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ups: Lots of ambiance, fun weapons, great action, nice voice acting, physics!
downs: Glitchier than PC version, sticky doorways, surprisingly thin on narrative, friendly AI is rock-stupid, no multiplayer, numerous load screens.

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Half-Life 2 Review
game: Half-Life 2
three star
posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: Electronic Arts
developer: Valve Software
ESRB rating: M (Mature)
date posted: 07:19 PM Mon Jan 9th, 2006
last revision: 07:19 PM Mon Jan 9th, 2006

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Click to read.In the world of computer games, the Half-Life franchise is legendary. The original Half-Life, published in 1998, was a major achievement in combining FPS action with a deep narrative. The cinematic cutscenes were all displayed in-game, and the player remained in control of the protagonist throughout the game\'s narrative sequence. This quality of constant control and interaction helped the story remain gripping and powerful. You play as Dr. Gordon Freeman, a physicist at the Black Mesa Research Facility. In the original Half-Life, a portal is opened to an alien world, and Dr. Freeman must help save scientists and defeat the alien uprising. He\'s not an ultra-buff superhero. He\'s not a paranormal anomaly with psychic powers. He\'s a physicist, and often his best defense is a typical crowbar. As the story of Half-Life unfolded, players found themselves uncovering many layers of meaning and conspiracy, eventually turning their original notions of the game world upside down.

This is what made Half-Life great: Incredible story mixed with impeccable execution. Valve Software displays an excellent sense of game design, relying on perfection above and beyond innovation. The voice acting in the Half-Life series is wonderful, and the environments are beautifully designed, even when they are horrific or war-torn. Half-Life is not necessarily the most radically different thing in the world, it\'s simply one of the best things in the world.

However, throughout the life of the Half-Life series, success on the home console has not happened. The original Half-Life took four years to release for PlayStation 2, and the resulting game was horribly flawed, plagued by a shoddy port job, dated graphics, and a lot of competition (mainly, Halo). It\'s clear that Valve really loves their PC gamers, and they do a good job showing it. With Half-Life 2, the same holds true: Valve loves the PC, and the home consoles, well, not so much.

If it is possible for you to play Half-Life 2 on the PC, then you should. The game is a wonderful experience, as I\'ll discuss more later. But more to the point: The Xbox version is not as good. Even on a mediocre PC, you\'ll experience less slowdown, more stable framerates, and significantly fewer sticky doors and glitched out game freezes. As someone who has made the journey through City 17 and Nova Prospekt on both platforms, I can wholeheartedly recommend the PC version over the Xbox version. Having made that much clear, if you have not played Half-Life 2, and you cannot play it on a PC, then you need to grab it for your Xbox or Xbox 360. It is a flawed port, but worthwhile nonetheless.

Half-Life 2 opens as you (playing Dr. Gordon Freeman once again) find yourself on a train entering City 17. The G-Man, an enigmatic character from previous Half-Life games, tells you that you have work to do and implies you\'ve been sleeping for a long time. As you quickly discover after arriving in City 17, a lot has happened since you fought your way out of Black Mesa and were put into the G-Man\'s employ. Dr. Breen, your former nemesis at Black Mesa, has become the leader of the human government, which has worked out a deal to serve the alien Combine forces. The Combine has locked down all of the world, and City 17 is one of the last bastions of any semblance of resistance.

Whereas most of Half-Life took place in cramped quarters, Half-Life 2 opens up the world and allows Freeman to cover a lot of ground. Within the first few moments, Freeman is helped outdoors by his old pal Barney, who is working underground for the resistance. Amazed that Freeman has returned, they advise you to head to Dr. Kleiner, another old friend who will assist your rendezvous with Eli Vance and others from the first game who have been working against the Combine forces.

In the streets of City 17 you really begin to get a feel for how much Valve has ramped up the ambiance in Half-Life 2. The streets are locked down, patrolled by grumpy Combine soldiers and giant Striders: Three-legged spider-like walkers that tower dozens of feet in the sky. Automated cameras fly around snapping photos of citizens going about their business, although mostly the streets are empty. Eventually you find your way to a rundown apartment building just as a group of Combine soldiers conduct a raid. These first moments of gameplay evoke imaginations of Jewish ghettos and Nazi raids during World War II. Half-Life has always had a quality reminiscent of the best sci-fi writing, and these opening game scenes display that quality with great affinity.

After a breathless run through the City, Freeman embarks on a never-ending journey that takes him to the end of the game. It\'s not a short trip, but the overall feeling of Half-Life 2 is a lot like a really tense road movie. The gameplay remains invigorated by the constant integration of small changes: A new vehicle or weapon is introduced just when gameplay gets a bit stale, which keeps things fresh throughout. For the most part, Half-Life 2 avoids the most pointless tropes of FPS action/adventure games, but expect a few repetitive and overly lengthy levels.

