Half Life 2
September 30. I'm sure, like me, you've cleared your diaries, booked time off work, arranged to pack your partner off to a downmarket hotel and are looking forward to spending the entire week playing the most-anticipated game in the world. Because the game is going to come out on September 30, right? I was at ECTS to meet up with Doug Lombardi, director of marketing at Valve Software, and find out. And, although I'd been specifically warned off the subject by a friendly PR person ("Mention anything about the release date and your interview will be terminated immediately."), I decided to take the direct approach.
"So, September 30 then?"
"Definitely September 30?" "Uh-huh."
"And the release date for Half-Life 2?" ''September 30."
"And the game's going to be released on the...?" "It hasn't changed since you asked me 10 seconds ago."
Damn, this man's good. And in fear of getting the bum's rush I decided to believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the game will indeed be on the shelves on the specified date. And move on.
Dad Knows Best
So, if the game's going to be on the shelves in a couple of weeks, I presume that it's finished, that you're just tweaking and balancing? "Yep, yep. Once we've got it to a point that we think is pretty good we'll find out what other people think about it. We did the same with Half-Life 1 as well. We try to get as wide a range of opinions as possible - for the original Half-Life we brought (Valve founder) Gabe Newell's dad in to play the game, a retired air force guy who was in his fifties, early sixties, and had never even looked at a PC, let alone a PC game. Gabe said, 'If my dad can't pick it up and run with it then we're not done.'"
And women? "Actually, yes. One of the things with this game and the new characters was to widen it up to more than just white males aged 18-35. We really wanted to see if they could help us get into a female audience."
And if they've got any sense, they will. Half-Life 2 is still on course to be the game that moves the goalposts. You've probably seen the game running by now - if not check out the footage on this month's DVD - and the brief stint I enjoyed at ECTS, albeit with the same code that we looked at last time, has done nothing to shake my faith.
But what about Valve? The game's been in development since work on the original Half-Life ended and five years is a long time to keep a project to yourself without any feedback from outside.
"It's hard to keep momentum and not get freaked out that you're getting lost from the path because you're not showing anyone or telling anyone about what you're doing.
"But, you have these moments, like the first time Jay Stelly (senior software development engineer at Valve) chucked the physics in and we could go into the test maps and start screwing around with a really early version of the manipulator gun, the one you've seen in the movies. So we could pick up bottles and chuck them around - stuff like that gives you a shot in the arm. The same happened when Ken Birdwell (another senior software development engineer at Valve) started chucking the facial animations in and it was like, 'Hey these characters are cool, they can smile and stuff.' And then a couple of days later he chucked the eyes in and it was like, 'We don't know what you've done, but these characters look real creepy now.' Those things give you a real lift."
And for me, it's these two aspects of the game that threaten to lift Half-Life 2 so far away from the chasing pack that it's unlikely anything will topple it (until Half-Life 3, of course). Because, while you've seen the movies, what you might not realise is that none of the cinematic events that you're watching are scripted. Doug talks instead about contextual Al, where the non-playing characters are given basic knowledge about the environments they're in and a set of choices based on this. "When journalists first came over to see the game, there was a really good scene we were showing at the time where Gordon was being chased by a guy in a Meeh suit. And the player decided to duck into this room and slam the door. Now, that wasn't a critical path for the player. There were multiple ways for you, as the player, to get out of that scene. And if you made that choice, then the Meeh decided to put the camera in, trap you and bang the door down. In the old way we would have forced you to go into that room, and the Meeh would have knocked the door down every single time. So we're now able to open things up a bit and say, 'If the player does this, then you can do that,' and it becomes more Al than just a canned scripted sequence."
Think of it as exactly how you'll play through the game. With the advanced ptysics model you'll be able to get through the game by shooting or by using the environment. Doug starts talking about the choices you'll have in Half-Life 2, making reference to the Traptown demo (which you can find on this month's DVD).
