Thursday, January 28, 2021

Finding Freeman: A Quick Look at Half-Life 2's Xbox Port

*This article focuses on the Xbox port of Half-Life 2.  For my thoughts on the game itself, click here.

Console games and PC games weren't as cross-platform back then as they are now.  Hardware constraints meant developers had to prioritize development on the systems they were making the game for.  In 2007, gamers asked, "Can it run Crysis?", and in 2004, they asked, "Can it run Half-Life 2?"  The original Half-Life had already been ported to the PlayStation 2 by Gearbox Software and featured enhanced visuals and new modes.  For Half-Life 2, Valve themselves ported the acclaimed sequel to the original Xbox.

The Good
This is the Half-Life 2 you know and love.  All the levels, dialogue, set pieces, etc. are intact.  For hardcore fans, this is the only way to experience the game in its original form before the Source engine updates in 2005.  On Xbox, the controls are customizable, so you can remap buttons and triggers to your liking.  While the Xbox port of Half-Life 2 is a commendable effort, it's a shaky experience due to the myriad of technical problems.

The Bad
It was expected the game would run at a lower resolution, as the Xbox didn't quite meet the specs of a gaming computer.  Characters and environments look passable, but everything lacks texture.  Keyboards and terminals are indecipherable blobs of pixels, while the speedometer gauge on the hover-boat barely resembles a speedometer.  Characters like Alyx or Dr. Kleiner look fine, but other characters, such as civilians, look like they got hit with the ugly stick.  Low-res visuals are tolerable, but what isn't tolerable are the port's frame rate and load times.

The Ugly
Half-Life 2's frame rate chugs harder than a frat boy on pledge night.  When there's not much going on, it holds steady at almost 30 FPS, but 80 percent of the time, the frame rate is chugging.  The frame rate is at its worst during combat.  Explosions, gunfire, or even throwing something with the gravity gun turn the game into a slideshow, and it's not a pleasant sight.  Loading is more frequent in this port, and when transitioning into a new area, the frame rate nosedives a few seconds before stabilizing.  The Xbox port is backwards compatible on the 360, and while it does upscale the resolution, it doesn't mitigate the frame rate problems.

Regarding load times, it varies.  In-game, it lasts about 30 seconds tops.  However, when booting the game up or loading a saved game, load times stretch to a minute.  Despite its technical shortcomings, the story and gameplay are excellent, you just need to be willing to put up with a stunted frame rate and murky visuals.  Unlike the PS2 port of Half-Life, there are no extras.  It's just the campaign and that's it.

Is it Worth Playing?
If you're curious as to how Valve managed to get this massive game running on old hardware, go for it.  The Xbox port goes for peanuts, so there's nothing wrong with giving it a go, but only for curiosity's sake.  For everyone else, skip it.  I played it all the way through and enjoyed it, even if the frame rate made me nauseous.  Half-Life 2 was an ambitious game, but perhaps a bit too ambitious for something like the original Xbox.

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