Friday, December 18, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #8: Half-Life 2

In 1998, Valve released their landmark game Half-Life, which took the FPS genre in a whole new direction. This was a game that focused less on the run-and-gun gameplay of popular titles like Doom, but rather chose to present players with obstacles and allow them to figure out how to get around them. Some of these obstacles were enemies, who needed to be killed in order for hero Gordon Freeman to continue his journey. Other obstacles were barricades that could be torn apart with the crowbar. Some obstacles required Freeman to carry out a side mission in the style of Metroid and do some brief backtracking in order to restore power to a generator or find the correct switch that would open a door. Half-Life was an incredibly linear game, but offered some very creative environments and forced players to watch their moves carefully.

After much toil at Black Mesa, Freeman is finally able to close the portal between Earth and Xen, cutting off the alien forces. However, Dr. Freeman doesn’t receive a traditional heroic ending, and is instead put to work for the mysterious G-Man. His life spared, Freeman enters a stasis sleep for almost two decades. When he awakens again, Freeman finds that Earth has been conquered by another alien race known as the Combine. The human race has been spared, but people are forced into following strict living conditions and constantly live in fear of the Combine.

This dystopian world is the setting for Half-Life 2. As Gordon Freeman fights the Combine forces alongside his new partner Alyx Vance, he encounters many former colleagues from Black Mesa. Barney Calhoun, a former security guard, aids Gordon by opening passageways for him and rallying people to fight against the Combine. Scientist Issac Kleiner gives Gordon directions and later uses hijacked television channels and radio stations to inform the citizens of City 17 of what they should do after the human revolt has started. Eli Vance, Alyx’s father, was wounded sometime after the events at Black Mesa, but is constantly watching out for the safety of Alyx and Gordon, as well as offering moral support to the duo.

However, another former Black Mesa employee shows up in City 17 as the primary antagonist. Dr. Wallace Breen carries out the role of being the human representative to the Combine, as well as a Combine propaganda tool. His broadcasts can be heard all throughout City 17. Later in the game, once the human revolt is well under way, Breen will focus his broadcasts directly at Freeman, fruitlessly attempting to stop him from dismantling the Combine rule.

The world is visually stunning in Half-Life 2. Scattered around the drab streets of City 17 are various propaganda posters of Dr. Breen. Most of the buildings are old and the doors and signs bear writings in a dialect of Russian. Outside of the city walls, the sands of the shoreline are bright and largely untouched. In contrast, the oldest part of City 17, Ravenholm, is dark and almost completely devoid of life, save for the headcrab and zombie infestation, as well as the lone surviving human Father Grigori. These distinctly different environments work events to their advantage brilliantly. The narrow streets and building interiors focus heavily on combat with zombies and Combine forces, while open areas give players more freedom to explore in the vehicles.

While physics played an important role in the original Half-Life, they become the center of the sequel’s gamplay. Initially, Freeman is limited to his crowbar in order to break boxes and solve puzzles. Not too long into the game, however, he acquires the gravity gun, which plays a dual role as both a weapon and a tool. Players will find the gravity gun useful for stacking boxes in order to reach a certain height, or hurling heavy objects at Combine troops during combat. There is a well-balanced variety of weapons in the game, from the classic pistol, to the melee crowbar, to the one-hit-kill crossbow. But racking up kills with any of these weapons doesn’t quite give you the same satisfaction as disposing of an enemy by hurling a toilet or oil drum at their face.

The AI in Half-Life 2 in fantastic, and only hits one or two snags throughout the entire game. The friendly forces think before charging into an area heavy with gunfire. Likewise, Combine forces will always try to take on Dr. Freeman in numbers, and will stay a safe distance from him if fighting solo.

Half-Life 2 takes everything from the first game and turns it up more than just a few notches. The gameplay is fluid and never stops for cutscenes. Every event is scripted into the gameplay, making players feel immersed in the world. The game will last players a decent time length – not too long, but not too short either. Half-Life 2 is easily one of the most creative FPS titles ever released, topping even its prequel.

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