November 16th, 2004 was a red letter day on both sides of the screen. The original Half-Life had redefined the FPS as an immersive experience instead of merely a series of missions, and no-one expected its follow-up to do anything less. Few were disappointed. In City 17, Valve created one of the most coherent and ambitious worlds ever seen in gaming—and if it looks a little primitive now, it s because so many since have followed in its footsteps. BioShock Infinite s opening for instance works almost entirely to Half-Life 2 s now dog-eared playbook, offering greater fidelity and a more exciting city, but recognizably the same style.
What Half-Life 2 really brought to the industry wasn t new ideas… though it absolutely had them… but demonstration after demonstration of how things both could and should be. Alyx Vance for instance was an effective sidekick and a fun character, but it was her ability to make a connection with the player through things like eye contact that elevated her above her others—something shared by fellow Source engine game Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, especially with characters like Jeanette and your pet ghoul Heather. She could shoot a worried look. She could smile, and have the smile go further than her lips. She could go directly from being your wing-woman to interacting with the world, from having conversations to fixing something, all as smoothly as Half-Life managed to never break perspective as you went from random lab geek to savior of two different worlds. She d even climb and vault over things instead of simply walking around the old fashioned way, easier as that would have been to script.
That sense of flow is what really defined Half-Life 2—sequences bleeding into one another to create the feel of an unbroken journey (give or take a loading screen). It was a game of smooth traversal around the maps, of combat bleeding into story, and each major section, most famously zombified Ravenholm, casually experimenting with the formula. Every cool bit offered something new and most left us wanting more, even if the radical shifts did take away much of the original Half-Life s thematic consistency. Every not-so-cool bit, like the dull start of Sandtraps (a vehicle section that paled in comparison to what Valve was able to pull off by Episode 2) was short enough not to be that big a deal, and something else was always on its way. While admittedly the story sequences are interminable by modern standards, the action was all about peaks and troughs that allowed both intensity and time to savor the craft.
On top of that came the details; a hundred things designed to be absorbed rather than directly noticed. The soundscape for instance, with the Combine announcements using medical terminology to describe uprising—Gordon Freeman as a staph infection —or the Combine s logo—an outreached claw almost, but not quite, absorbing a small world. It s a subtle detail, but one of many told through level design rather than audio logs or cutscenes. Others include visiting rusted playgrounds of a world without children, and seeing the empty seas that have left ships high and dry—the terraforming inflicted on the natural world mirroring the shift from old and human to new and alien that you see throughout City 17.
One of the most subtle, though much borrowed since, is the way that Valve tends to show new mechanics off three times—first with no pressure, then some pressure, and then for real to be sure the player has grasped and understood it, before it becomes an assumed skill. The gravity gun for instance. First you just move a solid box into position to meet Alyx. Then her robot Dog throws other boxes at you for you to catch. Then, it s zombie fighting time.
Speaking of fighting zombies, we can t overlook the physics engine—used in Ravenholm to let you hurl sawblades. Half-Life 2 was one of the first FPS games to go big on physics, for two basic uses. The first was, honestly, showing off. They were a novelty then, which came through in a lot of puzzles like pushing barrels under a platform to be able to cross it. Looking back, they re a little eye-rolling. At the time though, they were pretty cool. It s no secret that Half-Life 2 was at least in part a demo of Source, with these bits standing out even at the time as largely the equivalent of early 3D card lens flare effects. Cool, but gimmicky. When it showed them off, or put us in a vehicle, it was at least partly saying Look what we can do!
The big benefit though was creating a world that felt right, in stark contrast to the largely static worlds of the previous generation; of games like Return To Castle Wolfenstein and Medal of Honor. Again, yes, it s a bit showy to have a guard at the start insist you pick up and throw a cup into a trash can just to shout PHYSICS! What mattered though was that from there you both feel the benefit of them in every interaction with the world, big and small, and immediately start bemoaning their absence in any game that doesn t have them. The rolling and floating of flaming barrels in water. Debris flying off as it felt like it should.
It all added, in much the same way that the original Half-Life s responsive skeletal animation system instantly made conventional frame-based animations intolerably stiff. When Valve called its behind-the-scenes book Raising The Bar, it wasn t kidding. Half-Life 2 was an amazing game, but its crucial, lasting influence was less about the new things it did (as important as they ve been) as showing how the familiar deserved to be done.
