EDIT: By 4/10, I mean it's mediocre. Not bad, not terrible, but not great or just okay. Think of it as 2 stars out of 5. I understand that a lot of people work with the common "6 is terrible, 7 is okay and 8 and up is great - anything 5 or lower isn't worth a buy", but that's not me, because that makes no sense.
StoryBefore we talk about Half-Life 2's story, we need to talk about Half-Life 1's in order to compare the two.
Half-Life 1 puts you in the shoes of Gordon Freeman, a guy with an MIT PhD and military-grade weapons training as part of the Black Mesa Hazard Course. Gordon, unlike most protagonists, has no personality. He is not a character in Half-Life 1, but rather a blank slate for the player to project a character into. Is Gordon a scaredy cat, or a cold blooded killer? Is he a murderer, or a pacifist? The player decides, and the game lets them play it out. This is why he is a silent protagonist, the player gives him character and voice, not the game. He can talk according to several in-game and out of game sources (refer to his Letter of Admission, and press E on an ally, for example).
Half-Life 2 throws all that out the window. Gordon Freeman is the savior of mankind, the only hope for humanity, the brightest star in the field, the biggest Gary Stu. Reviewers at the time said the same, and unbiased people trying HL2 out without first inserting themselves in the hype train say so too, and with good reason. Every person in the game knows Gordon and loves him, everyone follows him without him even asking, everyone provides supplies to him and lets him steal medkits from dying people, because he's Gordon Freeman, who can do no wrong. Doesn't matter if your Gordon Freeman during Half-Life 1 was a psychopath that killed everything he saw, from cockroaches to Barneys to aliens - now it's Gary Stu's turn, and you have no say in it. He's still silent, but without any reason for it, and now there's NPCs talking about how he doesn't talk much as if he was actually a mute, which is false, as stated in the previous paragraph.
But let's shove aside the protagonist, what's going on around him? Well, once again let's go back to Half-Life 1 and see where we left off to contextualize the story.
Half-Life's expansion packs were not shy in their content, not just in gameplay and levels, but also plenty of story. Half-Life: Opposing Force was the last game in the HL1 chronology, and the first expansion pack to come out, it takes place after every other expansion and the main game, starting around Forget About Freeman (when Shephard wakes up). In it, we see that:
- There's this Race X threat that is trying to terraform Earth into something akin to their home dimension, known just as X or World X.
- There are Black Ops male units sent in to extract a nuclear device from one of the many old ICBM rockets found in Black Mesa Research Facility (as it used to be an ICBM test silo about 5 decades prior to the events of the games), with the intention of nuking the facility to prevent X terraforming from spreading and in an attempt to eradicate any witnesses of the HECU's wrongdoings or of the Black Ops' conspiracy, which also led to conflict between the HECU and BOps.
- Most of the HECU units in Black Mesa were Privates, as they receive orders from a Corporal like Adrian, which himself got promoted days before the incident due to meddling by Gman, explaining why Gordon managed to take down so many of them and why the situation was so poorly handled in terms of civillian casualties.
Half-Life: Blue Shift was the second expansion pack to come out, and starts adjacent to HL1, only a bit sooner. In it, you play as Barney Calhoun, one of the many Barneys that roam the facility in HL1. As Barney, you find out that:
- Several Black Mesa employees managed to escape through various routes; not all of them died to the nuke, Xenians, or the Army/MARSOC/Black Ops.
- The HECU were initially non-aggressive until Gordon started engaging them in the High Security Storage Facility (completely off-limits to R&D and the Security Force, let alone to a mere Research Associate like Gordon).
- The New Mexico Railroad Line is directly connected to the Black Mesa Research Facility, meaning supplies and otherwise come through via land (which can easily be tracked, no pun intended, using something like Google Maps).
