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Half Life 2

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I was one of those who was highly anticipating this game.  I really liked the first one.  At the time this one came out, though, I didn't have anywhere near enough machine to play it.  This game was one of the reasons I finally jumped to get my latest gaming rig.

The beginning of the first one was really good, by using that tram ride during the opening credits to set the location.  The beginning of this game is far more confusing than most.  You come in on a train, again.  But you're dumped into a train station without really any idea about why you're there or where to go.  It turns out you only have one choice, but it wasn't immediately obvious to me.

Not knowing what to do next turned out to be a problem regularly in the game.   Having just come off of Far Cry and Doom 3, I had gotten used to being able to look at my PDA to see what objective was next for me. Several times there was dialogue telling me what to do next.  But since it's generally telling me about things I haven't seen yet, it's hard to put it in context.   Also, sometimes I'd get instructions late in a gaming session and it was even more difficult to remember when I'd come back a few days later.

Though, like the train station, it didn't actually end up being much of a practical problem.  Because there was often only one choice, and it would end up being obvious.   Which means I kind of ended up feeling lost for nothing.  Still, having these three games to compare with each other, I think having a handy list of outstanding objectives is a good gameplay element.

After making it out of the train station to the town square the first thing that jumped out at me was how rich the environment felt.  Excellent textures.  Barricades that let you see past them, to imply a larger world.  A much wider variety of NPCs than the original game.  Lots of extras, like a children's playground with a merry-go-round and a teeter totter.

One story element I never picked up from the previous game was any hint of a dystopian world.  But that's defninitely what we have here.  You see police in riot gear harassing citizens (the police zap you if you get too close.)  A little later, you're chased through apartment buildings that are in disrepair and the inhabitants are watching the lone TV channel, which is state operated.

One thing that is kind of cool is how you come back to the town square a few different times throughout the game, and events have altered it substantially each time.  The moment of recognition was kind of neat on each occasion.

Whereas I use the first game as an excellent example of fighting the feeling of linearity, this game suffered from linear levels pretty badly.  Especially he sections where you're using a vehicle.  You're just racing in a buggy down a road or in a boat following the canal.  Absolutely no hint of choice.  You're just blazing forward.

I suspect they did this to give the game a sense of size.  Instead of spending the entire game in essentially one location, like the first game.  And instead of a continuity cut, like getting in a transport in one location and getting out in another.  What they have you do is actually drive from one location to another.  To fill in the gaps between the locations.

Unfortunately, I don't think that works.  I mean, the buggy and boat were kinda cool.  You fight some bad guys along the way.  They give you a couple of puzzles to solve.  (One was a mildly interesting balance puzzle that I managed to figure out without needing the walkthru.)  But the feeling of being trapped on the path they chose was pretty strong.

One thing that actually might have helped was if they had given you a map in those situations.  When driving the jeep you stop a coupla times along the way and in a coupla buildings they have a map on the wall.  But I found it very difficult to place myself on the map to judge my progress.  Having a map overlay, or a map button would have helped a lot.  They might not have even needed to mark your current location.   I think I would have recognized the landmarks if I could compare them immediately to the map.

One level that successfully beat the feeling of linearity was the small "haunted" town.  You did a lot of running around, and being able to see destinations from the tops of rooftops gave me that sense of progression, again.

Despite the linearity, the maps were generally very good.  Chock full of details (It was funny to see office settings where they had PCs with the covers taken off.)

There was twice, though, where I got stuck when I overlooked a turn.  One was when you were using bugbait to try to get past bunkers.  There's a tunnel into the mountain that's pitch black.  Through what looks like a bit of fallen concrete ceiling, looking past some rebar, you see a hallway and you shoot an occasionally enemy soldier.  But there's no way past the fallen section.  I ran in and out of that tunnel about ten times before I finally noticed a turn off to the left.  It wasn't actually hidden at all.  But when I went in without the flashlight there was no way to see it.   And I guess with the flashlight I just never saw the opening in my peripheral vision.

