneck speed, gunning down everything in sight...and then having a load screen pop up in your face. Of course, this is a very minor flaw, and the load times are forgivable since they are so short.
These problems are actually very trivial. Overall, Half-Life 2 is so amazingly entertaining that you probably won’t even notice these problems once you get into the game. I do have one major complaint about the game though, and I’m sure that many other gamers will agree. The PC version of Half-Life 2 included Counter-Strike Source, but unfortunately the Xbox version is completely devoid of any kind of multiplayer whatsoever. Even the co-op mode found in the first Half-Life is gone. It would have been truly unforgettable to have an online or splitscreen multiplayer mode to take advantage of Half-Life 2’s locations, weapons and physics, and it’s a shame that there is no kind of multiplayer, online or off. In fact, there isn’t any real kind of replay value to be found here: once you finish the game there are no unlockable difficulty modes or extras. (Though the difficulty is adjustable) Of course, the game is so fun that you may feel compelled to play through it a second time. Although the game lacks in replay value, it makes up for it by giving you one of the best single-player experiences ever.
As far as graphics are concerned, Half-Life 2 looks stunning. Being a PC port, the game obviously doesn’t look as good as the original. The most noticeable graphical problem is the framerate, which can occasionally drop very low. This usually only happens when there is a lot going on onscreen, like a large number of explosions or physics effects. Overall the framerate is pretty smooth, and the game never becomes unplayable. Thankfully, the fantastic facial animations are intact, and the characters expressions look very believable and lifelike. Although the characters in Half-Life 2 are very well-done, I wish that Valve would have made Gordon Freeman a little more interesting. Seeing the story unfold through Dr. Freeman’s eyes definitely helps draw you into the experience, but Gordon never says a word throughout the whole game. Sometimes I forgot that he was even a character in the story. It wouldn’t have hurt to have a little more character development for Dr. Freeman, and it wouldn’t kill the guy to speak his mind once in a while. Another thing that really jumped out at me was the fact that you never even see Gordon’s hands unless you’re shooting a gun. While doing things like driving, flipping a switch, or carrying an object, Gordon’s hands are nowhere to be seen, and things are just floating about in midair. It doesn’t really change the game at all, it’s just kind of...strange. Killzone has good animations for doing things like climbing ladders, using turrets, and the like, and it would have been more impressive to see Half-Life 2 do the same. I’m still trying to figure out how FPS characters manage to reload while running up a ladder using only their feet. On another note, all of the environments in the game were very interesting and fun to explore. Half-Life 2 contains some of the most memorable levels that I’ve ever seen in an FPS. Among the best environments are Ravenholm, a creepy and deserted town (unless you count the zombies and monsters) and City 17, which you’ll explore fully later in the game. I especially enjoyed the sequences in which you take control of an air boat. The game actually gives you a surprising sense of speed when taking control of the vehicles, and did I mention that the water effects in the game look gorgeous? The visual style helps to draw you in and create a very convincing futuristic look. All in all, Half-Life 2 is a very good looking Xbox game.
When it comes to incredible sound, Half-Life 2 delivers in spades. The sound is the one aspect of the game that is pretty much flawless. The weapon sound effects are especially intense; when you’re shooting a shotgun, it sounds damn convincing. The sound in the game gives the weapons a very powerful, visceral feel. The voice acting is top-notch and contributes to the character’s personalities. Although there isn’t much, music in the game is very fitting and cuts in at the appropriate times. If you don’t have 5.1 surround sound, then Half-Life 2 is the reason you should get it. You don’t want to miss out on this game’s immersive sound design.
To sum it all up, the Xbox version of Half-Life 2 is obviously not as good as its PC counterpart, but you should have absolutely no reason to think that it is in any way a bad game. If you don’t have a high-end PC and haven’t played Half-Life 2, you owe it to yourself to go pick it up. The main reason that it didn’t get a higher score is because of the disappointing absence of multiplayer. My complaints are few: the framerate needs work, the lack of multiplayer hurts the game’s replay value, the load times are a bit too frequent...and why the hell can’t I see Gordon’s hands when he’s driving a vehicle? Despite its problems, Half-Life 2 is the single best game available for the Xbox, as well as the best first-person-shooter on any console. Sure, Halo is fun, but Half-Life surpasses it in almost every respect. Keep it coming, Valve.
+ Incredible, immersive presentation and gameplay
+ Fun, innovative physics engine
+ Unbelievably intense firefights
- Not enough unbelievably intense firefights
- No multiplayer, cooperative play, or unlockables
- Framerate is choppy at times
- Gordon Freeman doesn’t always feel like a character in the game
My opinion hasn't changed much on this one; ten years later, and Half-Life 2 is still one of the most revered titles in all of gaming. "Best game on the Xbox" and "Best FPS ever made" are perhaps hyperbolic statements, and I'll be sure to avoid exaggerations like that in the future. Even so, you still can't go wrong with HL2,and if you haven't played it you should catch it on Steam or pick up a copy of The Orange Box.
I stand by my claim that Gordon Freeman is a wasted opportunity in terms of character development. I have mixed feelings about Gordon as a silent protagonist, but at this point it's probably too late for Valve to change anything. It strikes me as strange that such a story-driven and character-driven game would decide to keep its main character silent. I still think they should include some animations for things like driving, climbing ladders, and carrying objects. The whole "soda can magically levitating off the ground thing" is kind of distracting, not to mention lazy. Enough doom and gloom, though. These gripes are trivial, this game is still outstanding overall.
Looking back, it's actually very difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about Half-Life that makes it superior to many other FPS games. It may just be that it's a shining example of a game that's greater than the sum of its parts: the narrative, groundbreaking (for its time) physics, creativity and solid action all combine to make one of the most polished and memorable experiences I've had the pleasure of playing. Perhaps most importantly, HL2 is concerned with drawing the player into a strong single-player experience, and it doesn't compromise any part of that experience in favor of a multiplayer component. I know, I initially criticized the game for lacking multiplayer, but this was a "pre-Modern Warfare" review, and in this day and age it's probably not a bad thing to have games like Half-Life 2 to remind us that shooters weren't always about prestiging as fast as possible. Even if we never get a Half-Life 3, Half-Life 2 and its two expansions are games for the history books.