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<  Game reviews  ~  Half Life 2 (PC)

Michael
Posted: Thu Jan 06, 2005 10:48 pm Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium


Where do I start?... Half Life 2 has received more praise than any game I can remember. According to Game Rankings, 34 reviews have given this game a rating of 100%. This means perfect. This means it is impossible to make a better game than Half Life 2. This means the end of history.
I have played Half Life 2. I have even finished it. On Easy Mode, which is the default (thank you, Valve). I had some doubts and I restarted playing it on Normal Mode. I even used a cheat that stopped the enemies from attacking. Now I have no doubts anymore. I dislike Half Life 2 from the bottom of my heart.

It may be true that I don't like games. Or that I only like games for the potential that they show as a medium and not for what they really are. Does this make my opinion irrelevant? I don't think so. I am ambitious with games. And Half Life 2 is an ambitious game. Pretentious even. So serious criticism is in place.

Let's start with the good news. Easy. The good news starts in the beginning of the game. In fact, the game shows a very linear degression from great through confusing and annoying all the way down to disgusting. Chapter 1 is the most wonderful real-time narrative environment that I have experienced so far. It tells a story in a way that only this medium can. Through situations, circumstances, environmental sounds, colour, even. It is beautiful. If Valve would have been able to make a whole game like this, they would have produced a masterpiece, not just of gaming but of art itself.
They failed. Half Life 2 is not a work of art. It is a shooter game, a first person shooter game. Moreover, it is a shooter game in which you play a mercenary in some alternative army fighting against oppression. It is an army shooter game. In my opinion, this type of game is the most vile and repulsive ever to have sprung from the minds of humans.

If I sound angry, it's because I am. Not only has Valve made yet another violent game in a long series of disgusting propaganda, they have also used an artistic language that is in fact very capable of telling meaningful stories to further these loathsome goals. In a way, I'm happy that even on that low level of a shooter game, Half Life 2 gets more and more tedious and boring as the game goes on. It would have been a complete disaster if it would have been a great game to boot.

The good news
1. Chapter 1 shows us a mature form of storytelling that takes full advantage of the means that the real-time interactive medium offers. Basically you are walking through a 3D animation with some triggers to make sure that you have seen everything. It's a very elegant, simple and efficient system. This system is in fact used further in the game as well, but then usually for sending more enemies towards you rather than for conveying more narrative bits.
2. The story contains many interesting elements. Not in the least the architectural representation of an oppressive regime implanting its control structures much like the postmodern glass and steel that invades European cities.

3. With the exception of the last chapters, Half Life 2 is gorgeous to look at. Not because it is so photographically realistic, as many people seem to think. Nor because of the silly shader effects that only half-do their job. But mostly because of the colours. And the restraint and abstraction that the artists have introduced in the environments. Some models and textures are downright simplistic, but they work. It's very convincing and sets the mood.
4. A technical note: the lipsynching is the most impressive that I have ever seen in a computer game. Ditto the voice acting.
5. As a game, Half Life 2 is an extremely traditional shooter. It has your array of weapons that you acquire throughout the game. And it has strategically positioned ammunition, health and armour power ups. But it implements these elements in the environment in a way that is utterly convincing. It never feels artificial and still they are always there when you need them.
6. The graphic design of the heads-up-display and the in-game interfaces is great. Very modest and stylish. This may seem like a detail but it does make the game feel like a more solid, valuable and respectable thing.
7. The opening screens display a scene animated in real time. These are all beautiful little landscape paintings on their own. If it was up to me, I'd ditch the whole game and just keep these tableaux.