The puzzles along the way brought up something that struck me fairly strongly.   This game plays a lot more like an adventure game with action elements than the other two FPS' that I had just played.  There was a lot of puzzle solving.   Balance puzzles.  Block stacking.  Filling rooms with water to gain higher walkways.  Building makeshift bridges.  In some ways they were kind of neat, because they tended to make clever use of objects in the environment.  But in other ways they sometimes brought the action to a crashing halt.  You go from blazing along in your noisy boat to stopping for ten minutes to quietly work the puzzle.  I dunno.  It wasn't terrible.  But some of them just tended to evoke mixed emotions.

One cool puzzle was using a giant crane to move some things around.  Just kinda fun watching it swing and bang into stuff.

Contrast that with one really annoying water hazard puzzle.  You fill a room with water.   But you can't get out just yet.  The boxes you need to climb onto are secured behind boards at the bottom.  That was all pretty obvious.  But, the mechanics were awkward and frustrating.  First, when you release the boxes from the bottom you get "tangled up" with them as you're trying to get back to the surface, slowing you significantly.   And the depth puts you right at the limit to where you start taking damage.   Then, you have to move them into position to climb onto. Maybe there was at trick I missed, but I found it very difficult to move the boxes into position and stay above water without inadvertently climbing half-onto the box in a spot where it does me no good.

There were a few other areas where minor glitches were fairly frustrating.  The walls seemed a little sticky at times, which could be frustrating during a firefight.   And the load times were substantially longer than the earlier game.  One of the noteworthy innovations of the original Half Life was how they chopped up levels much smaller.   There were many more loads in the "middle" of a mission.  But they were quick, finished in about a second.  This time they were at least five seconds, I think, and often longer.  That doesn't sound like much, but when it's in the middle of a hallway that you'd like to go back and forth in a coupla times, it really breaks the flow.

One of the biggest annoyances was moving things around.  Similar to the original game, when you pick something up it's smack in the middle of your view, which sometimes makes it difficult to see around to move and line it up for the drop. They didn't learn from Thief II about holding it lower and making it translucent.  (Maybe it was Deus Ex that made the object transluscent.) Also, there was no way to rotate it (that I ever learned of.)  There were several times I wanted to stand a barrel on end.  If it ever fell over it was almost impossible to stand it back up.  I would have to drop it half-onto something and hope that it would fall onto its base.  That got pretty old fairly quickly.

Yet, there's one puzzle where you have to defend yourself with drone guns on tripods.   They're fairly easy to knock over, and the AI knows to do that.  I never would have figured this out on my own, but the walkthru pointed out that when you pick them up they snap back to upright, so you can reset them.  That inconsistency annoyed me.

There's a lot more story to this game than most FPS'.  As I mentioned earlier, this is a dystopia, and you're part of the resistance movement.  You meet a lot of NPCs and several named characters.  And near the end you spend a lot of time running around to rescue some of the main characters.  We are now allied with some aliens and you have a few encounters with them.  As the story moves along the insurgency expands and there's all-out war in the city.  So you see the same square from earlier, but it's now mostly rubble.

The voice acting was top notch.  I recognized Robert Culp and Robert Guillaume.  I didn't recognize the names of the others, but they're done well.

Some bits were done better than the original.  For example, in the first one I almost never made it to one of the emplaced weapons without first having to clear out all the bad guys.  This time, several weapons were placed so that I could actually use them without getting cut to shreds.  Similar to the first one, there were multiple times I saw groups of AI fighting each other.  Those small incidents add quite a bit of life to the game for me.

Some of the enemy vehicles were interesting.  As seems to be common in today's sci-fi, they gave them very animal-like qualities.   There's a flying contraption with a faux-ducted fan to keep it aloft that has fins on the side that make it look sort of like a whale in the air.  And they have walkers with long, spindly, spider-like legs.  Both were tough and required me getting shot to bits several times while getting reloads from the case left out in the open.

