I just finished playing Half Life 2 so I thought I'd share my impressions. If you haven't played you might prefer to play first before reading this.
First things first, Half Life 2 is a pretty game. It's probably got the highest res textures of any game yet. The majority of them seem like they were probably made by taking pictures of real stuff and then fixing up those pictures to be used as textures. You need at least a 256meg video card to see these graphics though. Althought the game will play on a card with less memory it will not look even 1/10ths as pretty.
Next up they use normal mapping, reflection mapping, environment mapping and all the rest of the latest texturing techinques but they use them better than any other game. Many of them are very subtle. They didn't make them stick out just to show them off either. They did their best to make them work like the real world and it works. As such there are quite a few times things look almost like real world pictures. There is almost always something to give it away that it's not real world but this is the closest anyone has come so far.
One thing they did better than any game so far is water. Both from above and below the water. They are using a fogging system so deep dirty water looks murky, they also do index of reflection effects so looking straight down you see into the water but as you look at a shallower angle the water gets progressively more reflective just like real water. Jump in the water and look up and although the effect is a little blocky it really does make you feel like you are underwater more than any previous game I've played.
Another thing they did great is bullet holes, blood, paint and bangs. If you take your crowbar and whack on something metal it will leave dents and the dents will get progressively bigger. Blood and paint stick to walls and other objects very realisticly. They had done this well in HL1 as well.
The sounds are all perfection. Weapon sounds, explosion sounds, sounds of being underwater, vehicle sounds. Except or the studdering bug they did an exceptional job on all the sounds in the game.
There are a couple of new ideas. The gravity gun. It lets you pick stuff up and throw it back at the enemies as well as use the stuff you pick up to solve a few puzzles. It's fairly fun and new. The second is the pheropod that lets you control some bugs. It feels new but in reality it's the same as controlling 3−4 soldiers except these soldiers happen to look like bugs and there are an unlimited supply of them. Still it's really pretty fun to play with them.
That's the good parts.
After that though at core level, the game is nothing new. In fact, for the first 2/3rds of the game the game play was arguably not as good as Half Life 1. In Half Life 1, the most amazing things were (1) that you played entirely inside the game. There were no "cutscenes" in Half Life 1 that you just sit back and watch. Instead, as you walk around and experience the world people talk to you, ask you to do stuff and go about their business. Half Life 1 was the first game to do that effectively. The next biggest thing was that in Half Life 1 many characters would accompany you. You could walk up to a guard and ask him to come with you. He'd fight along with you, get killed if you were not careful, open doors, locks, enter codes etc. It was a first, at least for first person gaming. The sequel, Opposing Forces took it even one step further by having 3 or 4 characters at a time join you.
Well, in Half Life 2 the "no cutscenes" thing is there, but the playing with other NPCs is missing from the first 2/3rds of the game. It does enter in during the last 1/3rd but even so, it's no longer new. Half Life 1 did it 6 years ago and now it's almost commonplace. Games like Rainbow Six, the Metal of Honor series and the Call of Duty series all do this.
It's in that sense that Half Life 2 doesn't live up to the hype. I guess I was hoping for a truely new experience but it's basically just a very well done modern FPS with next gen graphics. As such it just doesn't have that much impact. I've done it all before. Fought zombies, fought soldiers, rode vehicles, used explosives with physics and vehicles with physics, used a flashlight, used rocket launchers to shoot down flying vehicles. I've been in bombed out buildnigs, sewers, zombie towns, etc.
It's not that it's bad it's just mostly been there, done that, except not this pretty.
There are a host of things done not so well though. For example:
The texture are amazing but they do turn into mush if you get too close. This isn't really a fault, I'm sure the same will happen in my games 😛 But, Halo solved this problem. It will be nice to see the two techinques combined. Amazingly detailed textures of HL2 and the tech from Halo to keep them from resing out and breaking the illusion.
The majority of effects in HL2 are pretty sub−standard. This was actually a problem with HL1 as well but you'd think after a zillion games with amazing effects they'd have gotten them down by now. There are some good effects, especially toward the end of the game but things like the near opening scene teleporter effects....really really bad. Electric effects... bad. The shield effects, really really bad. In fact those ones are fairly common so it's doubly bad because they look so out of place when the rest of the graphics are so amazing.
