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When I think of Half-Life, I think of Counter-Strike. I think of countless hours I poured into 1.6. Half-Life, on the other hand, just didn’t do it for me. I couldn’t get into it and would give up on it every time. It wasn’t until years later that it finally clicked with me and it has since become one of my favorite first-person shooters. I remember when I first got Half-Life 2. I was only excited about Counter-Strike: Source. My friend and I joined a clan, we helped run the clan server, I would play until the wee hours of the morning and then walk into school half asleep, good times. I gave Half-Life 2 a shot at some point during those years and remember giving up shortly after encountering the antlions for the first time. I think it was the environmental puzzles that turned me off back then. Just like the first game, I didn’t really get into it until years later. Developed and published by Valve, Half-Life 2 was released for PC in November, 2004, Xbox in November, 2005, Xbox 360 in October, 2007, and PlayStation 3 in December of that same year. For this review, I played the PC version, specifically the Half-Life 2: Update version. I’ve beaten the original before so I figured I’d give the Update version a shot. Half-Life 2: Update is a community-developed update featuring improved lighting, new particle effects, bug fixes, and community commentary, while still retaining the same visual style and gameplay. This review will also cover Episodes One and Two, Lost Coast, and the Half-Life 2: MMod which is a mod that enhances the gameplay and improves the audio and visuals. It’s designed to work with not only Half-Life 2 but Half-Life 2: Update, both episodes, and Lost Coast.
In the first Half-Life, an experiment gone awry triggered a Resonance Cascade which means an interdimensional rift was opened and creatures from Xen invaded the Black Mesa facility. This is known as the Black Mesa Incident. Long story short, Dr. Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist, was teleported to Xen and killed the creature keeping the rift open before being placed into stasis by the mysterious G-Man whose motives are unknown. Half-Life 2 is set years after the events of the first game with Gordon being awoken from stasis by the G-Man and he’s introduced to a world now ruled by an interdimensional empire known as the Combine. After the Black Mesa Incident, the Combine invaded Earth and defeated all armed forces of all the nations on Earth in only seven hours. This is known as the Seven Hour War. The Combine then imposed a “suppression field” which prevents human reproduction. They take humans and modify them to form a new branch of the Combine military which basically polices the entire planet. Shortly after being awoken from stasis, Gordon meets up with some of his old friends who are now part of the human resistance. They try to teleport him to the resistance base but something goes wrong and he’s teleported to multiple locations, including the office of Dr. Wallace Breen, the former administrator of Black Mesa and the human ruler of Earth who negotiated the surrender of the planet after the Combine invaded. He’s really just a puppet of the Combine. Breen recognizes Gordon and the Combine are sent after him. Gordon helps the resistance in any way that he can and he later joins resistance fighters in an armed uprising against the Combine. He infiltrates the Citadel located in City 17 which is the headquarters from which the Combine govern Earth and where Dr. Breen’s office is located.
Lost Coast is really a tech demo but it includes a small map that was meant to be part of the main campaign but was not included for whatever reason. Gordon meets up with a fisherman under a Monestary that overlooks the town of St. Olga. The Combine are using the Monestary as a platform to launch artillery shells filled with headcrabs. The fisherman asks Gordon to stop the artillery gun. While the main game is quite long, Lost Coast can be completed in about fifteen minutes or less. Thankfully, it’s a free download for all owners of Half-Life 2. Episode One is set directly after the events of the main campaign. After Gordon destroys the Dark Energy Reactor, the mysterious G-Man appears right as the reactor explodes and puts Gordon in stasis again. The episode opens with Gordon being separated from the G-Man by Vortigaunts and they also rescue Alyx Vance, daughter of the resistance leader, who was with Gordon at the time of the explosion. The Citadel core can explode at any minute and level the entire city so Gordon and Alyx re-enter the Citadel to try to stabilize the core and they do manage to delay the explosion. They learn that the Combine are trying to accelerate the destruction of the Citadel to send a “transmission packet” to the Combine homeworld. During their time in the Citadel, Alyx discovers and downloads a transmission regarding a project that could be beneficial to the resistance. Gordon and Alyx meet up with survivors who are preparing to escape City 17 by train. The duo do escape the city by train just as the Citadel’s reactor detonates which opens a portal that allows the Combine to summon reinforcements. Episode Two continues where Episode One left off. Alyx and Gordon start heading to the White Forest base to meet up with the resistance but Alyx is critically wounded by a Combine Hunter. The Vortiguants help Gordon and save Alyx. The duo then make their way to White Forest where they fend off a Combine attack before they launch a rocket to close the portal. That’s pretty much how it ends and if Valve ever learns how to count to three, we might get to see what happens next.
