Review: Half-Life 2 (XB)
Developer: Valve Software
Distributor: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 11/15/05
In 1998 Half-Life burst onto the gaming scene and completely shook up the FPS genre with its in-depth storyline, smarter enemies, and almost cinematic feel. It became the gold standard by which all other FPS’s have been judged, and has spawned numerous expansions, mods, and spinoffs.
Late last year in November 2004, Half-Life 2 was released on the PC to much critical acclaim. Reviewers were calling it the best game of the year and claiming that it was better than the original in almost every way.
Now, almost a year later, Half-Life 2 is making its appearance on the Xbox. But as with most games on the PC that make their way to a console, a little something seems to get lost in the translation. How well has HL2 managed to hold up? Is this one worth your time to check out? Or is it better off lost in the shuffle of the holidays and the Xbox 360 launch?
Half-Life 2’s story picks up a few years after Half-Life’s. In HL you played Gordon Freeman, a scientist working for the Black Mesa Research Facility. Unfortunately your colleagues opened up a portal allowing aliens to begin swarming the area, and the military is called in to clean up the mess. From that point on, you were fighting for your life against both the invading alien force and your own government, while under the ever watchful eye of the strange G-Man.
Now Gordon Freeman is back, this time apparently working for the G-Man. As you begin the game, you find yourself riding a train into City 17 where you are greeted by the visage of Dr. Wallace Breen via a giant screen. The recording tells you that you are now in a safe place and that the world is under control of a group he calls the “benefactors”. From this point on you are basically left on your own to figure out where you are and what you need to do.
Fortunately the game does throw some help your way. Old friends from Half-Life show up, including the security guard Barney who helps to smuggle you through the city, and new friends, such as Alyx Vance and Dr. Eli Vance will also assist you on your mission. Unfortunately the story is never really clear about what is going on, but that is part of the charm. Some questions are answered, while others are never really mentioned, and by the end of the game you will probably be left scratching your head wondering what in the world just happened.
As bewildering as the story can be at times, it is still told quite well through the eyes of the character. Everything in the game is witnessed first hand and without the use of cut scenes, which adds to the cinematic feeling. And although the story will end up leaving you with more questions than answers, it does a wonderful job of drawing you into the game and holding your attention.
Story Score: 8/10
As with any port from the PC to a console, the quality of the graphics is expected to go down a good bit (at least with this generation of consoles). And the same is true here. But, with that being said…
It’s been a little while since a game managed to really wow me in the graphics category. But HL2 has managed to do just that. Sure, it’s not as sleek and smooth as its PC counterpart, but it takes the Xbox and pushes its hardware to the max and then some. It’s every bit as good as Halo 2, and I’d say even a little bit better.
Poly counts are high and character models, objects, and buildings all look fantastic. Edges are smooth for the most part, and you won’t see a lot of jags unless you get really close to something. The textures are incredible and lifelike, especially from a distance. Getting closer to an object will begin to pixilate it, but not to the degree that one might expect.
Speaking of character models, they are incredible detailed to the point of almost being real. They move in a realistic and fluid fashion and you can see the expressions on their faces as their mood changes. When they talk, their lips move just as you would expect them to with what they are saying.
The graphical effects are equally impressive, with lighting and shadows adding a real sense of life and beauty to your surroundings. Weapons fire like you would expect them to, and you’ll see plenty of explosions, flying shrapnel, and ricocheting bullets. Sky and water effects also look amazing. The water is especially impressive as it moves, reflects light, and distorts your vision while under it just as you would expect.
Overall, HL2s graphics are amazing, and I am impressed to see how much the developers were able to keep from the PC. This is right up there with the best games on the Xbox in terms of graphics, and is not likely to be outdone on this generation of consoles.
Graphics Score: 10/10
The sound is almost as impressive as the graphics. Music and effects are crisp, clear, and almost perfect for every section of the game.
The music in HL2 comes and goes based on where you are and what you are doing. Rarely will you hear the same theme more than a few times, and each piece seems to be perfectly tailored for a specific area. These tracks vary from mellow and atmospheric to blaring guitar and drum scores. And the first time you put on your environmental suit you’ll hear the old familiar Half-Life theme, which I must admit sent little shivers down my spine. There’s a part of me that is actually upset that you don’t hear the music more often, as it is so good when you do hear it. But at least it isn’t overdone, and fits the game perfectly.
Sound effects are also incredible, and will really give your speakers a workout if you have a nice setup at home. Everything from the gentle thud of your feet as you walk around to the roar of a rocket launcher blast is heard in wonderful clarity. Large scale battles will have your subwoofer shaking the room and probably make your neighbors wonder what in the world is going on.
The voice work is pretty topnotch for the most part, although every now and then you’ll run into a character that just doesn’t seem right. However, the main characters are all voiced wonderfully which helps to add to the sense of realism that the game is attempting to convey.
