Game Review: Half Life 2 + Episode 1 + Episode 2

October 13th, 2009

I just finished playing through all of Half Life 2 (at least, all of what’s been released so far) for Rebel FM’s Game Club.

Yes, a little late to the party. But better late than never, especially for one of the best games of all time. I was playing through on the XBox – I’d bought the Orange Box edition last year for Portal, but had never got around to playing more than a few minutes of Half Life 2.

As an experience there are few things that have drawn me in as much as this. Other games have done the same with the strength of their plot – such as Metal Gear Solid, Bioshock, Knights of the Old Republic – but Half Life 2 is one of the few that does it on the strength of character. Alyx Vance is the obvious standout character from the games, but even the minor characters come alive in a way that is disappointingly rare for computer games so far. This is due to a combination of technology, writing and environment that makes this an experience anyone interested in the evolution of computer games should go through.

But as a game, it’s a little harder for me to recommend Half Life 2. If it weren’t for the press of Game Club there are parts that would have made me give up. There are sections, especially in the main game, that go on for far too long. It’s nice to establish a few gameplay mechanics and play with them for a while, but there’s a distinction between escalation (which is fun and challenging) and dragging things out. This is better in the two sequel episodes, although only by a matter of degree. While others found the climactic sequence of Episode 2 a lot of fun, personally I found the new mechanics cumbersome and annoying.

It’s also quite ‘gamey’, something that only distracts me because of the quality of the plot and the characters. Given how strong everything else is, it’s distracting to see the obvious ‘points of no return’, mostly driven by your inability to jump very far. And to have a section, as in one point of Episode 2, where you go from being inside an alien hive to being back in a mine because it’s convenient to the construction of the level is distracting and annoying. It’s an artefact of building the game to be as fun as possible (and hence avoiding backtracking, something the design does well), but it comes at the cost of the sense of place.

I enjoyed Half Life 2 and its episodes a lot. Something that I would say about only one other pure shooter (Bioshock). And I’m looking forward to Episode 3, when it’s eventually released. But I don’t think that I’d ever go back to play them again, and would probably tell most people without an interest in shooters or ‘games as art’ to try before they buy.