Half-Life: Decay was the third and last expansion pack to be release for Half-Life 1, and also starts adjacent to Half-Life 1, though how much sooner or later is unknown. In Decay, you play as Gina or Colette, and the expansion contextualizes and builds upon a lot of things the original Half-Life merely mentioned in passing, despite their seemingly important nature (for example, the Satellite Delivery Rocket you launch in On a Rail, or what exactly happened to cause the Resonance Cascade, etc). As these two ladies, the player can clearly see that:
- The HECU were called in by Rosenberg, the creator of the Anti-mass Spectrometer, as he and the two Scientists used the Uplink station above the Hazard Course to contact the proper authorities for help with evacuating personnel and dealing with the alien threat.
- The Satellite Delivery Rocket only hadn't been launched prior to Freeman's arrival because the launching system required the Black Mesa Air Control to give "the all clear" that would allow it to launch, so that it could later be used, in conjunction to all the safety mechanisms such as the Dampening Locks, also activated by the two doctors, to "revert" the Resonance Cascade and stop the Xen fauna from being randomly teleported into Earth, limiting the alien threat only to Nihilanth's troops and to Race X.
- In the out of game material included with the game, it's shown that there isn't just a Mark IV HEV suit, but also a Mark V Prototype ready for testing.
All this information combined with the nuke being set off (thus preventing the X flora and terrain from spreading any further.. or did it?) brings up many questions. What were the repercussions of all these events unfolding at pretty much the same time? How many of the escaped scientists and Barneys managed to reach the urban centers, and how did the government react? Did anyone see the nuke going off, and how did society handle the sudden appearance of Xen fauna due to the resonance cascade? What are Gman's motives, and is he really the administrator of Black Mesa, using some sort of Displacer Cannon to move around? How can he always arrive just in time, and how many people did he directly affect like with Adrian? Did he only save Adrian for as long as he did to use him against the Race X forces? Why? What about all the HECU that didn't die at Black Mesa, who saw everything that happened? And what about the Black Ops? Were all this to go public, would the US be seeing a third world war with something like Russia, given the country's weakened political and military strength? Just how public is Black Mesa's existance, is it as public as the game makes it out to be (tram announcer asking employees to give out recommendations, the railroad line connection)? What happened to the Mark V prototype? Did the Nihilanth and Race X only invade Black Mesa and it's general vicinity, or did they go further than that? How much further did they go, if so? What exactly led the HECU to start attacking Black Mesa personnel, rather than simply detaining them after finding them in off-limits areas? Was it the Gman?
Half-Life 2, being the great sequel it is, ignores all of that, skips 20 years into the future, creates a new threat (the Combine), shoves the player into "Eastern Europe"'s "City 17" (very specific) where everyone speaks English and looks American, barely mentions any of the events of Half-Life 1, and doesn't answer any of the above questions. Hell, it raises more questions than it answers, considering even the simple concept of giving Gordon his suit again is done terribly and in a way that makes no sense (it's a Mark V now, so it's the prototype, right? Except Kleiner says it's Gordon's suit, which STILL fits him, and if so, how did he get it, and how did he get the resources to modify it into a fully blown Mark V?). So how does the story hold up on it's own, if we pretend it's not a sequel at all?
According to HL2, "humanity" was defeated by the Combine after 7 hours of battle, with no explanation given as to why the Combine attacked (what for) or why they didn't just eradicate humanity at once. Instead, they basically made City-sized gulags in Eastern Europe, with no explanation given for the location's choice, or to why everyone speaks English, without showing as much as an accent, with 2 exceptions (Grigori, who has an Eastern European accent, and Odessa, a brit). The game takes place in one of these Cities, the capital of the Combine gulags, City 17, and it makes it clear that the Combine presence on Earth at the moment is simply a garrison formed to control the population, with the real brass waiting on the other side.
Funnily enough, the printing press still worked so that they could take a picture of the burning UN HQ and print out "Earth Surrenders!".
City 17 is ruled by "Wallace Breen", who used to be Black Mesa's administrator. In fact, he rules the entire Combine presence on Earth, with no explanation given as to why the administrator of a nuked facility became world leader instead of a capable politician or an actual Combine person. He resides in a tower simply known as The Citadel, and rules with an iron fist, taking notes from Orwell's "1984" without understanding any of it's nuances. There's this "suppression field" which prevents people from reproducing, and everyone lives off of free food given by the government, with no explanation given as to where it comes from or what it is. Soylent Green, anyone?
