The drama starts as soon as you load up the game. The initial voice you hear is that of the mysteries G-Man, telling Gordon to wake up as he is “needed once again”. As with the first game you find yourself on a train, but the ride this time is brief, letting you quickly get on with exploring the world. You alight the train weaponless, finding yourself in a station. Immediately a strange hovering device floats over and blinds you as it takes a picture. You hear a booming voice from a talking head displayed on a large screen, welcoming you to ‘City 17’ Big Brother style (as in George Orwell, not Davina McCall). Masked troopers with unnerving electronic voices bark at you as you pass, and if you get to close they club you with cattle prods. In fact, after playing the opening scenes on the day of release I had to get on a train to go to a press briefing in London. As I got of the train and emerged into the large station at St. Pancras, I was immediately reminded of Half-Life 2’s opening scene. There were guards standing around in uniform, and I couldn’t help wondering if they’d hit me with a cattle prod if I came too close. Sad, but true.
As you soak up the tense atmosphere at the start of the game you’ll find yourself amazed at the way objects such as bottles and cans blow realistically around your feet. The troopers herd you through a turn-style and as you pass a woman asks pleadingly if there was anyone else on the train. She explaines that her husband was taken off a previous train for interrogation and that she was told he would follow in the next train. Somehow you know he’s never going to arrive. What’s impressive is how the quality of the voice work and the rich range of expression in the character model make you feel for the woman. Gordon doesn’t reply of course as once again he is a totally silent character. He also wears the same geeky glasses and goatie-beard – I reckon, Jeff Goldblum should play him in the touted movie version.
As you progress you begin to glean more information. Apparently, since your escape from Black Mesa, the world has been taken over by aliens known as the Combine. Dr Breen, head of Black Mesa is now acting as their puppet, convincing mankind to succumb to their will. There is even a description of a suppressing field preventing the world from producing children – painting a truly nightmarish Orwellian vision of the oppression of the alien occupation.
Emerging from the station, you’re treated to the power of the Source Engine in full effect. There’s the impressive building architecture, the cool shield effects by menacing looking gates, and the awesome ‘Striders’ – Tripod-like walkers that tower over you as they move round the city. But once you’ve soaked in the graphics and get into the game, you’ll realise that the real star of the show is actually the Havoc physics engine. Every object in the game behaves in a realistic fashion enabling you to interact with your surroundings in ground-breaking ways. This is undeniably great fun, and you’ll spend ages chucking things around and observing how the soldiers fly about as they get blown up. It also delivers genius moments like the game of catch you play with Alyx’s robot ‘dog’. This is made possible by the cleverest weapon in the game – the very nifty gravity gun, which enables you to pick up objects and use them as protection or hurl them at enemies. The most fun is picking up razor shards and using them to carve up hordes of attacking zombies.