Amazing World Exclusive: My Review of Half-Life 2
Gordon gets a love interest. And no, I don't mean the old man.
It was a rainy morning when the UPS man arrived at my house, knocking on my door with a work-hardened fist well versed in the language of doors. I opened the door and was greeted by a smiling man clad in a uniform as brown as the earthen soil below. After forging my signature, he handed me a package containing a pristine copy of the Half-Life 2 release candidate. As an Internet journalist, Valve deemed me worthy of being part of the media elite tasked with praising their product before it hit the consumer market. I wasted no time putting the release candidate into my computer, which then required me to download the game from the secret Steam Shadow Network designed for celebrities and captains of industry. After 48 hours getting the game up and running, I was ready to experience the second coming.
One simply cannot review HL2 without needlessly mentioning its tenuous development. Half a decade after Half-Life first wowed audiences, the sequel is finally complete and ready for release. For nearly four years, the crew of Valve Software remained silent on their actions and distracted people by re-releasing the first Half-Life over and over again with slightly different box designs. The stress of remaining tight-lipped on what was arguably the most anticipated game in the world got to them, and so they promised to release HL2 on September 30, 2003. Then they didn't release it on September 30, 2003, and people cried out in great shrieks of woe, cursing the name of Valve Almighty. Since then the HL2 source code was stolen by al-Qaeda, the alpha build leaked to Internet savages, and Gabe Newell increased his biomass to occupy more territory. On the positive side, the year plus delay gave them enough temporal space to finish the game, something a lot of companies forget to do before going gold.
Right from the start, you can see that Valve truly surpassed every expectation imaginable. Then, once you stop reading the reviews and start playing the game, you see firsthand that Valve created a sequel to Half-Life, a popular first person shooter. Somewhat perplexingly, you again take on the role of Gordon Freeman, a profoundly troubled scientist suffering from Asperger's syndrome or some other social disorder that renders him unable to speak to other people. Gordon, emotionally disturbed and desperate for an outlet, prefers to communicate through crowbars and other violent equalizers. Chilling stuff, but HL2 is all about putting you in a dark, dystopian environment similar to the one seen in "Johnny Mnemonic."
I was kind of watching television at the time, but I remember the game starting out in a train car. I'm not sure if was the same train from the first game, but it makes since that you would get on the train and it would keep moving until it got to the sequel. Although it's kind of stupid to think that there would be train tracks going all the way from an alien dimension or a secret underground base to Eastern Europe, where much of HL2 takes place, that's precisely what we're led to believe. I suppose it's probably a different train car, but this was never really cleared up for me as the game progressed. Thankfully the designers didn't leave too many dangling plot holes like the mysterious train car in the rest of the game. From the start, HL2 offers a lot of exposition explaining what's happened in the time since the first Half-Life, but I unfortunately missed most of it because Sallie Mae called to ask about my student loan repayments. I think I heard people in the game talking about Columbine taking over and loan consolidation, but my mind was elsewhere at the time. I'll have to go back and replay it sometime and figure out what they are talking about.
Soon after that I'm practically sitting through a boring lecture in a science lab with a guy who looks kind of like one of the scientists from Doom 3. Luckily for me, there was a hot girl in the class named Alyx. As it turns out, Alyx is the daughter of a scientist from the first game named Eli, after the famous inventor of the cotton gin and interchangeable parts method of course. Eli was one of the black scientists, I guess. I'm not sure which one, because all black scientists look alike to me. That's a shame, really. Even when a black man proves himself just as equal by advancing in society, he still suffers the same unnecessary stereotypes. Shame on you, Valve Software. Shame on you.
HL2 breaks new ground by subjecting you to horrible oppression. It's fun!
Let's face it – HL2 in all its glory is just another first person shooter, with an emphasis on shooter. So how does it stack up in terms of weapons? I'm glad you apparently asked me! HL2 features a rich arsenal that consists of virtually every action game weapon archetype. Thankfully it deviates somewhat with a few truly innovative weapon options such as a gun that shoots gravity, allowing you to "push" objects away. Like any good vacuum cleaner or prostitute, it has both a suck and blow option. This lets you pick up objects and dangle them in front of you, then launch them into the face of an enemy. I think this gun could lead to some awesome multiplayer mods, like one where players compete in a futuristic version of football using a human baby as the ball and the gravity gun instead of hands. Players can also utilize Xen aliens as helpers with a unique weapon that's essentially a ball of meat. I don't know why Gordon carries meat in his pockets, but then I'm not a scientist like he supposedly is. Wherever you throw the meat, the aliens will go and attack anything in the proximity of where the meat landed. I was developing a similar idea for use in getting fat women to do my bidding, but Valve beat me to the punch.