Gordon is a silent protagonist but the rest of the cast is voiced. The performances aren’t bad, some are better than others, and the development of certain characters is quite good, specifically Alyx Vance who accompanies Gordon throughout much of Episodes One and Two. Overall, I enjoyed the story. The scope of the plot is impressive and I found myself immersed into the story throughout my entire experience. The main campaign can take around ten hours to complete and I found the pacing to be a bit inconsistent. In my opinion, things don’t really pick up until the middle of the campaign. I, personally, feel that the Nova Prospekt chapter and everything afterwards are the best and most enjoyable parts of the game. I think the pacing is a little better in Episodes One and Two but both are quite short and I found Episode One to be the weakest entry if you don’t include Lost Coast. To get an idea of how short these Episodes are, I beat Episode One, Two, and Lost Coast all in the same day. Each Episode will probably only take you a few hours to beat.
Each campaign includes three difficulty modes and you play as Gordon Freeman in all of them. You can run, jump, crouch, and swim. You can also pick up, drop, and throw objects and interact with things in the environments. You’ll acquire the HEV Suit early on in the main campaign which doubles as armor, comes with a flashlight, and allows Gordon to sprint and zoom. Swimming underwater, using the flashlight, and sprinting all drain the suit’s auxiliary power which does recharge over time. In Episode Two, the flashlight has its own meter and the MMod implements this separate flashlight meter into each campaign. Gordon can acquire health from health stations and medkits. He can acquire suit power or armor from batteries and charging stations. Gordon can hold onto all of the weapons he acquires and switch between them at any time and he can also utilize weapon emplacements found in the environments. The MMod enhances the combat in multiple ways. Shooting provides more satisfying feedback, certain weapons let you aim down sights, more weapons are added to the roster, and the enemy behavior was modified to make the combat more exciting. The best part is, almost all new features the mod comes with are optional, including iron sights which I’ve already learned has turned some people off. It’s optional. Even if you have the feature enabled, you don’t have to use it. You can enable and disable different visual effects, more NPC flinching, weapons spread type, better Combine accuracy, interval-based health regen, and a bunch of other features.
Gordon can drive vehicles in Half-Life 2 and I honestly feel that these sequences are the weakest parts of the the main campaign. You’ll pilot an airboat through canals while being chased by a Hunter-Chopper, you’ll drive a scout car along the antlion infested coast and Highway 17, and in Episode Two, you’ll drive a muscle car to White Forest. In all of these vehicle areas, you’ll be stopping for various reasons whether it’s to investigate locations or to do something to progress. In the main campaign, these vehicle areas are just slow-paced and become a slog after a while. And these areas do make up a good chunk of the first half of the campaign. But they do have their moments. You’ll be driving into enemies or shooting at them with the vehicle’s mounted weapon, you’ll get to speed off ramps, and avoid explosive barrels, mines, and projectiles. Luckily, all vehicles are easy to control and these sequences are more enjoyable when the vehicles are equipped with weapons. In my opinion, the airboat just outstays its welcome. There’s a lot of speeding through tunnels and avoiding enemy attacks. Things get a bit more exciting later on in the chapter but it really does drag on. The game really shines when you’re on foot thanks to game’s detailed physics simulation.
On your quest to take down the Combine empire, you’ll get your hands on numerous weapons including the iconic crowbar, two different handguns, an MP7, a shotgun, crossbow, rocket launcher, pulse rifle, frag grenades, and the most interesting weapon, the Gravity Gun. I think most of the arsenal is pretty standard stuff and I do prefer the weapon variety in the first game. The Gravity Gun is the real standout here. It can be used pick up and throw objects making it a useful weapon and tool for solving puzzles. You can use it to pick up almost any small to medium sized object in the environments and then launch them at enemies. You can also use it to stack items for you to climb, to break or move objects out of the way, or to grab objects from hard-to-reach places. The Gravity Gun sends out a burst that will launch whatever it’s holding to send it flying but if you’re close enough to an object or enemies like headcrabs, you can fire the burst to break or launch the object or injure the enemy. At certain points in the main campaign and Episode One, the gravity gun will be supercharged, allowing you to pick up and throw enemies. Some weapons have alternate fire modes. The MP7 can launch grenades, the shotgun can fire from both barrels and the pulse rifle can fire energy balls that will disintegrate enemies. You will acquire a unique item referred to as Bugbait towards the middle of the main campaign. It can be used to summon antlions and you can throw it to make the antlions move to a specific location. They will engage enemies but Bugbait can only be used in certain areas and it’s not carried over into Lost Coast or the episodes. The MMod adds new weapons to the roster like the stun baton and tau cannon which is quite powerful. I do believe these two weapons were intended for the vanilla game but were cut before release. Now I know I’ve seen more weapons in screenshots and videos for the mod but I never found them so I’m not sure where they are or how to acquire them. I know an AK-47 and OICW can be spawned in the playable Half-Life 2 Beta and I’ve seen shots of these in use with the mod, but I don’t know if the mod adds them to the environments. I should mention that I played version 1.1 for this review which was the latest and greatest at the time I played so you may want to read up on what has changed since. Like medkits and batteries, ammo is lying around everywhere and can also be found in supply crates as well as be dropped by fallen enemies. Some weapons do drain through ammo pretty fast like the pulse rifle so it is best to use certain weapons in certain situations and the game does provide you with the weapons and ammo you need for the threats you’re about to face. As long as you look around, you should be able to find all the resources you need.