For the most part, Half-Life 2 plays like a typical first-person shooter. There is a wide range of fun firearms at your disposal, and enough ammo to experiment. What really sets Half-Life 2 apart, of course, is the physics engine. Half-Life 2 implements the Havok physics engine to the extreme, even providing a \"gravity gun,\" which allows Freeman to manipulate objects in the environment in all kinds of ways. The implementation of such advanced physics modeling leads to fresh gameplay moments that will undoubtedly be remembered for years to come.

The physics modeling increases strategic options in gameplay, too. Freeman could lob his own grenades, or he can use the gravity gun to catch grenades thrown by enemies and then toss them back. Flying sawblade robots known as manhacks can be troublesome nuisances, but if you capture one with the gravity gun, it becomes a vicious melee weapon. It\'s possible to play through a level several times and then eventually figure out that there\'s yet another way to do things by using some tricky manipulation of the environmental detritus.

Unfortunately, Half-Life 2 is not perfect, especially on the Xbox. The story is involving, but in the end I felt more like I had just played a really good adventure movie rather than playing a really good science fiction novel. The narrative promises big, but leaves us with what ultimately amounts to a cliffhanger not so much unlike the ending of Halo 2. Near the end of the game, Freeman is tasked with leading groups of rebels against Combine forces. Even if you take pains to give them direct commands, these allies exhibit rock-stupid AI, often running directly into the line of fire against unstoppable opponents against orders to remain in position. As a result, you are forced to not think too much about all the freedom fighters who have died helping Freeman survive, and that took me even further away from the story. So much more could have been done with these characters, as we\'ve seen in so many other games.

Often the manipulation of objects in the environment is reduced to building makeshift bridges or, worse, simply playing hopscotch with two crates in order to get across radioactive waste or dangerous waters. In these instances, the inclusion of the gravity gun and physics is a subject worth cursing. There is nothing worse than platforming elements in a first-person shooter-- How do you jump if you can\'t see your feet? Also, what is the deal with the specially marked supply boxes placed throughout the game? These are anachronistic throwbacks to a bygone era of gaming, and horribly out of place in such a progressive title.

And the vehicle sequences are too long, especially the hoverboat sequence.

These issues would exist in any version of Half-Life 2; however, the Xbox version is distinguished by a few more problems of the \"buggy\" variety. Several times throughout my play on the Xbox, the game froze up. Often this happened just after a checkpoint or load screen when my game was saved (automatically) with very little health. The game would freeze completely, and I\'d have to eject the disc manually and reload the game completely. At these points, I also had to backtrack to an earlier save, make sure that I played more smoothly (sometimes avoiding fights that could be avoided), and cross my fingers. Each time this happened (three in total), I had to replay that small sequence at least three times to proceed.

There are other performance issues in Half-Life 2 on the Xbox, too. The doorways are often difficult to get through, and sometimes that really affects gameplay. There are quite a few moments of graphical slowdown and outright stuttering framerates. These issues affect the game even when played on the Xbox 360, which implies that it has more to do with the software than the hardware limitations of the original Xbox. It is unfortunate that there could not be two versions of Half-Life 2, one optimized for the greater graphical quality of the Xbox 360 and another for the original Xbox. One wonders why Valve would hobble their achievement rather than bump it up to the next-gen console.

Of course, the most visible issue with Half-Life 2 on the Xbox is the numerous load screens. These are not insignificant loads, although load lengths tend to get longer and longer the more something is discussed. Regardless, these are the days of background loading and/or quick load screens, and it\'s very different to see a game that pauses for loading as much as Half-Life 2. This is by far the easiest issue to get used to.

The final major issue I have with Half-Life 2 on the Xbox is the significant lack of any multiplayer capability at all. Multiplayer was added to Half-Life 2 in a free add-on patch very shortly after the game was released, and Half-Life 2 deathmatch is a hoot. Why there is no Xbox Live support at all is a mystery to me. Suffice it to say that Half-Life 2 on the Xbox is a much more limited beast than the PC version.

In the end, Half-Life 2 for the Xbox is still a very good game, but it is a deeply flawed game, too. The narrative lacks the complexity or intrigue of the original Half-Life, and even the most innovative elements are degraded by mundane usage. A large part of what has made Half-Life 2 such a wonderful PC title is the expandability of the game itself: Half-Life 2 launched with the Counterstrike mod, and other independent modifications and games have been built using the tools included for free with the PC version. None of that exists on the Xbox, not even the possibility for Valve or EA to release add-ons or mods through Xbox Live. The Xbox is such a natural platform for Half-Life 2, and it\'s very disappointing to see that it wasn\'t better utilized.

Half-Life 2 will still provide a solid 15 hours or so of single-player adventure gaming. It is easy to stick with throughout because it is constantly moving. The ambiance of the Half-Life world and the intensity of the action are excellent, and Half-Life rightfully remains one of the game series that everyone needs to check out. However, Half-Life 2 is also not a perfect beast, and the Xbox version is often just a beast. It\'s still worth checking out, but it\'s not the Game of the Year quality we always hoped for in these major game titles. Maybe in 2006 Valve will decide to show the consoles a little love. But probably not.

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