If you ask any long-time Mac Gamer about the ‘ones that got away’, there are two games they will instantly cite: Marathon developer Bungie’s ‘Halo’, and Valve’s Half Life. Halo got a mediocre release for Mac & PC ages ago (and the even MORE mediocre Halo 2 came along later as an attempted Vista Trojan Horse), but the Half-Life franchise has eluded a Mac release … until now! We still await the release of the original, but for now Mac gamers can rejoice and enjoy the classic Half-Life 2!
By taking the suspense, challenge and visceral charge of the original, and adding startling new realism and responsiveness, Half-Life 2 opens the door to a world where the player’s presence affects everything around him, from the physical environment to the behaviors — even the emotions — of both friends and enemies. The player again picks up the crowbar of research scientist Gordon Freeman, who finds himself on an alien-infested Earth being picked to the bone, its resources depleted, its populace dwindling. Freeman is thrust into the unenviable role of rescuing the world from the wrong he unleashed back at Black Mesa. And a lot of people — people he cares about — are counting on him.
Starting up Half Life 2 on my Mac in 2010 reminds me very much of playing the game back in late 2004 when it first launched, so I am going to draw liberally from the review I wrote back then for a non-defunct site.
Perhaps it makes sense that I saw “The Incredibles” in theaters with my family about half-way through playing Half-Life 2 (HL2) – they are similar in that they *look* absolutely gorgeous from the very beginning, are somewhat slow in the exposition, but when they hit their stride they are breathtakingly exciting and fun.
Let me start off with a summary – if you like first person shooters, and have a computer up to the task of running the game (it is more forgiving than Doom 3), just go out and buy it. When you realize how many flaws I’m about to point out, this unqualified recommendation is a real testament to the quality of workmanship and extremely high production values Valve put into this game.
It is worth mentioning the fact that the release of HL2 coincided with the introduction of the Steam authentication system – which is somewhat ironic since Steam for the Mac was only out for two weeks when Half-Life 2 arrived.
In the ensuing years Steam has become much more streamlined and efficient, to the point that I have found the Mac version release to largely be a non-event. But it is worth looking at my initial thoughts on the service:
Steam dominates the install of HL2, as without it the installation would be relatively quick and uneventful. But the requirement of Steam to be registered, connect and authenticate your files is very intrusive and time-consuming, and I hit a second, twenty minute ‘Steam checking files’ another time I played. For someone only interested in playing a single player game, this seems a bit too much to deal with, and feels like being punished for others’ piracy habits.
No discussion of Half-Life 2 can happen without talking about the graphics. They are beautiful, no question about it. But this is not the ‘most advanced’ game available (Doom 3 takes that). However, it plays extremely beautiful because of the choices Valve made on where to spend their graphics resources – namely the things you spend your time looking at, like faces and other eye-level objects. Despite the game being 5.5 years old, I was stunned when I started up Half-Life 2 for the Mac: the game set itself up perfectly for my system and looked gorgeous. All of the improvements and additions Valve has made through the years have certainly paid off.
The other major news item of the HL2 release was the physics system, and while most games now utilize proper physics to some extent, Half-Life 2 remains a milestone in this regard. It is extremely well implemented, with materials generally behaving correctly (there are times I looked for flaws and found them, but that was well off the beaten path), and gravity working well. The interactivity pretends to be much greater than other games, and in terms of picking up junk, that is true. But don’t let that fool you – in terms of opening non-critical path doors, interacting with non-plot terminals or consoles, it is like any other FPS.
The story of HL2 is enjoyable, if thin and light, and unfolds in a natural way as you play through the game. There are no real surprises, as you know what is happening, and basically who your friends and enemies are throughout the game. But the most important thing is that it works. You want to get to the end, you care about the NPC’s, and you want to do the right thing. Not that you have any choice, as the plot is scripted to the extreme, and you are basically carried on-rails through it.
As I mentioned early on, the early part is slow. In fact, for more than a third of the game you are basically doing a ‘commute’, getting to your real job. There is music that comes in on occasion, but you largely listen to atmospheric sounds, which are very well done. When the music comes in, it is appropriate and effective.
The game in general rarely sits still, and is more about getting you from A to B, talking for a few seconds, then repeating. That isn’t a bad thing, but I played this right after finishing replaying Dragon Age: Origins and the Source-powered Vampires the Masquerade: Bloodlines, so I found the lack of much story somewhat boring at times. But, as was true with much about this game, by the time you got to the end, all was forgiven.
