Half-Life 2 uses a checkpoint save system, allowing you to quickly restart at the last checkpoint if you die, and there's usually a checkpoint right before most of the game's combat zones. The checkpoint system is effectively employed throughout most of the game, and it allows you to immerse yourself into the experience without having to worry about saving the game constantly. Saving the game manually is an option, and it's helpful in one or two passages where the checkpoints are spaced too far apart, but it also takes you out of the moment.
Half-Life 2's presentation is extraordinary, thanks to the new Source engine. Even though Half-Life 2 debuted a year later than originally anticipated, it is still very much a cutting-edge game, featuring state-of-the-art graphics technology. While Doom 3 features superior lighting and shadowing, it didn't really succeed at bringing a credible and cohesive world to life. Half-Life 2 does, and the environments in the game are simply stunning, from the plazas and streets of City 17 to the rusted interiors of an abandoned factory. There's also some excellent level design in the game, including a deserted town full of deadly traps and the gaping interiors of an alien citadel. The engine does a great job of rendering both indoor and outdoor environments, and there's a lot of eye candy to absorb if you have the hardware to handle it. Most surfaces nearly glisten with the latest shader effects, and the textures are sharp and richly detailed.
One of the big new features is the incorporation of physics into the engine, and that has an effect on the visuals as well. Basically, everything moves and behaves as it ought to, so when you hammer a strider or a gunship with a rocket, it shudders and recoils from the impact. Characters also move in a lifelike manner, and the animations are smooth and believable. You'll also discover that objects in the environment can be used against you--there's nothing that zombies like more than to hurl a metal barrel in your direction. On the other hand, you can use the gravity gun to hurl objects about, or even to pick things up and use them as a shield.
While Gordon Freeman doesn't say anything, you'll quickly discover that some of the best parts of the game are when a character has a one-sided conversation with you. This also lets Valve showcase its remarkable new facial technology, which brings human characters to life like never before. You can literally see the gleam in characters' eyes when they speak, and they can display a wide range of emotions, from fear to familial pride. It also helps that Valve enlisted notable talent to supply the voices for many characters, including Robert Guillaume, Louis Gossett Jr., Robert Culp, and Michelle Forbes. The voice acting is superb, and the script itself features wit, warmth, and humor.
The script is filled with warmth and wit, and the realistic facial animations are nothing short of amazing.
The sound effects are also well done. Once again, it's the little details that stand out, like the buzzing noise of manhacks as they approach and the clatter of a gutter pipe as something climbs up to reach you. As in the original game, there's very little music, and what's here is electronic in nature and reserved to emphasize important moments, such as when you're headed for a showdown with a major foe. Most of the music is forgettable, but there are a few standout themes, one of which is recycled from the original game.
Meanwhile, the multiplayer aspect of Half-Life is veritably a game in and of itself.
Rather than build a new multiplayer component based on the single-player campaign, Valve has instead included Counter-Strike: Source with Half-Life 2. The original Counter-Strike was developed as a free team-based multiplayer mod for the original Half-Life, and it quickly grew into one of the most popular online first-person shooters in the world. Valve even released a retail package of Counter-Strike, and earlier this year there was an updated retail version, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero. Counter-Strike: Source is the updated version of the original Counter-Strike, bringing the graphics in line with the powerful new Source engine and making a few tweaks, but otherwise keeping everything else the same.
Counter-Strike: Source updates the popular online game with Half-Life 2's graphics engine, making an already good game even better.
If you've missed out on the Counter-Strike phenomenon these past five years, the idea behind the game is simple: Two teams--the terrorists and the counterterrorists--battle it out in a series of fast-paced rounds to see who will win a match. The easiest way to win a round is to simply eliminate the other team, but there are other routes to victory, depending on the map. For example, counterterrorists can attempt to rescue hostages and deliver them to safety, while terrorists can plant bombs and protect them until they explode. Your success can influence your success in future rounds, as there's a monetary reward for your team's performance, which you can use to purchase realistic weapons and equipment for the next round.
Counter-Strike: Source features updated versions of some of the most popular Counter-Strike maps, including Dust and Office. Since these are essentially the same maps that have been played since 1999, they were battle tested and balanced years ago. There have been some improvements, however. Counter-Strike: Source implements a physics engine that lets you push objects around using gunfire, though this has relatively little tactical value in the game--you can't barricade a doorway with desks, or drop an object onto an enemy below.
Nevertheless, there's little question that Counter-Strike: Source is an exciting, well-balanced game of tactical combat. It's also a highly social game. Its appeal lies in the fact that even if you're killed early, you can still sit back and chat with other players, or simply watch the match. Since each round lasts only a few minutes on average, there's not much downtime before the game resets and you're blasting away again. Finding a game isn't a problem, either, as Valve released Counter-Strike: Source more than a month before Half-Life 2, and there are hundreds of servers and thousands of players online at any given time during the day. Meanwhile, the standard built-in server browser can get you online in seconds, and you can sort by number of players, ping, and map.
Admittedly, for a beginner, Counter-Strike: Source can be a daunting experience. It's easy to feel like an outsider, as an entire culture has evolved around the game, and most of the players online know what they're doing, which can be intimidating. On the other hand, Counter-Strike: Source is relatively easy to pick up, and it doesn't take too long to become proficient at it, though it will take far longer to reach the skill level of the better players online. Then again, the release of Half-Life 2 should mean lots of new blood on the Counter-Strike circuit.
While Counter-Strike: Source is an undeniably valuable addition, it would have been nice to have seen a multiplayer component based on the single-player game.
While it's hard to argue against Valve including Counter-Strike: Source with Half-Life 2, it would have been nice to have seen a multiplayer mode based on the single-player game that takes advantage of some of the single-player game's settings and weapons. The original Half-Life shipped with such a mode, and it was fun to play with some of those settings and weapons in a multiplayer arena. There are some genuinely interesting weapons in Half-Life 2's single-player mode, and it'd be fun to see what the gravity gun, for example, could do in a multiplayer setting, particularly with all the physics turned on. Still, Counter-Strike: Source is capable of providing countless hours of online play if you're a fan of team-based shooters, and it's a safe assumption that the game isn't going to cool off anytime soon.
When you combine the strong single-player campaign of Half-Life 2 with the popular online play of Counter-Strike, the result is one of the most complete and compelling first-person shooter packages available. While Half-Life 2 breaks little new ground, it's still a superb and engaging first-person shooter, as well as an amazing technological accomplishment.