In a dreamlike state, a haggard man in a blue suit mechanically speaks to you, reassuring you of your well-being and your future purpose. All around you, images of past events swirl, filling your field of vision, but falling just out of reach. The rumbling of an approaching commuter train fills the air, and your surroundings slowly come into focus. Suddenly, you are standing at the rear of a train, entering the dystopian urban metropolis known as City 17.
And with your first few steps off the train, “Half-Life 2” begins.
With its classic cinematic style, “Half-Life 2” does just what its predecessor did and more: it completely envelopes the gamer in a heart-pounding, movie-like experience. In short, “Half-Life 2” is a gem, a benchmark that first-person shooters in the future will strive to achieve and will undoubtedly be measured against.
The first thing gamers will notice as they step off the train will be the incredible engine that Valve, the developer of “Half-Life 2,” has created to run its game. Though the per-pixel lighting scheme that gamers came to adore in “Doom 3” is absent, the level of interactivity with the environment is where “Half-Life 2” really shines. Nearly everything in the game world can be manipulated, reacting to real-world physics. That means that anything from crates to cars — the game introduces a variety of fun-to-drive vehicles ranging from dune buggies to the amphibious speeder — can be pushed, pulled, moved, thrown or otherwise altered with real-world results.
Valve has also made numerous smaller additions to the sequel that enhance the overall experience. Though utilized in games like “Grand Theft Auto,” the day-to-night effect is performed nicely in “Half-Life 2.” It follows the overarching story arc well. Specific portions of the game, such as the player’s trek through a haunted town, occur under the full moon, while rides along the sea-side highway occur at sunset, melting the game’s entire color palette into a radiant hue of red and orange.
The environments in which all of the action takes place are also well done. City 17 juxtaposes derelict, modernist architecture reminiscent of 1920s fascist Rome with the expansive open road outside the city walls. In addition, attention to aural details, such as an uncomfortable ringing and temporary deafness that occurs when a grenade goes off too close to the player, or the distortion one senses when submerged in water, enhances the encompassing atmosphere.
Though much of the “Half-Life” experience is the ambiance itself, it is only half of the overall package. The narrative is just as important. Like the original, “Half-Life 2” breaks the storyline up into a variety of chapters, each segment flowing seamlessly into the next, continuing the saga begun at the Black Mesa facility in the first game. In this iteration, the alien race — known as the Combine — have enslaved most of the human race in a “1984”-esque society. While the streamlined system of storytelling works well on paper, it only partially succeeds in game. The load sequences between chapters or between portions of chapters are often long and awkwardly placed, unintentionally breaking the flow of the action.
The sequences of the game that work best are the ones that have a certain sense of urgency, such as defending an outpost from an incoming wave of attackers or being chased across the rooftops by an angry patrol of futuristic guards. Unfortunately, the space between these intense sequences tends to lag longer than it should, creating a somewhat unbalanced overall experience.
Despite its minor flaws, the cinematic action and incredible atmosphere are enough to make “Half-Life 2” a well-deserved follow-up to a game that revolutionized the genre in 1998.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.