Half-Life 2 is a significantly shorter game than Half-Life. At perhaps one-third to one-half the length of its predecessor, it still manages to provide the same entertainment value. While Half-Life didn't really drag along in too many areas, some of them certainly lacked punch and purpose. This is certainly not the case with Half-Life 2.
Though it's just as linear as the original, Half-Life 2 is by far more entertaining. The themed levels are tighter, more focused sequences. With the possible exception of the boat level, Valve has cut the fat and trimmed the game into a much tighter experience. The initial train ride isn't as long, the introductory sequence is planned better, more spaced apart. In fact, if anything, there are times at which the game strains too much to move things on to something "meaningful".
Though the game is a masterpiece in terms of getting the player to suspend disbelief, there are a few moments when it faulters. These are mostly bugs with the physics code and some minor scripted events, but the most jarring occurences are when the game tries to rush along too fast to the next scene. This is particularly annoying since the pacing is excellent in all other respects.
The hurry-up moments also caused this reviewer to start thinking. Thinking as in "huh, how'd they find me?" or "there's no way they're waiting for me again
". While this is nowhere nearly as obnoxious as surprise! attack!
in Doom 3, it gets tiresome. It would be nice, for once, to be part of a rebel group that isn't outmaneuvered at every turn by the Evil Empire, only to be saved by the One Lone Hero.
For the most part, however, the game does a brilliant job of setting the atmosphere. You do feel like Gordon Freeman, "the one free man", a hero to a rebellious cause. The flavor NPCs behave the way you'd think they would - couples holding each other in nearly abandoned tenements, with no feeling of hope. A woman at the train station in the opening sequence, looking around desperately and asking those who are coming off if no one else was on board. A priest gone mad, who's set all sorts of traps for his zombie "flock". Then there are the dozens of subtler details, the way the rebels are structured, how the populace and cities react to the Combine occupation. It is simply remarkable how believable Gordon's world is.
This is all the more remarkable because at no point during the game is anything explained about the current situation. Everything the player understands about the world is reasoned out from circumstantial evidence. There's no history of what's gone on with Freeman or the world in the meantime. The exact location of City 17, never mind how Gordon, Eli and the rest got there, is a complete mystery.
Yet there are hints and teases, enough to formulate theories on. The G-man is as mysterious as ever, yet more is revealed by his actions at the end of the game and the reactions of people to Gordon, that it's possible to speculate.
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