The bad news
1. It's a shooter game. I am not a freedom-loving Westerner who believes that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion and that all men and all their actions are created equal. Shooter games are a very very low artform. First of all because they are simplistic. Second because they are violent. Third because they almost exclusively appeal to one gender. Which, fourth, makes them immature (mature forms of entertainment always appeal to both genders). Fifth, they make many people physically sick (motion sickness).
2. The game is designed in such a way that there is hardly ever any time for reflection on or enjoyment of the environment and the story. It relentlessly pushes you on and never leaves you alone. Up to the unavoidable point where it all becomes very predictable and therefor tedious and annoying and ultimately boring. Half Life 2 is basically one long path with obstructions in your way. The design pushes you forward down this path and every time you need to overcome these obstructions. Very quickly you realize that these obstructions were just put there to stop you. So you end up fighting the game designer instead of the Combine.
I found playing Half Life 2 enourmously stressful. And I didn't feel the adrenaline rush that many people use as an excuse for the very existence of these types of games. I felt so bad while playing the game that I wished I was actually on the battle field feeling real bullets piercing my body rather than sitting here behind my desk annoyed by the merciless C++ salvo's of the game designer.
3. In Normal Mode, the most important interfaces to interact with the game are not your guns or your crowbar but the the Quick Save and Quick Load buttons. It is not possible to play the game without having the main character die tens if not hundreds of times. Obviously, this destroys all immersion in the story and the game world. And this is also where the Half Life 2 design shows its age in a bad way: this type of hardcore entertainment is really something of the past, isn't it?
4. The control system has flaws which are unforgivable for a game that relies so heavily on fast reflexes. Sometimes the player gets stuck when moving through a door. Since there is always an enemy in the next room, this is a horrible experience. The swimming system is ridiculously complicated. If you don't keep pressing keys, the player sinks and dies very quickly.
5. Physics, then. You can pick up many objects in the game. First with your hands and later by means of some sort of gun. Both ways, picking up objects is akward and doesn't feel nice at all. It is very difficult to rotate an object, for instance, and there is no subtlety in placing them. And it looks silly as well: a floating crate in the middle of the screen, obstructing your view almost entirely.
Later in the game, the gravity gun can be used to pick up and throw human bodies in the trendy ragdoll fashion. I found this an utterly disgusting thing to be made to do. A total disrespect for human bodies presented as a way for some people to have fun (as commanded by der OberGameDesigner).
6. Much has been said about the quality of the characters in Half Life 2. The lipsynching is fantastic and most of the facial animation is very convincing. The way that characters turn to face you as you move around while they speak, is a good idea. But the rest of the animation leaves a lot to be desired. Especially the way characters walk feels strange. It feels like only the top part of the bodies was animated by artists and the bottom part is being controlled by some kind of machine. The sophisticated heads of the characters seem stuck onto bodies that are much more primitive (in terms of modelling and texturing as well as animation).

Also, and this is a major flaw in terms of storytelling, despite being vaguely sympathetic, the characters did not succeed in eliciting in me any empathy for them or their cause at all. I was actually surprised to find no emotions in my heart for them despite of the fact that they were relatively convincing. It's probably a problem with the storytelling as such.
7. Half Life 2 is a game that celebrates war. It recreates the feeling of being a hero in the middle of a battle field. It does this to give the player pleasure. I find this highly objectionable. I have always had my reservations up till now. After having felt how I myself got filled with anger and aggression after playing this game, I have no doubt at all that this type of entertainment stimulates violent behaviour in people. This sort of stimulation is criminal.

Conclusion
There is a lot that game developers can learn from Half Life 2. In terms of storytelling and aesthetics. I'm very happy that a milestone like this has been created. Half Life 2 proves that it is possible to use this medium for more mature forms of entertainment than it is usually used for.
Having done this, Half Life 2 has dug its own grave. After making such an impressive statement, it admits that it is not capable of delivering on its promise. With all that talent and skill, it ends up making just another violent game for immature players. Such a waste!



