Release Date: November 16 2004
Developer: Valve Software
Metacrtic Score: 96
Many sequels have been crushed under the weight of expectation. “The Godfather part 3” “Devil may Cry 2” and “The Dark Knight Rises” all failed in part due to simply not being able to live up to their predecessors. So how do you make a sequel to what many consider one of the best games ever made? Well, leave it to Valve to figure it out. This is how you make a sequel right: a true expansion on the original that feels unique yet not out of place.
You play once again as Gordon Freeman. You awake on a train to the mysterious “G-Man” from the last game telling you to “wake up and smell the ashes”. Shortly after you come to a stop at the train station in City 17, an urban centers somewhere in East Europe under control of the “Combine”. It seems that a good amount of time has passed between games and that the world has changed a great deal. Sometime after the end of “Half-life 1” a new group of aliens used the same portal technology to invade Earth and we engaged in what is know as “the seven hours war”, witch was ended when Dr. Wallace Breen helped organize our surrender.
It turns out that most of the former Black Mesa employees have been working on a transportation device meant to help get people out of the city. As you inter the machine to meet up with Dr. Eli Vance something goes wrong and Wallace Breen is alerted to your presents and informs the Combine who all want you dead. From here you make your way on foot to reach Eli and his daughter Alyx. There is a bit more after that but that’s were i’m going to end my synopsis for fear of spoilers.
There is a lot to like about this story. The first thing that impressed me was how the events of the first game had real effects one the world in this game. While in the first game you open the portal seemingly by accident that didn’t stop the Combine from using it to their advantage. A lot of sequels try to reset the status-quo between games and this ends up robing the characters of a lot of development and the stories themselves of a lot of depth. I mean honestly how much better would “Uncharted 2” have been if Nathan Drake had been allowed to remember the first game and not dismiss the idea of a cursed treasure again? Wouldn’t it be kind of awesome if in the next “Mario” game Mario just skips to the last world and goes “she’s never in the first 7 castles so lets stop screwing around!”? Hell you can even see this being done is games with a continuing story-line if the writing isn’t very good. The fact is, this is simply good story telling: actions have consequences and we should see them play out.
The characters are also a huge plus here as well. Every character is well rounded and their actions make sense. As an added bonus, there is also a fair amount of representation here as well. Alyx and her father, Dr. Eli Vance are both People of Color. On that same note AlyxVance and Dr. Judith Mossman are both women, both strong characters though in vastly different ways and both wearing reasonable cloths. And maybe this wont mean as much to you as it did me, but almost every character you meat, and pretty much everyone responsible for any of the plot momentum is a scientist. There is an annoying amount of science fiction that warns of the dangers of “playing god” or dealing with things “man just isn’t meant to know” and it always pisses me off. Here science and scientist are shown as heroes and people who should aspire to be, with the only exception being Wallace Breen who’s cowardliness and self-importance lead to the impressionist of the human race as well as bolstering himself up. Again, maybe this is just me but I really like seeing scientist being treated as heroes.
For the most part the game controls the same as the last game (and from what little experience I have with it i’d say it plays very similarly to most PC PFS’s as well). Also like the previous game there are more than a few fun weapons to use, all of witch are useful and fun to use, but there aren’t many new weapons in the game. That didn’t mean much to me (especially when one of the new guns is the “gravity gun” which may be my favorite weapon in all of gaming). Movement speed was decreased making navigation feel more natural instead of the fast place glide-walk that was going on in the original game.
I said in my review for “Half-life” that the game would have been better with some more enemy verity and that holds true. Oddly though, there is even fewer types of enemies here, but I can’t bring my self to make the same complaint. For the most part the only enemies you fight here are similar looking Combine soldiers and only one or two aliens from the original game. In fact, out of all the returning monsters that show up one of them even ends up helping you cause. And yet I still can’t complain the way I did in the first game. This is in part due to the story justifying this choice. The Combine have taken over the world and one of you’re main priority is to fight them off. It also helps that the Combine are also skilled foes. They wont you dead, and they will do whatever it takes to make it happen. They hide they throw grenades to draw you out of cover and they will uses their weapons secondary fire. While I may have to ask humanity at times how they could have only help out for seven hours, the Combine did make themselves a viable threat through out the game. This isn’t to say there is no variation in the combat however. There are a few time when you are forced to take down airships and these huge walking tanks, and these events are very different from the bulk of the action.
And I still can’t stop thanking Valve for continuing the use of med kits. While the game world is no where near as open as it was in the first game (ironic, give how much bigger the scope of this game is) searching each level thoroughly still yielded rewards: extra ammo or a health kit that kept me alive in the next battle. In a poorer game this exploration wouldn’t be there as health regenerates and ammo shows up where you need it, and that wouldn’t be anywhere near as engaging as desperately searching for ammo when you’re down to 20 health points, knowing your next encounter could be your last.
Alas, not everything is worthy of praise. For starters, THERE’S MORE PLATFORMING!!!! Again, platforming in the first person simply doesn’t work. Thankfully there are far fewer of these sections, replaced with the same physics puzzle and i’m not too sure if I can say that is an improvement. Probably the most frustrating (not the worst, just the most frustrating) is a vehicle section near the middle where you drive a buggy along a cost line and it goes on just a little too long. The section is broken up with combat pretty often, but by the time it was over it just felt like padding. Part of why that is so frustrating is that the game is much shorter that it’s predecessor. I played “Half-life” for 17 hours, were as I was done with “Half-Life 2” in 11. That’s 6 hours less of game, and then I spent all that time in the buggy?
My last complaint is that, again, due to how the game tells it’s story there were more than one time where I was wondering around not 100% sure what I was meant to do. I always figured it out, but some better direction would have done a lot of good in my openion.
Game Play: 4.5/5
Music and Sound:
The only issue I ever had with the games music or sound was that when the Combine die they let out this piercing white noise that can become irritating. Honestly I soon found myself not even noticing, or enjoying when I did as it was a confirmation that I killed my target. Everything else I have nothing negative to say about. The voice acting is stellar across the board, the script was well written, the guns all sounded pretty good and the music did it’s job perfectly. Ironically though, the best part of the sound design has nothing to do with audio. Unlike almost every other game, even new ones today, the characters move around as they talk the same way real people do. And this isn’t just a pose change that we often see, when the characters will change their stance for a bit a few times every conversation. No, this was real “what would real people be doing in this situation” blocking. This is what movie and theater directors are basically paid to do. I have honestly not seen another game with sound design this good…ever. If you are ever planning on doing sound work for video games this is one you should perches and study.
Music and Sound: 5/5
Overall Score: 4.83/5
Who is this game for? Do you play games? Have you played this yet? If yes, go reply it. If not, do so now.
* Half-life 2, as a solo game, is only available on the PC. However, Valve did create a bundle for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC called “The Orange Box” that contained “Half-life 2, Half-Life 2: Episode 1, Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. This review is for the PC version of Half-life 2 that can be purchased on Steam.