Which of course brings us to its shining achievement—Steam. To sum up Steam s unpopularity in 2004 would leave no words left to describe ebola, lawyers, or Piers Morgan. And not without cause. It was buggy, it was ugly, there was no missing that Valve was outright forcing it down our throats out of nowhere, and the much crappier bandwidth of the day made being told to download games of this size almost offensive in its arrogance. It would be a long, long time before Steam even got close to the service that at least most of us know and love today, instead of its name just getting tacked onto the words ing pile of shit.
But. With Half-Life 2, Valve had a game that managed to get the necessary traction to create the service we know today, and while nobody would claim it s perfect, nothing else has done so much to legitimize and make digital distribution work. Much as it took Apple to break the music industry s obsession with DRM on MP3 files, it took Steam to show the whole industry that the game had changed. The idea that you d be able to redownload your games in perpetuity for instance was heresy to companies that at best wanted that to be another service. Being able to download them onto any machine instead of them being locked to a single PC, or maybe three, or five? That just wasn t done. Valve was the first major company to build a digital download service that people actually wanted to use, that made the experience of buying games online better. Without Half-Life 2 though, who would have used it? Without that audience, who would ever have agreed to let a competitor sell their games? Half-Life 2 didn t just give the FPS a shot in the arm, it changed the entire industry.
It wasn t a perfect game. It was far more a series of cool things than Half-Life s journey, it was heartbreaking to be taken out of City 17 almost immediately in favor of being consigned to the countryside, the story was primitive and a few of the set-pieces dragged on far too long. It held up pretty well for years, but looking back, yes, it s now a bit long in the tooth. Few games though have had a more lasting impact in so many ways, or can be deservedly held up as both paragon and pioneer. Fewer still have done it so well, they re still being copied a decade later.
Now then, Valve, about that Half-Life 3…
Every year, the month of November is notable for two events. The beginning of the month is marked by people muttering to themselves "Oh my God, it's November already?" and the end, in the U.S. at least, is celebrated by surrounding ourselves with cousins whose kids' names we can't remember and eating food until we explode.
This particular November is also notable for a milestone in PC gaming: the 10th anniversary of the release of Half-Life 2. This will no doubt inspire many nostalgic replays of Valve's landmark FPS, and Mod of the Week is here to make a suggestion about how best to walk another mile in Gordon Freeman's boots.
There's no shortage of full-conversion mods for HL2, and many of them are great and well worth your time, but today we're looking at mods that keep the original story intact as opposed to providing an entirely new experience. Enhancement mods, in other words. What's actually out there to improve the game?
Our first stop was to pay a visit to the simply named "Update" mod. Half-Life 2: Episodes One and Two provided a bit of a graphical upgrade over the original game, mostly in the form of better textures and slicker effects, but Valve never bothered to retrofit HL2 with these improvements. Modder Filip Victor took it on himself, but unfortunately, when HL2 was moved over to SteamPipe, it wound up breaking the mod. A fix, while promised in 2014, has yet to materialize.
There were also rumblings about an ENB for HL2 that was sadly never released by the modder who did the same for the original Half-Life. No luck there. I also installed this ENB that purports to add depth-of-field and SSAO, but despite following the instructions I wasn't able to activate it in-game. Hurm. I'm zero for three.
That leaves us with pretty much a single option for souping up HL2 graphically: FakeFactory's Cinematic Mod. The name probably sounds familiar: it's been around for a while and there were a lot of complaints that it went too far: not just adding higher resolution textures, advanced HDR, new props, and dynamic shadows, but replacing the game's character models with new, completely different looking HD versions and adding music from the new Batman films.
While I agree that most of the new character models are tremendously off-putting and the music is a baffling choice, it's important to point out that Cinematic Mod is almost ridiculously customizable. You can run the mod without the replacement character models, leave out the new music, and tailor the look and even the difficulty of the mod to a high degree.
In fact, I'd recommend turning off a few things. The enhanced bloom is a bit much, and the head-bob made me nauseous (and I can't ever recall getting motion-sick from an FPS before). I enjoyed playing with the new weapons: a laser-dot pistol and some meatier machine-guns are fun, and iron sights and weapon recoil adds a bit more of a shooty feeling to the shooting (again, you can choose to play with the standard weapons as well). As far as the new models go, I actually liked the new Combine metrocops and soldiers the mod adds: they're bulkier and more dangerous looking without being a major departure from the originals.