The game-play of HL2 was for me both the strongest and weakest points of the game. Valve made this game look much less linear than it really is. They did a good thing in using physics to hide linearity – basically you walk an obvious path, see nowhere to go, look for a physics answer – sink something, break something, weigh something down, float something, etc. This is basically the next generation of ‘find the keycard’ plot progression, and I was pretty sick of it by the end of the game.
And the AI (artificial intelligence)? I’ll compare it to Far Cry, which was also from 2004 and which has had some of the best AI I’ve ever faced in a FPS. In HL2 I rarely hit enemies standing around with no life, waiting for me to come into the room through the door. However, they often just came streaming directly at me, or attacked from uncovered positions while others streamed at me. At no time did I get flanked as I often did in Far Cry, even when there were flanking positions available. Late in the game you get a ‘team’, who basically serve as bullet soaks to keep you alive, since you have little strategic squad control over them. I estimated at least thirty rebels hit the dirt following ‘the Freeman’.
The weapons in HL2 suffer from what I call the ‘Jedi Effect’. They are generally OK, but there is one weapon – the gravity gun – that is so good that the rest of the arsenal pales in comparison. Unfortunately, you need the rest of the weapons. The pistol is more effective than in almost any other FPS I remember, but I don’t know if that is a good thing. I found myself regularly using it rather than the normal machine gun, because the MG was an inaccurate ammo-hog. The shotgun is pretty good, along with the advanced machine gun.
The missile launcher is pretty good also, except that is has a three shell capacity, and anything that requires the missiles to kill takes at least 3, meaning that you need a ready reload-source. That felt wrong and contrived – a sort of ‘developers cheat’ to make things harder. Also, I fired into a bunch of Combine soldiers and didn’t kill one. That’s just wrong. And the sniper rifle? Oh, there isn’t one – you get a scoped crossbow, which you can’t use to take out enemy snipers.
But the gravity gun is the story – physics in action.
The vehicles in HL2 are plot critical, so unlike Far Cry, if you don’t like them – too bad. Unfortunately they are pretty mediocre to drive, and you have to spend too much of the game driving them. Also – a comment on controls. While HL2 uses the standard WASD setup, they have left out ‘leaning’, which allows you to at least look out from cover without exposing your whole body, and at best to shoot around that cover. Just about every FPS from the year or two before HL2 had leaning, but not HL2, and there were several times I would have lived longer had I been able to lean.
I have to say something about the turrets, because there is just something so wrong about them. You don’t have the same viewpoint as either normal or vehicle-mount weapons, the crosshair is often invisible, and the aiming feels wrong. These are quite likely the worst turrets I’ve ever used in any FPS, ever.
Focus on the End-Game: When you reach the place you’ve been looking for a while, the game really kicks in. At that point I saw the game as a ~75 – 80% game. So where does it go from there? Pretty far. The intensity ratchets up, the urgency is real and makes sense, it is extremely immersive and feels very real, not contrived. The ending itself makes sense, and I wasn’t disappointed.
In terms of content, Half Life 2 is a violent game with rampant death and blood. There is occasional obscenity, and the game is loaded with perilous situations and people filled with a sense of hopelessness and dread. The intensity of the situations, especially near the end of the game, can be somewhat overwhelming. But none of that goes beyond a PG-13 movie, or is much worse than Halo, which is also rated ‘M’, but commonly played by the ‘T’ crowd. I suggest parental discretion be used with this game when deciding on letting someone under 17 play – it is intense, and bloody, but nothing like Soldier of Fortune II or even Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, and certainly not at the level of the recent Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games.
Back in 2004 I couldn’t see how anyone would rate this game as 100%, which means ‘perfect’ to me – and that remains true today. There are many flaws in this game – installation, weapons and vehicles, unnecessarily stretched out sequences (mainly with vehicles), and so on – that take ‘points’ for me. So does the fact that it is very linear and nothing is really in your control ( I tried to kill a few important NPC’s just to see … you can’t). Therefore replaying HL2 is like watching a movie again as opposed to playing a game like Knights of the Old Republic again – you are doing it to experience the same things again, rather than get a fresh experience.
That said, I felt the $55 I spent for HL2 was extremely well spent. It was a great gaming experience, whether or not I ever replayed. Of course … I replayed it with Episode 1, Episode 2, for fun a bit later, bits and pieces here and there, and now once again for the Mac release. And I challenge any lover of FPS games to get to the end and not call this a GREAT game.
Where to Buy: Steam
What I Like:
+ Excellent detailed graphics
+ Performs very well without crashes or other issues
+ Still one of the best FPS games ever made
+ Long single player game
What Needs Improvement:
– Very, very linear
– Weapon system is a one-trick pony
– Limited material modeling
– Vehicle sections are lousy and artificially stretched
– Very limited environmental interaction
– Did I mention it was linear?