Some enemies from the previous game return including barnacles, headcrabs, and zombies. New to the roster are fast headcrabs and zombies which are just faster moving variants. Then there’s poison headcrabs and poison zombies. Poison headcrabs act like standard headcrabs except they can drain your health to one hit point due to their venom. If you stay out of harm’s way long enough after a poison headcrab attack, your health will eventually regenerate. Zombies are just bodies with headcrabs controlling them, and poison zombies are bodies with multiple poison headcrabs attached that will leap at you. Episode One adds Combine Zombies to the roster which are Combine soldier bodies controlled by headcrabs. They’ll come charging at you and some pull out live grenades, making them quite dangerous. These headcrab and zombie enemies are my least favorite enemy types because well, you know, zombies. But luckily, they are only a small portion of the enemy roster. You’ll primarily be fighting the Combine enemies – Civil Protection, Overwatch soldiers, and Overwatch Elite soldiers. They run around, shoot at you, some will snipe you, and they’ll toss grenades your way. I find their AI to lean more towards the stupid side but they do show some intelligence here and there. Most of the time, they like to remain out in the open even if they’re being shot repeatedly but sometimes they will get behind cover and stay in cover during a firefight. They’ll arrive via dropships, sometimes they come rappelling down ropes, and sometimes they’ll blow through doors. If you’re up against one or a handful, they’re not much of a threat but if you’re up against multiple squads or are surrounded by them, they can prove to be a real danger. The MMod modifies they’re behavior significantly, making them much more aggressive and dangerous. They do a somewhat better job at staying out of harm’s way and they like to lob grenades and fire energy balls more frequently. In the vanilla game, only Elite soldiers will fire energy balls from their pulse rifles but the MMod allows the standard soldiers to fire them as well. Also, soldiers carrying shotguns can prove to be a very serious threat, especially in the more claustrophobic areas. The modified enemy behavior will make you think about what weapons to use and when, you’ll want to utilize cover more often, you’ll want to maintain your distance, and think about how to approach certain areas.
Some of the more dangerous Combine enemies include the Gunships, Striders, and Hunters. These are considered Synths which means they are alien creatures that have been turned into war machines by the Combine. The Gunship flies around, fires at you with its pulse cannon, and is invulnerable to small arms fire. The rocket launcher is the best weapon to use against it but it can shoot down your rockets. They can take a few hits before going down and you will want to be behind cover and keep track of where they are. I noticed they take less hits to bring down in the MMod. You’ll always be on the move since they fly around the area constantly and if they spot you, they’ll start firing immediately. Striders are massive three-legged creatures equipped with a pulse cannon and warp cannon. Just like when engaging Gunships, you’ll want to utilize cover when up against Striders since they’re quite accurate with their pulse cannon shots. Their warp cannon is even more deadly, capable of destroying a small area in one blast. Hunters are encountered in Episode Two and prove to be a significant threat. Like the Strider, the Hunter has three legs but it’s a much smaller enemy and it can move around quickly. It can fire flechettes, ram into you or walls and doors to break them down, and it can use the talons on its legs to slash you. In some chapters, you’ll face a Hunter-Chopper which is an attack helicopter piloted by the Combine. It’s armed with a pulse turret and it can also drop timed mines. Some of the less threatening Combine enemies include the City Scanner which takes pictures of you but the flash will temporarily blind you and the Manhack which is a small flying gyroscopic device with spinning metal blades. Manhacks usually arrive in swarms. Then there’s the Antlions. Antlion Soldiers are four-legged instectoid creatures that fly several feet in the air and bite and head butt you at close range. They come out of burrows in the ground and normally arrive in large numbers so they can swarm you easily. However, they’re not hard to kill. An Antlion Guard is a larger and more powerful variant that can ram into you and launch objects at you. Episode Two introduces Antlion Workers which are a variant of Antlions that can spit acid. Finally, there’s the enemies that aren’t really a threat at all. In Episode One you’ll eliminate a few Stalkers which are humans that have been heavily altered through extreme Synth engineering by the Combine. They act as servants so they don’t really pose a threat. In Episode Two, you’ll come across Antlion Grubs which resemble insect larvae and are found scattered around an Antlion colony. They don’t do anything except make noises and when they’re killed, they release pellets that can heal you.
