I'll admit, I didn't expect much from this game. Being that Half Life itself is 5 years old, combined with the fact that FPS games rarely work well on consoles (at least not as well as their PC counterparts), and I was more than a little dubious of the quality of the game. It seemed nothing more to me than an attempt by Valve and Sierra to milk a few more dollars out of the Half-Life franchise. Fortunately, I was very, very wrong.
Quite honestly, this is one of the most fun FPS games I have ever played on a console. The conversion was done by Gearbox, the guys who created the Half-Life expansion packs Opposing Force and Blue Shift. These guys have done a great job. Not content with just porting the existing Half Life to the ps2, they have gone all out to create a top quality conversion. The engine itself has undergone a bit of a facelift, with plenty of new high quality models and textures to impress and some newly redone sound effects on the weapons and such. The original Half-Life single player game is included, along with a Multiplayer mode and a new game mode called Decay.
For anyone who has been living under a rock and doesn't know what Half Life is about, you play the role of Gordon Freeman, a scientist working in the top secret 'Anomalous Materials' laboratory of the Black Mesa facility. An experiment you help to conduct goes horribly wrong and rips open portal to another dimension that brings through all sorts of alien nasties. Your job is to try and get out of the facility alive while fighting off aforementioned alien nasties and the military that have decided nobody must know what happened and are trying to clean up all the evidence.
The original single player game is a very faithful conversion of the PC Half Life. From what I can tell (I haven't played single player in Half Life for 3 or 4 years) its almost exactly the same. This would obviously be a bit of a downside to people who have already played the PC version of Half Life, as you know pretty much what is going to happen, but for those new to the franchise its an opportunity to play what is still regarded as one of the best single player games ever. With a faced paced story and lots of great scripted scenes/conversations, etc that keep the action flowing, it's a great ride. Even though I already knew what was going to happen, I still had a blast replaying the original single player game.
Multiplayer is also rather well done. While only being for two players, it is some of the best multiplayer I've yet seen on a console FPS. A lot of console FPS's suffer in multiplayer because they use large sprawling maps, which while looking very pretty and being very architecturally impressive, really suck when you only have two people playing. Red Faction was a good example of this; some of the multiplayer maps were huge maps designed for up to 16 players, yet most of the time you would be playing it with two players. It just doesn't work. Half-Life on the other hand has a lot of close, tight, fast paced maps. It never takes long to find the other person and the whole running around for 10 minutes trying to find the other player thing never happens. A good example of this is the map called Basement, which is set in a basement full of crates. The room itself is rather small and tight, but the variously sized crates offer all sorts of cover and sneaky shortcuts to other parts of the room. So while being a small, fast paced map it manages to keep an element of strategy as well. Kudos to Gearbox for actually realising multiplayer on a console with only two players isn't the same as multiplayer on PC with 16 players. All up there are 10 multiplayer maps, 7 brand new maps and 3 conversions of the existing half-life maps Snark Pit, Stalkyard and Datacore.
The new game mode, Decay is probably one of the biggest drawing cards of Ps2 Half-Life. Its more than just a game mode, its basically an entire game in and of itself. Ps2 Half-Life could have shipped with just the Decay mode/episode and be considered a complete game, Gearbox have really pulled out all stops to cram this game full of features. Decay is an entirely new episode of Half Life, much like Opposing Force and Blue Shift, the difference being it is designed to be played cooperatively, controlling two characters at the same time and working together to achieve goals. Remember in original Half-Life, when you first get your Hazard suit and the other two Hazard suits are already taken? Well you control the two characters that took those other suits, Doctors Gina Cross and Collette Gordon. Decay is very cool in this way; there are many, many references back to the original Half-Life single player game. The two characters are both laboratory assistants of Gordon Freeman who helped with the fatal experiment from behind the scenes. The story is the same basic story as original Half-Life, but from a completely different perspective, it is really done very well. And of course, it is cooperative, which is great to see. Cooperative multiplayer is largely undervalued by some developers in my opinion, so it is great to see Gearbox including this mode in the game.