This was another game where, for the most part, ammo and health were in locations that made sense.  But every once in awhile you were out in the middle of nowhere fighting tough monsters and the level designers had to give in and scatter some goodies around.

Also, another game with a flashlight with limited batteries, but self-rechargable.   It recharges substantially quicker than Far Cry's, though, so there's less waiting around for it.  One thing I noticed that these guys did with it is they tried to determine the distance of something close to the center of the beam.  Then they focused it based on that.  So it worked well close-in and wide-angle.  But it also worked well at a distance, when it was focused tight.

A lot of the same monsters from the original.  Headcrabs, though not nearly as many as I remember.  I guess there was one small section where there were a bunch of them to clear out.  They did introduce a new super-headcrab variety.  Barnacles, again.  Most of the time I spotted them prior to getting sucked up into them.   They had a few puzzles where you give them something unpalettable to get them out of the way, which kind of tickled me.  Or, give them a barrel of fuel and light it off as it was going up. :-)

Some new monsters, like a leaping thing.  That one was mildly annoying, though mostly in a good way.  They didn't allow me to sit back and snipe.  A coupla times they were able to sneak up behind me which I didn't like.  I just realized that it didn't have a landing sound.  That probably would have helped a lot.   There was also a sniper bad guy who was kinda cool.  He had a laser sight, and it was kind of neat to watch him scan around for a target, and then snap to one.

The weapons were mostly pretty good.  They didn't let you carry much ammo for the RPG, so it rarely was much of a factor.  I do remember a few situations where I would have liked having the moderate zoom of Far Cry.  I only used the crossbow a few times.  I don't really remember a puzzle that required it.

The Gravity Gun was kind of interesting.  Being able to drag boxes, health, etc towards you was useful occasionally.  And zapping cars out of the way in a coupla puzzles was mildly amusing.  In the haunted town level there's very little ammo.   So for a big part of the level I ran around with a sawblade held in the gun.   That was kinda cool, but it was also kind of annoying.  First, the sound got old fairly quickly.  And then as you maneuvered around, the thing you were carrying would scrape and bang against stuff, making a lot of noise.  And, it was right in the center of your field of view, again, so it got in the way sometimes.  And sometimes you'd drop it.

The ending was pretty similar to the last one, in a way.  I won't give it away here, but they did have one interesting effect before the final monologue.

I only had to use the walkthru a few times.   One had to do with a firefight where you use turrets to defend multiple entrances.   This was where I learned that turrets righted themselves when you pick them up.   That puzzle is impossible without that tidbit of knowledge.  Another was when you're fighting striders.  I ran around that area several times and I don't know if I ever would have found path to the other part of the map.  Plus maybe a coupla others, like where I overlooked a turn several times.

I picked up a great gameplay idea from the walkthru.  There's one spot where you need to find three car batteries in order to power a door to open.  They make one obvious, right next to the terminal.  Another is in the next room, also pretty obvious.  But here's the smart bit.  For the last one they hid three more batteries around the encampment, instead of just one.  One is logical and the other two are kind of random.  I happened to find one of the random ones on a whim and was thinking that it was too well hidden and that I had simply gotten lucky.  Now that I know there are others I'm thinking that was okay.

High points:
Top notch graphics
Decent story drew you along
Solvable levels and puzzles
Gravity gun was clever and actually useful in several ways
Excellent voice talent
Low points:
Level design okay, but some sections were very linear
Walls were occasionally sticky
Carrying things obscured view
Carrying things was also missing needed features (rotation)
The final level, where you weren't allowed weapons, was a bit contrived
Maybe a touch too adventurish in its puzzles

Play time:  Approx 40 hours in 15 days.

On my brother's Game Total Value Scale, Heavy Threat of Sleep Loss.  Didn't have the impact of the original, but a good game.

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Last modified: September 05, 2005
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