As for the overall look of the mod, I liked a lot of it. It's slicker and shinier, and many of the new textures are fantastic. It does still go a bit far: I don't really need video screens flashing the word OBEY to get the idea that I'm in a dystopia, and some of the new graffiti textures are hardly subtle. Still, for the most part, it's very impressively done.
If you decide to use it, be prepared for a hefty 10 gig file, and torrent it or else you'll have to download it as sixteen separate .rar files (ugh). You can find it here, and here's a video detailing installation and configuration.
What else can you do to spice up your visit to City 17? Well, if you don't mind going full-on wacky, you can always try two previous Mod of the Week picks. There's Crylife (actually a submod for the high-octane SMOD), which gives Gordon Freeman the nanosuit from the Crysis games, and there's also gmDoom (actually an addon for Garry's Mod) that lets you play HL2 with weapons and monsters from Doom. You'll still be able to enjoy the story beats of the original game while spawning cyberdemons or running around with your cloak engaged.
Ultimately, though -- and I realize this is an odd conclusion for a mod column to reach -- I'd recommend replaying Half-Life 2 without any mods whatsoever. Yes, it's been ten years, and sure, the game is definitely beginning to show its age. But this mod enthusiast is happy to admit that some games just don't need improvement.
Everyone still wants Half-Life 3. People feel its continued absence like a pain in the gut. Some people carry this weight around with them every day, and may well do so for the rest of their lives. Some people, when you say something nice has happened, silently whisper to themselves "Half-Life 3 confirmed?"
This doesn't mean we ought to 'engulf' the lives of Valve employees, as a press release for a new crowdfunding campaign calls upon us to do. A ploy concocted by two interns at New Mexico ad firm McKee Wallwork & Co., the campaign is seeking $150,000 to organise a series of events and advertising sprees intended to persuade Valve to develop the anticipated installment.
It's a unique idea - and it's probably not as dodgy as it sounds - but some of the wording is very problematic indeed, especially in light of recent harassment campaigns in the games industry. According to the press release received by VentureBeat, Half-Life fans have "never truly shown a united front", though "a little concentrated effort might finally get us what we want. The press release headline reads Indiegogo campaign to engulf Valve employee s lives.
VentureBeat reached out to the campaign creators Chris Salem and Kyle Mazzei, and this is what they had to say regarding the potential for harrassment. Obviously, lines like [engulf people's lives] is a little sensationalized to get people s attention, Salem said. But we think we re doing everything in a good-hearted way. We aren t going to have people camped out in front of Valve headquarters for weeks at a time. It s just going to be a one-day thing.
The IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign involves the purchase of Google Ad Words, mobile billboards, a Valve doorstop campaign populated by Gabe Newell look-alikes and a concert. It's currently raised $36.
There have been a lot of visions of the post-apocalypse, but if you've been waiting for one in which a sleepy-voiced robot guides you through a series train-based environmental puzzles in the year 2525, then you're in luck. Also, you're a little strange. Also, this mod is a little strange, even in name. It's called Steam, Tracks, Trouble & Riddles and it's for Half-Life 2: Episode 2.
First, some back-story, which is presented nicely through a series of hand-drawn images. It seems the Cuban Missile Crisis didn't end so agreeably in this reality. The nukes were launched, humans were essentially wiped out, and... well, frankly, how that leads to solving train puzzles in Berlin in the distant future, I'm not entirely sure. The important thing is, there's a bunch of train puzzles and a friendly robot to help you solve them.
It's notable that Ross Scott voices the robot, which is cool, though his voice has been slowed down to the point where it feels like it could be anyone reading the lines, which is sort of an odd choice. I'm fairly sure Scott didn't write the script, either, as the robot isn't particularly funny. The robot is, however, well designed and animated, and I enjoy the fact that he has another, smaller robot living in his head who pops out now and then. Also, for a robot who trundles around on a single wheel, I find him much more enjoyable than, say, Claptrap, especially in terms of volume.
The first thing you do in the mod is sort of the worst thing: you manipulate the slowest-moving crane ever built into picking up the parts of a railway handcar and drop them into a pile. It's not hard, and there's only three pieces, it just takes a while. If you can power through it, things get more enjoyable.
Once built, you drive your handcar along the tracks, stopping at occasional obstacles. Maybe there's a bridge that's not aligned properly, or a wall that needs to be destroyed, or some other sort of obstruction or obstacle on the track, meaning you'll need to stop, get out, look around, and figure out what the heck you're supposed to do. Often, there's a bit of guesswork involved before you can even start working on the puzzles. A series of valves and pipes means you'll need to open some and close others, obviously, but it can take a while to figure out exactly why the ones that need to be closed need to be closed. Y'know?