That is not to say you can't play Decay by yourself, in fact, it's a whole new experience playing by yourself. You still control both characters and use the select button to change between them. A lot of the time you will need to use different characters to get to different places, so it adds a real element of strategy to the game. You can also use the characters as backup as when you aren't controlling them, they will automatically attack any monsters they see with their currently equipped weapon. More than a few times I would place one of my characters in a strategic place overlooking a doorway, then use the other character to lure monsters out through the door and get them shot by my other character. Very fun stuff.
The controls also rather impressed me. It is usually the controls that let FPS games down on consoles, as a FPS really just isn't suited to a control pad. But never fear, if you really can't come at using the control pad to control the game, you can plug any standard USB mouse and keyboard into the Ps2 and play that way instead. Really though, the control pad works suprisingly well. It uses the now almost standard format of having Strafe Left/Strafe Right and Forwards/Backwards on the left analogue stick and turning and looking up and down on the right analogue stick. This works well and allows for easy combinations of moving, strafing, turning and aiming. On top of this, the game also has a 'lock on' system. When an enemy enters your line of sight, a red diamond will appear around them. You can then hit the lock on button to lock that target in as your current target. All your movements will then be centered on that target (eg, strafe circles around the target) and your aim will be locked to that target. This makes targeting monsters and taking them down infinitely easier and removes the headache of overly twitchy controls that can make some console FPS's hell to play. Of course, in multiplayer you can't use the lock on, in multiplayer it comes down to how well you really can control your character. The various other functions such as attack, alternate attack (most weapons have two modes of attack), reload, jump and crouch are bound to the various triggers and buttons and are all within easy reach. At no point do you ever feel like you don't have total control of the game.
Now we come to graphics and sound. The graphics are one of the things that surprised me the most about this game. I was pretty much expecting a direct port of the same five year old engine, but Gearbox have really put in some effort to spruce things up a bit. The most noticeable improvements are on the models. I can't remember exactly how detailed the facial expressions were in the original PC Half Life, but in the Ps2 version they're amazing. Mouths move realistically while people talk, eyelids blink while the eyes nervously scan left and right for potential threats, foreheads crease in deep concentration, its all very good looking stuff. A number of the models have also received some aesthetic upgrades. The most instantly noticeable of these are the mutated scientists. They really look like something out of Stephen King's nightmares now, with tentacles that flail madly around in the air and a giant mouth full of razor sharp teeth on the front of their torso. Freaky stuff, but very nicely realised. A lot of the textures have also been tweaked to be just a bit sharper and some of the various effects have been redone to take advantage of the PS2's power. All round, the game graphically looks quite impressive and doesn't at all feel like the five year old engine its based off.
Sound on the other hand is probably the one chink in the armour of this game. While some of the sound effects are top notch (such as the newly redone weapon sound effects), some of them are downright horrible. Its like the people who did the sound effects only just discovered reverberation special effects, and they have used it for nearly everything they can. Even in tiny, closet sized rooms, people's voices will reverberate like they are in a wide open aircraft hanger or something. And the amount of reverberation in the voices often make them distorted and annoying to listen to, which is really a bit disappointing as it can make some scripted sequences which should be really exciting to watch, rather painful instead. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason as to when these over the top reverb effects kick in, but its annoying when they do. This only seems to happen in single player though; I have yet to notice it in multiplayer. Outside of this though, the sounds are generally good, and while there is not a lot of it, the music is also used to good effect to build tension or to pump up an action scene.
All round, a very impressive product, and one I didn't expect to enjoy half as much as I did. If you've played Half Life before on the PC, then you might not get quite the lastability out of it that you might have, but there is still the multiplayer mode and Decay which you're sure to enjoy. In fact, this game would almost be worth buying with just Decay, with the multiplayer and original Half Life thrown in as well then its quite an impressive package. If you're an FPS fan and you own a console, then I would definitely encourage you to at least try out Half Life, and if you haven't played Half Life before and you own a Ps2 then what are you waiting for, go out and get it!
Screenshots (courtesy of Gamespot)
The new mutated scientist model
The head scientist guy who gives you your missions in the Decay game mode
A poor helpless scientist, about to accept shotgun love
Some split screen Decay action
The two heroines of Decay