I completely missed the boat with Half Life 2. Back in November 2004, when PC gamers were heralding Valve's FPS as the greatest game ever made, I was pumping hours into Halo 2 on the Xbox. When HL2 was finally ported to the original Xbox a year later, it was all too little too late - the Xbox 360 was out and that was commanding my attention. So when I was asked to review the insanely good value The Orange Box for the Xbox 360, which includes the original HL 2 from three years ago, its two expansions, puzzle FPS Portal and online only FPS Team Fortress 2, all from a console-gaming Valve noob point of view, I felt more than a little intimidated. This is supposed to be PC gaming at its finest after all. I also felt a little aggrieved. I'm taking Halo 3 out of my 360 disc drive for this. Time to see what all the fuss is about.
First off, I found it hard to know where to start. I chose the beginning, HL2, although if you played the port of the game on the Xbox you might want to head straight into Episode 1, TF2 or even Portal. But since the name Gordon Freeman meant about as much to me as theoretical physics, I felt like I'd be better off getting as much back story down as possible.
The game opens with a mysterious, suited man who has a strange reptilian voice calling for you to wake up. His name is G-Man, a shadowy, vampire-like figure from the original HL who fans of the series will know well, although I hadn't a clue who he was at first. You're on a train - again, I had no idea why. Turns out that in the first game a dimensional portal was opened in a secret lab triggering an alien invasion. The G-Man, who orchestrated a government cover-up of the whole incident, makes you an offer you can't refuse - work for him or die. The you is Gordon Freeman, HL's hero. He's a scientist who, while working at the Black Mesa lab doing dodgy experiments for the government, unleashed the totalitarian alien infestation called the Combine (yes, as in combine harvester). In HL Freeman leads the fight back, and even goes to the alien's home word Xen to have it out with the slimy buggers.
So, back to the train and the beginning of HL2. You're one of a few workers being transported to City 17, somewhere in Eastern Europe. G-Man had you in stasis until he needed you, and now he's calling. The city is a dump, with peeling walls, crumbling ceilings and rubbish flying about the streets. Oppression is everywhere. There's a looping video of a white-bearded man on a big screen, badgering on about suppressing our instincts and not making babies. There's these genuinely scary beat-down Metrocop guys all over the place, who have gas-masks for faces and muffled electronic voices. Add to that flying cameras that blind you with annoying regularity and what you have is the kind of environment and storyline George Orwell would have concocted if he had chanced his arm at game design instead of literary excellence - and been born in the 70s of course.
'HL2 is quite a slow-paced affair. It doesn't open with a sprint, instead more of a carefully considered stroll. You don't even get a gun for about half-an-hour.'
HL2 is quite a slow-paced affair. It doesn't open with a sprint, instead more of a carefully considered stroll. You don't even get a gun for about half-an-hour. You're slowly and subtly nudged in the right direction without arrows or flashing lights or lines on the floor. You're encouraged to consider your surroundings, take in the atmosphere and feeling of City 17, marvel at the little touches, like when a Metrocop makes you pick up a can and put it in the trash just for his own sick pleasure, and gently nudged deeper and deeper into this engrossing, dark, science fiction nightmare.
You head for the centre of the resistance, meet up with a mate of yours who's working undercover as a Metrocop and make a break for it along City 17's rooftops when the Combine come calling. It's all doomed to failure - you're surrounded and beaten to the floor, but someone comes to your aid - a woman, Alyx Vance, the daughter of your long-time lab partner Dr Eli Vance. She leads you to safety and a lab where there's a crazy old doc type with this alien face-hugger thing for a pet messing about with a transporter. You get your HEV suit at this point, providing you with a shield, super speed and other augmentations. In the first few hours of the game you'll speed away from a stalking helicopter on a sludge-skimming airboat, pick up the Zero-Point Energy Field Manipulator (also known as the gravity gun), perhaps the greatest weapon in FPS history, and take on the alien zombie horde in the creepy town of Ravenholm. It's a frenetic, panicky beginning of the game where you never feel fully in control of proceedings. You'll also quickly encounter the main zombie alien threat, which reminded me a lot of the Flood from the Halo series. Quick-moving headcrabs attach themselves to people, then, with their heads submerged and actions fully zombiefied, they stumble about hell bent on your destruction. It's freaky stuff - you can even hear their muffled screams coming from somewhere within the headcrab's stomach.
Console FPS gamers will instantly take to HL2. The controls are classic 360 pad layout - analogues to move and look, A to jump, B to reload, triggers to fire. But one thing that took me a while to wrap my head around is the ability to pick things up with the X button. You can pick up barrels or crates or whatever, which will then appear in front of you, and then carry them around a bit, drop them or throw them. But it's not until you get the gravity gun, HL2's ultimate creative tool, that you'll start to realise why HL2 caused such a fuss back when it first came out. The physics engine is absolutely amazing. Concrete blocks carry real weight, crates drop, fall and tumble as they should and structures collapse into a million tiny pieces. You can pick up flammable barrels, fire them at a group of Metrocops on top of a wooden platform and blow them up just at the right time to see the splinters fly. None of it feels fake. There are puzzles where you have to use the physics engine to progress, for example making ramps by weighing down planks of wood with blocks, or rising submerged platforms with air-filled bottles. Finally, I started to understand why PC gamers reckon HL2 is the pinnacle of game design. This isn't an all action frag fest. This is a physics lesson playing out in gorgeous HD. HL2 proudly stands up to its younger, more aesthetically pleasing cousins with its chest pumped out even today.
Saying that, you can tell the game is a few years old by the graphics. While the art direction is fantastic, beautifully capturing the feeling that Earth is held firmly in the grip of an evil totalitarian alien force, the graphics don't compare with say BioShock, Gears of War or Halo 3, which is what most 360 gamers have been playing for the past year. That's not to say they're bad, the facial textures and water effects are some of the best I've ever seen in a game, but 360 owners coming at HL2 fresh won't be blown away by the looks. The handles on the hovercraft mysteriously move themselves and turrets seem to move of their own accord too - where's Freeman's hands? There's also some noticeable pop-up. While the graphics get better in Episode One, and better again in Episode Two (see our full review here), don't expect anything mind blowing.
There were also a few very frustrating instances where I felt the game suffered from a physics engine that was too good for itself. When sprinting away from enemies I sometimes got trapped for no apparent reason. You'll frantically look around and eventually discover some rogue piece of wood or stray fragment of a barrel that you've snagged your foot on. But it's too late - you're dead. Because everything has a place, weight and effect in the game, from hunter helicopter to the tiniest plank, the environments can sometimes frustrate. It's also quite easy to get lost, since the HUD is so clean from clutter. While this is great for admiring the scenery we could have done with a few pointers once or twice.
The loading is worth pointing out. Whenever you approach a new area, the game pauses and loads. This feels distinctly last-gen, especially compared with FPS of the moment Halo 3, which seamlessly loads new areas without pause. It's a slight niggle, but 360 gamers who swap Master Chief for Gordon Freeman will notice it.