Sunday, November 27, 2005

Half-Life 2 (Xbox) Review

Just short of 2 weeks ago, the #1 shooter for the PC of 2004 made its debut on the Xbox, and what a game. Half-Life 2 is overall the most beautiful game I've seen on the 4-year-old system sporting an amazing physics system and the most realistic environments ever featured. However despite all that it does well, Half-Life 2 still has some rather odd design decisions that hold it back from being the shooter for the big black box.

Half-Life 2 is set an undetermined amount of time after the ground-braking Half-Life. After defeating Nihilanth, the then apparent mastermind behind the alien invasion of the Black Mesa Research Facility, Gordon Freeman, the game's player character, is hired and placed into stasis awaiting his next assignment by the mysterious Gman. Apparently things didn't turn out well for Earth after the first game, as Gordon awakens on a train bound for City 17, one of the last urban centres of humanity. As Gordon explores his new surroundings, he learns the planet is now under the control of a mysterious, other-dimensional force known as the Combine who have herded humanity into these remaining cities as they rule with an iron fist.

I'm going to get the non-spoiler story comments out of the way first: For those hoping for massive answers or revelations to all the questions left over from Half-Life, you won't find them here. Half-Life 2 essentially answers nothing, with only the briefest of clarifications throughout, while raising many, many more questions about the game's story. Now, Half-Life has always been vague, that was one of the original game's strengths, the fact that you were Gordon Freeman and that you were experiencing everything first hand: confused, lost, and just trying to survive. However a sequel is supposed to clarify the original title, to expand on its concepts and keep the player interested, but Half-Life 2 fails to do this. While the game certainly has its own course of events that are linked well, the Half-Life story lacks an anchor, it lacks substance and ultimately feels like a bunch of stuff that happens. Half-Life 2 crossed the line of being way too vague. In fact, without giving it away, I found the game's ending so anti-climatic that I enjoyed Doom 3: Resurrection of Evil's poor ending more, and anyone who threw a fit over Halo 2's conclusion might want to steer clear.

Where Half-Life 2 does excel, like its predecessor, is in presentation. Simply a beautiful game to behold. While graphically not the equal of its PC counter-part, Half-Life 2 has the most realistic and detailed environments ever seen on an Xbox shooter, or any Xbox game that I've seen period. The streets of City 17 feel gritty and lived in. Every area, every room feels like it truly should exist, that this is a real city, that the environments have purpose. Such beautiful design. Character models too are the best I've seen in a video game. While of lesser quality than their PC counter-parts, the character models of Half-Life 2 sport exceptional facial design and expression, so much so that the emotions and feelings that characters have truly come alive on screen. The physics system is also the most realistic that I've ever seen. Objects fall, bounce, and move as they should. Windows that are shot will crack, but only the points where the bullets hit will fall shattering to the ground. The first time I beheld this I actually stopped and gazed at the realism of it all. Throughout the game, mostly at the larger battles near the end, there are some very minor frame rate issues, but these are so rare and minor that they are not an issue what-so-ever, and don't even take away from the game's beauty. To help keep things at a smooth 30 FPS, however, it seems Valve had to employ a good bit of texture pop-in throughout the levels, which is too bad and can momentarily pull you out of your immersion, however given the Xbox's limitations this is both understandable and forgivable.

Audio wise, Half-Life 2 sports excellent and convincing voice acting, as well as great sound effects. Weapons are loud, radio chatter is raspy and garbled, and metal clangs (and dents) when you smack it with your crowbar. I must express great disappointment in the game's music, however. Like it's predecessor and in stark contrast to the ambient music mix of Doom 3 and the beautiful compositions of Halo 2, Half-Life 2's music is distracting, out of place, and kills one's suspension of disbelief that the environments otherwise create almost flawlessly. I often found myself stopping (if I could) once a music track began while I waited it out so I could continue enjoying the game.

Gameplay wise Half-Life 2 has some very strong moments, thanks in great part to the physics and environments. I've already gone on enough about how real and believable I've found the environments, but the way in which they effect how you fight, interact with the environments, and solve puzzles is simply brilliant. There is generally a nice mix of combat and puzzle solving, paced well with one another. In fact, my only major complaint about the game's sequences would be the vehicle Chapters. The controls, which are otherwise great on the controller (and controller vibration adds an interesting twist to the Gravity Gun), translated oh-so-awful to the Xbox. Vehicles are sluggish and annoying to handle and lack the sleek style of the amazing vehicle battles found in the Halo franchise. They also tend to last much too long and really take away from the gameplay.