In the end, I have very few complaints about the sound, with the exception of a few voices here and there, and my wish that there was more music in the game. But these are mostly insignificant, and don’t do anything to really affect the game negatively.
Sound Score: 10/10
4. CONTROL AND GAMEPLAY
As you would expect, Half-Life 2 plays like any other FPS on the Xbox. You move with the left analog stick and turn and aim with the right analog. The right trigger is your primary attack while the left trigger performs a secondary attack. The buttons all perform different actions, including jumping, reloading your weapon, sprinting, interacting with objects and people, and using your flashlight. It’s a tried and true setup for playing FPSs on a console, and it works perfectly well here. Although I still prefer my trusty keyboard and mouse.
As for the gameplay… well, it’s an FPS. The majority of your time is spent running around from area to area, shooting bad guys and solving minor puzzles. Nothing really new here.
Ok, I guess I should go into a little bit more detail than that.
Right from the get go you’ll find that you can talk to almost any character you encounter, as long as they aren’t trying to kill you anyway. You’ll hear little snippets of conversation and get some good background information. Most objects can also be interacted with, and many can be picked up and set down. One of the most amusing things for me was picking up a television set with Dr. Breen preaching on it, pulling the socket out of the wall, and then dropping it on the floor and watching it shatter. Ah, the little things…
Movement is fluid, although you constantly seem to be moving much faster than you might expect. This can make certain areas that required some finesse to be more difficult than they otherwise should be. Jumping also appears to be pretty shallow, especially when compared to other games in the genre, but it’s adequate for when you need it, and often times if you need to get someplace higher you can find some boxes nearby to stack up like a staircase.
Certain sequences will have you using vehicles, and these control and move just as you would expect them to. Other areas involve more straightforward shooting elements, and you’ll find that the enemy AI can get pretty tough at times. Enemies have a tendency to use the environment to their advantage, hiding beyond boxes and barrels only to pop out and fire on you, then move to another secure spot while advancing on your position. It’ll force you to both think fast and act fast if you are going to survive, especially at the higher difficulty levels.
The weapons in the game are pretty varied, but a lot of times I found myself using the basic pistol. For being such a simple weapon, it still packs a nice punch and has a solid firing rate and fairly quick reload time. And of course you have the ever popular machine guns, shotguns, and rocket launcher, as well as the crowbar and crossbow from the first game. There’s also the incredibly impressive Gravity Gun which basically allows you to pick up objects, move them, use them as shields, or lob them at enemies. To say that this gun is fun to use is quite the understatement. Once you obtain it, chances are you will wield it every chance you get.
Speaking of moving and throwing things, the games physics engine is one of the best I have ever seen. Enemies, vehicles, and objects all move in an incredibly lifelike fashion. Try shooting your adversaries in different locations and you’ll see that they fall and die differently depending on where you hit them.
Oh, and about firing your weapons… one thing I noticed is that the game tends to auto aim for you to a certain extent. As long as your targeting reticule is basically where you want it, chances are you will hit. This will certainly be good news to novice players, but old FPS pros might find this slight auto correction to be annoying. However, it’s not nearly as noticeable as it may sound, but chances are if you are missing your target, it’s because you really can’t aim.
My biggest complaint with the game as a whole has to do with the loading times. Fortunately the longest loading time is right at the beginning when you start the game up. It takes a good half a minute or so to load everything. Once in the game though, loading times fall down to about 10 seconds, give or take. And fortunately you will only find yourself loading two or three times per chapter, of which there are fourteen in total.
Slowdown is also an issue occasionally, although occurrences are much fewer and far between than one might expect considering the impressive level of the graphics. The only really noticeable slowdowns occur when there are a lot of explosions on screen. However, these rarely last more than a second or two, and I can’t recall the gameplay ever being affected because of it.
As you play, you will run into several auto save areas and checkpoints. These keep you from having to save all the time, although I’d still suggest giving yourself a nice comfortable save point every now and then, preferably after recharging your suit and picking up some health, just in case you happen to walk through a checkpoint with only 10 life left and find yourself wandering into a room with a dozen enemies.
And that’s about it. Half-Life 2 is your basic FPS when it comes down to it, although the gameplay and control tends to be much better than most of your other FPS’s out there. There is enough variety in the weapons to keep things interesting, and the games physics help to keep things realistic. And aside from some slowdown issues and the occasional long loading time, the game plays fantastic.
Control and Gameplay Score: 8/10
And here is where the Xbox version of the game really let me down. Yes, the story is good, the graphics and sound are amazing, and the gameplay and control is rock solid… but where’s the replayability?
