Despite the age of the console, you really can't fault Valve for trying to port their award-winning PC shooter Half-Life 2 for the Xbox. Sadly, this conversion lacks the polish and sheen of the PC edition, and suffers from improbably awkward load times and lacks online play, which goes a long way in tempering what could have been a stellar send-off for the console. The good news is that the inspired design, brilliant rag-doll physics and tightly wound single player mission shines through despite some glaring technical issues. If you can live with these issues, then HL2 is definitely worth purchasing, and still manages to impress despite the limitations.
While there have been some compromises made to squeeze the superb Half-Life 2 onto the aging Xbox hardware, the basics remain intact. Players once again take the role of Gordon Freeman in Valve's Half-Life 2, a somewhat acceptable conversion of the stellar PC shooter. This time, the action is set in the dark environments in City 17, a dilapidated urban nightmare crawling with security forces and the evil Combine aliens from the last game. You are part of an underground resistance movement and must take charge, leading where others fear to tread. Your high profile means you have a target on your head, and this makes for an exciting game. As you begin the game, you are unarmed, but quickly acquire your trusty crowbar, which can be used to break up crates and is also quite effective in close combat. You'll also be able to pick up a variety of weapons including pistols, cross-bows, and sniper rifles. In addition, you have the ability to grab certain objects such as crates and throw them at enemies.These scopes can be quite handy when picking off enemies, allowing you to kill them effectively with a simple head shot. As in other modern FPS titles, players can take command of stationary gun turrets and wipe out a whole area of foes without breaking a sweat. Players also have access to a variety of vehicles including an airboat and a gun cannon, which are easy to operate and use in combat situations. One of your secret weapons is also the most obvious. Your suit offers you a level of protection against gunfire, and can be recharged at one of the numerous stations you see scattered throughout each level.
While the weapons and gadgets are impressive and believably realistic, the game's physics engine is probably the real star of he show. You can use this to your advantage in a variety of methods. One of the more interesting strategies for the Half-Life 2 player involves the many gas-filled barrels that you come across, which you can use in a variety of ways. Shooting these causes a massive explosion that will kill or seriously damage any nearby enemies, and can also be used to unblock entries or blow out bridges. It definitely makes things more interesting and gives the player a variety of choices in several situations. This advanced use of physics is really impressive, and extends to HL2's coolest weapon: the Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator or Gravity Gun. This allows you to grab and throw a variety of objects, including zombiefied enemies and use them as missiles against other enemies. The Gravity Gun (later the Combine Harvester) is one of the coolest innovations in FPS titles for some time, allowing you to interact with your environments in completely new ways. As a combat device, it's marvelously effective and intuitive to use, making it a super-cool weapon. The Gravity Gun definitely gives Half-Life 2 a unique personality, and the device really shows off the game's sophisticated physics engine. Making As you traverse the streets and alleys of City 17, a seemingly endless army of flying cameras, called scanners, will stalk you, revealing your position to the security forces who will quickly arrive at your position to take you out. In addition, the Combine forces appear in a variety of forms throughout the game to make your missions even more difficult. To help you along, you can save your progress at virtually any point in the game, making progression less frustrating than it could have been. The controls have been mapped beautifully to the Xbox controller allowing you to move and shoot with ease. You can change weapons quickly with the D-pad, and can call up inventory fast as well. Traditional FPS moves like strafing and crouching are handled expertly, making Half-Life 2 an intuitive, responsive title that most veterans should be able to pick up and play with little effort.
For all of Half-Life 2's technical agility, its pacing and level design is what really sets it apart. It's game design shines with an excellent combination of action and exploration that should satisfy most players. The game's levels are quite large and expansive, allowing for a more dynamic approach than you'd expect, offering a nuanced struggle against the Combine that will take plenty of skill and perseverance to finish. Part of what makes the game so engaging is the shockingly authentic set of environments it creates. The distinctively Orwellian City 17 creates a strong sense of paranoia within its walls, with the constant hum of indoctrination over loudspeakers, and the scurrying citizens cowering in fear create an atmosphere that's both beautiful and brutal. The texture mapping is richly detailed in all aspects, from the tiniest drops of water, to the scratched, scraped and scarred surfaces of containers submerged under water, you never forget that you're in a desperately underused world. The bleached out colors are compressed until everything looks like a shade of gray, yet there are some impressive lighting and water effects as well, which gives everything in the game a realistic appearance. Half-Life 2's character animations are quite impressive, especially up close when you can see the life-like reaction and movements of human characters, while the Combine forces move with a graceful yet terrifying insectoid confidence and purpose. While the level of environmental detail here doesn't approach the level of a high-end PC, the game is still very impressive by Xbox standards, making this edition an adequate substitute from an aesthetic standpoint for those who don't have a high-end machine.
One of the game's main appeals lies not in the technically brilliant engine, but in the way its presented. Most other FPS titles have lead characters that can best be described as cardboard. HL2 takes a vastly different approach, filling in Gordon's emotions and motivations throughout the story while introducing a strong supporting cast of rebels and villains that makes the experience feel more like an RPG at some points than you'd expect it to be. The struggle between Gordon and his band of freedom fighters against the Combine and its compliant, yet oppressive allies in the City is told in a compelling manner that's more adult and sophisticated than you'd expect, and touches on a few contemporary issues as well. A large part of this realism can be chalked up to the amazing rendering technology that gives each character's facial expressions and emotions an impressive realism. The characters' excellent voice acting doesn't go to waste either, as the game's outstanding storyline is both engaging and interesting, allowing players to fully immerse themselves into the game effortlessly. Playing Half-Life 2 feels less like a traditional video game and more like being immersed into an interactive adventure. Sure, there are many action points, but it's the cohesive story and plot that will keep most players motivated. While the early going feels a little bit slow, once things pick up, the game unfolds at an intense pace, leaving you both breathless and wanting more.
Unfortunately, in order to enjoy all that Half-Life 2 has to offer, players will have to look past a few major problems. The biggest of these is the load times, which occur not only between levels, but during them as well. In fact, the game pauses several times during each level, which hurts the flow of the action, making the experience less than ideal for FPS. While the level of detail is impressive throughout, there's little doubt that the game is pushing the Xbox hardware further than it was meant to. With so much put into maintaining the level of detail and quality of the single player game, Valve has also decided to forgo any multiplayer modes, and the game doesn't support even a lowly deathmatch mode, which is extremely disappointing. This is especially true considering the console's reputation for online play on Xbox Live. These technical problems aside, the level of enjoyment you'll get out of Half-Life 2 depends largely on your expectations. If you're looking for a decent port of the PC game, you'll probably be happy living with the port's limitations, but those seeking an exact replica of the game are bound to be disappointed. Half-Life 2 is a decent single player port that offers much of what made the original such an exciting journey despite some disappointing trade-offs along the way.