The level design in Half-Life 2 and the Episodes is quite impressive overall. The way things look, connect, and flow together feels pretty natural. The vehicle areas are less interesting but, thankfully, you’ll be on-foot most of the time. The campaigns play out in chapters with multiple areas per chapter and the only downside is the areas are broken up by brief loading points which can sometimes be immersion-breaking. You’ll traverse through a good variety of locations like the canals, a prison, City 17, the Citadel, a coastal highway, and the town of Ravenholm which is my least favorite area in the main campaign but I will admit it is the most creative. It’s a town that was bombarded by headcrab shells so it’s full of headcrabs and zombies running around. Despite my dislike of the tone and atmosphere of this area, it’s like a sandbox for the gravity gun and that’s pretty cool. You’ll get the opportunity to make use of traps and there are a ton of objects and items lying around that can be used as weapons. Also, the horror theme of Ravenholm makes it stand out since there’s no other areas like it in the campaigns. Episode One will take you to many of the same locations seen in the main campaign but through different areas of those locations. I would say the most enjoyable areas in Episode One are at the end when you’re navigating through the hospital and fending off enemies at the train station. Episode Two takes you through a mine and Antlion colony before you end up in an alpine region on the outskirts of City 17. Now Lost Coast is a single map where you work your way up a cliff to a monestary, defeat the enemies, and then it’s over. The map is smaller than most areas seen in the main campaign and episodes. In each campaign you will have to solve many environmental puzzles to progress, most of which aren’t difficult, and many areas funnel you in a specific direction. The larger more open areas allow you to approach situations in different ways. Some areas are more linear and narrow and the campaigns makes great use of the game’s physics system. You’ll do basic things like plugging things in or placing objects in certain locations but you’ll also have to do things like create platforms, stack objects, and utilize the weight of objects in some instances to progress. Scattered throughout the environments are Lambda symbols which are where supplies like health, suit power, and ammo can be found but they can also be an indication of where you need to go.
As I mentioned before, I found the pacing in the main campaign to be a bit inconsistent. When you get to Chapter 9, things really start to pick up. At the end of Chapter 8, you acquire Bugbait which allows you to summon and command Antlions. After that, you’ll infiltrate a prison, you’ll have to defend areas, and you’ll join the uprising where you’ll be accompanied by resistance fighters. You can command them to stay or follow you and they’ll shoot at enemies, heal you if you’re injured, but they’re also a bit of a nuisance. You’ll be battling on the streets and in buildings with narrow hallways and stairwells and they tend to get in your way a lot. You’ll be battling the Combine in multiple areas of City 17 which has become a war zone and this is where you’ll engage Striders for the first time. In my opinion, Episode One doesn’t really pick up until the final two chapters. Before that, you’ll navigate through the Citadel and solve puzzles, then you head underground which is infested with zombies, you’ll encounter antlions, and then comes the good stuff. You’ll engage the Combine in the streets and in a hospital and then escort civilians to an escape train while fending off enemies. It’s pretty cool. In Episode Two, there’s a few sequences that are quite memorable. There’s a sequence where you have to help resistance fighters defend an area from Antlion invasions. You can utilize sentry guns and hopper mines to repel them. Once you leave the mines and Antlion colony areas, the action becomes more exciting. You’ll get ambushed by Hunters, help resistance fighters take down a Hunter-Chopper, and the final battle has you taking down Striders using Magnusson Devices before they reach the White Forest resistance base. There are some areas in the episodes where Alyx will cover you with sniper fire which can be quite helpful. Every now and then you’ll come across enemies battling each other. Resistance fighters battling the Combine, the Combine battling zombies and Antlions, and I found that these scenarios do add a bit of immersion to the gameplay and world.