Of course there's a generator puzzle, and some batteries have to be fetched to power certain devices, and this being built in Half-Life 2, you'll naturally need to find a cable with a giant plug to plug into a giant plug-hole at some point. There are also some explosive barrels to be disarmed, as well as some electrified tracks and poison muck to avoid falling into. Finally, you'll face a massive gauntlet of moving trains while traversing narrow passages near the end, which is sort of like playing Frogger from a first-person perspective. You can't sprint in this mod (for some reason) but hopping will speed you up. I recommend hopping. I recommend hopping everywhere, in fact.
Help from your robot pal is somewhat intermittent. Sometimes he'll tell you exactly what to do, but other times he'll only provide encouragement. "Good job!" he said at one point, when I had been opening and closing valves more or less at random for several long minutes. It wasn't terribly specific, but at least he'd let me know I'd done something right, which helped me figure out the rest of the puzzle.
This isn't a terribly long mod, maybe two hours, unless you get stuck. (If you do, there's a lovely and fully comprehensive walk-through PDF created by the modder in the download section below). It's a bit uneven: some portions are really beautifully done, especially the robot and some of the custom machinery you'll need to manipulate, while some portions of the levels can feel a bit plain and uninspired. It's also not something to speed through: a lot of time needs to be spent just wandering around the various puzzles, experimenting and trying to determine what needs to be done. If you're looking for a thoughtful, mostly gentle, moderately paced puzzle mod, though, this is a nice one.
Installation: It's easy! Just download it here, open the .rar file, and drop the contents into your /sourcemods folder in your Steam directory. Then restart Steam and you'll see S.T.T.&R. in your Steam library, ready to launch.
Amidst a flock of startled doves I dive left, my dual pistols blazing, and take down one enemy as another evades me by back-flipping off a wall. As I empty both clips, my dive becomes a prolonged sideways slide which takes me right off the roof of the skyscraper. I'm not alone: another thug sails over the ledge and joins me on my long plummet to the ground. While falling, I reload both guns and we trade fire all the way down to the street. Did I mention this happens in slow-motion? It's as if Jon Woo directed The Matrix when you play Double Action Boogaloo, a multiplayer mod for Half-Life 2.
What I described isn't some rare occurrence in Double Action Boogaloo. It happens roughly every ten seconds or so, because the mod is built on the elements required for such exciting, cinematic shenanigans: jumping, diving, sliding, flipping, running and gunning, and of course, slow-motion. Throw in some of Jon Woo's flapping doves and a few trench coats from The Matrix, and you've got a frenetic multiplayer action game consisting of nothing of movie trailer moments.
Fight ain't over til someone hits the ground.
Choose a player model of the three provided: Diesel, a biker, Vice, a hard-boiled detective, and Eightball, a somewhat familiar-looking gambler. Then, choose your specialty. The Marksman has better aim, reduced recoil, and faster reloading. The Bouncer punches faster and does more damage with his fists. The Athlete runs faster, dives farther, and slides longer (three things you will be doing a lot of). You can also pick a class that carries more grenades, and one that increases your slow-motion powers.
Startled doves included.
It's not just about shooting people, of course, it's about shooting people while doing awesomely acrobatic things. Shooting someone while diving is cool. Shooting someone and killing them while diving is cooler. Shooting someone in the head, thus killing them, while diving, is cooler still. The game rewards you for your coolness with style points that allow you to boost the skills of whichever specialty you've chosen. Gain enough points and you can activate bullet-time powers.
One sliding, two diving: the guy standing doesn't stand a chance.
Slow-motion doesn't seem like it would work in multiplayer. I mean, say I slow down the action. Doesn't the action slow down for everyone else, too? Well, yeah. Doesn't that mean anyone can enjoy my slow-motion powers at the same time I'm enjoying them? Well, yeah. That's why it's so cool! You have a slight advantage in that you choose when to activate it, but otherwise, it's like a gift to the entire server as everyone enters bullet-time and enjoys a cinematic shootout at the same time.
The kill-cam captures your finest moments.
