Just what I needed!
The Source engine is a lot of fun to play around with. It's quite stable once it's booted up, switching between weapons is easy and you can jump very well. Those three qualities pretty much mean that the engine is tailor-made for the Half-Life series. Thanks to Source, I played through the entire game with barely any problems whatsoever, only the occasional crash while impatiently tapping buttons while the game was booting.
The gameplay is also very challenging and combines the shooting from games like Medal of Honor, with running and jumping that is most reminiscent to the Mario games. Both of these vastly different mechanics start off just as easy: You shoot some slow enemies with a pistol and then continue to jump across some platforms, but nearing the end I was having massive squad-based battles with huge enemies while making jumps that would instant-kill me if I slipped. What remained consistent though is that I never felt like I could just play without paying attention, there was always a degree of challenge and I I always felt satisfied after making it past another section.
Early on in the game you will get your hands on the Gravity Gun, which is one of the main items you will be using. This weapon can pick up objects and fire them away, which is insanely satisfying to do against the Combine. It also pulls double-duty as a puzzle-solving device, as it allows you to reach objects you couldn't normally reach. Another weapon I find criminally enjoyable to use are the beetles. At one point in the game you obtain a little ball that constantly summons beetles, throw it at something and they will go there and kill everything inside. I love it when games give me weapons like these :)
There are also a few vehicle sections spread across the game that were really fun diversions from the normal gameplay. The boats and cars you will be controlling have really smooth controls and are therefore very fun to drive. When they have a gun on top of them, it gets even better!
The world is brilliantly designed and it really makes the story more compelling than it would have been in any other game. From the moment you arrive in City 17, you will notice just how vastly different it is from anything you are used to. It has a linear path that you must follow, but you can never predict what you will see or be faced with next. Valve also totally nailed the atmosphere and I really started caring about the people, not just because of the characters, but because I saw how they treat everything first-hand.
The story focuses on a small group of core characters and their design is also really great. They also have some great writing and voice-acting backing them up, which in the end leaves us with some of the most memorable characters in a video game ever. Hell, when the credits rolled, I was suddenly a lot more interested in buying Half-Life 2: Episode 1, a purchase I had specifically planned not to make.
I am going to be honest with you guys: I never finished the first Half-Life. I got to like 80% of it, but in the end I grow a bit bored or I just get myself saved into a corner and can't progress. Going into Half-Life 2, I didn't think I needed any sort of explanation, but once I started playing I was just completely confused. Who are these people? Where are we? Who the heck are these Combine? Some kind of explanation would really help here, but I was given none and just had to make do with what little I could extract out of the dialogue. I also find it peculiar that every plot-point from the first 80% of the first game is seemingly abandoned and that this must mean everything worth mentioning was crow-barred into the last few hours of the game.
It's still quite possible to get yourself saved into a corner, though it's a bit harder this time around. The first time I had to restart the game was during a vehicle section with a boat, where you had to jump over a fire that almost always hit you. I took a lot of damage early in the section, got past three checkpoints and never found any more health, so when faced with the fire, I had no chance at survival and nothing to reload from. Like I said though: it's a lot harder to mess up now.
One section in the game has endlessly respawning enemies, which is a game-design sin I simply can't overlook. It's just ONE moment in the entire game, but it mystifies me how somebody can possibly think we can do proper puzzling and platforming when there are zombies who throw headcrabs at you spawning right around the corner. There is also no indication that you are entering a zone with endless amounts of enemies, so the first time I wasted an insane amount of ammo trying to keep the buggers at bay, until I realized I had to advance, only to be faced with a Fast Zombie and no weapon that could kill him.
The Bottom Line
Every once in a while I get a bit tired of games. I play a lot of RPG's that last 60 or more hours: Zelda, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy (more recently), which aren't really games I can just boot up two hours before work. During these times I just sit at my laptop and do nothing. Eventually I pop in a good FPS and I feel really spirited again, so when I did this with Half-Life 2, I was pleasantly surprised that the game was more than "just an FPS". Possibly one of the best, if not the best, in its genre, Half-Life 2 neatly combines deadly firefights with equally as deadly platforming.
The characters are very enjoyable, the atmosphere is amazing and the game plays very well, Because the story seems to leave new players in the dark, I recommend this game mostly to the fans of the franchise. If you are new to it though, there is no real reason to skip out on this one, aside from the story not really filling you in on some stuff. Only if you prefer your shooters in a more realistic way, without platforming in them, or you just don't like shooters in general, then you should probably find something else to play.