By Matt Slagle
It's been six years since Valve Corp. perfected the first-person shooter with Half-Life. Video games have come a long way since, with better graphics and more options than ever. Still, relatively few games have mustered this one's memorable characters and original science fiction story.
Leave it to Valve to fix that: Half-Life 2 is a brilliant sequel that raises the bar on what we should expect from video games.
We begin with physicist turned action hero Gordon Freeman having been awakened from an inexplicable dimensional stasis by the creepy, enigmatic G-Man from the first game.
As Freeman, you materialize on a train bound for City 17, apparently one of the last remaining outposts after humans have surrendered to alien invaders. The immersion quickly takes hold from there.
I found it nearly impossible to pry myself away once I started playing one morning. For 15 straight hours, I was glued to my computer, still wearing my pajamas. Not even food was a concern — I was too preoccupied with my dangerous new life as the bespectacled Freeman.
One of the game's strengths is attention to details. They're everywhere in this living, breathing dystopian vision. Mix together The War of the Worlds, The X-Files and The Twilight Zone and you get a sense for the unnerving strangeness of this place.
On technical merits, Half-Life 2 is unsurpassed.
The graphics are closer to reality than anything I've seen before in a video game. This fact is shown repeatedly through a variety of colorful settings including seaside highways, decaying urban centers, abandoned prisons and a jaw-dropping sequence from within an alien fortress.
I found the little things most impressive. Telephone lines ripple from the wind kicked up by passing alien gun ships. Even motes of dust meander into view as they casually flit through rays of sunshine.
Perhaps the most significant aspect is the convincing physics system.
Tires, oil drums, cars, mattresses, windows, scraps of wood all have the appropriate mass and react to being smashed or thrown just as you'd expect them to. Cardboard boxes are easily crumpled, while sealed plastic drums float in water. Metal, of course, has magnetic properties.
It's more than an entertaining science lesson. You often can use these materials to your advantage.
I was able to pick up and stack boxes to help traverse pools of toxic sludge. I rolled metal barrels down a stairwell, knocking over enemies like bowling pins.
And with the gravity gun — among the most ingenious video game weapons ever devised — I picked up metal radiators to shield me from enemy fire and sent circular saw blades slicing through entire rooms of monsters.
You'll do plenty of the usual running and gunning, but Half-Life 2 provides a variety of experiences to keep things interesting.
I led a pack of alien insectoid Ant Lions into battle, squeezing a pheromone sac to tell them where to go. Driving comes up several times, too, with long sequences where I piloted a dune buggy along the ruins of a coastal highway and negotiated an airboat through meandering marshes, rivers and dams while trying to avoid death at every turn.
I was struck by the many human characters — good, bad and somewhere in between. It's another testament to the game's nuanced visual prowess: they are convincingly emotive digital actors who effectively convey anger, worry, even affection, through facial expressions and body language.
Perhaps my only complaint with Half-Life 2 is the bizarre story. The tidbits that were disclosed were constantly being piled on with little explanation. When I was expecting a moment of revelation, I got an even murkier plot development instead.
Some might appreciate the dense, often cryptic sci-fi innuendo that's constantly being alluded to but never really explained. Perhaps I just didn't want to leave this beautiful, chilling world, but the ending sequence was particularly mind-bending, leaving me on my own to figure out what happened.
There's a separate online multiplayer game included, but newcomers should prepare for a long, steep learning curve. Counter Strike: Source is a retouched version of the aging terrorists versus antiterrorists battle game that's been around for years. It looks great but lacks the nifty weapons or haunting environments from the single player game.
This M-rated, $50 title proves that this relatively young medium has finally grown up and can proudly stand alongside movies and music as a legitimate, popular art form.
Find out more at www.half-life2.com.