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SummaryCure your spleen in City 17!
The GoodQuite a few years have passed since Half-Life enhanced first-person shooters with its assorted real-time explosions, setpieces, and other scripted extravaganza. For most purposes, the sequel does a great job at re-capturing the unforgettable feeling with its tight and inventive design, and throws even more cool tricks our way.
Half-Life 2 is a blast to play through. It's a fun ride through action-packed, interesting levels with movie-like presentation, scripted events, and loads of atmosphere. All this is set in a stylish environment and looks absolutely gorgeous. There is nothing more to find in this game: no bold cross-genre ideas, no depth, no intellectual challenge; once you complete it and "cool off", the game may not seem as great as you thought it was. But one thing is sure: it's very hard to put down while it lasts.
One of the things that makes Half-Life 2 such a fun experience is the variety of its gameplay. Though the game always stays true to its pure FPS roots, it never feels stale o repetitive. Many games - and shooters in particular - suffer from just that: the developers find a good idea and use it over and over again. Not so in Half-Life 2: it wants to entertain you no matter what. That's why it switches locations, scenarios, situations, levels, weapons, tactics needed to kill the enemies; it is always in motion, it never stops. Being chased by soldiers, traveling through sewers, fighting for your life in a creepy village, riding boats and buggies, shooting down helicopters, fighting alongside team members - all possible forms of a shooter are there. It is fun all the way through, and it never gets boring.
The trademark Half-Life interactivity is of course present in this sequel, and it is better than ever. Basically, everything that looks like it can be picked up can indeed be picked up in this game. Everything can be pushed, kicked, and thrown. This feature has been given particular attention in the sequel, sometimes becoming a goal in itself and a complete experience on par with the adrenaline-pumping action. It's so cool to fool around with stuff. The game cleverly satisfies one of the basic gaming instincts - the desire to grab and break things. See that bottle? Pick it up! And now toss it at somebody! It will break! Silly? Maybe, but sometimes gaming is about doing silly things.
However, this interactivity is more than just a small harmless gimmick. It is effectively used in the gameplay, culminating in the coolest of all weapons ever created for a shooter - the gravity gun. You have to see it in action to understand what I'm talking about. The poet in me wants to say: throw cans of white paint at zombies and laugh - or just pick up a saw and cut them in half.
The game's puzzles might be contrived, but I still liked them. They break the monotony of shooting, and most of them are quite fun. I much prefer physical, environmental puzzles to any other kind; and with a physics system like here, the puzzles feel realistic even when they are anything but. Like its predecessor, Half-Life 2 has plenty of scripted events. Things would constantly happen in the game, but not as cutscenes; you'll always have control over your character, being able to move and act no matter what. So everything happens, so to say, right in front of your eyes. It is a relatively simple trick, but it works marvels. It raises the level of immersion and turns the game into a highly cinematic experience, at the same time never turning into a bunch of non-interactive scenes.
Half-Life 2 starts very strong. You are invited to an "Orwellian" setting - a city under the control of a totalitarian regime, complete with a "Big Brother" appearing on gigantic screens who keeps telling you how great the city is, while all you see are desolate streets and evil-looking soldiers bullying confused people with electric clubs. After you emerge in City 17, you see an immaculate reproduction of a typical Soviet town. Depressing architecture, carcasses of old cars, abandoned facilities - everything looks so authentic, not just because of the quality of the graphics, but because of their style. This setting is undeniably one of the game's best parts, and with a little imagination, you can even forgive the game's predictable, thin plot, and just surrender to its magical atmosphere.
Half-Life 2 is a beautiful game; every level is designed with care and attention to detail, and the "Soviet" style comes to life with those graphics. What's more, it is technically nearly impeccable. I haven't encountered any bugs, crashes, or unexpected slowdowns. It ran immaculately on my rather outdated machine at moderately high settings.
The BadThe game itself doesn't try too hard to be more than it eventually turns out to be: a fun, atmospheric shooter. But you can't help expecting more when the developers proudly promise a 29834 pages long script, when they talk about likable characters, and when fans from all over the globe rave over the game's amazing dramatic storyline, while in reality they have been shown a couple of smart tricks. Characters are woefully underdeveloped an seem eager to display their total lack of personality. The obligatory female sidekick Alyx is probably the most disappointing one.
Like its predecessor, and even more so, Half-Life 2 likes creating illusions. I was drooling over the smart puzzles until I realized that all of them must be solved exactly the way the designers wanted you to. Each puzzle has only one solution, and sometimes it is really artificial. You could swear another solution would be simpler and more effective, but the game won't let you try it. Even though it mostly takes place outdoors, the levels are actually quite straightforward and full of annoying artificial borders. It worked better six years ago, when we were too blinded by the setpieces to notice the disguised linearity. Now it becomes harder to conceal.
In that respect Half-Life 2 reminded me of a magician in a circus. It does tricks, and it is very good at it. But in the end, those are just tricks. Scripted events, illusion of freedom, promises of a story that never comes - all that is just a facade. You'll find a really entertaining game behind it, but don't be fooled into thinking that Half-Life 2 is a masterpiece of fiction with innovative gameplay, because it isn't.