Half-Life 2 Soars, Halo 2 Disappoints

Two months ago—in "DOOM 3 Arrives: Technology Apex or Video Game Porn?"—I wrote about the amazingly realistic experiences that the DOOM 3 PC game offers. I wasn't intending to cover similar video games again so quickly, but with this month's long-awaited releases of Microsoft's Halo 2 for the Xbox console and Valve's Half-Life 2 for the PC, I'm in a curious bind. Both of these games are, at least superficially, similar to DOOM 3, offering realistic and fun environments in which to run around, destroy aliens, and thwart otherworldly attempts to subjugate Earth. But there are some serious differences between each of these games. And in at least one case, the bar has been raised, quite dramatically—even in the short couple of months since DOOM 3 was released.

If you're into the kinds of interactive escape you can only get from video games, there's never been a better time to be a gamer. And make no mistake: This is big business. For the past several years, the video game and PC game industry has raked in more cash than all the Hollywood movies released in the same time frame combined. And this month's launch of Halo 2 was the biggest video game event of all time: In its first day of availability, Microsoft made over $135 million on Halo 2, far more than the opening weekend draw of any Hollywood blockbuster in movie history. Video games aren't just popular; they're a worldwide obsession. And it's getting bigger every year.

Part of the reason for this popularity is that video games themselves are breaking out of their geeky niches. You can now find game titles for virtually any personality type or age group. Also, gaming environments are more realistic and interactive than ever before, and you don't need to squint at large blocks on the screen and imagine than they represent baseball players or trucks. Now, game graphics rival movie special effects, and game stories boast fleshed-out characters and realistic locations. You can witness these advances clearly in Halo 2 and Half-Life 2, both of which push the limits of what's possible today on the Xbox and PC, respectively. Let's take a look.

Halo 2
The prerelease hype leading to the release of Halo 2 had game fanatics in a tizzy, culminating in Midnight Madness events at retailers throughout the United States. Gamers lined up for hours to be among the first to buy the game. Many of these people then went home, played the game all night, and stayed home "sick" from work the next day. I can't remember this kind of nationwide geek event since Windows 95 shipped almost a decade ago, and arguably the Halo 2 release was even bigger.

Better graphics, enhanced game play, and a continuation of the wildly popular Halo storyline greet gamers who boot up the Halo 2 disc on their Xboxes. In the first Halo, humankind is racing against an alien race called the Covenant to discover the secrets behind the mysterious Flood race, which created a device called Halo. The location bears more than a little resemblance to that of Larry Niven's Ringworld. You play the ill-named Master Chief, an armor-suited ass-kicker who proceeds to take on both the Covenant and the Flood single-handedly, and wins. Of course.

As Halo 2 opens, Master Chief is receiving a medal for his acts of bravery, while the Covenant commander he bested is being humiliated for the defeat. Then, the Covenant attacks the Earth, and it's back to work. The settings in Halo 2 are stunning, and the ability to better interact with 4x4 trucks, tanks, ships, and other conveyances in the sequel add greatly to the experience. There are some new weapons, some colorful graphical improvements, and the aforementioned new environments, which are wonderfully rendered.

The big change in Halo 2, however, is its online play. The original Halo permitted as many as 16 players to compete against each other on a LAN, but the game predated Microsoft's Xbox Live service. That's been corrected with Halo 2, and now millions of fans are gleefully blowing each other up, worldwide, in virtual deathmatches that pit Xbox against Xbox. Sounds great, right?

Unfortunately, the sum of Halo 2's parts doesn't constitute a huge win for most players. Where Halo 2 really falls apart is in the repetitiveness of the game play. It's just too similar to the first game. And the ending of Halo 2—which comes in a disappointingly short time, compared to the original—is like a slap in the face. I won't give it away here, but suffice to say, it comes suddenly, with no indication that the game is about to end. You're left staring at the screen with a "Huh?" expression on your face. You'll think, That can't possibly be the whole game. But it is.