PS: It may be true that I am being excessively harsh with this game. The reason for this (besides the fact that since everyone is raving, I feel like someone needs to remain sober) may be that I haven't played a shooter game all the way through since, I guess, Doom 2. It is very possible that I would find all the other shooter games that I haven't played much even worse. It may very well be that Half Life 2 is a great shooter. And that I hate shooters. It may very well be that Half Life 2 is a great game. And that I hate games. But it is not true that Half Life 2 is great entertainment. I love great entertainment. And Half Life 2 just doesn't measure up.
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eusebius
Posted: Sat Jan 08, 2005 10:43 am Reply with quote
Joined: 30 Jun 2002 Posts: 16 Location: serbia
nice review. i couldn't play hl2 longer then 15 minutes.
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Michael
Posted: Sat Jan 08, 2005 6:17 pm Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
Why? What was your problem?
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eusebius
Posted: Sun Jan 09, 2005 7:03 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 30 Jun 2002 Posts: 16 Location: serbia
Simply – I couldn’t find the strong motif to go further. I feel different in Syberia environments. But it’s obvious, I am taking games too personally / trying to find what is suitable for me at the moment… I am not a good medium…
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goldbug
Posted: Tue Jan 11, 2005 5:02 am Reply with quote
Joined: 03 Jul 2002 Posts: 2 Location: Seattle
Sad
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nexic
Posted: Mon Jan 24, 2005 1:02 am Reply with quote
Joined: 24 Jan 2005 Posts: 4
A game reviewer is meant to be unbias in any way, in order to make them qualified to review a game fairly. It is obvious you hated the game before you played it, so don't review it. You hate killing, which is obviously the point of a shooter. If you don't like killing don't play a shooter.

You moan about dying. Now do you really think the game would be fun if you didn't die? Maybe you are wanting to watch a film? Because the game would not be fun if you didn't die.

Games are not about realism, they are about fun, something which you seem to know little about. Games have nothing to do with politics, games are entertainment. If you think your idealistic political and social views should be included in your review of a game you are wrong.

Go back to making your interactive story book.
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Michael
Posted: Mon Jan 24, 2005 10:00 am Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
nexic wrote:
A game reviewer is meant to be unbias in any way, in order to make them qualified to review a game fairly.

Humans are humans. Nobody is unbiased. It's what makes us human, according to some.

Personally I prefer my game reviews written by a human. It makes it easier to evaluate them. Case in point: if somebody like me does not like a certain game, somebody like you should probably think "maybe I should play it". Smile

nexic wrote:
It is obvious you hated the game before you played it,

Not true. I really loved it. And I still do think that what Half Life 2 is good it, is better than ever done before in any other game.

nexic wrote:
so don't review it. You hate killing, which is obviously the point of a shooter. If you don't like killing don't play a shooter.

If one can only express opinions about what one likes, then what's the point of expressing them? Also, I don't see this caution in the mainstream gaming press concerning non-violent games!

And I don't mind killing so much as military simulation, as killing in the name of some supposed higher cause, which I usually tend to disagree with. The causes of the masses are usually not mine.

nexic wrote:
You moan about dying. Now do you really think the game would be fun if you didn't die?

Yes. I liked Grand Theft Auto 3 a lot!

nexic wrote:
Maybe you are wanting to watch a film? Because the game would not be fun if you didn't die.

Games are not about realism, they are about fun, something which you seem to know little about.

I think there are different kinds of fun.

nexic wrote:
Games have nothing to do with politics, games are entertainment.

http://www.americasarmy.com/

nexic wrote:
If you think your idealistic political and social views should be included in your review of a game you are wrong.

At least I inlcude mine explicitly.


In general, Mr. Nexic, I think you are underestimating the power and potential of games, both politically and in terms of entertainment.
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Michael
Posted: Mon Jan 24, 2005 10:31 am Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
nexic wrote:
Go back to making your interactive story book.

"Interactive story book"?... I like the sound of that. Smile Yeah, maybe you're right. Maybe all this game stuff is not for me.

