If you can't picture the unseemly capering that occurred when I finally received my copy of Half-Life 2, let's just say I don't often roll around on office floors laughing hysterically. However, finding out that I was among the many who found themselves unable to enjoy the game thanks to stuttering audio, constant crashing and graphical glitches soon wiped the smile off of my face. Not to mention having to deal with the Steam's (Valve's online software deployment system) Gestapo-like game authentication every time I wanted to play. That said, when a patch (that works) becomes available for these problems, Steam will at least add it automatically to your PC - which is a big point in its favour.
What irked me most about this was that, during the short periods before I was unceremoniously dumped back on my desktop, it was easy to see that the game is one of the best I've ever played.
For those who aren't familiar with the plot, this game places you, once again, in the role of luckless scientist Gordon Freeman, having saved the world and bargained with the G-Man to save yourself from a grisly end. Time has passed, however, and the world you now find yourself in has changed. And for the worse, if the Orwellian City 17 is any indication.
In your absence, there has been an invasion by the alien Combine. Stormtroopers patrol the city in armoured cars, drones whirr and click overhead and Administrator Breen's patrician face smiles down from huge video billboards. But no invasion would be complete without a resistance, and it's these people who help you get out of the city. But not before Gordon proves that he can make computer equipment go wrong just by standing near it.
The screenshots probably don't convey just how good this game looks and feels. It's more than match for the likes of Doom 3 and Far Cry, and provides a sense of involvement that's further enhanced by the in-game physics (from the Havoc 2 engine) and attention to detail. Facial depiction and character movement is fluid and expressive, with AI that's above the norm (though still prone to the occasional obstruction) and excellent voice acting.
The usual slew of weapons are included, along with novel additions like the anti-gravity gun (which can be used to shift/throw objects that would otherwise be too large) and pheropods - which I'll leave as a surprise. With vehicles, environmental puzzles, platform elements and (obviously) high-action gunplay, there should be more than enough to keep you happy for around 20 hours. However, multiplayer options are currently limited to a bundled version of CounterStrike: Source, or the downloadable (and slightly limited) deathmatch add-on. But multiplayer mods are inevitable, especially now the Source SDK is available.
Playing this on a PC that didn't crash gave me some of the most enjoyable gaming sequences I've ever experienced on any platform. But I can't give it the full marks that the game merits until I know that the problems I, and many other players, experienced have been completely sorted out and patched.
Visuals: Simply the best visuals I've seen a PC produce. Audio: Stuttering aside, atmospheric and effective. Background music wisely limited to key game points. Gameplay: Immersive, compelling and exciting with a varying pace and a wide variety of game elements. When it works. Score: Four out of five. Publisher: Vivendi Universal. Developer: Valve Software. URL: www.vugames.com