Fun, and innovative on a small scale, but not the "greatest game of all time" as some would have you believe.
Half-life 2 starts out with a very well put together speech from G-Man, the shady business man inhabiting the first Half-life game. Before you know it you end up in City 17, a post-apocalyptic, war-torn city. The game progresses pretty similarly to the original Half-life. It works like an interactive movie, in that you'll meet people that tell you what you should do next and it all takes place within the game's engine.
The levels are well varied, incorporating vehicles and team based action at points (more on this later) and there are some awesome action set-pieces which could come out of any movie. Many of these are very memorable and will warrant being replayed from time to time.
Team based, and Ant-lion sections of the game have excellent 3D pathfinding for the NPC characters - probably the best I've seen in any FPS. This makes these sections work wonderfully. If the pathfinding had been sub-par, these sections could have been extrememly annoying.
Half-life 2 is powered by the Source engine. The graphics that this engine renders are pretty damn special, with some really nice and subtle shader effects on most surfaces. Water in particular is beautiful to look at, as are laser fields and the like. Sound is pretty good, however has been done better by many recent games. In-game enemies and characters are incredible to look at, while not being has stylised and varied as in Doom 3, they are more comic-book like and this really adds to the atmosphere. In game cut-scenes are excellent and could not have been done much better (graphically) even with pre-rendered sequences.
Half-life 2 innovates in one major area - physics. Or more specifically physics integrated into the gameplay. It does this by providing the player with a "gravity gun". This weapon allows you to pick up and place or throw any object from the environment you are in. It can be used for stacking, hacking or even as a weapon. For example you could barricade a door up so bad guys can't get to you, or you pick up a fridge and hurl it at an enemy. The gravity gun is the most integral item in the game, and Valve has really made the most of it, moving it beyond just a "gimmick".
Some of the games puzzles are physics based also. For example you might have to weigh down one end of a board over a pipe so that you can walk to the other end to get to a higher part of a level. There are several weight based puzzles in the game.
The last section of the game is extremely fun (albeit far too easy) and I won't spoil the surprises in store for players in that section. Suffice to say, the physics engine really has a chance to shine and will warrant replaying more than most of the rest of the game.
My major gripe with Half-life 2 with its game play mechanics. The first Half-life was linear from start to finish, however after being spoiled with games like Grand Theft Auto and Far-cry in the six years since Half-life's release most gamers have come to expect some level of freedom in their shooter. Half-life 2 essentially does not allow for any freedom of choice in progressing through the game. Most puzzles have only one solution, and there is only ever one available path through the game. This really limits replay value, much the same as in Doom 3. There are secret areas and areas that can be skipped, however these have no impact on the actual progress through the game, and often times don't warrant the effort involved in completing them. Sometimes it's not obvious where the game designers wanted you to go next, and its at these times that the linear nature of the game really becomes an issue, because thinking outside the box and doing things the designers did not expect, usually leads to instant death - punishment for not doing what the designers wanted you to do.
Next, are the vehicle sections (which are welcome), however there are only two main sections which involve vehicles. These sections get a bit boring after a while and seem to last a little too long. I feel the game could have benefited from having shorter and more frequent vehicle sections since these could have been used to more effectively break up the gameplay.
There are also team based sections where you can command up to four friendly team mates. These work well to enhance the atmosphere and the team mates have excellent pathfinding, however they are useless when it comes to combat. This detracts from the usefulness of these sections as sending your team mates into combat often leaves them shooting at anything but the enemy. Mostly the only real purpose they serve is to provide you with health when you get damaged.
My other major gripe is the way levels are delivered. The original Half-life pioneered the "seam-less" world idea, where levels were linked and after a short loading period you would just continue on with no break in the action. Half-life 2 uses the same technique and doesn't recognise that technology has changed in the past six years. With high-resolution textures and models loading times have increased exponentially and so often these "seam-less" level loads will happen in the middle of an action sequence in Half-life 2, completely ruining the tension that has been created. Loading times vary from 20 seconds up to 3 minutes depending on system specs. Valve would have been much better off to have fewer and longer loading points or the best option, to stream each level off the disk as it's required, not breaking the the gameplay at all.
I felt that the music in Half-life 2 while good, was not implemented all that well. It kicks in during certain action sequences, however it never seemed to kick in at the right times for me. It would either come in early leaving you thinking "what's the big deal?" or kick in late, after you're already half way through a situation. Compared to Far-cry's dynamic music system the scripted Half-life 2 approach is pretty primitive.
Half-life 2 shipped with a "sound skipping" bug, in which entering new areas or turning corners cause a pause of 1-2 seconds in the gameplay. Different people seem to experience this to different degrees, some every couple of seconds, others less so. For those that have had this problem, it is a major distraction breaking all continuity in the gameplay. It's a pretty major bug for the game to have shipped with, and difficult to understand why Valve didn't find it before release.
Half-life 2 has no multiplayer component, which is a shame, since it would be great fun to duel with the gravity gun in multiplayer. Counter Strike : Source is included which is a welcome addition, however new players may find it difficult to get into, due to closed and somewhat immature attitude of some players in the large and existing Counter Strike community. I've never played a game where I've been sworn at and insulted (stuff that I couldn't write in this review), simply because it's my first time playing the game. Instead of helping new players learn the ropes, this seems like a community that would rather that everyone else would just get lost. It's only a game isn't it? Counter Strike : Source also recycles content from the original Counter Strike, not really adding anything new, making it even harder for new players to be welcomed to the community.
My final thought is just to express my wonder at the amount of hype and praise that Half-life 2 has recieved in the past couple of weeks since release. I've never seen more comments of "this is the best game ever made!" ascribed to any single game ever. I find this odd, since the game is clearly less innovative than many other games released this year, confining innovation to several small gameplay areas, rather than breaking the mould of the genre. Half-life was a genre breaking game, it changed the format of every FPS to follow it. You're kidding yourself if you think that Half-life 2 is the same.
The Bottom Line
A well implemented, compelling game play experience with plenty of on-rails action. Innovative in areas of the FPS mechanics, most notably in integration of physics into gameplay. It's one of the best FPS games available on any platform, but don't get too caught up in the hype - it's just another game.