Mix 'n' Match
The secret is not just in the way the game intersperses the action with in-game scripted conversations, but in the whole way scenarios are created to reveal narrative information. Half-Life 2 mixes snatches of overheard conversation,
music and audio cues, announcements blurting from loudspeakers, graffiti and posters on walls, momentary interactions with incidental characters and all sorts of other information encoded in the environment around you.
Witness the moment when you don your new HEV suit, the Mark 5, in which the scene and setting, combined with a single expertly placed audio cue, conspire to create a great gaming moment. And out of something that would, in any other game, be the bit when you picked up your equipment at the start of a level.
It's a simple example, but the point is Half-Life 2 is different - better. It may well be our Citizen Kane. Either way, it's showing the way forward for storytelling in games - you'll want to play the whole thing again as soon as you finish.
Having A Barney
Like any story, the characters play a hugely important part in the success of the game, and here Half-Life 2 also shines. Barney, Gordon's old pal from Black Mesa, is a prime example. If this were a Hollywood action film, he'd be the one who died at the end of Act Two, being at once the heroic everyman and the comic sidekick. Though he only appears on the odd occasion, he's impossible not to like, and the way he jokes around and gently mocks Gordon gives us plenty of insight into Gordon's own character (despite the fact that Freeman never speaks).
There's clearly a lot of mutual respect and friendship there, which adds that much more tension when Barney gets into a bit of trouble later in the game. He's also a funny bugger - his running gags and talk of 'head-humpers' provide many of the game's lighter moments.
Alyx Vance, the new female character, is equally well realised. As you'd expect, she's both sexy and intelligent. However, Valve hasn't relied solely on this to get you to care for her, imbuing the character with real charm and humanity. There's no trace of the victim or damsel about her - in fact, she has to save Gordon's arse on a couple of occasions, so you can forget about any of those annoying 'defend the useless woman' type missions. Alyx's pet robot, Dog, is also a creation of sheer brilliance, but I'll let you discover him for yourself.
But what, I hear you ask, about the graphics? Are they as good as Doom 3? Frankly, I couldn't care less. If you bothered to measure it, Half-Life 2 may not be as flashy in terms of dynamic lighting and pixel-shading or whatever, but the two games are utterly different, especially as the bulk of Half-Life 2 takes place outdoors. (Personally, I thought Doom 3 had a slightly plasticky look to it anyway.) If it's any help, it looks a darn sight better than Far Cry, but the basic point is Half-Life 2 is stunning.
A lot of this is down to the atmosphere and complexity of the environments, which are astonishing in their attention
to detail. City 17 alone is a breathtaking achievement, and the first time you step out of the train station into the plaza, there's a moment of near disbelief to rival the waterfall scene in Unreal. Everything is beautifully designed, from the smallest milk crate to the largest alien tripod. The facial animation is a revelation. What's more, enemies are diverse and frequently terrifying (poison zombies and fast zombies particularly so).
And the physics - my word, the physics. Apart from the sheer energy given to the game by the explosive, kinetic nature of things, the physics engine is applied in a host of cool ways to produce new gameplay. One is in the area of puzzles, which are only occasional but usually rely on the application of some sort of physics property in their solution. You might have to stack bricks on a seesaw to lift you up to an otherwise inaccessible shelf; you might have to use floating barrels to make a bridge across troubled water. In every case, the results are ingenious.