Half-Life 2
Whereas Halo 2 is ultimately disappointing, its PC-based rival Half-Life 2 shines. Half-Life 2, the sequel to the immensely popular 1998 title Half-Life, resurrects the protagonist from the first game, Gordon Freeman, who survives the events at Black Mesa to discover that Earth has been overrun by an evil cabal made up of an alien race called the Combine and a human-based puppet government that appears to be led by a psychiatric madman. Half-Life 2's vision of the future is post-apocalyptic and a feast for the eyes.

Half-Life 2 is the most graphically advanced game ever created—and yes, it even puts DOOM 3 to shame. Get up close to the in-game characters, and you can see wrinkles and pock marks on their faces. Scan around any of the lushly detailed environments, and take in the details: People are milling around, performing day-to-day tasks, little automated robots are buzzing around, public service announcements are filling in crucial back story, and electronic club-wielding guards make sure you don't get out of line.

Perhaps most impressive is your ability to interact with virtually anything in the environment. You can pick up and open boxes, position them so that you can reach out-of-the-way areas, and, with a gravity gun you eventually pick up, even interact with much larger objects. You'll race airboats and cars, and eventually play chicken with an oncoming train. And a wonderful array of imaginative weapons—including Half-Life's infamous crowbar—await your destructive tendencies.

The game opens (and later closes) in the mysteriously named City 17, which appears to be a post-war city in Eastern Europe. A rag-tag revolutionary resistance is excited to see that you, their savior, have returned. You don't know how long you've been gone since the events at Black Mesa in the original Half-Life, and you don't know why these people believe you to be the savior. But you soldier on, quickly running into a host of characters from the first game, now realistically rendered.

As you progress through the game, your efforts eventually have an effect, and the Combine begins to fall. Then, they unleash their most devastating weapons, including insect-like floating ships that realistically undulate across the sky and require precise targeting with a remote-controlled rocket to bring them down, as well as amazing, stories-tall spiders—mechanical nightmares delicately walking down city streets and peering into windows, seeking their prey. That prey, of course, includes you, and your showdown with an army of these arachnid creations is simply incredible.

Like its predecessor, Half-Life 2 is full of manageable puzzles. You must find and move certain objects to trigger certain actions. In a few sequences, you must build makeshift bridges to reach certain areas or—in one scene that features bug-like monsters similar to those in Starship Troopers—you must use these bridges to avoid certain areas, lest you trigger an attack. These puzzles transcend the simple "find the keycard" requirements that other games (including DOOM 3, frankly) pose. Sometimes they're just fun. In one scene, you must find three car batteries to turn on the electricity and open a locked gate. But one of the batteries can barely be seen, sitting on a platform 30 feet in the air atop a pole you can't climb. Getting the battery down involves an inventive use of your weapons.

Half-Life 2, like Halo 2, isn't perfect. There's no online version per se, though Valve does ship a new version of its Counterstrike online title, called Counterstrike: Source, with the game. (Counterstrike: Source is based on the same game engine as Half-Life 2.) But not including an online version of Half-Life 2 is a shame, because Half-Life 2's post-apocalyptic settings are just begging to be exploited in multiplayer action, as are the game's cool weapons. But that's the only problem I have with Half-Life 2. The single-player experience is near perfect and is easily the most visually advanced game ever created for any platform. It's addictive, and it's hard to put that controller down. And unlike Halo 2, the game play lasts for a substantial amount of time.

Raising the Bar
If you're an Xbox owner, Halo 2 is decent but not excellent, and you should take the plunge only if you're a hardcore Halo fan or just can't get enough of first-person shooters. Half-Life 2, on the other hand, is exceptional and is, to my mind, the most impressive game released this year. That's all the more impressive when you consider the quality of some of the competition, including DOOM 3 and Cry Tek's Far Cry. Game makers, take notice: Valve has raised the bar with Half-Life 2. And I don't expect it to be surpassed any time soon.

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