In light of the recent March Mayhem throwdown over at the Escapist, I thought it’d be an interesting idea to pick up the Orange Box and see how well the various games within have aged. Since Valve wouldn’t exist without the ground-breaking awesomeness of Half-Life, the place to begin seemed obvious: Half-Life 2.
Gordon Freeman, unlikely hero of the Black Mesa Incident that introduced Earth to the inter-dimensional border world of Xen. After defeating that planet’s overlord, Freeman disappeared and the way was paved for an alien conglomerate known as the Combine to conquer the planet in the Seven Hour War. That was ten years ago, and now Freeman’s returned from parts unknown because, as the mysterious and somewhat disturbing G-Man informs him (and us), “The right man. In the wrong place. Can make all the diff-erence. In the world.”
The Source Engine that drives the game debuted almost 6 years ago, but the graphics and gameplay of Half-Life 2 still feel fresh and immersive. Like the original game, everything happens from Gordon’s perspective and there are no breaks from the in-game action to pre-rendered cutscenes. This lends a sense of realism to the game and doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story. The game’s opening, with Gordon unarmed and unprotected in an environment that is at once familiar due to the architecture and alien because of things like Dr. Breen’s huge video screens, citizens discussing lost memories and missing loved ones and Civil Protection is poised to draw the player into the experience right from the start without needing to put a gun in our hand right from the off. Suddenly, in a game that’s billed as a first-person shooter, a guy with a shock baton is actually an intimidating threat, and when you do lay your hands on a firearm, it’s pretty satisfying to start shooting them up.
“Pick up that can.”
The game’s Havoc Physics make for interesting puzzles, harrowing platforming and moments of hilarity when an explosion sends soldiers or zombies flying through the air. You collect a decent selection of weapons over the course of the game and you’re not forced to pick any one or two of them to use at a time. It can be hard to find ammo for things like the crossbow, but pulse rifle rounds are plentiful in the later bits of the game provided you’re not trapped in a basement surrounded by headcrabs.
While we’re on the subject, Half-Life 2 has three elements that really make it a stand-out experience in the realm of shooters. The first is the ability to build atmosphere. From musical stings to lighting effects, the mood of the game can slip effortlessly from pulse-pounding run-and-gun battles to spine-tingling survival horror sequences. Ravenholm in particular creates a feeling not unlike that of System Shock 2 or Eternal Darkness, with shambling grotesqueries moaning their laments as they claw for your brains. It’s especially harrowing if you play through it using the second stand-out element: the gravity gun.
“Ludicrous Gibs” comes to mind.
The idea behind the gravity gun is simple: you can use it to pick up and/or toss items around you in the world. Grab power-ups from behind fences, pick up boxes and move them around to solve puzzles, and hurl objects like propane tanks, concrete blocks and saw blades (my personal favorite) at enemies. If you find yourself low on ammunition for your weapon of choice, or if you’re locked in an area with headcrabs and zombies where ammo is likely to be scarce, switching to the gravity gun and just using whatever’s at hand to keep them from chewing on your PhD-scale brainmeats not only conserves precious ammunition but presents a challenge that can be difficult to find in first-person shooters.
The third and final element that, to me, makes Half-Life 2 great can be summed up thusly:
Women in games can be reduced to caricatures or over-sexualized playthings, even when they’re main characters (*cough*BAYONETTA*cough*). Female sidekicks often have it worse, as most games will see them being whiny unhelpful escort objectives, support characters that fall in love with or betray the protagonist for some overly contrived reason, or all of the above. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, the lady of the game will avoid these problems but will instead be so thick-skinned and unapproachable that they might as well be men.
Alyx Vance takes all of those expectations and kicks them square out the window right into a nest of headcrabs. She’s smart, capable and tough, but she’s also funny, emotional and affectionate. It takes more than a particular kind of particle shading to make a character feel real in a video game, and Alyx is one of the most realistic characters I’ve encountered, especially in a shooter. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s pretty easy on the eyes, as well. Finally, she introduces us to D0G, but I’ll save my thoughts on the big guy for another review. I’ve got a couple more to do, after all.
Bottom Line: Half-Life 2 is one of the best shooters I’ve ever played. Despite its age, it feels fresh and fun, and leaves us wanting more. Steam users can get their hands on it pretty easily, but X-Box owners who don’t already have the Orange Box should consider finding that compilation if they haven’t already. This title justifies the cost of the entire product.
But hey, if you don’t believe me and want to see how the other products fare, just stay tuned…
Orange Box Reviews: 20% complete.