With Xbox 360 barely a month old, I wasn't expecting to review any original Xbox titles, perhaps ever again, but certainly not until I had made my way through all of the Xbox 360 launch titles. But while browsing around in CompUSA recently, I came across Half-Life 2 for the original Xbox (at this time, there is no Xbox 360 version). I was surprised to see that Valve had ported Half-Life 2 to the Xbox, as it's an enormous game, and I was curious to see what they had left out. Besides, Half-Life 2 is arguably the best video game ever made, and it's certainly the best first person shooter ever made. I wondered how this original Xbox title would stand up against the 18 games Microsoft and its partners launched with Xbox 360. Is it possible for a game for a previous generation system to outstrip the best of what's available for Xbox 360?
This review is split into two parts. The first part is an overview of Half-Life 2, which is taken largely from a review of the PC version of the game that I wrote in late 2004. In the second part, I examine those issues that are specific to the Xbox version of this title.
Introducing Half-Life 2
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, if you're not into video games: This is big business. Each year, for the past several years, the video game and PC game industry has raked in more cash than all of the Hollywood movies released in these same time frame combined. When Microsoft launched Halo 2 for Xbox (see my review) last year, it 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 world-wide obsession. And it's just getting bigger every year.
Part of the reason for this popularity is that video games themselves are breaking out of geeky niches and there are now 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 the best special effects Hollywood can offer, with realistic characters and locations. Nowhere are these advances seen more clearly than with Half-Life 2, which pushes the limits of what's possible today on both the Xbox and PC. Let's take a look.
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 than appears to be led by psychiatric madman. Half-Life 2's vision of the future is post-apocalyptic and a visual feast for the eyes. This, people, is the most graphically advanced game ever created, and yes, it puts titles such as DOOM 3 (and perhaps even Far Cry) to shame. Get up close to people, and you can see wrinkles and pock marks on their faces. Scan around any of the lushly-detailed environments you're presented with, and take in the details: People are performing day to day tasks, little automated robots are buzzing around, public service announcements are filling in crucial backstory, and electronic club-wielding guards make sure you don't get out of line.
Most impressive, perhaps, is your ability to interact with virtually anything in the environment. You can pick up and open boxes, position them to make it possible to reach out of the way areas, and, with a gravity gun you eventually pick up, even interact with much larger objects. You'll race air boats and cars, and play chicken with oncoming trains. And a wonderful array of imaginative weapons--including Half-Life's infamous crowbar--await your destructive tendencies.
The game opens in the mysteriously named City 17, which appears to be a post-war metropolis in Eastern Europe, complete with a rag-tag revolutionary resistance movement that's excited to see that their savior has 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 few characters from the first game, now far more realistically rendered.
As you progress through Half-Life 2, 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 done, and the amazing spiders, which are storeys-tall mechanical nightmares that delicately walk down city streets and peer into windows, seeking to find their prey. That prey, of course, includes you, and your showdown with an army of these amazing devices 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 typically pose. Sometimes they're just fun. In one scene, you must find three car batteries in order 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 cannot climb. Getting the battery down involves an inventive use of your arsenal.
Half-Life 2 is exceptional and is, to my mind, the most impressive game ever released on any platform, PC or otherwise. 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.
Half-Life 2 on Xbox: How did they do that?
Given the relative shortcomings of the original Xbox when compared to a high-end gaming PC like the one I've used to play Half-Life 2 repeatedly, it seemed that the only way Valve was going to squeeze this title into Microsoft's original console would be to include multiple disks or to lose some of the content. Amazingly, they did neither. Instead, the entire Half-Life 2 single player experience is available on this Xbox title, all from a single disk.
Now, this is the Xbox, so the graphics are set to a medium-quality level and appear to be running at something similar to 640 x 480 on the PC. This is quite acceptable, however, and to my eyes, Half-Life 2 is easily the best looking title ever shipped for the original Xbox. Performance is another story. Though most of the game proceeds without a hitch, there are far too many loading screens--about three times what I recall from the PC version--and there are actually places where the in-game performance slows down, or lags, something I've never seen in a console title. These small issues are, however, not critical: Half-Life 2 never slows down enough to cause your character injury or death, and they disappear quickly. Also, the loading screens, while frequent, are quick.
Another difference: The presentation of text messages has been updated to be clearer on low-res standard definition TVs. The result is well rendered, and because the game supports full captioning, my hearing impaired son has no issues playing Half-Life 2 on Xbox.
With its wide range of weapons and functionality, Half-Life 2 utilizes every single button and knob on the Xbox controller, and even overloads some buttons with multiple options. For example, weapon selection occurs through a unique interface that utilizes only the D-pad. You can press up, down, left or right on the D-pad to select weapons, and when you gather more than four weapons, you have to press twice in any direction to select certain choices. So, the crowbar is accessed by pressing down on the D-pad, and the gravity gun is selected by pressing down twice. This is actually much more efficient than the more typical method of cycling up and down through a list of weapons, as many other games do. And that's critical when you want to switch to a particular weapon quickly, as you'll often need to in Half-Life 2.
Problems in City 17
Half-Life 2 for Xbox isn't perfect. For starters, there's no online version available at all, nor can you access the other Half-Life 2-related content that PC users get, including the excellent Counterstrike: Source. The lack of online play is often attributed to storage space, but my guess is that the performance of Half-Life 2 on Xbox was poor enough in multiplayer that Valve simply gave it up. That's understandable, but hopefully they'll port this magnificent title to Xbox 360 and give us the full meal deal.
Speaking of Xbox 360, Half-Life 2 will not run correctly on that platform, despite the fact that it appears on the compatibility list and does boot up and start playing. About a quarter of the way through the game, on a level called Water Hazard, I started running into inexplicable bugs, where the boat I was piloting would suddenly veer off and dive below the water, and the entire map. Once that happens, and it happens again and again on that level, you can't continue playing or get your boat back where it belongs. The silly thing flies through walls, the ground, whatever, and does so repeatedly. This problem was particularly vexing because I had played the game for 100 minutes before finally giving up. On the original Xbox, however, Half-Life 2 is rock solid, and I breezed through Water Hazard without any glitches.
Despite its lack of a multiplayer mode, Half-Life 2 is the best game title ever created for the Xbox and its superior to every single Xbox 360 launch title, including the highly-rated Call of Duty 2 (see my review) and Kameo (see my review). Half-Life 2 is so immersive, so fun to play, and so addictive, that I've returned to it again and again, and the Xbox version is a joy. For a game that is over a year old and made for a previous generation console to so thoroughly trash the next-gen competition is, to me, astonishing, and a compelling lesson about the value of superior game play. Half-Life 2 could be the greatest game ever made. It certainly gets my vote.