Thursday, October 18, 2007

The greatest PC game ever made

How could one man have slipped through your force's fingers time and time again? How is it possible? This is not some agent provocateur or highly-trained assassin we are discussing. Gordon Freeman is a theoretical physicist who had hardly earned the distinction of his Ph.D. at the time of the Black Mesa Incident. I have good reason to believe that in the intervening years, he was in a state that precluded further development of covert skills. The man you have consistently failed to slow, let alone capture, is by all standards simply that -- an ordinary man. How can you have failed to apprehend him? Well...I will leave the upbraiding for another time, to the extent it proves necessary. Now is the moment to redeem yourselves.

On the copy of Half-Life 2 that I bought, the box bears a lot of blurbs of praise. Over 35 Game of the Year Awards! Five stars from this reviewer, a perfect 10 from this reviewer! But the most conspicuous glares at you from the front cover: "The best game ever made." This comes from Maximum PC. I saw that quote and chortled. I mean, if I'm selling the game, I put that quote on the cover, too, can't blame them for that. But doesn't that just lead to high expectations that can't possibly be matched?

Well. I'm assuming that Maximum PC covers only PC games. If that's true, then the answer to that last question Half-Life 2 is the best PC game ever made.

All it had to do to win that prize was be better than its predecessor, which was no small feat. The original Half-Life was more than just the best first-person shooter, it completely redefined them and recreated them in its own image. It cranked realism to a level unmatched (before or since, frankly), turned run-and-run gameplay into a cinematic experience that left you breathless, and then crammed in a few exceedingly clever puzzles to hit you in the brain. Half-Life was just about perfect -- until its final stage, when it suddenly became a exercise in pinpoint platform jumping that lead to one of the most infuriating, anticlimactic endings in video game history.

Half-Life 2 improves on the first game in every single way. Every way -- the graphics are better, the world is more immersive, the physics engine is incredible, the new weapons are clever and fun, and the entire game feels like a living, breathing world. A living, breathing world overrun by a genetically-enhanced human military acting as the pawns of a foul race of interdimensional aliens called the Combine, yes, but living and breathing nevertheless.

You spent almost of all of the last game trapped in tiny corridors and cramped air vents, so the first half of this one opens things up. With the entire Combine Overwatch chasing you, you duck into sewers and drainage ducts and hop into boats and dune buggies to flee across the countryside. This leads to the beach, and nightmarish encounters with the hideous Antlions, savage beasts that rush at you from out of the sand in hordes.

And just when I was thinking -- and remarking to a few people -- that the game was losing some of the claustrophobia that made the original so compelling, the game switches gears. Now, you're lead into a series of raids on Combine strongholds, and you're once again hiding from soldiers in corners and hiding desperately from sentry guns. The intensity builds and builds and builds, and never lets up again -- and then it builds up even more, once the battle returns to the ruined streets of City 17, and you find yourself a single fighter in a massive gun battle between the rebels and the Overwatch...who, of course, remembered to bring their gunships and heavy artillery.

Seriously, I've never been this blown away by a PC game. In fact, there's only a handful of console games that I've loved this much -- Chrono Trigger. Silent Hill 2. Zelda. Maybe Metal Gear Solid 2. And that's it.

The game has just been rereleased in a glorious Orange Box -- this includes Half-Life 2, the two mini-sequels (Half-Life 2: Episode One and Episode Two, which the creators admit should have been called Half-Life 3), the multi-player Team Fortress 2, and the first-person puzzler Portal, which has been called brilliant by just about everybody. I think it goes without saying that you should buy this fucking thing right now what are you waiting for seriously go right now.

If you'll excuse me, I'm going to start Episode One.

Now playing: Talking Heads - Life During Wartime
via FoxyTunes

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