There are a few maps to play, and they all feel perfectly appropriate for awesome movie-style shootouts. There's a subway station, complete with rushing commuter trains, perfect for leaping out of the way just in time to avoid being splattered. Also perfect for not leaping out of the way in time and being splattered. There's a couple of industrial maps as well, and of course, the best one, the rooftop skyscraper map, allowing for extended leaps through the air and long slides off of ledges, plus the awesome plummeting gunfights down to street level. Nicely, if you happen to fall off a roof alone, you don't have to fall all the way to the bottom twiddling your thumbs: a simple keypress will let you respawn topside.
Dive + headshot = Dive Kill. That's my kinda equation.
There are some objectives, sometimes, among all the high-octane carnage. Players may be targeted if they're doing well, letting everyone know where they are on the map so they can be hunted down. One player may be carrying a briefcase of cash, and sometimes a race will begin, leading players through several checkpoints. Mostly, though, this is a game about diving and rolling and sliding and shooting, and even when objectives pop up, the action never really slows down or changes.
Dodge, Dip, Dive, Duck, and Dodge!
In case I haven't been clear, this mod is super fun, full of crazy stunts and non-stop action. There's a first-person mode, which works quite well, though you miss out on seeing all the crazy moves your character is doing. There's a handful of servers available, and at least a couple nearly-full games going on around the clock. Get in there, load your double-guns, and dive in.
Installation: There's a self-installer right here. You'll need Half-Life 2 on Steam, and it'll even check if you've got Source SDK Base 2013 Multiplayer installed, and if not, will download it for you. Once installed, just restart Steam and Double Action Boogaloo will appear in your library.
The Dota 2 Workshop update is even more interesting than it first appears. The new tools include an overhauled edition of Valve's Hammer level editor, and the update download adds a 64-bit build of Dota 2. Both contain allusions to the next generation of Valve's Source engine. Set the Half-Life 3 alert to DEFCON beige.
Technically-minded modders and map-making enthusiasts are busily dissecting the tools in detail, but it's immediately clear that Hammer has been greatly improved. The interface has been overhauled, and the editor now renders the level in real-time as you tweak level geometry. It also runs on a new file structure. When you open a file in the editor, you can now choose to open a new "vmap" file, or an old fashioned "Source 1.0 Map File". The community is still puzzling over the advantages offered by the new directory system, but it looks like Valve are laying important groundwork for future releases.
It's interesting to note how user-friendly the new tools are. Dota Redditors are already having fun with functions that let you sketch out levels quickly (via DarkMio) using tilesets. As well as Dota 2's traditional forest set, there's the wintry Frostivus set and this one. Valve have a history of encouraging user-created content, including campaigns and levels. Hammer's complexity surely stunted the potential of Left 4 Dead's ecosystem a problem Valve tried to circumvent with Portal 2's lovely level-creation tools. Nu-Hammer could serve as a friendlier entry point for tinkerers.
In addition to all that, the latest Dota 2 update also adds a 64-bit version of the Dota 2 client, which you'll find tucked away in steamapps/common/dota 2 beta/dota_ugc/game/bin/win64. It contains numerous references to second-gen elements, like "engine2.dll", "materialssystem2.dll" and "vphysics2.dll", and comes with a colourful new console. It's a bit premature to say that Dota 2 has been ported to Source 2 wholesale, we're likely looking at an interim step as Valve roll out tools designed to support their current games and future projects.
This is quite exciting nonetheless. Publicly Valve have been laser-focused on Dota 2, but are of course rumoured to be working on Left 4 Dead 3 and, what was it again, Hearth-Life? Bath-Life? As someone who likes Valve games, but can't quite get into Dotes, I wait in meditative stasis for a new Valve happening, be it an announcement or an ARG. Our time will come.
Competitive first-person shooters love to depict the gritty 'realism' of soldiers locked in an endless war of explosions and swearing. NeoTokyo isn't entirely different, but supplements its urgent shooting with cyberpunk and a nice soundtrack. After being successfully Greenlit in 2012, the Half-Life 2 mod is finally available to download directly from Steam now entirely free from its SDK dependencies.
If you've not played the mod, it's similar in style to Counter-Strike albeit a class-based Counter-Strike that's been clearly inspired by Ghost in the Shell. As the title elegantly suggests, it's set in future Tokyo, where a war is raging between the NSF and JINRAI. There are two modes to play Team Deathmatch and Capture the Ghost. The 'Ghost' in question is the top half of a robot lady. It is cyberpunk as all heck.
You can now grab the game for free directly from Steam, and, if you'd like to know what you're getting yourself into, can read up on NeoTokyo's peculiarities here.