There are a large variety of enemies to fight in the game, from Headcrabs and Zombies, to Ant Lions, to Combine Civil Protection and Soldiers, you're often fighting something different and unique to each environment which helps keeps things fresh. I must, however, express grave disappointment over the game's AI, most notably for the Combine. The Combine Soldiers are supposed to be the game's "elite" enemies, yet their AI is so bad that, while fun to fight, they are simply push-overs. I would often just blindly charge against groups of Combine Soldiers with guns blazing and slaughter them all, sometimes taking very little damage in the process! Try doing something like that in Halo 2 and you'll be loading a check point very soon. In fact, the only times this strategy didn't work was when there was an environmental difficulty preventing it, or if there was a turret, HK Chopper, or some other over-powered weapon being used against you that would kill you in a matter of seconds. Heck, I remember once I was fending off waves of Combine Soldiers in a room, and you think the piles of Soldier corpses by the doorway would have convinced the remaining Combine to try and flush me out with a grenade or two, or perhaps to flank me by the open and unguarded door off to my side, but instead they just stupidly came through the main entrance and died. Even when they take cover, if you edge enough and find the right angle, you could pummel them with a rapid fire weapon, and they'll just stand there and take it, not even trying to move! The poor AI of Half-Life 2 is in stark contrast to the revolutionary Marines from Half-Life and are greatly disappointing.

Seeing as how Half-Life 2 is a game that's portrayed and feels very realistic, I must express criticism over some of it's very unrealistic design decisions. Such as how, though the game's physics and restrictions are so real, Gordon can still carry 11 weapons at once. Or how, despite the fact that he is an MIT grad., he can't figure out how to smack a point blank range enemy with the butt of his weapon (though the Combine Soldiers can do this). Gordon also has a zoom function with his Hazard Suit, yet he's not wearing a helmet. Many of you may complain that I'm simply being overly critical here, and while true that the above doesn't detract from the overall gameplay I found it rather disappointing that this high-profile sequel couldn't incorporate some of the very realistic design innovations featured in the Halo and Call of Duty franchises.

Being a sequel, I must also criticize the game's lack of innovative weapon design, with one exception: the Gravity Gun. The Gravity Gun is great fun, being able to pick up and hurl objects at enemies, use desks, etc. as shields, or to manipulate your environment. However almost all of Gordon's other weapons are exact re-hashes of the original Half-Life arsenal, which really feel uninspired. In fact, the sequel only has 3 new weapons, one of which is an uber-Submachine Gun and the other, a Pheromone Gland, is only useful in about 2 Chapters (though it was a great weapon while it lasted).

When it's all said and done, with about 15 to 20 hours of gameplay, Half-Life 2 is a mixed bag. On one hand, we have the most beautiful and realistic shooter available on the platform, on the other hand, we have a title plagued by some poor and dated design decisions. Despite my criticisms, however Half-Life 2 is a very fun game and I really enjoyed it and look forward to playing it again. When all is said and done though, I don't see how it lives up to all the hype and rave reviews. While certainly not a bad title, Half-Life 2 does not deserve all those high 90's scores that most publications give it.

One last thing I must mention is the one big advantage that Half-Life 2 has on the Xbox over it's PC counterpart: no Steam!!! That vile draconian distribution system that Valve forces you to use on the PC is no where to be found on the Xbox, which means no need to connect online for an offline game, no patches to wait on while they download when all you want to do is play, and no stuttering that's apparently "my hardware's fault." The inclusion of hot-ai..., er, Steam, is the main reason I didn't purchase the PC version of Half-Life 2. Oh, it's also nice that the Xbox version comes on one DVD instead of 5 CD's, has a case instead of cheap CD sleeves, and comes with a manual.

Once all said and done, Half-Life 2 is a title that any Xbox shooter fan should look into, and once released I hope Valve does port Half-Life 2: Aftermath, the upcoming PC Expansion, to either the Xbox or the Xbox 360. Half-Life 2 doesn't live up to it's own praise, however, and despite the amazing physics is no where near as revolutionary as its predecessor. If you can set all this aside and simply enjoy the game for the ride that it is, you will have a great time and be glad you gave Half-Life 2 a run-through.

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