In 1998 the original Half-Life set standards and the sequel initially set records in a slightly different way by being one of the longest delayed and yet published games ever. Half-Life 2 has finally been published in November 2004 — 6 years after the original game made a big splash in the computer gaming pond. Is it ready to repeat the fame of its predecessor?
Table of Contents
1. The objective of the game.
2. Steam: The dark side.
3. How does it play?
4. Hardware requirements.
6. Selected Cheat Codes.
7. Online Resources.
As the player you will find yourself in the role of research scientist Gordon Freeman, who does everything but research on an alien-infested Earth. The typical role for futuristic shooters is to rescue the world from evil. In this case this is all home-made as you (Gordon Freeman) actually unleashed it in the original Half-Life (Black Mesa). So it’s one more time up to you to save the world and with it the few remaining souls that are not yet dead and/or zombies.
Gordon has left Mesa Verde and the new location is called City 17. A largely abandoned city with a few brave humans in the underground. The entire game is set on planet Earth, a strange Earth nevertheless with aliens, weird machinery, and zombies abound. And if that’s not enough, all are out to get YOU!
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STEAM: THE DARK SIDE
I may be only blowing some ‘steam’ here but this is exactly one of the potentially most crippling issues with Half-Life2. I am talking about the online component of the game called Steam. It is required to register and unlock the fun. Users without Internet access are left in the dark as they will never get to activate the game, let alone downloading updates to fix known issues.
Steam is not only a copy protection mechanism but also a distribution system which is used to pre-load a game over the internet and enable it when it’s released. It also serves to promote other games by Valve. This would be alright if the user could decide to deactivate the Steam tool for startup. This program resides in the toolbar and is automatically loaded upon startup. This in return adds to the boot-up time and WindowsXP is not known to be a speedy system anyway. So be prepared to wait a little longer. Irony has it that once loaded, the tool can be shut down.
Only after being registered* and therefor creating an account, the Steam engine can be taught to use an “offline mode” which enables the game even without Internet access. (As long as the user account doesn’t change.)
*… for registration within the installation process, Half-Life2 insists on Internet Explorer being the default browser. (The invoked script will fail with Netscape and Firefox.)
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HOW DOES IT PLAY?
Manual: What manual? Half-Life2 only includes a ‘quick reference card’ which holds a brief summary to installation, the main menu, the STEAM requirements, links to the most common sites for driver updates, and finally the most important controls. New to the genre? Hmmm, prepare yourself for some learning via trial and error since even the online ‘manual’ (available over Steam) is nothing more than an electronic version (PDF) of the quick reference card. The training mode in the game is very short and covers only the very basics.
Graphics: The engine is adaptive to the system specs and playing Half-Life2 on a DX7 board is a far cry from a DX9 board regarding quality and special effects. Render quality is similar to Far Cry and most objects and close-up geometry look very detailed. Textures may appear a little lo-res (as seen in DOOM III and Far Cry), but that seems to be todays limit of the average gaming hardware. Buildings in Half-Life2 get most of their structure from textures and appear a little blocky (similar to the original Ghost Recon). No ground-breaking visual experience, but a good board will render this game with very good looks nevertheless. (Especially the water effects are awe-inspiring and exceed those from Far Cry by far!)
Violence: Half-Life2 kind of breaks the recent trend to display gore in more detail as graphics cards are able to handle more detail. The mandatory splatter upon impact is still there (for feedback reasons) and overall impression is basically similar to Call of Duty. The developer did good to not go to the extreme as in DOOM III where enemies virtually disintegrate upon killing them (of course with lots of blood). I don’t want to sound like a whimp since this is a shooter afterall, but I do think that there can be such a thing as too much gore.