Every week, we publish a classic PC Gamer review from the '90s or early 2000s. This week, Ben Griffin provides context and commentary followed by the full, original text of our Half-Life 2 review, published in the November 2004 issue of PC Gamer UK. More classic reviews here.
What more can be said about Half-Life 2? Jim Rossignol's words below still do a fine job of summing up just why the world got worked up over a singleplayer shooter. November 2004 was a standout month for PC gaming, and indeed PC Gamer: a 96% for Valve's opus, 95% for Rome: Total War to a 95%, an 89% FIFA 2005, and Shade: Wrath of Angels with a, er, 59%.
But the game we called 'messianic' was all that mattered that month, and indeed, that year. Not only did it kick off Valve's (eventually) world-conquering Steam service, but it courted criminals too. After FBI involvement and a concerted effort from Valve's community, the stolen Half-Life 2 code was returned several anxious months later, but not after a making dear old Gabe sweat through a heavily delayed development schedule. Could this be the official birth of Valve time?
And Half-Life 2 still matters. Just shy of a decade on, memories linger in the collective conscious. The gravity gun. The hoverboat. Striders. Dog. Ravenholm, to which we definitely do not go. The game left an indelible mark on its landscape, and not only in terms of those iconic moments. Underneath it all, the Source engine gave modders and developers a good platform on which to base their game. It's still being used today albeit in a heavily modified form in Respawn's multiplayer shooter, Titanfall.
So there it is, one of the greatest PC games in history. Here's our original review in full.
Half-Life 2 review
It was all in that moment when I just sat back and laughed. I couldn t believe it was quite this good. I chuckled in muddled disbelief, expectations utterly defied. My nervous fingers reloaded the level, knowing that I had to see that breathtaking sequence one more time. It was then that I knew for certain: Valve had surpassed not only themselves, but everyone else too. Half-Life 2 is an astounding accomplishment. It is the definitive statement of the last five years of first-person shooters. Everything else was just a stopgap.
Half-Life 2 is a near perfect sequel. It takes almost everything that worked from Half-Life and either improves on it, or keeps it much the same. But that simple summation undersells how the Valve team have approached this task. Half-Life 2 is a linear shooter with most of the refinements one would expect from years of work, but it is also a game of a higher order of magnitude than any of the previous pretenders to the throne. The polish and the stratospheric height of the production values mean that Half-Life 2 is a magnificent, dramatic experience that has few peers.
It would be madness for me to spoil this game by talking about the specific turn of events, so spoilers are going to be kept to a minimum. We re going to talk about general processes and the elements of style and design that make Half-Life 2 such an energising experience. Key to this is the way in which Gordon s tale is told. Once again we never leave his perspective. There are no cutscenes, no moment in which you are anything but utterly embedded in Gordon s view of the world. Everything is told through his eyes. And what a story it is. Gordon arrives at the central station at City 17 a disruptive and chilling dystopia. And from there? Well, that would be telling. This is not the contemporary America that Gordon seemed to be living in during the original Half-Life. The events of Black Mesa have affected the whole world. The crossover with Xen has meant that things have altered radically, with hyper-technology existing alongside eastern bloc dereliction.
The world is infested with head-crab zombies and the aliens that were once your enemies now co exist amongst the oppressed masses. This very European city is populated by frightened and desperate American immigrants, and sits under the shadow of a vast, brutalist skyscraper that is consuming the urban sprawl with crawling walls of blue steel. It s a powerful fiction. City 17 is one of the most inventive and evocative game worlds we ve ever seen. The autocratic and vicious behaviour of the masked Overwatch soldiers immediately places you in a high-pressure environment. People look at you with desperate eyes, just waiting for the end to their pain, an end to the power of the mysterious Combine. Who are they? Why are you here? Who are the masterminds behind this tyranny? The questions pile up alongside the bodies.
Half-Life 2 isn t big on exposition, but the clues are there. You re thrust into this frightening near-future reality and just have to deal with it. Your allies are numerous, but they have their own problems. Your only way forward is to help them. And so you do, battling your way along in this relentless, compelling current of violence and action, gradually building up a picture of what has happened since Black Mesa. The Combine, the military government that controls the city in a boot-stamping-face kind of way, are a clear threat, but quite how they came to be and what their purposes are become aching problems. Once again Gordon remains silent, listening to what he is told so that you can find those answers for yourself.