Lots of reviews are gushing over the animation. I can only suggest they aren't qualified to judge it if they can't see how mediocre it actually is. It's not a matter of a subjective thing. Any competent animimator or animation teacher could sit there and objectively point to what's wrong with the animation. The opening scene is among the worst. The g−man (no relation) gives a speech and it's all out of sync. His mouth moves jerkily. All the other characters walk around jerkily. When they talk while there may be more details than many games they don't add up to good animation. If you want to see good animation take a look at Jak 2 or Jak 3. It would be awesome to see some animators as good as the ones on the Jak series work on a product like HL2. The characters would end up seeming so real it might actually be creepy. As it is the current HL2 characters are always doing something that make them seem like game characters.
* story / dialog / voice acting / creature placement / A.I.
All of the above are hard to separate so I'm putting them under one heading. Very few games have a good story and HL2 is no exception. The story is just ludacris. Lots of things just don't make sense. Often in the game there will be building full of soldiers yet for some reason there are zombies in there as well co−existing in silence waiting for the player when clearly they don't belong together, one or the other would have to die. They've clearly been added just to surprise the player but they don't actually make sense in the story.
The voice acting is not bad but the writing for the voices is pretty lame. For example in the first scene they are working on a teleporter and the first person to try it is very non−chalant about it yet she's just been told about the last time they tried it there was some incident with a cat. Any real person would not be getting in that machine and any real dad would not be letting his daughter in it to boot.
This kind of stuff comes up all throughout the game with many characters but specifically with the lead female character where she should be fairly stressed but her lines are more about the stress level of being a few minutes late to meet some friends. Her father is not much better.
The A.I as well, while I don't mind that it's not the smartest A.I. out there there are lots of times where it's 100% clear it's a game. Some soldiers are in the building next to you, you are setting off grenades, there is no response from them. They are just standing around (basically waiting for you to step in some collision box to be turned on).
* level design
The entire world is just one giant linear maze. The linearness is annoying because it's so obviously not real world like. But worse, in the 4th 5th of the game you run around in a bombed out city and some of the setups are just ridiculously convoluted. It gets worse when you come to a convoluted room that if you look around makes no sense whatsoever. No one would ever build a room like this. It's clearly a gameplay room. That might work when it's Mario or Sonic in stripes and polkadots land but it doesn't work in a game set in a real world like situation.
What could they have done to up to take it to the next level, to give it a truely next level experience? Well, to be honest I'm not sure but some ideas:
As interactive as the world is it's still 70−80 percent non−interactive. By that I mean for example you at some point you have the gravity gun. It picks things up like barrels, cardboard boxes, wooden creates, paint cans, plastic bottles, etc. Yet, it doesn't pick up creatures, even small ones. What's the difference between wood, cardboard and flesh that's supposed to explain that? How about a soldier? He's got a helmet on so you'd think it would at least suck the helmet off. Or how about windows? You'd think that if you can pick up a detached door that if you pointed it at a non attached door you'd at least get a response. Of course every game has to have its limits. I think the issue is that the more realisitic the games get the more what's not realistic sticks out. You're picking up heavy barrels, there are drain pipes that rattle when monsters climb on them but they don't rattle when you point your metal attracting gravity gun at them. Whether making the world 100% interactively consistant would make the game better or not I'm not sure but I really don't think it would be that hard to at least give everything a response.
Probably the next most doable improvement is to remove the linerarity. I'm not sure what reprocussions it would have but GTA showed that you can have fun in a mostly an open world. Finding a way to get you off the one track maze and still deliver a compelling immersive story would truely be a huge coup. Which brings us to the next one...
Make the NPCs or at least a couple truly interactive. I have no idea how to do that either but HL2 really did nothing that HL1 didn't do six years ago. Back then it was a leap in the kind of experience you could have with a game. Time to attempt to take it to the next level. If anyone is in a position to do it it's Valve.
So, in the end do I recommend it? Well, yes, it's not a bad game. In fact as a First Person Shooter it's probably among the best to date. It's only that in reality there is nothing new here.