Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Best Game Ever: Half-Life 2

The Orange BoxI want to live in City 17.

It’s falling apart, home to a downtrodden populace and alien abominations, surrounded by toxic waste canals and zombie-infested suburbs. But it calls to me nonetheless.

City 17 is a lovingly rendered work of art, and it draws me in so fully that I want to keep going and crawl inside.

Half-Life 2 sets the table so beautifully that its few flaws are easily overlooked.

Setting & Story

The game drops you into City 17 without so much as a word of explanation. A few flashes from the previous game, a few cryptic words from the ubiquitous G-Man, and then you’re riding a rickety train into a station.

Citizens wear dirty jumpsuits and look beaten down, soldiers in masks and body armor bark orders at them, and above everything, a screen broadcasts the city administrator singing the praises of our new alien overlords.

Home at last!

The situation is perfectly clear, and the game has conveyed it in a way that respects your intelligence. No cutscenes, no pages of text, no online foolishness. You simply walk off the train and take in the world around you. How the world got this way and how you will affect it are still mysteries, but the setting is so carefully crafted that you trust you will uncover this information as you move forward.

This storytelling technique persists throughout the game. The characters occasionally dump exposition in your lap, but almost always gracefully and in a way that is germane to the events of the moment. And never in a cutscene.

Gordon Freeman having a bad day
As Gordon Freeman, you do not participate in these exchanges. You are a mute vessel that others fill with instructions, information, and praise, but you are not a fleshed-out character. This is a weakness in the game’s story, given how important Freeman is to the other characters. On the other hand, it lets you bring your own background to the character, and to feel that you are the one inspiring these people to rise up.

Other characters are more well-formed. In fact, Half-Life 2 pulls off a bit of hocus-pocus in transforming the generic character models of Half-Life into living, breathing people. “Security Guard” becomes Barney Calhoun, who works undercover as a Combine cop. “Black Scientist” has become Eli Vance, leader of the resistance. And “Bald White Scientist” is now Isaac Kleiner, a technology guru.

Each of these characters treats Gordon Freeman as if he were an old friend. And given that the same voice actors play some of the parts (Barney and Dr. Kleiner), it comes across as authentic. You forget the details of what happened before and fill in the blanks with this new reality.

Okay, so she's sexy...
And then there’s Alyx Vance. She was obviously added for sex appeal, but she comes across as a real person. She’s smart and tough, an action-game cliche, but she has a backstory that justifies both. She dresses modestly, like the street soldier she is, and she has a light sense of humor. No chips on those shoulders.

In the end, you want to do right by her and the people she represents, not sleep with her. Well, you might want to do that, too, but the game doesn’t go there.

Gameplay

But enough about the people. What about the killing?

At its heart, Half-Life 2 is a simple FPS, but it offers enough variation in environment, opponents, and challenges to keep the game from getting stale.

Only a handful of the alien enemies make their way from the first game, and you spend most of your time fighting Combine soldiers, who may or may not be human beings under their armor. The game makes excellent use of the disturbing headcrabs, featuring an entire town infested with headcrab zombies that takes the game briefly into the realm of Gothic horror.

Like many shooters, Half-Life 2 is on rails, but it cleverly makes you feel like you are choosing your own path. No knee-high shrubs or invisible barriers bar your path, but you are being herded all the same.

An early rooftop chase leaves you breathless as you jump from building to building and duck into stairwells at just the last second, Combine soldiers always a fraction of a second behind you. Only afterward do you realize that you were reacting to design choices that led you down the only possible path.

Or later, your dune buggy (yes, there are vehicle sections) runs out of ammo very near a seemingly abandoned house. You can, of course, continue and get shredded by the enemies ahead, or you could scout out the house, which it totally what the game wants you to do!

The big gameplay innovation, of course, is the Gravity Gun, which lets you pull objects (and later, enemies) toward you and then expel them with great force. This enables the game to break up the shooting action with physics-based stacking and moving puzzles.

If you don’t do the following with the Gravity Gun, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life:
  1. Shoot the big metal ball through the hoop in the junkyard behind Eli Vance’s lab. (2 chievos!)
  2. Grab a saw blade and cut a headcrab zombie in half.
Seriously, you'll never know joy this pure again.

The only real gameplay clunker in Half-Life 2 is the half-baked team command system. Near the end of the game, you get the ability to send resistance fighters in different directions during certain battles. I appreciate this wrinkle in the normal gameplay, but the system is difficult to manage and you end up mopping up most of the enemies yourself. AI would have worked just as well.

Pros: Lovingly created environment, realistic characters, compelling story, creative FPS gameplay, the Gravity Gun

Cons: Freeman is a cypher, poorly executed team command system

Verdict: One of the best games ever made. You can get it as part of The Orange Box for like twenty bucks. That also includes Portal, Team Fortress 2, and Episodes 1 & 2.

Now, Valve, will you please give us Half-Life 2: Episode 3!

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Check out more Shame Pile reviews, if you're so inclined.

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