The Combine are the most generic evil bad guys, with no redeeming moral qualities or even as much as a motivation other than "kill humans, lol". They drained the Earth's ocean, with no explanation given as to why or how, and they come from another dimension, because of course they do. They also use mortar canisters that have headcrabs inside in order to easily and effortlessly take out entire enemy bases, with no explanation given as to how they have all these headcrabs. They call their crappy transhuman garrison the Combine Overwatch, who are assisted by Civil Protetion, who are just regular humans.
The Resistance are the only force standing against the Combine. They're a group of scattered around cells that take refugees from City 17 so they can gather up refugees, with no explanation given as to why they have as many supplies as they do. They never attack the Combine, and had no plans of doing so until Gordon blew up a prison (Nova Prospekt) and killed pretty much all it's prisoners for the sake of saving one guy because a girl wouldn't shut up about it. Real hero right there. The Resistance is led by Eli Vance, a guy from Black Mesa, who's aided by Isaac Kleiner, a guy from Black Mesa, with help of a spy called Barney Calhoun, a guy from Black Mesa, and Mossman, a girl that would be from Black Mesa if it weren't for pesky Gordon getting her job instead, and Eli's daughter, Mary Su- I mean, Alyx Vance. There is no explanation given as to why they're all related to and mostly from Black Mesa, but you should already expect that at this point.
I could go on - there's a lot I haven't even touched on - but it'll take way too long, and I'm sure you already get the picture. The story is bad. Not only does it completely disregard the previous entry in the franchise, but it also sucks on it's own, due to humorously poor writing and a lack of any care and attention given to why Gordon being quiet in HL1 was thought of as a good thing rather than a hamper on the story potential.
Since "HL:VR" looks like it's going to be a Half-Life 2 prequel, I can already guess it'll be just as flawed, if not more, considering neither Randy Pitchford nor Marc Laidlaw are going to work on it, and I doubt they'll touch on any of the questions left open by the games before Half-Life 2.
Level DesignHalf-Life 2's level design is the very definition of a mixed bag. The game sometimes has some very clever and original arena designs that still look like they could be a real place somewhere, but also sometimes has some really badly designed or simply uninspired areas. The first two chapters of the game have no combat and are just the introduction to the inconsistent and illogical world the game is set in, with it's nonsense characters and the annoying Mary Sue.
The third chapter, where the gameplay kicks in, has some really good pacing, but predictable "ambushes" (areas full of explosive barrels, what a mystery, I wonder if any enemies are going to appear near them) and an extremely linear corridor design makes the levels bland and uninspired, until you get to the canals, which are just that, wider hallways with water covering the ground, some pipes, some mud, and no thought as to where you need to go. There's an annoying helicopter, the game gives you an SMG with almost no ammo (45 when you pick it up, 13 from each dead enemy), throws the most annoying enemies in the game at you (manhacks) and leaves you with just the pistol and SMG up until the next chapter, Water Hazard, which is a continuation of the same thing but this time with terrible vehicle physics between the actual shooter gameplay, and where the player gets their hands on the 357, the game's revolver. Chapter 5 is just a cutsce- scripted sequence that takes much longer than it should, with a terrible weapon introduction near the end (remember in GTA San Andreas or IV where the game takes the player's control away to tell them tutorial stuff? Basically that, but instead of taking the control away for 10 seconds it traps you in the same area for about 10 minutes to play with Havok physics).
Chapter 6 is the game's attempt at horror. It throws spooky sounds at the player (which will be covered more in-depth in the sound section of the review) and forces the player to use the Gravity Gun by not giving them enough ammo to do anything, with the only enemies you find being zombies and headcrabs. Not fun. It's also where you get the shotgun, though, and after you get out of Ravenholm (the spooky zombie town) you get some of the best that Half-Life 2 has to offer, right before the next 2 chapters... which are both just another vehicle section, this time with even worse physics and with Antlion enemies constantly bugging you, no pun intended. It has a memorable bridge sequence and a fun fight against an airship, but that's just a rehash of HL1's cliff section. Nothing new. When you finally get out of the god damn vehicle in chapter 8, you do a fun standoff against the Combine Overwatch forces and then have to bother with more Havok Gravity Gun shit to proceed to the next chapter.