If weapons are the solution, I think the enemies in the game are most definitely the problem. Or, if not part of the problem, then they are definitely part of the solution. Wait! Maybe guns are the problem. Oh shit, I don't know! Confusion aside, HL2 features a number of enemies, such as Columbine Soldiers, giant laser shooting tripods, and UFOs. Some familiar faces are back, such as the headcrabs and the zombies they create. I personally was disappointed to see the zombies back, because they raise my blood pressure. I don't know why, but whenever I see zombies I just want to check my blood pressure and make sure I'm okay. Sadly, Valve showed little imagination with boss monsters. The game's final showdown has you engaged in a rooftop shootout with the infamous G-Man, who turns out to be your future self sent back in time, probably at the end of Half-Life 3 as some kind of post-ironic twist ending.
There was this part where I was in a dune buggy. Or maybe it was a jet ski. I don't remember and it's not that important since it's a trivial detail. I just know that I was moving very fast and there was this flying ship that was dropping what looked like barrels around me. And I thought, my God, the genius of that. It was like I was shot with a diamond – a diamond bullet right through my forehead. Ships that drop barrels! We were wrong to think that first person shooters had previously hit their high water mark. HL2 is a flood of Biblical proportions and yet, paradoxically, it is the ark that saves us. HL2 isn't just about shooting aliens and jumping from platform to platform; it's about dodging barrels falling out of ships. It's always been a norm that barrels are a part of the environment from the start. By adding them in on the go, this game gives an unprecedented sense of real world uncertainty. Just like Salle Mae does when they call to ask for money, this game has the power to dangle you over the edge of a pit filled with active chainsaws, revving rabid from that disease that turned machines into killers in "Maximum Overdrive."
Whereas most games feature indoor environments and nothing else (I'm looking at you with a flashlight, Doom 3), HL2 features robust outdoor environments that seem to go on forever. The Source Engine seems well qualified to handle a wide variety of tasks and while not as densely detailed as the new Doom Engine, it makes up for it by rendering intensely visible environments. The engine packs a lot of special effects while running relatively good on a wide range of computers. HL2 shines brightest with its powerful physics engine that gives the game a realistic feel, since now you can knock things over by walking into them, block doors with objects, and manipulate crates like never before.
HL2 falls pretty short when it comes to multiplayer. There is no multiplayer component, which is a shame because I looked forward to using the gravity gun to pick up another player who in turn is picking up another player with his own gravity gun. I thought that might be a great thing to do and take a hilarious screenshot of to submit to every HL website out there. Valve had the opportunity to do something different and special, but instead they fancied up a few Counter-Strike levels and re-released that dreadful mod for angry high school teenagers everywhere to relish with acne-armored delight. Counter-Strike can be fun, but most of the time it's a lot of idiocy and a lot more of me getting shot with a sniper rifle while blinded by a flash grenade I accidentally threw in front of myself. To make it even worse, Valve upgraded the "spraypaint" options so now it's easier than ever to make obnoxious graphics to spam all over the place. They even included a built-in "wallhack" command accessible via the console.
I'm not sure whats happening here but I think the guys running are your enemies and the giant tripod monster is your pet.
So how do I feel about HL2? I have mixed feelings. On the one hand it was the most profoundly moving experience of my admittedly heretofore brief life, on the other hand it really failed to go in the direction I was hoping. The story was nice, but it didn't follow the ending I longed for. In the original Half-Life, you had two choices on how to finish the game. One choice, the most morally conscious choice, resulted in death. I chose that route and logically assumed the sequel would follow the outcome of the first game. It does not. I suppose that means the first Half-Life isn't considered part of the "HL2 canon," which is stupid given all the references to the events at Black Mesa. A colleague argued with me that the alternate "death" ending was ambiguous, because all we really see is a room full of grunting aliens before the screen fades to black. I think this notion is absurd. Am I to believe that the aliens merely raped Gordon? Their intention was murder, I assure you.
But thanks to the positives, such as the thrill of using the gravity gun to hurl things around like an emotionally troubled child, it provides the most fun in a video game since Adventure Island for the NES, which was the first game to combine tomahawks and skateboards. A lot of people complain that Adventure Island was a boring side-scroller with little innovation, but let's not forget Adventure Island was doing outdoor tropical environments long before FarCry. Where most games groan, HL2 moans and even screams pleasure. No other game puts you into a scientist-shaped vessel and pits you against an army of aliens with such grace and eloquence. It feels real, like it's really happening. That is a rare accomplishment in this day and age of cookie cutter games with identities as shallow as the people that play them. Valve has accomplished the impossible, and God himself is most certainly going to hang himself out of jealousy. After a long reign at the top, he's now only second best at world creation. Valve has created a gem worthy of display in the most regal of gem-encrusted gem display cases.
Pros: the barnacle models are sufficiently more detailed this time around. All the delays were worth the wait.
Cons: having Alyx die towards the end was a big letdown. Borrows many elements from the original Half-Life, such as characters and plot threads, yet is not a true sequel.
Final Grade: A%