How do I start talking about one of the most acclaimed games ever made? For me this is and probably for a long time to come, will always be the pinnacle, the last word and the full stop in the First Person Shooter genre, a style of videogame that has become the games industries block buster genre. Back in 1996 an American company called Valve that was unknown at the time created a game called Half-Life, and with its unparalleled action, story telling and atmosphere it quickly became one the best games ever made. Countless clones appeared on the market shortly after, claiming to be Half-Life beaters, with admirable efforts from Bungie’s Halo and various top-drawer PC games, but it wasn’t until that game’s sequel arrived that the Half-Life beater was crowned. Ironic, isn’t it?
In 2004 Valve unleashed the highly anticipated follow up after more delays and push backs than any game before it – some believed the delays signalled a dud on their hands, and the hype had no chance of living up to such grandeur early screen shots and video footage created. Yet when the finished product was finally played, we all had to hold our hands up and hail the coming of a new age. Valve had been working on Half-Life 2 since the final code had been entered on the first game, and the effort shines in every conceivable aspect, from the atmospheric opening twenty minutes with no weapons and thankfully like its predecessor, no cut scenes. Valve were unique in never taking the player out of the game, giving them the freedom to miss or walk away from pivotal events, if he or she so wished. Then they decided to throw in life like characterisation not seen outside of a top-drawer animated movie, where ‘digital actors’ conveyed real emotion, and trust me it’s a remarkable achievement in immersing the player in a living, breathing world.
The Half-Life games follow the story of scientist turned vigilante Gordon Freeman, who seems to get put in the worst possible situations seemingly by accident, be it a government experiment that goes wrong and opens the portal to another world (HL#1), or arriving in a city controlled by an overpowering Nazi-like regime only to become embroiled in a resistance movement hell-bent on restoring freedom (HL#2). It’s all done with total believability and with great moment following great moment that from beginning to end, there is a big fat grin slapped permanently on your face.
Valve has probably designed the blue print by which all proceeding games in this genre should take notes from. The environments are varied, realistic and interesting. The weapons are fun and imaginative (especially the 357 Magnum Revolver, the high-tech Cross Bow, the Combine Plasma Rifle (with it’s glowing bouncing orb secondary attack) and of course the much celebrated Gravity Gun, that is one of the coolest gadgets in a game ever!). Add to this plethora of features the stunningly real physics, from the astonishing water and glass (see how the glass cracks and breaks) or how objects and furniture react in total believability due to their shape and weight, and one of the most fun virtual playgrounds you have. The enemies you face are also a uniquely interesting group of opponents from the Combine Guards and their realistic attack patterns how they communicate to one another, re-load, take cover and work together, the Zombies infected by Alien-inspired head crabs, the Running Zombie who can navigate drain pipes and other scenery to reach you, and then the Drop Ships and Fighter Planes that close in to kill you. The list of stunning touches is endless and increasingly jaw-dropping. Just wait until you get to control a bunch of mutant cock-roaches known as Ant-Lions, and you will see exactly how beautifully realised this game is.
Half-Life 2 had been out on the PC for a few years before the XBOX 360 version arrived, and in that time the PC fan boys had been enjoying episodic follow up ‘Episode One’. So Valve decided to please everybody by releasing The Orange Box, the biggest Half-Life 2 compilation to date, which includes a HD refined version of the celebrated shooter alongside both Episode One and the brand spanking new Episode Two. Now the new episodes, I have mixed feelings about, that whilst their quality is high, their short life span take away from Half Life’s epic appeal, and they both seem over way too quickly…and lack much of the replay value of the HL2. That said, story and game play still shine, so these are worthy additions to the HL universe. In the box is also award-winning puzzler Portal and online multiplayer-fest Team Fortress 2. Not bad, Valve. Pat on the back. Now just make Episode 3 the nuts!!