Chapter 9 is Nova Prospekt, it has the worst level design in the whole game, and it's the only chapter where you get to use the Bugbait, which lets you control Antlions for as long as the game wants you to. Nothing happens here. Chapter "9a", Entanglement, is where the prison areas get a major improvement. It's almost perfect, but is completely ruined by having 3 tower defense sections where you put reprogrammed Combine sentry guns around so that the Combine can die for a bit until the knock over the turret and you have to kill them normally before setting up again. The first one is fine, but the second tower defense section is terrible. It takes way too long, there are far too many soldiers, there aren't enough health resources, and the turrets keep falling over no matter how well you position them. Best way to get through it is to speed time up by 10, turn godmode on, and hold the turrets to kill the soldiers until Mary arrives after you're done. By the time you get to the third one, it's already gotten old, and it's a lot easier than the second one, so it's just boring.
Chapter 10, "Anticitizen One" (which is what the Combine call Gordon), starts out with a boring scripted sequence where Mary's useless robot kills some Combine and flies away on a Dropship. Some "creepy" music plays and then you're clearing up mines while some NPCs tell you how to play the game. Why introduce a new enemy type like these mines by showing them in action, killing, say, a headcrab, or a zombie, if you can just have NPCs spout exposition about how it works?
Chapter 11, "Follow Freeman" is pretty much the last one in terms of urban combat, but this time there is no mine spam or annoying NPC tutorials - it's just the player, the enemies, and the environement. This is Half-Life 2 at it's best. You also get to spend time with Barney, who, even though his personality is severely downgraded from the one seen in HL1, is still better than Mary.
The next chapter, "Our Benefactors" has the player entering the Citadel to try to get to Breen before he can teleport to the Combine's world and become a spooky flying grub alien "Advisor". It has some cool level design, but the Citadel is better done in Episode 1 than in this (as is the urban combat from the last chapter). The final chapter with gameplay is just the boss fight, which boils down to kill Combine, grab energy ball, shoot at Breen, repeat. It's as bland as they come, but at least it's better than walking into a Slipgate to teleport yourself inside the end boss and win the game just like that. And that's it, that's the whole game. The only good parts in it are done better in Episode 1, and pretty much all the other games in the series outperform HL2 in every way.
GameplayHalf-Life 2's arsenal is composed of a few hitscan weapons, and very few projectile or throwable weapons, with one melee:
- Crowbar - Melee
- 9mm Pistol (USP) - Hitscan
- SMG1 - Hitscan
- Grenades - Throwable
- Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator (Gravity Gun) - Projectile
- Shotgun (SPAS) - Hitscan
- Pulse Rifle (AR2) - Hitscan
- Crossbow - Projectile
- RPG - Projectile
- Bugbait - Throwable
- Crowbar - Melee
- 9mm Handgun (Glock) - Hitscan
- Grenades - Throwable
- Shotgun - Hitscan
- 9mm AR (MP5) - Hitscan
- 357 - Hitscan
- Tripmines - Trap
- Satchel Charges - Trap
- Xbow - Projectile
- Gauss Cannon - Hitscan (with charging shots)
- Hivehand - Projectile (homing, too)
- Snarks - Throwable (alive, can attack the player if they don't find a target in time)
- Gluon Gun - Hitscan (with a delay)
Not only does Half-Life 2 have less weapons, but the ones it does have are bad:
- Bugbait is only useful in Nova Prospekt.
- Pistol is only useful for the first few levels before the SMG1.
- Gravity gun is only useful if there are props nearby that are light enough to lift but heavy enough to kill.
