A thoroughly immersive, plot-centric game (no spoilers).
There are 5 main high-points for this game: the dramatic storyline, the games capability to immerse the player, the music, the physics, and the models.
As with Half-Life, the sequel Half-Life 2 is a plot-centric game where the story is king and events unfold into a dramatic "silent narrative". The sheer drama of the Half-Life 2 story, to me, was gripping.
The game's main strength is immersion. The best games of the genre are the ones where you forget there's a mouse and keyboard, and I believe the HL2 achieved that greatly. There were episodes, like Ravenholm, that made my heart pound in fear. I found myself completely immersed in the game, which was totally cool. I loved every second of it, and I feel this is the single best aspect of the game.
Music and sound was done effectively. Although I've read complaints about music occurring at odd times and stuttering, I had no problems. The choice of music and timing of the music gave me a sense of deja-vu about watching a George Romero movie, like Dawn of the Dead. I had to sleep with a night light for days after finishing the game -- the moans and cries of the zombies were extremely unnerving!
The physics was awesome. Since this is what most people comment on when they review HL2, I will say no more about it other than ... "whoa!"
The last high point of the game are the models. Totally effective. The eye movement was eerily realistic. The 5 o'clock shadows were masterful. NPC mannerisms like Alyx self-consciously touching her hair while she tells Gordon what an honor it was to be with him (or at the end when it feels like "I love you" is about to be said) was a superb touch.
I personally don't have much bad to say about the game.
Many people complain about the vehicle sections of the game, stating that they're too long. I don't agree. The riverboat and dune buggy episodes were gripping and ended just as I started to become vaguely conscious of wanting a scene change.
I do have to complain about the NPC's AI though. They weren't very smart, and were very ineffective in killing enemies and saving their own neck. They were particularly incompetent in avoiding unnecessary death (like walking in the path of a known sniper). As a programmer, this doesn't so much bother me because I know how difficult AI is, but sadly, this deficiency often snapped me out of my immersive experience. I started to become conscious of needing to save the game in order to keep my squad alive. Too bad, especially considering the immersive quality of the game is its main strength.
I also take exception to the ending and certain elements of the story line. Not only were none of the questions of HL1 answered, we now have a whole bunch of new ones. The ending of the game, while dramatic, was completely and thoroughly unsatisfying.
Lastly, I take STRONG exception to Steam for being intrusive, buggy, and singling out non-broadband users. I will purchase this game only when Steam is removed, and not a second before.
The Bottom Line
FPS games often get the short-shrift when it comes to plots. Perhaps the story line was a goof back in the Doom and Build engine days, but most FPS games have a rather complex storyline, considering that the main objective is to shoot. Even so, Half-Life distinguishes itself in the sheer drama which was never quite achieved in games like Blair Witch, Quake or Alice (even though Alice tried).
This game is clearly influenced by a host of sci-fi and horror themes:
* The Matrix
* Dawn of the Dead (or Night of the Living Dead)
This amalgam of influences is highly effective and should be very enjoyable to anyone who appreciates the genres.