Half-Life 2

Much like using chopsticks, programming the VCR or milking my hamster, I didn’t believe it could be done. Logistically it seemed impossible; there was just no way anyone would be able to do it. But I was wrong, on all accounts.

Half Life 2 on the Xbox is a reality, and more than that, it looks good - really, really good.

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Having originally appeared on PC at the end of 2004, Half Life 2 pushed the graphical envelope on what we were all expecting to see. Proffering near life-like character models combined with gorgeously detailed textures and the astonishingly realistic (and now ubiquitous) Havoc physics engine, Half Life 2 set the standard for 2005 and received rave reviews across the board.

Now, thanks to some extremely innovative streaming technology, Half Life 2 in its prodigious entirety has made the technological plummet onto the Xbox with startling grace, and has redefined the capabilities of an aging console. Simply put, Half Life 2 has to be one of the most jaw-droppingly impressive games on Xbox. The sheer number of polygons that Half Life 2 is capable of pushing is incredible; each object is shaped realistically and is a farcry from the geometric nightmares that populate many other first person shooters. Unfortunately not everything is peaches and cream, and Half Life 2’s most notable flaw is its frame rate. Like a hamster on speed, Half Life 2 jerks and shudders alarmingly, so much so in fact that, had the PC options been provided, I would have undoubtedly lowered the resolution. Thankfully, and quite surprisingly, these frame rate problems hardly ever seem to occur when engaged in combat. While certainly peculiar, this contrivance goes a very long way to reducing the negative impact of a sloppy frame rate, and turns what could have been a game destroying feature into a mere annoyance. There are, however, a few other cracks in Half Life’s armour, such as poor lighting effects or boxes that simply disappear when destroyed in order to enforce the strict polygon limit per map, but these things are a barely noticeable background noise when compared to the amazing steps that Valve have undertaken to produce the most realistic environments ever seen on the Xbox.

Half Life 2 is more than just a Botox injected pinup, though. Top quality sound effects, voice acting and ultra believable physics give a massive sense of depth to what could otherwise have been a hollow (but pretty) shell. While the Havoc Physics engine is now a commonplace feature in many first person shooters, few if any have even come close to harnassing its raw power in the same way that Half Life 2 has. Physics is no longer just a superficial feature, it’s now an integral facet of gameplay. The laws of gravity, friction and buoyancy are used in some surprisingly entertaining puzzles in the first few levels, and throughout the rest of the game, add a sense of realism still unmatched in any other FPS. While both the Physics and the music have their flaws, such as no clipping on fallen enemies or the pounding trance music fading away mid-combat, these are only the tiniest of blemishes - hardly noticeable against such a perfect background.

Of course, none of this means anything unless it’s all put together into an enjoyable and cohesive whole, and here is where Half Life 2 falls, perhaps, a little short of the mark. Playing Half Life is a bit like reading a Playboy magazine from cover to cover; the whole experience is very well presented, but all the really exhilarating parts are interspersed by long stretches of tedium as you trudge from one section to the next. Certainly, those exciting bits are very well orchestrated, and Half Life plays home to more scripted events than any other FPS I’ve seen. Throughout the first half of the game, each time you encounter an enemy, it feels like something special, a feeling no doubt bolstered by the fantastic atmosphere of desolation that Valve have injected into their title. Unfortunately, it’s that same feeling of desolation that proves to be one of the game’s largest problems: enemy encounters are simply too few and too brief in the first half of the game. While the second half does step things up a bit in the enemy department, it still never quite reaches the crescendo it seemed to be aiming for.

What all of this inevitably means is that, while the campaign is very enjoyable on the first play through, it becomes rather dreary on subsequent attempts. Outside of a few truly exceptional moments that will have you spooning your eyes back in, Half Life 2 is simply too drawn out to offer much replay value. The real crusher here is that, unlike the PC version, Half Life 2 on the Xbox does not come bundled along with Counter-Strike 2: Source. This, coupled with the absence of any other multiplayer capability, detracts massively from the Half Life package and leaves it seriously lacking in the longevity department. As it stands, Half Life 2 can be completed in under 15 hours (although I spent close to 30 hours playing the game, blissfully stacking boxes and barrels - my record is around 15 barrels high - in an attempt to break free of the confines of each level).

One of the things that made the original Half Life such a success was its immersing storyline. It’s fairly clear that Valve have tried to recreate this aspect in Half Life 2. Sadly, the game fails to ever really captivate you, as the necessary information required in order to keep your attention is simply never divulged, and you will likely find yourself staring at the credits wondering with uninspired bemusement as to what exactly just happened. Another lacklustre element of Half Life 2 is its AI, both allied and enemy. This is not to say that your antagonists run blindly into combat - by all accounts, they’re actually pretty smart - it’s just that they fail to live up to expectation. On the other hand, the AI of the squad you gather later in the game is so ludicrously frustrating that you’ll often be overcome with the urge to claw out your own eyes. Squad control has to be one of the worst additions to the game, which squad members constantly getting in your way, refusing to do anything you tell them to do for longer than 60 seconds, and completely decimating the already shaky frame rate.

In closing, Half Life 2 is a technological masterpiece that lacks a little heart. Had Valve only included some form of multiplayer and put half as much effort into the games tempo as they did its presentation, Half Life 2 could easily have been the mega success its progenitor was. Despite its failings, though, Half Life 2 is a great game, and one of the most flawless PC to console transitions I can think of.

"Half Life 2 pushes the Xbox right to the edge."
- Half-Life 2
Follow Own it? Rating: R16   Difficulty: Easy   Learning Curve: 5 Min


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