Incredible Movie-like Gameplay well worth overlooking the flaws.
It is obvious as you play; Half-Life 2 is a demo of their engine and physics model. All the game types are there: FPS, Tactical Shooter, Horror Survival, Platform jumper, and racing simulator. Yet, this is so well balanced and carefully configured that you don't feel it’s a demo. In fact, by carefully mixing the types of game play, it never gets stale.
Valve is the master of level design. They have created well made and heavily scripted scenes that feel spontaneous and quite interesting. Each level rarely gets tedious, and when it ever starts feeling this way, the situation is changed just in time. They seem to time ever shift in situation at just that perfect point, where you could get bored. And as in the original half-life, each situation has enough sense of urgency, with enough pause to catch your breath and feel what you are doing. You always want to go one step further to see what Valve has set up for you.
Finally, one cannot move on without mentioning the incredible physics model Valve created for the game. Items all flow and feel real. When you interact with a bed, it flops and moves realistically, while steel looks heavy and hard when moved. Items move through the air with a real sense of weight and resistant. And this is well used in the game play, as moving certain objects creates realistic chains of events, such as an explosion destroying a base holding a log that swings from a rope down to batter a gate wide open (and just wait until you get to operate a magnetic crane :-) ).
On top of this, many time Valve plays with the physics model to create entertaining and useful effects. The best example is the famed gravity gun. It can sling heavy objects easily and be your best friend when supplies are out of reach. It is the top of a fine assortment of weapons, though I felt the enemies machine gun proved to be the top-notch weapon, especially the secondary function if you figure out how to use it. Just watch your enemies fry.
The state of the art today (2004). The graphics are well designed and the engine feels smooth. 3-d is looking more alive than ever before. But, what really works is the craftsmanship of the models. Each main character is carefully skinned with highly detailed skins that look real, pock marks, dimples, and all. Each area is equally well crafted, and carefully detailed with fine objects, such as empty Chinese food cartons strewn, well place rubble and logs. And these set pieces are designed into the game play, as you will find out when you use them to defend yourself, or even use for offense.
Special effects where well done. Each gun sounded unique. Each landscape had its own feel, such as the metallic echo of the enemy's lair, the lush sounds of the beech, and the high-pitched sounds of battle in the city.
I found the music quite enjoyable on its own and in the game. I don't think it stands out in the game, but fits the background nicely. Its played in the right places, though its nothing extra-ordinary.
Also, the voice-acting it generally very good especially by the old hands at video game acting, with strong performances from Merle Dandridge, Jim French, and Mike Shapiro. The more famous voices are a little less enthusiastic, though Robert Gillaume is surprisingly fresh in his role.
On this I'm split. So I'll discuss the enemy AI. This was a more intelligent group of enemies I've fought. They use their weapons well and attempt to force you out of hiding. They react quickly and seem to move on their toes. But, the bad I'll explain later.
Okay, there is this story, and well, that’s it. It really is an excuse in this game just to put your character in very different situations, from the buggy ride to the horror survival. And man, there will be no pay-off, so don't be disappointed at the end. You really won't know much more at the end as you did from the beginning. Really, no one liked the X-Files after they never gave any info about what was going on. Start giving more.
Oh, but don't make the existing plot twists so obvious. I was not fooled once as to what was going to happen. At least knowing why they happened would make up for it.
Okay, I just never got into the characters of this game. There is one point where something significant happens to one of the main characters (near a big ditch, if you played). After it occurred, I just shrugged and wondered how to cross the ditch. The character situations feel forced and can make you feel uncomfortable, especially when you don't feel what they seem to think you should.
Okay, continuing from before, the enemies do have their faults. They don't notice when they mistakenly throw their own grenades, and tend to blow themselves up. They also seem to react intelligently, but slowly, allowing me to take advantage of their paralysis.
Then there are my allies in the game. Extremely dumb AIs that run into gunfire without consideration. The worse was the way they did not use cover, as when my missile launching pals would run up to high powered striders and gets blown away before a missile could be fired. AIs that frequently blocked my retreat because they could not move out of the way in a quickly responsive manner. Some day, some company has to specialize in developing an AI engine that will allow enemies and allies alike to at least appear to be thinking.
Again, this was over-all strong. But poor Robert Culp was given way to many speeches, and seemed to get stuck in that speech tone when the personal conversations began. Also, some of the dialogue felt un-realistic, undermining the performances, and making it difficult to care about the characters. It really goes back to the story; good acting can only go so far.
The Bottom Line
This is a must have game that really should be played by anyone. It’s not perfect, but is one of the best games I've played in recent years. Its physics and game play definitely over-ride any of the minor complaints I've made. It was an amazing game experience that I don't believe would be lost on anyone but the most jaded game player.