The first time you play through the game, especially if you are on easy mode, chances are you will be able to complete it in about 12 hours, give or take. Successive play throughs will be significantly shorter since you’ll know how to approach every area, and you’ll only be slowed down by your adversaries if you happen to be on a higher difficulty level. However, as much as I enjoyed the story (even if the ending annoyed me), I can’t see playing through the game more than once although there are three different difficulty levels to choose from.
Unfortunately there is no multiplayer mode, which is perhaps the biggest strike against the game as a whole. FPS’s tend to live and die based on how good their multiplayer modes are, and we don’t even have a generic deathmatch here. No Xbox Live, no two to four player split screen, nothing. I guess they needed all the space on the disc to make the single player game as good as it can be. I can appreciate that, but I really did want to be able to hop online and play with some friends like I can on the PC version.
Replayability Score: 2/10
On the bright side, the game is very well balanced across its three difficulty levels. Easy mode is the perfect place for a novice to start, or someone who just wants to enjoy the story. Enemies are scarce and do less damage, while you seem to do more.
Normal and Hard modes jack up the difficulty appropriately. Normal mode is the perfect place for someone who has FPS experience, but doesn’t consider themselves to be expert players, to start. Hard mode, on the other hand, is exactly what the name suggests… Hard. Enemies are more numerous, smarter, and tend to hit more often. Hard mode should provide a solid challenge to even the most die hard FPS fan.
Unfortunately the balance is really only changed by the number and skill level of the enemies, as the level layout remains consistent, as does the location of traps and puzzles and the means to solve or bypass them. Still, the names of the modes says it all, so pick which one is the most appropriate for you, and go to town.
Balance Score: 7/10
And here is another area where the game is going to lose a few points. Even the original Half-Life, for all its innovation, still borrowed heavily from other games to create the sensation that it was. And Half-Life 2 is no different.
However, while it may be just another FPS, it is the execution of the game that really helps it to stand apart from its contemporaries. The storyline is well told, the presentation is excellent, and the variety of weapons is a real joy. Especially the gravity gun, which is about as unique a weapon as I have seen in an FPS in quite some time.
So while HL2 does borrow greatly from other games, as well as its predecessor, it still manages to add in a little originality with its excellent presentation and wonderful array of weaponry.
Originality Score: 5/10
It’s not chocolate coated crack, but it’s probably the next best thing, especially if you enjoy a solid FPS. Remember how I mentioned that it will take you around 12 hours to beat the game for the first time? Well, I’m willing to wager that a good number of you will blast through that 12 hours in one sitting, or maybe two or three smaller blocks.
Regardless, the game grabs a hold of you and really sucks you in. You’ll want to keep playing just to see what happens next in the storyline and to figure out why you are in City 17 and what is going on. Not to mention the combat and the variety of weapons manages to keep things fresh and interesting.
It really is unfortunate that there is no multiplayer mode and that the story is relatively short, especially on your second or third run through, but we covered that in replayability. Suffice it to say that once you start playing HL2, you won’t want to put it down until the credits role.
Addictiveness Score: 9/10
9. APPEAL FACTOR
There has been, and always will be a solid market for FPS games out there. And if you haven’t already picked up Half-Life 2 for the PC, then you really should give it a try here.
Unfortunately because the game has been out for a year already on the PC, the game’s main player base has probably already purchased it, and while they may still be playing the multiplayer modes on the PC, I doubt they are going to want to pick up the Xbox version just for the single player storyline.
Lack of a multiplayer mode is also going to hurt HL2s overall appeal. Add to that the recent launch of the Xbox 360 with Quake 4 for FPS fans to gobble up, and I have the feeling that HL2 will probably not sell as well as it would have under different circumstances.
However, it’s still a solid game, and for anyone who hasn’t already played it on the PC, I highly suggest at least giving it a rental.
Appeal Factor Score: 6/10
So, what can I say that hasn’t already been said?
Half-Life 2 really is a fantastic game that is only hurt by its lack of multiplayer modes and the time at which it is coming out. If this had been released earlier this year with a full set of Xbox Live options, I have no doubt that this could have been the best FPS of the year. Unfortunately it was not meant to be.
Still, I have to give credit where credit is due. The team responsible for porting HL2 from the PC to the Xbox has done an incredibly job, especially in the areas of graphics and sound. I have never seen such a wonderful translation before, and the developers should be proud of their work. They managed to push the Xbox to its limits and almost completely eliminate any slowdown. A few long loading times aside, and you’ve got one of the smoothest playing games around.
As I mentioned, this game is worth a rental at the least, especially if you haven’t played it on the PC yet. Its lack of replayability is really the only reason I can’t suggest a purchase, at least not at a full $50, but if it ever gets down into the $20-$30 range, it would be a tempting pick up.
So feel free to give this game a shot, and prepare to be impressed.
Miscellaneous Score: 8/10
Appeal Factor: 6
Final Score: 7.5 (Good)