When I got Half-life 2 around the time it came out, I didn’t have a powerful PC so I couldn’t run it maxed out which means I couldn’t fully appreciate its visuals. But it definitely looked great for its time and still doesn’t look too bad. Some textures appear a bit blurry now, the bloom lighting has its ups and downs, and animations can be a bit stiff. The MMod includes revamped weapon models which do look better than their standard counterpart and new weapon animations which look excellent. Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike: Source may have been the games that exposed me to ragdoll animations in video games and I was fascinated with it. After playing these, it was hard for me not to notice the scripted death animations in other games. Lost Coast was released as a tech demo to show off the Source engine’s HDR capabilities. That’s its true purpose. I guess it looked pretty great back in the day but I couldn’t run it or at least run it well back then so I don’t know. You do have the option to play through the map with commentary on and each commentary node is an audio clip from the developers that explain the technical aspects of what you’re seeing. The Episodes also come with their own optional commentary nodes should you want to learn more about the tech behind it all. The Episodes run on an upgraded version of the Source engine and in terms of visuals, that means they take advantage of the engine’s advanced lighting effects and new facial animation technology. I do think Episode Two looks the best with the environments set on the outskirts of City 17 looking noticeably better than the environments seen in the other campaigns. The MMod adds a lot of effects but doesn’t really change anything major from what I’ve seen and the new effects can be disabled from the Mod Configuration menu. The new saturation setting makes the game a bit more colorful, there’s a setting to increase the draw distance, the new muzzle flashes look fantastic, and explosions and fire look gorgeous. All the new particle effects do a great job at enhancing the gunplay and make firefights feel intense. Blood will splatter on walls and surfaces when you shoot enemies and the MMod enhances the blood effects. There’s a lot of neat details in the game. If you look around you may see G-Man watching you from somewhere. If you launch a paint bucket at an enemy, they’ll be covered in paint. Graffiti can be found all over the walls and dirt, debris, and rubble help to make the world feel real and worn. The music in all the campaigns is sparse. It’ll kick in during certain sequences to emphasize the action but it’s not often. The sound effects are pretty good, overall. I think the pistol sounds a little weak but the rest of the weapons fire sounds good and satisfying. You’ll often hear the Combine communicating with each other, zombies will groan and scream in agony when on fire, and explosions are loud and booming. The MMod includes many replaced sound effects which means the weapons sound much more powerful. The Colt Python in particular sounds beastly. The mod also restores cut HEV Suit dialogue. On the technical side, I encountered a crash during my time with Episode Two and when playing through the main campaign with the MMod, every loading point resulted in a brief on-screen message regarding a node graph and after loading a quicksave, an “AI Disabled” message appeared on the screen. I was able to resolve both of these issues by entering specific commands. I also noticed that the HUD icons that appear when you pick up items are sometimes cut off. At one point, I needed Alyx to do something but she was stuck and I couldn’t progress forcing me to load a previous save. When playing through Episode One with the mod, there was a point when a group of citizens couldn’t follow me but eventually found a way. On the plus side, I didn’t notice any frame rate issues.
I had a lot of fun with Half-Life 2 and the episodes. I think the main campaign and Episode Two are the real highlights of the entire Half-Life 2 experience but Episode One does have its moments. It’s a shame the episodes didn’t add a lot of new content. I think more new enemy types and new weapons would have been very welcome additions but I guess the developers felt differently. My biggest issue with the main campaign is the inconsistent pacing and I do think the second half of the game is much more enjoyable than the first half. There’s not much praise I can give Lost Coast because of how short it is but I also can’t complain since it was free. Now from what I’ve read, the MMod was in development for nine years and I think it’s absolutely phenomenal. It’s a mod that shows how changing a few things around can really make a big difference. The gameplay is more challenging, it looks better, and it feels better. Best of all, almost all of the new features are optional.
Ultimately, I would recommend Half-Life 2, both Episodes, and Lost Coast to fans of the first game and/or first-person shooters. I’ll be honest, I do like the first game better. I think the pacing is better, I enjoy the more contained action, and I prefer the tone and atmosphere. But Half-Life 2 is easily one of the best video game sequels to date. It’s bigger, there’s more to see and do, and the physics system makes for a very interesting experience. I enjoy the plot and the whole resistance versus the empire thing and it’s only a shame Valve can’t count to three because they really left us hanging here. I would absolutely recommend the MMod as well and like with many mods, I would advise you to play through the vanilla games first to really appreciate what the mod has to offer. If you’re a fan of shooters, Half-Life 2 is one of the shooters you need to play before you die.