I’m a little behind the zeitgeist on this one (almost five years), but when it comes to games I’m very slow. I pretty much gave up video games for good after developing RSI, and my only real gaming experiences since then have involved me watching and shouting instructions at whoever is holding the controller. Not always the most fun experience (especially not for them). So this may have coloured my feelings a little bit. Another thing that may have coloured this review is the extremely high expectations I placed on the game. I’d had a couple of friends rave about it and I’d heard words like “best game ever” in reviews more than a few times. I waited a long time to play this game, and I expected a lot. Did it live up to my expectations? Not at all.
In my opinion, there is A LOT wrong with Half Life 2. One of the first things that annoyed me was the reliance on trial and error problems. Instead of allowing you to gradually develop skills that will help you to tackle increasingly difficult problems, HL2 repeatedly thrusts you into impossible situations. Time and time again you’re dropped into a situation (most often through no decision of your own) and promptly killed. You are then left to replay a frustratingly short sequence until you figure out the trick to get past it. What am I supposed to do here? Should I kill that thing? Ok, I’ll try. I’m dead. Should I hide? I don’t even know what the room looks like yet. Ok, run out and quickly look around before they kill me. I’m dead. Ok, now I kind of know what the room looks like, I’ll try running a different direction. I’m dead. Ok, I guess not that way… And so on. Early on in the game there is an extended sequence where you must drive a boat while helicopters are shooting you. I spent a long time trying to kill the helicopters (and dying again and again) before realising the game wanted me to just ignore the helicopters and go as fast as I can. Just keep driving until I’m one inch away from death and then the game will reward me with some health packs.
That brings me to another main gripe. While playing I was constantly thinking “Ok, what does the game want me to do.” For a game I expected to be immersive, HL2 is obscenely linear. There is only one way to do anything in this game. As far as I could tell, you have no choice in the matter at all. Every time I got stuck I would think “Ok, the game has placed these objects in this area, therefore that’s all I need. How do I need to use them?” If you get to the health packs then you know you’re headed in the right direction. To add to this annoyance is an abundance of locked doors, bricked up doors, doors blocked by debris, and what I like to call “painted doors”. Things that look like doors but are just images that you can’t interact with. Charming. Too often you’ll be in a building that is simply ludicrous in design. Little nooks and crannys with absolutely no purpose and only one way to go. Who on earth would ever design a building like that? Valve would, that’s who. Make no mistake, there is only one way to progress through any one area. All these other options are a thinly veiled attempt to give the illustion of depth and freedom. They are obvious and incredibly annoying.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the immersion is continually broken by the dreaded loading bar. Other games have specific times set aside for loading. You enter a door to a new area, the game stops and loads. You’re travelling in a vehicle (tram/train/elevator/etc) to a new place, the game stops and loads. You finish a mission, the game stops and loads. There’s a whole bunch of logical places load points could be positioned. But not in Half Life 2. It seems Valve wanted to create the illusion of one giant world, not a number of individual areas that pretend to be connected but are really completely separate. Good idea, terrible execution. In HL2, the game can stop to load in the most ridiculous places. In mid air while you’re jumping. While people are shooting you. While you’re driving a vehicle at high speed. And a number of other incredibly frustrating places. It’s bad enough that it interrupts your flow while you’re in the midst of doing something, but it’s even worse when you die and have to reload from that point. It’s not very fun reloading to a place where people are shooting right in your face. Great planning there valve.
In my opinion, even without the loading problems, Valve made a grave misjudgement in trying to make the game one continuous series of events in a continuous world, as opposed to the old different levels/dungeons/missions approach. Maybe it might work in some games, but it doesn’t work in HL2. As soon as you’re finished one laborious thing some fucker is asking/telling you to go off and do some other dangerous task. You never get a chance to catch your breath.
What’s worse is you never actually find out what the hell is going on. HL2 starts off with so much potential. You’re thrust into a mysterious dystopian city. Wow! I can’t wait to find out what’s been going on here. What might have caused this huge societal shift, and who is behind it? Do you think you find those things out? Hell no! I’m only three levels into Dead Space and I’ve already learnt more than I learnt after playing HL2 in its entirety. While Bioshock lost its way after the half way point, the first half was absolutely captivating. Sure it was fun to kill Splicers, but I wanted to find out more about Andrew Ryan and what the hell went wrong in Rapture. Do I get that chance in HL2? Not at all. Even Diddy Kong Racing has more story development than HL2. And if there’s no storyline, why the hell should I care what happens to Gordon Freeman (the character you play) or any of the losers who ask you to do their dirty work? You don’t. At least I didn’t.
If you don’t care about your friends then you come to care even less about the enemies. Your main opposition are the “combine” forces. Humanoid figures who I initially imagined might be part human & part alien. They look kind of cool and are always masked. I wanted to know what they looked like under the masks. Do I get to find out? Of course not! So for all intents and purposes, you are fighting an unending sea of blank faces. Exciting to start with, but quickly boring. Far more interesting are the zombies. They moan horribly and are genuinely frightening when they surprise you. It's honestly quite terrible when you set one on fire and watch them moan and writhe in pain, it reminds you that beneath their headcrabs they're actually human. Very disturbing (in a good way). The fast zombies are particularly frightening (the first glimpses you get of them seemed like a pretty clear inspiration for Bioshock’s “Spider Slicers”). Since these zombies are so affecting you’d expect them to be a big part of the game right? Of course not! After a brief intense encounter (the best part of the game in my opinion), they’re rarely seen from again. For the most part you are fighting Combine soldiers and you come across a zombie every now and again. It really feels like Valve just throws a couple in every time they think you might be getting bored. If they knew how bored I was getting maybe they would have thrown in a whole lot more. And also a whole lot more different types of zombies too. After the harrowing “We Don’t Go To Ravenholmn”, you’re pretty used to the three different types of zombies. There’s no new types and the pre-existing types don’t get any harder to deal with. In fact they’re actually a lot easier to kill as you never encounter them in such numbers again. This really seems to go against the traditional idea of things actually getting harder as you progress through the game.
Yes, the game is dreadfully unbalanced. Instead of gradually ramping up the difficulty, I found it switched between easy and hard without rhyme or reason. I still count the early boat rides as a very difficult part of the game, whereas the last two levels were pretty straightforward in comparison. In fact one of the hardest things towards the game’s end is dealing with the AI of the annoying non-player characters who are supposed to be helping you. They’ll continually get in your way, block your exist from volatile situations, before offering lame apologies like “Sorry Freeman” or “Let me get out of your way.” They really shouldn’t have been so rude to me earlier in the game (regularly telling me to “get going” and asking “what are you still doing here?”) if they planned to be such a hindrance later on.
Ok, I’ve been harsh. But that’s how I experienced it. I enjoyed some parts of HL2 but there was a lot of frustration to go along with it. Sure, Half Life 2 wasn’t all bad. The graphics still look fantastic, even five years on. The physics are awesome; it’s really fun and constantly surprising to see the way enemies and objects react to explosions and other things the like that. The level “We Don’t Go To Ravenholm” was also really thrilling. But unfortunately, that’s not enough to make up for the disappointments.
I was originally going to title this review “Half Life 2 Sucks”. While maybe that’s a little strong, I think HL2 is a very long way away from being “one of the best game of all time”.