I liked your Xeno Assault II quite a bit. I think its format is way more appropriate for the type of shooting fun that Half Life 2 engages in. As a game, I would say that Xeno Assault II is much better than Half Life 2. As an interactive story book, however, Half Life 2 is infinitely superior.
But that's ok, isn't it? Surely we can have both.
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nexic
Posted: Mon Jan 24, 2005 2:45 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 24 Jan 2005 Posts: 4
I understand a little better where you are coming from now, however I still don't think its fair to review a game based on its story alone.

I haven't played half-life 2, nor do I have any urge to do so. I just find it annoying that anyone could review any game so unfairly. If you were to review Xeno Assault II on the same critera as you review Half-Life you wouldnt be able to say a single good thing about it, but just now you said you liked it.

In order to make a judgement on games surely you should try to keep to the same critera?
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Michael
Posted: Mon Jan 24, 2005 4:18 pm Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
The difference is that Xeno Assault is not pretentious. It only wants to be a Galaga clone. Half Life 2 is pretentious. Personally I don't mind pretention but if you are pretentious, then you better have something to show for it.
That being said, I would probably never choose to play Xeno Assault. It doesn't attract me. Probably because it is unpretentious. Smile

This forum is not intended to be journalistic. It's a place where people can exchange views. If you would add your views on Half Life 2 to this thread, rather than your views on my style of reviewing, then this thread would become a lot more useful for people who are trying to make up their mind about whether they would like to try and play this game or not. And that's all this part of the forum is about.

I recommend that you at least play the Half Life 2 demo, though. It's available for free and it contains the very best chapter of the whole game.
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Michael
Posted: Sat Jan 29, 2005 10:35 am Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
There's some criticism (well, quite a bit of it Smile ) on this "review" here. The main point seems to be that I shouldn't be reviewing games if I don't like them. Or that I shouldn't be reviewing shooter games if I don't like them. I am going to think about this. Perhaps they're right. But my initial response is that I find it quite odd that one is only allowed to review the things that one likes.
Another, more serious, problem that they point out is that I shouldn't criticize a shooter for the very things that make it a shooter. I guess this is related to the above. Still another thing I'll think about. Maybe they are right. Maybe things should only be judged within their context. I admit that I never do that. Everything is part of context "world" for me. Otherwise you end up saying things like "This is very nice for being a smelly pile of dirt" or, worse, "For an ugly painting, it is really beautiful". I think it is time for games to confont the rest of the world. With so many people playing them, they should be prepared to be judged on a world level, and not just in their own niche. In other words, how does Half Life 2 compare to Macbeth? (I can say a lot of things about this in favour of Half Life 2, by the way! Wink )
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rinku
Posted: Tue Mar 27, 2007 3:14 am Reply with quote
Joined: 14 Sep 2005 Posts: 128 Location: Paterson, NJ
I probably should mention this, even though I have nothing else to add to this thread, but this review of yours has always been one of my favorite reviews (I first read it a year ago). To call it the worst review ever is kind of crazy.
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Michael
Posted: Tue Mar 27, 2007 10:03 am Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
Haha. Thank you.

I think the concept of judging games across genres, or even across art forms, is alien, if not offensive, to most gamers and game journalists. So they can't understand that I condemn Half Life 2 because it is a first person shooter (though at least one person at Valve that we know, does get it). You're supposed to review a game within its context. But if you narow the context down enough, every game can be made to look great. It's only when we confront games with the wider cultural production that the art form will evolve.
This is very common in any other art criticism, by the way. Nobody has any issue with somebody saying that a certain opera would have been better if it had been a painting, for instance.
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Auriea
Posted: Wed Mar 28, 2007 11:20 am Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 454 Location: at your fingertips
Revenge of the Hardcore Gamer
http://forums.selectbutton.net/viewtopic.php?t=3522

Wink


Last edited by Auriea on Wed Mar 28, 2007 7:52 pm; edited 1 time in total
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Nyx
Posted: Wed Mar 28, 2007 4:54 pm Reply with quote
Joined: 05 Mar 2007 Posts: 108 Location: Connecticut, USA
I liked HalfLife 2 Sad
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