Half-Life 2 PC DVD-ROM
by Vivendi Universal Games/Sierra
Developed by Valve
Release Date: Out Now
Price : £29.99
Let's face it, Gordon Freeman is perhaps the most unlikely character ever to be in a computer game. The man with National Health spectacles looks like he would be more at home in your local Post Office than actually taking on the forces of an oppressive society. Then again Half-Life was a game that was out of the ordinary. It was a FPS that actually made you think instead of going out all guns blazing. You couldn't just jump into a room and let the bullets fly because that would more than likely get you killed. Some would have said that the slightly puzzle based nature of Half-Life would not have gone down too well with FPS gamers but amazingly it went down very well, very well indeed. The 'thinking' elements of the game only served to take the FPS genre to another level and up until the 15th November 2004 every FPS game has been measured against Half-Life.
The road to release has been a rocky one for Half-Life 2 what with code being stolen and release dates being cancelled soon after they were announced (most of the time the release dates were just rumours though). Had the first game not been so highly regarded many a gamers interest would have waned. Finally though the game is with us and as you more than likely know it has arrived in a blaze of glory and already earned a stream of glowing reviews and for once it's a hyped game that actually deserves the credit it's receiving. Of course most reviews will concentrate on the impressive graphics, the incredible physics and of course those moments when you have to use your brain, rather than your trigger finger, to get you out of trouble. However Half-Life 2 is a benchmark title in more ways than most will realise.
Half-Life left a bad taste in the mouth of the deaf community. Here we had one of the biggest games of all time and it was virtually impossible for deaf gamers to play. I don't know the full extent of the complaints that Valve received but whatever was said to them was obviously taken to heart because Half-Life 2 is a glowing example of how games can be made deaf gamer friendly and I would be hard pushed to recall a game where the developers had obviously gone out of their way to accommodate the deaf community. You have the option of enabling subtitles and the subtitles are extensive as they show (from what I can tell) virtually every item of speech in text. If the speech is too far away though it sometimes isn't shown and this actually makes a lot of sense the screen could become too cluttered with dialogue otherwise. You'll also notice that the subtitles are colour coded to make it clear which character is talking. This is something that used to be done in the old point 'n' click adventure games but in recent years it's a technique that has been widely ignored. Valve have also taken it a step further and included captions which will show text descriptions of all the important noises. Valve deserve all the praise they can get for making Half-Life 2 as deaf gamer friendly as possible but (as pointed out on our forums by JGJones on this thread) when there are a lot of sounds occurring close together they can displace the subtitles a little too quickly. As JGJones points out though this is something that could easily be fixed. Regardless, this is a superb effort by Valve and I hope that other developers take note of this aspect of Half-Life 2 as well as it's graphics and technical qualities.
So it's 100% deaf gamer friendly then (or as close to it as anyone has come) but how does the game play? Well it's pretty amazing stuff to be honest. Visually and technically it's raised the standard for PC games in general. The action is intense and pumps the adrenaline like few games can do. Just like the first game, Half-Life 2 isn't just about taking the all guns blazing approach. In fact you'll soon become stuck if you do try to employ this method. The game is full of small puzzles that you'll have to apply some logic to in order to progress. Whilst the main thread of the game is a completely linear experience the solution to the puzzles you'll encounter are not always so. I'll give you a small example from very early in the game. I walked into an empty building and needed to reach a platform that was too high to jump onto. In the building was a large piece of wood leaning on top of a concrete tube (if I remember correctly). I looked around and saw some bricks which I placed on one end of the wood to weight it down which then raised the other end, so I could run up and jump to the platform I previously couldn't reach. Later in the day I contacted my brother (who bought the game on the day of release) and when I asked him about the puzzle he said that he ignored the wood and simply stacked the bricks so as they were high enough to climb up and jump on to the platform. There are other puzzles like this too where you get a chance to interpret them as you wish which is impressive. Of course let's not lose sight of the fact that the game is a FPS and the AI of your enemies is just what you'd expect it to be and you won't have an easy time of it unless you opt for the lowest of the difficulty settings. You'll also have levels where you drive a buggy and a small hovercraft like vehicle (known as a mudskipper) that allows you to ride through the canals and this, along with the puzzles, helps to add variation to the game and prevents it from simply being a run and gun affair.
Much has been made of the physics in Half-Life 2 and whilst it's not completely realistic it's certainly as close as any other game has come. The aforementioned puzzles rely on these physics a great deal. There's a puzzle where you have to raise a ramp in order to get your skipper to jump a grass embankment. Looking around you'll see several floating containers and if you look under the water you'll see a kind of cage fastened to the underside of the ramp. It doesn't take much to realise that if you can put these buoyant containers under this cage it will force the ramp into the air and you can then drive your mudskipper over the ramp and on top of the embankment. Valve are justly proud of the physics in Half-Life 2 and they've even included a weapon to show gamers how good they are. The Gravity Gun is a wondrous thing and it allows you to either fire a charge at your enemy or simply pull an object towards you and then fire it at your enemies. It's an excellent weapon and shows off the games physics in all their glory.
A lot of attention was given to Doom III's graphical quality but I would have to argue that Half-Life 2 beats it in every department. The character models are outstanding. Take a look at the facial expressions that each character has. The imitation of the facial muscles is outstanding. Perhaps the star of the visuals though is the water effects. Never has water looked so realistic in any game to date. Even the refraction has been superbly recreated. If you take a look at the lowest screenshot on the right hand side you'll see what I mean. The damage modeling in the game is also impressive and it compliments the fantastic physics in the game. In fact this has to be the most detailed game engine we've seen to date and it's fair to say that it will be more than adequate for whatever purpose you could think of for at least the next few years. In many ways it's criminal that most of the time you'll whizz through such detailed environments because a lot of what's there deserves to be admired.
Whilst Half-Life 2 is definitely superb there are a few issues with the game at present. After installing the game you'll need to register your product key using the steam application in order to be able to play the game. Some gamers have been unable to do so although I have to say it was a problem free experience for us. Load times in the game can be very long and even getting to the main screen on loading the game can take several minutes. Whilst playing the game the action is broken up from time to time because the game will freeze for a while whilst it loads up other sections (a loading message is shown though). In fairness to Valve some of the levels are huge but this does look a little unsightly. The game comes with no manual which is disappointing too. Stability wise we've had one crash to desktop but that's it which is not bad considering how long the game has been played. These problems are fairly minor though and they certainly don't spoil the game to any extent.
Deaf gamers might have been justifiably upset with Valve for not taking them into consideration with the original Half-Life but I think Valve have done them proud with Half-Life 2. Even with 6 weeks of 2004 still remaining I think it's safe to say that Half-Life 2 will easily be the PC game of the year in most gamers eyes. We've deliberately tried not to mention any of the game's story in this review because that would spoil your enjoyment of the game if you haven't played the game or haven't read about what happens from some other source. We've looked at the game from a single-player's perspective but with Counter-Strike Source being bundled with Half-Life 2 as well it's definitely going to be a memorable experience. We haven't had chance to look at Counter-Strike Source in detail because of the time constraints in completing this review but it's safe to say that if you liked the original Counter-Strike then you'll enjoy this new version too. As we said earlier Half-Life 2 has set new standards for both the FPS genre and for how deaf gamer friendly a game can be and it could quite possibly be a long time before it's surpassed on both accounts.
Game Rating: 9.6/10
It's been a long time in the making but Half-Life 2 manages to be all that it promised to be and then some.
What a turn around! Valve was heavily criticised for not subtitling Half-Life but with Half-Life 2 they've showed the gaming industry just how deaf gamer friendly a game can be.