At the start you’re quickly are reunited with Barney, the likeable guard from the original game and Dr Kleiner, the white-coated Professor. Later you meet Dr Eli Vance and daughter Alyx, a new character that Valve has succeeded in making into a believably attractive and intelligent individual. The interplay between the characters is impressive and there’s even time for some comedy moments with Dr Kleiner’s pet Headcrab. You soon get down to business though, and in a great moment, when you don your HEV suit from the first game, the classic Half-Life music starts up. Cool. Even better, you’re soon reunited with the iconic crowbar. Bliss. Seconds later you’re being chased by troopers and smashing your way though boxes in a bid to escape. Ah, Half-Life, my old friend, it’s good to be back.
From that point on, the pace of the game rarely lets up. One level set in a boat sees you speeding though canals as chasing Helicopters spray the water around with bullets. and drop exploding mines into your path. This level goes on for what seems like a long time, but it's so involving that I never felt that it dragged.
There are 14 levels in all and atmosphere is a key ingredient in all of them. While the monsters jumping out from the dark in Doom 3 quickly got old, the variety of levels in Half-Life 2 keep things interesting. The game is littered with classic moments and it feels like you get the best bits of several games in one, without being derivative.
At one point, Alyx points out a tunnel saying, "That’s the way to Ravenhome… we don’t go there anymore”, leaving you in no doubt that that’s exactly where you’ll be heading very soon to kick some serious zombie ass. Which of course, you do. While the previous levels are frenetic vehicle-based chases set outside, this is a claustrophobic spooky level reminiscent of Resident Evil. The later levels let you control non-player characters (NPCs), as you conduct Guerrilla fighting through the streets of City 17. There might be sci-fi alien Striders walking about, but this level has a strong World War II feel to it, much like Call of Duty. In this scene you get to see the Striders up close, revealing them to be an amazing mix of organism and machinery (Carmack eat your heart out). Launching a rocket at the underbelly of these things is surely one of the best gaming moments ever. Shifting mood once again, the final level has an impressive large scale sci-fi feel to it, conjuring up the human battery fields of the first Matrix film.
So far then, I’ve done nothing but heap praise on the game, but in fact not everything is perfect. As you play though the game, Valve’s constant need to show off the physics capabilities of the engine does eventually start to feel a little contrived, with some puzzles seemingly existing for no other reason. The same goes for the myriad exploding barrels, which are always red and are seemingly everywhere. This makes it a little odd that the troopers seem to be trained to stand too close to these dangerous objects. Also, while you can pick things up, it does jar that you appear to have no hands. The worst culprit though, is the disappointing trooper AI. They work well in packs, using the terrain and any weapon close to hand. However on several occasions when there was only one trooper left, it just stood there while I walked up to it and shot it in the head.
The story is also decidedly linear. While this might bother some, I felt it perfectly suited the cinematic feel to the game. What's more the open ended conclusion may frustrate some, particularly those who like to have all their questions answered and all the loose ends tied up neatly. Be warned, Half-Life 2 does no such thing. Instead it sets things up intriguingly for the third instalment, which like thousands of others I hope arrives sooner rather than later. I'm not sure I could wait another six years...