But even with Gordon s vaguely sinister silence (something that is transformed into a subtle joke by the game s characters) there are reams of dialogue in Half-Life 2. It is spoken by bewilderingly talented actors and animated with almost magical precision. Alyx, Eli, Barney and Dr Kleiner are delightful to behold, but they only tell part of the story. There are dozens of other characters, each with their own role to play. And each one is a wondrous creature. They might be blemished, even scarred, with baggy eyes and greasy hair, but you can t tear your eyes away. People, aliens and even crows, have never seemed quite so convincing in a videogame. Doom 3 s lavish monsters are more impressive, but Half-Life 2 s denizens are imbued with life. More importantly, they offer respite. Half-Life 2 s world is a high-bandwidth assault on the senses that seldom lets up. That moment when you see a friendly face is a palpable relief. A moment of safe harbour in a world of ultraviolence. As Gordon travels he is aided by the citizens of City 17 and the underground organisation that aims to fight the oppressors. Their hidden bases are, like the characters who inhabit them, hugely varied an abandoned farm, a lighthouse, a canyon scrapyard and an underground laboratory each superbly realised.
It is this all-encompassing commitment to flawless design that makes Half-Life 2 so appealing. Even without the cascade of inventiveness that makes up the action side of events, the environments become a breathtaking visual menagerie. Cracked slabs and peeling paint, future-graffiti and mossy slate, tufts of wild grass and flaking barrels, shattered concrete and impenetrable tungsten surfaces City 17 and its surrounding landscape make you want to keep exploring, just to see what might be past the next decaying generator or mangled corpse. Whether you find yourself in open, temperate coastline or mired in terrifying technological hellholes, Half-Life 2 presents a perfect face. The first time you see ribbed glass blurring the ominous shape of a soldier on the other side, or any time that you happen to be moving through water, you will see next-generation visuals implemented in a casual, capable manner. Half-Life 2 doesn t have Doom 3 s groundbreaking lighting effects, but objects and characters still have their own real-time shadows and the level design creates a play of light and dark that diminishes anything we ve seen in other games. The very idea that people have actually created this world by hand seems impossible, ludicrous. The detritus in the back of a van, the rubbish that lies in a stairwell it all seems too natural to have come about artificially. Add to this the split-second perfection of the illustrative music, as well as the luscious general soundscape, and you have genuinely mind-boggling beauty.
But these virtual environments are little more than a stage on which the action will play out. And what jaw-dropping, mind-slamming action that is. What s tough to convey in words, or even screenshots, is just how much impact the events of combat confer. This is a joyous, kinetic, action game. The concussive sound effects, combined with the physical solidity of weapons, objects, enemies and environment, make this a shocking experience. Each encounter is lit up with abrupt and impressively brutal effects. Explosions spray shrapnel and sparks, bullets whack and slam with devastating energy. The exploding barrel has never been such a delight. You think that you ve seen exploding barrels before, but no: these impromptu bombs, like everything else in the game, are transformed by the implementation of revelatory object physics. Unlike previous games, the object physics in Half-Life 2 are no longer a visual gimmick they are integral to the action and, indeed, the very plot.
Gordon can pick up anything that isn t bolted down and place, drop or hurl it anywhere you choose. Initially this consists of little more than shifting boxes so that you can climb out of a window, but gradually tasks increase in complexity. Puzzles, ever intuitive, are well signposted and entertaining. If they re tougher than before they re still just another rung up on what you ve already learned. This is immaculate game design. There are a couple of moments in these twenty hours where something isn t perfect in its pace or placing, but these are minor, only memorable in stark contrast to the consistent brilliance of surrounding events. There is always something happening, something new. You find yourself plunging into it with relish. Just throwing things about is immediately appealing. You find yourself restraining the impulse to just pick up and hurl anything you encounter. (Free at last, I can interact!) Black Mesa veteran Dr Kleiner is remarkably relaxed about you trashing half his lab, just to see what can be grabbed or broken. Combine police take less kindly to having tin cans lobbed at their shiny gasmasks.
But the core process of this new physics, the key to the success of the game, is to be found in the Gravity Gun. Once you ve experienced vehicular action and got to grips with combat, Half-Life 2 introduces a new concept the idea of violently manipulating objects with this essential tool. The gun has two modes, one drags things toward you and can be used to hold, carry or drop them. The other projects them away and can either be used to smash and punch or, if you re already holding something, hurl it with tremendous force. A filing cabinet becomes a flying battering ram, dragged towards you and then fired into enemies, only to be dragged back and launched again to hammer your foe repeatedly, or until the cabinet is smashed into metal shards. Pick these up and you can blast them through the soft flesh of your enemies.