Controls: Mostly standard for basic movement and interaction, Half-Life2 relies on W-A-S-D keys for movement and the mouse for looking around and using whatever weapon you’re holding. Other controls like Use (‘E’), Gravity gun (‘G’), or Flashlight (‘F’) are mostly intuitive but as the game progresses, more options emerge and eventually may get a little complicated for some. The right mouse button doesn’t find any use in the standard key assignment (no aiming and limited alternate firing mode). In tight quarters it’s easy to get stuck for a moment and that seems to be the major issue I have with controlling Gordon Freeman.
Physics: It is safe to claim that Half-Life2 is setting new standards with its implementation of mass, friction and gravity. Objects have different weight and can be thrown as far as the weight allows. (Something that didn’t seem right in Painkiller.) Slippery ground makes navigation harder and allows to slide even heavy objects with ease. A special treat is buoyancy which not only lets certain objects float but also move with the waves and control resistance to objects thrown in the water (like bullets from enemy units).
Interaction: Most objects in the game can be moved or destroyed in some way (according to their physical properties). Some even must be moved in order to move on (by building a ‘ladder’ to reach a higher level or re-arranging weights to get out of a seemingly dead-end. Those ‘puzzles’ vastly improve gameplay of a shooter, as they’re not too repetitive and add a sense of reality.
Sound: The latest update fixed the sound stuttering problems that dimmed the otherwise excellent feature. Voice acting and a rising score when engaging in some conflicts as well as a good theme music all add up to a great experience that’s on par with most other top games.
Animation: I recently crowned DOOM III with the best animation of the characters, and Half-Life2 is not changing that despite great character animation (facial expressions). Digital actors look a little stiff and simply push you out of the way should you be in their path. However, enemies usually don’t get that close, hence most of the time this is not an issue.
Weapons The famous crow bar from the original is also the basic equipment in Half-Life2, the one weapon that’s universal and doesn’t need recharging. Other weapons are found on the way and include a pistol, sub-machine gun, fragmentation grenades, crossbow, rocket launcher, gauss gun, gravity gun and the pulse rifle. The selection is a good mix of realistic and imaginary technology. Each section is well balanced and the available weapons certainly up for the job.
AI: The artificial intelligence built into Half-Life2 does well in adapting to a given situation even allows to fashion weapons from objects that can be found in the environment. Here is the catch, not only you have that option but your virtual enemies as well. Beyond that, the AI appears average (for a top game) to me. For example, there is no recognizable ‘idle behavior’ (as demonstrated by Far Cry and Thief: Deadly Shadows). On the rare occasion that you have a team fighting on your side, the overall experience is good, but sometimes your comrades get in the way … similar to the original Call of Duty.
Vehicles: Somewhat expected these days from a hyped game like Half-Life2 are vehicles to complement the otherwise by-foot shooter. You’ll find an airboat and a high-speed buggy, both necessary to proceed in some sections. The game play feels very similar to those vehicle sections in Call of Duty and Far Cry. Controls and driving experience are on par with other recent shooters and while not a driving simulation still fit the genre. In comparison to Far Cry, Half-Life2 manages to find a better balance between steering the vehicle and looking around … as much as the digital control via keyboard (for steering) allows.
Progress What was broken in Far Cry and demonstrated to perfection by Call of Duty and DOOM III is done quite well in Half-Life2. No reasons to complain as it automatically saves at the frequent checkpoints (which also function as load points). The PC friendly ‘Quicksave’ is also available in Half-Life2 and assigned to key ‘F6’ instead of the typical ‘F5’. The Quickload, however, can still be found at ‘F9’.
Difficulty At the beginning of your career as Gordon Freeman, you can choose between 3 difficulty levels (Easy, Normal, Difficult), and since it cannot be changed once the campaign has started, I picked ‘Normal’ and it does feel about right (but not very hard) for my skill level. For the longest game fun, try the highest level.
