You'll be on your own during most of the game, but there are levels in which you'll have the opportunity to fight alongside allies, both alien and human. Some of the best team moments come later, when you're battling the Combine in the streets and buildings of City 17, with large-scale battles going on between groups of humans and the Combine's huge, spiderlike striders. You never really develop any attachment to your teammates, though, as they tend to be very disposable, and replacements are available at regular intervals. Teammates have a tendency to get in your way in cramped interiors. Even though they'll slowly move out of your way, it's still a little annoying. In addition to taking on teammates, you'll occasionally have the opportunity to set up sentry guns to assist you in defense. The toughest sequence that we encountered involved setting up a handful of sentry guns in a defensive alignment, and then holding out against waves of incoming Combine soldiers.
The vehicle sequences in Half-Life 2 let you speed along on land and on water.
Surprisingly, Half-Life 2's story is one of its most disappointing aspects. The first half of the game feels a bit unfocused, while the second half seems rushed. Even worse, the story leaves behind a mess of unanswered questions, and it doesn't touch on any of the lingering questions left over from the first game. Valve likes to leave tantalizing hints and tidbits everywhere, but few of these actually develop into anything interesting, and by the end you're left wondering what the game was all about. In many ways, Half-Life 2 feels like the middle chapter in a much larger story, and it suffers as a result.
Another surprise is the somewhat disappointing performance by the artificial intelligence. Most of the humanoid enemies don't seem to show the same kind of intelligent behavior that they did in the original, even on the tougher difficulty levels. They'll seek cover and then peek out to fire, but invariably they'll charge at you, which makes it easy to take them down. And maybe it's due to some of the weapons being a bit overpowered, but most opponents don't present much of a challenge at all--a few rounds is usually enough to stop them. There are a few fearsome foes, like the larger ant lions, which will tirelessly pursue you while you frantically unload every bullet you have at them. Then there's the strider, the 50-foot-tall, walking, organic tank that fires devastating bursts and can spear you with one of its legs if you get too close. But for the most part, Half-Life 2 is surprisingly easy, even on the tougher difficulty levels. Case in point is the end of the game, which feels anticlimactic: You're given a horrendously overpowered weapon to use against relatively weak opposition.
The controls translate really well to the Xbox's gamepad, and we like the solution that Valve came up with for manipulating your formidable arsenal later on. You'd think that selecting from two different pistols, a shotgun, assault rifle, rocket launcher, grenades, crowbar, gravity gun, crossbow, and more would be a bit awkward, but Valve has an elegant solution. Meanwhile, the rest of the controls conform to the standard first-person-shooter controls established by Halo. And, yes, there have been some concessions to the aim mechanic to make it work better with the gamepad, which is far less accurate than a mouse. There's essentially auto-aim in the Xbox version, so often all you have to do is move the targeting cursor somewhere near the target and it will lock on (the hit detection is also very generous on your end).
The physics engine combined with the gravity gun lets you pick up and hurl objects, such as the many explosive barrels littering City 17.
We only wish that the rest of Half-Life 2 translated as smoothly as the controls, because even though Valve managed to squeeze the PC game onto the Xbox, you have to question the wisdom of doing so. Half-Life 2 struggles to maintain a decent frame rate throughout, and while it's by no means crippling, it's not exactly what you would consider smooth, either. Valve has scaled down the resolution and the textures quite a bit from the PC version, and some do look quite blurry if you linger on them too much. With that said, though, this is still a great-looking Xbox game, and the atmospheric immersion is still there. You'll be dropped into huge, believable environments that are downright impressive, from the plazas and streets of City 17 to the rusted interiors of an abandoned factory. There's also some excellent level design, including a deserted town full of deadly traps and the gaping interiors of an alien citadel.
Though Half-Life 2 is stuffed with excellent voice talent to give life to the many characters in the game, the fact that Gordon Freeman doesn't say a single word remains disconcerting. The idea is that since you are Gordon Freeman, then giving him a voice would take away from the immersion. Valve got away with this in the original Half-Life because Gordon encountered few characters, and they didn't linger onscreen for too long. On the other hand, Half-Life 2 features whole conversations where everyone is talking to you, and it's just weird that they seem fine with you not saying anything in return. The conversations that do take place remain some of the better parts of the game, as Half-Life 2 has excellent facial technology that brings human characters to life in a believable way. 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 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, 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. Despite a few standout themes (one of which is recycled from the original), most of the music is forgettable.
Unfortunately, Half-Life 2 on the Xbox is single-player only, so once it's done, you've seen it all.
Unfortunately, once you get through the single-player story, you've pretty much seen everything that Half-Life 2 for the Xbox has to offer. In a move that will undoubtedly upset fans, the Xbox version lacks any kind of multiplayer capability, from split screen to Xbox Live support. Valve argues that Counter-Strike is already available as a separate Xbox game. But, if you were looking forward to Counter-Strike: Source on the Xbox or Half-Life 2 deathmatch with the gravity gun, then you'll likely be disappointed. This has an obvious impact on the game's value, as multiplayer was a huge part of the PC version. Also, the Xbox version lacks the mod-making features of the PC, which has a huge number of user-created mods.
When you get down to it, Half-Life 2 for the Xbox is an excellent single-player game. If you didn't get a chance to play the PC version, then you owe it to yourself to check out the game on the Xbox (even though it's not as smooth and as sharp as what you'll find on the PC). You'll find few games that can match Half-Life 2's quality in terms of immersion and gameplay. And all these months after its original release, it's still an excellent first-person shooter that should be experienced by most every action fan. Just don't expect anything more after the game ends.