- AR2 is literally just the SMG1 but with a different alternate fire, and with more damage and less ammo capacity
So not only is the weapon variety bad, the level design a mostly bad mixed bag, and the gunplay bad, but there's also the terrible enemy variety. These are the enemies HL2 has to offer (not counting things that don't do damage like scanners):
- Civil Protection
- Zombie Torsos
- Fast Headcrabs
- Fast Zombies
- Fast Zombie Torsos
- Poison Headcrabs
- Poison Zombies
- Antlion Guards
- Combine Overwatch Prison Guard
- Combine Overwatch Soldier
- Combine Overwatch Shotgun Soldier
- Combine Overwatch Elite
- Hopper mines
- Hunter Chopper
- Chapter specific enemies
- Combine Rocketsponges
Yeah... not good. And you never get to fight any more than one of these groups of similar enemies at once, it's either one or the other. One moment it's Antlions, the other it's Combine, then Zombies, etc. You only get to see different enemy types interact (like you did all the time in HL1's Surface Tension where both are hostile to the player) in the Episodes, and even then, only rarely.
SoundHalf-Life 2's sound design is full of low quality and low frequency sound effects (a lot of which are in Ravenholm, which is supposed to be spooky), generic royalty free sounds, annoyingly loud ambiance (like the animal sounds in Water Hazard that become especially annoying in the washing machine Havok puzzle area), and inconsistent weapon sounds (Shotgun sounds different on my hand than it does on his, same for Pistol, AR2... but not the SMG1 or RPG?). It gets the job done but it doesn't deserve any more recognition than that.
AIThe Combine AI are a huge step down from the HECU AI. Technologically, the Combine are more advanced, but combined with the poor level design, they fall flat. Refer to this video for an in-depth explanation.
The zombies in Half-Life 2 are more intelligent - they go after props in their vicinity to throw at the player, their headcrab detaches from the host from time to time after death to attach the player, they pretend to be dead to surprise attack the player as they wake up, and they can be split in half but stay alive afterwards, crawling on the floor. However, all of this goes to waste considering the simple truth that Half-Life 1's zombie AI was much more threatening. They moved faster, hit faster, hit harder, and they took more than just one Shotgun shot at point blank to die. They were dumber, yes, but they were tougher. In Half-Life 2 the zombies are more intelligent, but aren't a challenge. The new versions share the same AI but with minor modifications like being able to leak or throwing headcrabs rather than props.
The Civil Protection, despite being supposedly human, barely react to getting shot. Like the Combine, they simply do a small flinching animation from time to time, but never get stunned for more than a quarter of a second. In Half-Life 1, Quake, and Doom, it was possible to stun-lock an enemy by simply shooting them repeatedly due to a consistent and long flinch animation. In Half-Life 2, the enemies barely ever stop shooting until they're dead. And melee enemies' attacks can't be cancelled with damage, with the exception of the Gunship and Antlion Guard, which get stunned by explosions.
TechnicalHalf-Life 2 is touted as a revolutionary game with a revolutionary physics engine and revolutionary graphics. This is false. The Havok physics engine predated Half-Life 2 by years, and was already used in video games like Max Payne 2. The graphics are also nothing to boast about - the facial flexes were great at the time, and they CAN still look good nowadays on certain characters like the Gman or Alyx, but most of the time they leave a lot to wish for, and don't come even close to something like Uncharted's or L.A. Noire's facial animations. The shading on the maps is extremely basic, and the lighting is completely baked, with the few realtime shadows there are sticking out like a sore thumb. Shading on main story characters like Alyx and Eli, and on weapons like the Shotgun and SMG1, are the game's graphical highpoints, but most of it is dated and basic looking, with unrealistic lighting and low poly map geometry.
The Source Engine still performs well today and can be made to look good with some low-cost shader implementations, keeping the performance at a good level on very low-end computers while obtaining good graphical fidelity. The sheer modding capability of the Engine (no thanks to Valve, as it's just a leftover from Quake's time) is something truly special, and it is sad that most games nowadays have barely any modding support, like CS:GO, DOOM (2016), and Quake Champions. I suppose selling skins and sprays is more profitable than allowing the user to make their own clientside skins and sprays to use in-game, and greed is what drives corporations like Valve, Bethesda and EA.