Well, it's been almost one full week since I purchased Half-Life 2, and in that time, I've managed to set aside around 18 total hours to play this game from start to finish. Valve has truly created an interactive masterpiece...one that will no-doubt set the bar for other first-person games for quite some time. In the process, they've created a top-notch game engine that renders stunning environments that put both Doom 3 and FarCry to shame. I'm very much looking forward to future games that leverage the power of the Source engine.
Like many people, I spent about 40 minutes Tuesday night trying to connect to Valve's Steam internet service to activate my copy of Half-Life 2. I received various arcane errors that made it obvious to me that Valve hadn't planned very well for the onslaught of traffic they received on the first day. Needless to say, I was quite frustrated. Not only had I been waiting for 5+ years, but the box and DVD were in my hands! It surprises me that Valve doesn't have a 30-day grace period like Windows XP product activation. Anyway, after a bit of persistence, I was finally able to activate and fire up the game.
I was elated to discover that I could configure the game to run at 1,920 x 1,200, the native resolution of my recently purchased 23" Sony LCD monitor. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that the game recommended setting everything to "high" for my dual Opteron workstation. Running the video performance benchmark that's included with Counter-Strike: Source reveals that my system is capable of around 70fps at these settings...more than enough for smooth game play. I guess I made the right decision to delay my computer purchase until this release.
Unlike the original Half-Life, Half-Life 2 doesn't include a separate training level. Instead, it introduces new concepts as you play the game. When you encounter a situation that warrants the use of a new feature, the system displays a short message on the screen telling you which key to press to access the functionality. They really did a good job with this, because the situations don't seem contrived, and they provide just enough to get you used to the new feature.
There is a very deep sense of immersion into the environment. As I mentioned, the graphics are downright stunning. Even my wife (who isn't a game player at all) was impressed with the quality and watched me play for a little while. The shadows, light, and surface reflectivity all lend an air of realism to the scenery, and there are some scenes that are nearly photographic. The audio is also extremely good. I was immediately thrown back to the original Half-Life game when I heard some of the very familiar sounds. Also, the weapon effects have a satisfying depth that I found missing in Doom 3.
On top of all that, the game physics add even more to the realism (courtesy of the Havok engine). For example, you can push and lift many of the boxes and barrels in the game world, and this capability is used for some very clever puzzles. You eventually get a "gravity gun" that allows you to pick up or push much heavier items like refrigerators, televisions, and rusted-out cars. There's nothing like "throwing" an old car at a group of approaching enemies and watching the ensuing rag doll physics. Priceless.
Unfortunately, I frequently encountered the nefarious stuttering problem that has plagued so many players. But, unlike many of them, I decided to continue playing despite the fact that it tends to jar you away from the storyline. The only other negative that I can think of is the simplicity of game play on even the medium difficulty level. Although I had to replay a few areas many times, for the most part, it was nothing like my experience with Doom 3 or FarCry. This is a minor complaint, since it's still a fantastic journey.
Overall, Half-Life 2 is an excellent title. If you're a fan of first-person shooters, or if you like interactive fiction, this is a worthwhile purchase. It's smarter and brighter than Doom 3, more moody and beautiful than FarCry, and miles ahead of Halo 2 (which isn't a totally fair comparison, since Halo 2 is limited by the aging Xbox hardware). This is truly one of the best games I've ever played, and as a matter of fact, it might become the first game that I play through a second time. Kudos to Valve for a very polished and immersive experience.
If you'd like to read another perspective, I found Scott Hanselman's review to be both unique and insightful.