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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Half-Life 2 - Retrospective

Sometimes I start wondering why I put myself through this ordeal. Games become more of a chore than something fun, and I begin to question why I even play them. Do other people find them fun? Am I just playing the wrong games, or am I just jaded? Am I not as big of a gamer as I've always considered myself to be?

Then I play a game like Half-Life 2, and it completely redeems my efforts. I'm fairly certain there's nothing I can say about Half-Life 2 that hasn't already been said a thousand times before by reviewers much more talented than I. But I can at least give my own praise to it. This game was absolutely incredible.

Even without playing the first game, I was able to be immersed into the sequel right off the bat as you're introduced to the unashamedly Orwellian City 17. Faceless masked guards will abuse their power, forcing you to throw trash away for them, whacking you with a laser-powered nightstick if you get too close, as annoying-as-sin flying cameras blind you if you do something as unthinkable as go exploring off the beaten path. This all does well to set the atmosphere for what can only be described as a truly cinematic experience.

Every mission in the game feels so distinctly different from the last, you start to wonder whether you're actually playing the same game. It's an excellent testament to the versatility of the Source engine and the talent of the Valve game designers. In one mission, you find yourself crawling through an underground railroad of back alleys and train graveyards, in the next you'll find yourself riding a one-man hovercraft through toxic sludge in an attempt to avoid a helicopter, and in another you'll find yourself arranging turrets to defend against a wave of spawning soldiers as you wait for a can-not-possibly-be-any-slower platform to reset itself.

Half-Life 2 straddles the amazingly thin line between physics puzzles and FPS action, with even touches of squad-based shooters, pokemon, tower defense, and Boom Blox mixed in. Level design follows a mantra I like to call "If you can do it, you probably should." You're never led through a level by any artificial means, instead the game expects you to explore and find your own path. While there is generally only one correct linear path through any particular level, it usually feels like you are free to go anywhere. This illusion of free will is a perfect metaphor for the game's oppressive government regime.

Other less tangible features like the game's sound, music, and voice acting are all top notch. When I told my mom I beat the game, she commented that she was glad she wouldn't have to hear the subwoofer anymore for every explosion. There are a lot of explosions in the game. Character design, dialogue, and storyline are all excellently handled, with a number of memorable characters that rival any summer blockbuster. Half Life 2 is a multiple oscar-award winning action movie or best-selling novel in video game form.

While no game is perfect, Half-Life 2 comes damn close. The largest problem is the plot progression of the game. In general, it feels pretty much like the storyline is only there to lead you from one level to the next. The phrase "When suddenly..." does indeed come to mind. You're hoping to go to the next area, when suddenly, something happens and you have to find a new way to get there. The game plays this trump card just a little bit too much. Also, while most people will get a kick out of the technobabble of the game, it feels like it's there to mask the fact that NOBODY knows what the fuck is going on. Your companion may tell you WHERE you need to go, but if you want to know WHY, you're probably going to have to consult the Combine Overwiki.

The only other problems I would be able to bring up would be minor nitpicks. There are occasional glitches that ruin immersion, a slightly high difficulty spike in the middle of Nova Prospekt that I needed to cheat to pass, and there are a number of times I would have paid money for an objective arrow, but all of these are very minor compared to the absolute greatness of this game.

Anyone who thinks that video games are a waste of time, a stupid hobby, or not art, I urge not to bother with Katamari Damacy, Echochrome, or Braid. (Actually, no. Braid is still fucking awesome) Instead, play Half-Life 2. If you're losing faith that the game industry has anything more than space marines and World War II on its mind, play Half-Life 2. This is the kind of game that every other game wishes it could be. Fuck Metroid Prime. Half Life 2 is the Citizen Kane of gaming.

The Good
  • Puzzles make excellent use of the Havok physics engine.
  • Weapons are versatile and feel different enough from one another to avoid feelings of redundancy.
  • Level designs feel natural and varied, with dozens of noticeable locations and settings.
  • Every god damned thing I haven't mentioned yet.
The Bad
  • Many enemies can be annoyingly difficult to kill. Mostly the small ones. Oh, and Striders. I fucking hate Striders.
  • Overall storyline is seems to rely too heavily on "When suddenly..." plot twists and story progression.
  • Squad mates don't do shit except get in your way.
The Defining Moment
  • Spending an hour and a half killing Antlions, only to suddenly have them on your side, then discovering that they're better teammates than a human squad.
The Burning Question
  • Seriously, Gordon Freeman can't climb a chain link fence?

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