It’s already been a long time since Half Life 2 and Episode 1 got on our stores’ shelves (the first in the half of november 2004 and the second one in the end of may 2006). I take the chance of the recent release of Episode 2 with the Orange Box, with all the three chapters, Portal and Team Fortress, to talk about the whole series.
Just to begin, we can say that Half Life 2 has an original plot, which is solid and complicated. In Half Life 1 that, unfortunately, I couldn’t try, playing the researcher Gordon Freeman we took part in an experiment with a crystal that, unfortunately, didin’t succeed: some portals opened which some not so pacific aliens came out from. In the meantime the army sent some soldiers to cover the whole thing up and kill the aliens, the guards and the researchers of the lab. So we run paving our way among aliens and soldiers to get to the Lambda lab, where we’ve been told that, to stop the invasion, we had to teleport into the aliens world and kill their boss. Once there, we killed him and a man with a briefcase appeared, the G-Man (which could be seen in many places during the game), who "hired" us to make some more jobs. The story of Half Life 2 begins when 10 years have now passed since the Black Mesa accident and the aliens have now taken control of the whole planet. We’ll always be playing Gordon Freeman, who, after a mysterious message from the G-Man, will be on a train headed towards City 17. Got on location, he’ll see by his own eyes a city ruled on dictatorship by Doctor Breen, who previously was the Black Mesa’s admin, very similar to the one from “1984”: oppressive and whose citizens are always under a strict surveillance. From here, Gordon will start fighting to give freedom back to a humanity which is now subdued and a step away from the collapse. Together with Alyx, the old people from Black Mesa and the rebels, will he manage to go through several hidden dangers which will stop his way? That being said, let’s go analyze in the details all the other sides of this game.
THE GRAPHIC ENGINE
If we consider the period when Half Life 2 was first released, we can doubtless say that it had an amazing graphic part. Today, even if the weight of the years starts to be felt, it’s always very pleasant to be looked at; besides, the recent Episode 2 has got lots of improvements, among which also the adding of the HDR, which is in almost every new videogame. It’s surely the game with the more realistic saturation and the facial expressions are so well made to be at the level, if not over it, of the last Crytek job: Crysis. Finally, the graphic of Half Life 2 stands well to the passing of time, always considering that there are also some mods, like the FAKEFACTORY Cinematic Mod, that highly improve the graphic effect. But we’ll talk about this thing. Another important feature is the customizing of the engine: even if all the recent PCs can play it well, we can modify several graphic parameters; this will actually let every computer to play it even if, in some extreme cases, at the lowest details level.
GAMEPLAY AND AI
And here we finally are to the strong part of Half Life 2, unopposed dominator of this feature. But let’s at first talk about the variegated arsenal the players can take with themselves:
-Jemmy: the symbol-weapon of the whole Half Life series. Very useful to take down headcrabs and other enemies without having to waste precious munitions.
-Gravity Gun: we’ll talk about this in a few rows.
-9 mms gun: our first firing gun. At the beginning it is useful, but we’ll then use it just in case of high need.
-Magnum 357: very low firing capacity, but still very acurate and powerful. Two shot, one combine.
-Rifle: it’s a weapon we’ll use and which is highly useful for the grenade launcher we can annihilate enemies with. High firing capacity and quite accurate.
-Combine impulses rifle: extremelly powerful and accurate weapon. The secondary fire consists of an energy ball bouncing on the walls and annihilating enemies; particurarly useful in Episode 2. Too bad that the munitions for this gun, besides being hard to be found, can be brought in a limited quantity.
-Air rifle: could it be missing? Very powerful, also in the short distance. The secondary fire consists of the use of two bullets in the same time, that make the shot much more devastating.
-Crossbow: to kill with fun. Devastating both in the short and long distance, but the almost total lack of munitions makes it useful only in the long one. The secondary fire consists in the very precision aim.
-Missile launcher: useful against the combine air squads. It is provided with a laser guide that allows to follow the target. It’s a pity you can just take 3 missiles with you.
-Grenades: come on…
But the beating heart of HL2 can be found in the Gravity Gun and in the high use of the physics of which is the only example together with Dark Messiah. The game is not a normal FPS where you just go on killing, but there are several enigmas you can solve only by using genius and trick.
By the Gravity Gun, that still we won’t get from the beginning, we can grab and launch objects. So it will be something usual launhing oil drums and any object you can get towards the enemy; it is also useful to solve one of the many enigmas you’ll be facing. Let’s make it clear that we will never have some situations like the ones in Dark Messiah (that always use the Source as the graphic engine) in which, hitting a wood base, we’ll make fall a dozen barrels on the enemies. Another not less important feature of the gameplay are vehicles, on which the players discovers the second beating heart in HL2: Valve provides us with a very easy driving system, and this highly increases the fun; what’s more thrilling than driving a hovercraft followed by a Combine helicopter? Nothing, I guess. But we won’t be limited to the simple hovercraft: during the game we’ll also use some more vehicles and some will have some interesting optional added: I leace the reader the pleasure to discover it. And how can we forget about the several enemies? There’ll be the so-called “civil defence”, easy to be killed; we’ll then pass to the annoying little robots armed with blades, the "death blades", easy to be killed by the jemmy, and the simple combine soldiers that we’ll face very oftenly; there’ll then be the creatures from Xen: headcrabs, difficult to be killed because of their small size and that will take control of human bodies, making them zombies, and the antlions, huge cockroachs that always attacj in big groups. There’ll finally be the combine air forces, helicopters and gunships, the fearful hunters, very fast and dangerous, and the Striders, that are almost the same to the tripods from "The War of the Worlds": difficult to be annihilated but with slow movements. It’s also important to make a short call about the energy system: as soon as we’ll wear the special suite given to us by Doctor Kleiner, two bars will appear, one for the health and one for the suite energy (that works as an armor); it will often be necessary to get a more tactical approach than the one used in usual FPSs, in which when you got repetately hit your visual gets darker and to take it back you’ll just need to be steady for a few moments; medikits and "energy boxes" will often be found in any way. Before passing to the AI, it’s useful to talk about the setting we’ll be in: from an orwellian and antiutopian City 17, going through channels and zombie-infectd towns, to forests and rebel camps. I mean, there’s such a setting we can’t ever get bored of. For what concerns the AI, what can we say? It’s doubtless of a very good level: enemies will often search for a repair, but ther often will not; the AI of our mates is much better, they’ll always be behind you, they’ll never be set up somewhere and, as it oftens happens in many FPSs, and they’ll always be helpful in some difficult situations. You can even command some teams, even if the orders you can give are just "Go there" and "Follow me".
Generally musics, even if are a few, and effects are really well done and the 5.1 is very good; applying the Cinematic Mod the effects (gun shots, etc.) will be improves and some high quality music will be added, highly improving the depth and the intensity of the game. But every game has its thorn and Half Life 2 has too with its Italian dubbing: shocking. I provided, before starting the game, to put it in English from Steam and to add subtitles. When I casually used the Italian dubbing, just hearing the voice of Alyx, I was getting a heart attack. I mean, the English audio is just something different: voices, besides being chosen very good, are well played and it’s clear the dubbers perfectly fit the characters.
A game that distinguishes itself from other FPSs and guarantees an intelligent and different approach. A game with a solid and original plot and a graphic engine that stands tall, apart from passing of time – especially with the Episode 2 – and that can be brought to its top level using the Longevity is very good and guarantees something like 30 hours of playing. As final featurem there’s a very good AI, together with its competitive price of 50 € and the inlusion of "Portal" and "Team Fortress 2". To sum up, we can call Half Life 2 with one single word: masterpiece.