Longevity The story is divided into 12 chapters which are then split into smaller episodes. Overall length of the game is listed around 50 hours and that’s a lot of gaming! A streamlined story as in pretty much all games of the genre doesn’t lend itself to repeating the game since no largely alternative solution or different roles are available in Half-Life2. Long-term fun is still somewhat guaranteed as mods are likely to emerge and multiplayer (Half-Life2 Deathmatch) is included. If that’s not enough, the included port of the original Counter-Strike to the Source engine sure should help. Last but not least, there are rumors about a potential expansion pack for Half-Life2.
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Most surprising and impressive is the game’s ability to scale and work on lower-end machines. Officially 1.2 GHz processor with 256MB RAM and DX7 graphics board is the bare minimum to play Half-Life2. I found reports where a 700mhz processor and a video card capable of running DX6 seems to be enough, but don’t expect a visual feast at those levels.
Half-Life2 is breaking a trend many other games followed by specifically excluding older graphics boards than DX9 technology with T&L. This comes as a major surprise since the other ueber-game (DOOM III) sure didn’t worry about that and bumped hardware requirements to a record high.
With all the low-end compatibility, Half-Life2 is happiest with more than 2.4GHz (P4), 512 Mbyte RAM, and a DX9 board which may be sponsored by ATI but is not exclusive to that manufacturer. (nVidia boards show similar performance)
The space this game occupies on the hard drive is the same for minimum and recommended configurations and with 4.5 GByte not of the whimpy kind. It’s not the record as both Unreal Tournament 2004 and ‘Enter the Matrix’ need slightly more space. The reason for Half-Life2‘s smaller size (despite the long game) may be the absence of prerendered cut-scenes. A speedy hard drive might help to reduce the long load times between sections.
My system (2.4GHz P4, 533FSB, 1GB RAM DDR333, Radeon 9700 Pro, 7200rpm ATA133, WinXP SP2) runs the game quite smoothly with video options set to 1280×1048, 32bit, and all of the game’s options put to maximum (except AA). (Slightly faster than Far Cry) Even enabling 2xAA still returns respectable performance.
Another positive hardware fact is that Half-Life2 doesn’t require a CD in the drive to play the game. Courtesy of STEAM. (Hey, I guess I found a good aspect after all.)
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To make sure I am not misunderstood, Half-Life2 is one of the most impressive games recently released for the PC. If it’s the best ever depends on your preference and there are sure a few other software titles that may compete for that title.
Half-Life2 is amazing in its own rights and impresses with an adaptive game engine, great physics, good performance, and excellent graphics. If I had to name one thing I like most, I would pick the interactivity with vast majority of objects in the game and their physical properties.
The few shortcomings are not enough reason to punish the game — despite the missing manual and the iffy Steam tool. The latter, however, might turn into a nightmare if no Internet access is available (at least initially).
Half-Life2 is expensive at the published price of $55.- and the specials of $40.- that are currently available sure help to get a copy of this excellent game. In fact, the $40.- seem to be a very fair price.
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The Bottom Line
The long-awaited Ueber-game falls somewhat short of the high expectations, but is still awesome!
So, you’re really planning on destroying the fun and beat the game in an unfair manner. Alright, it’s your money that you’re blowing here. So go ahead and knock yourself out. First enable the console and then access it from within the game by pressing the ‘~’ (tilde) key. (I only list a selction of the most important codes.)
Enabling the console can be done 2 ways …
1. In configuration of STEAM
2. Startup Option “C:Program FilesHalf-Life 2hl2.exe” -console
– god … God Mode, you’re invincible
– impulse 101 … get all weapons
– notarget … Enemies Ignore You
– give [item] … Give an item
– maps … List Maps
– infinite_aux_power … Unlimited Power for your Suit
– impulse 82 … Spawn a Jeep
– ch_createjeep … Spawn a Scout Car
– ch_createairboat … Spawn an Airboat
– cl_showfps x … FPS, x=1 Show / x=0 Hide
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Official game homepage:
Demo (Steam account required) [751 MB]:
– Thief: Deadly Shadows
– Call of Duty
– DOOM III
– Halo: Combat Evolved
– Far Cry
– Unreal Tournament 2004
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