Killing the badguys with nearby furniture becomes habitual, instinctive. Or perhaps you need cover from a sniper picking up a crate will give you a makeshift shield with which to absorb some incoming fire. Likewise, you immediately find yourself using the gravity gun to clear a path through debris-blocked passages, or to pick up ammo and health packs, or to grab and hurl exploding barrels at encroaching zombies, setting them ablaze and screaming. You can even use it to grab hovering Combine attack-drones and batter them into tiny fragments on concrete surfaces. Soon the gravity gun is proving useful in solving puzzles, or knocking your up-turned buggy back onto its wheels. Yes, a buggy. I ll come back to that. The gravity gun isn t just another a weapon, it s the soul of Half-Life 2. Do you try to bodge the jump over that toxic sludge, or take the time to use the level s physics objects to build an elaborate bridge? Do you waste ammo on these monsters or pull that disc-saw out of where it s embedded in the wall? Of course, you always know what to do. When there s a saw floating in front of your gravity gun and two zombies shamble round the corner, one behind the other, well, you laugh at the horrible brilliance of it. Yeah, I think that was the moment that I sat back and laughed. It s just too much.
Sometime after these experiments in viscera comes Gordon s glorious road trip. Simplicity incarnate, the little buggy is practically indestructible, but also an essential tool for making a journey that Gordon can t make on foot. Dark tunnels, treacherous beaches and bright, trap-littered clifftops become the new battleground. Like the rest of the game there are oddities and surprises thrown in all the way through. The bridge section of this journey would make up an entire level in lesser shooters. And yet here it is, just another part of the seamless tapestry of tasks that Gordon performs. Also illustrative of the game as a whole is the way in which the coast is strewn with non-essential asides. OK, so you re zooming from setpiece to setpiece, but do you also want to explore every nook and cranny, every little shack that lies crumbling by the roadside? Of course you do. This is a game where every hidden cellar or obscure air-duct should be investigated; you never know what you might find.
Investigating means using the torch that, oddly, is linked to a minor criticism of the game. Both sprinting and flashlight use are linked to a recharging energy bank. It s clear why this restriction was imposed, but it s nevertheless a little peculiar. The quality of the game meant that I was searching, rather desperately, for similar complaints. Smugly I assumed that my allies in a battle were non-human because that way Valve dodged the lack of realism and other problems created by fighting alongside human allies. Of course my lack of faith was exposed a few levels later, when I found myself in the midst of the war-torn city fighting alongside numerous human allies who patched me up, shouted at me to reload, apologised when they got in the way and fought valiantly against a vastly superior force. What a battle that was. I want to go back, right now. The striders, so impressive to behold, are the most fearsome of foes. Fighting both these behemoths and a constant flow of Combine troops creates what is without a doubt the most intense and exhilarating conflict ever undertaken in a videogame. The laser-pointer rocket launcher is back and even more satisfying than ever before. Rocket-crates give you a seemingly infinite resupply to battle these monsters but it s never straightforward. Striders will seek you out, forcing you under cover, while the whale-like flying gunships will shoot down your rockets, inducing you to resort to imaginative manoeuvring to perform that killing blow. Even dying becomes a pleasure you want to see these beasts smash through walls and butcher the rebels, again and again. Oh Christ, what will happen next?
I could talk about how those battles with the striders almost made me cry, or about the events that Alyx guides you through so cleverly, so elegantly. I could talk about the twitchy fear instilled by your journey through an abandoned town, or the way that the skirmishes with Overwatch soldiers echoes the battles against the marines in the original Half-Life. I want to rant and exult over this and that detail or event, this reference or that joke. I want to bemoan the fact that it had to end at all (no matter the excellence of that ending). And I m distraught that we ll have to wait so long for an expansion pack or sequel. I even had this whole paragraph about how CS Source will be joined by an army of user-fashioned mods as the multiplayer offering for this definitively singleplayer game. But we re running out of space, out of time. There s so much here to talk about, but in truth I don t want to talk, I just want to get back to it: more, more, more... You have to experience it for yourself. This is the one unmissable game. It s time to get that cutting-edge PC system. Sell your grandmother, remortgage the cat, do whatever you have to do. Just don t miss out. By Jim Rossignol.