"OK, in this scene we've set a swinging girder down there, we've put the dumpster there on the ledge, conveniently, and then we're going to send in the baddies and it's up to you how to take them out. You know, you could sit on the ledge with your shotgun and take them out one by one, or you could do it the way we intentionally did in the demo to prove you can get through just using physics. What we're hoping is that you play it one way, someone else does it differently. We're hoping to create more discovery and freedom. We're not trying to say to people, 'You're going to play this game three times.' If people want to go back in and check it out again, cool, but we just want to set up circumstances and allow the physics to create a more dynamic range of options."
See No Evil
Actual specifics about the game - in terms of weapons, story and even characters -are still being held completely under wraps - a deliberate policy on Valve's part in order to retain the mystery and ensure the game has maximum impact when it's released. Doug did divulge a little about vehicles, confirming that they would all be land-based and would include jeeps and APCs, but he was quick to check himself, reminding us that Valve doesn't want to ruin the game by giving too much away (see Saturation Point boxout). Even so. I did get him to reveal a little more about the places you're likely to see as you're playing the game, as well as the ones you won't.
"Xen wasn't so popular, so we didn't feel... well, you didn't see Xen in any of the demos that we were showing at E3 or ETCS today. So we knew where not to go, and that helps you define where you should go. When you play the game, I think you'll understand more about how you moved from New Mexico to Eastern Europe, and you'll be able to put those pieces together as you play and as Gordon finds out what's been happening between that."
And with that I was yanked away from the screen and dumped outside the hotel, where a large group of teenage girls was loitering expectantly. It was immediately obvious that they weren't there for me (one of the mums threatened to call the police when I started waving and smiling), but the real tragedy is that they weren't there for Half-Life 2 either - apparently Westlife were staying in the same hotel. If only they knew.
Download Half Life 2
We gamers have become steeped in Half-Life - its engine, its Counter-Strike bedfellow, its sci-fi lore, its physics, its characters spreadeagled in humorous Carry's Mod poses, and the unexpected desktop disturbance that was Steam. Because of all this white noise, the fuzzy appendages of a game installed on countless hard drives worldwide, it's easy to forget just what made Half-Life 2 (and its offspring Episode One) so damn special. For a start, it was one of very few games that developed true emotional attachment to its characters, through dialogue, remarkable facial animation and even the odd hug and kiss. Better yet, it allowed you to play a role in some 3D action set-pieces that wouldn't be out of place in the very best of Spielberg or Cameron; to be a part of a stunningly realised future-scape not a million miles away from the mind of George Orwell. It's fair to say that elements of HL2 were slightly too in love with its own physics system; it's also fair to sayithe squad bits at the end were clunky - but these are flies in a jar of ointment the length and breadth of the North Sea. Valve's creation is, was and remains a vital stepping stone between the games we all love and the games our children will be playing in years to come...
Watch it: Tall walking striders skewer insurgents with telephone-pole legs, camera-eyed bots follow your every footstep, and turncoat collaborators shepherd you through turnstiles like human livestock. The alien visitors in visionary single-player PC shooter Half-Life 2 are not our friends.
In his efforts to send earth's off-world oppressors packing, geeky hero Gordon Freeman loses the lab coat for a crowbar, and later, a gravity-manipulating gun that can suck in and shoot out grenades, saw blades, garbage, you name it. Why the fuss over one weapon? It's as much a sidekick as it is a sidearm--use it to shield yourself from bullets, flip alien bugs onto their backs, and right your ride (an open-topped, turbo-boosting buggy) when bad driving overturns it.
How was it:
A bit of bad news first: The PC powerhouse pushes the Xbox's limits even on its least processing-intensive levels (the part I played suffered screenfreezing fits and starts when an army of flesheaters attacked, and again when barrels blew up). On top of that, strafing control still seems sort of slippery and could spell trouble where precise jumping puzzles are concerned.
Now for the impressive part: If developer Valve polishes its port up, Xbox owners can look forward to one sizzling late summer with an ambient adventure as good as it gets--a game where power lines shudder and sway under the downwash of passing dropships; where critters tunnel through soil, tracking the telltale fall of footsteps (later, you'll learn to control them with pheromone pods harvested from the corpses of their queens); where uncannily clever shocktroops coordinate search patterns, pin you with fire, then put pressure on your flank; and where each lifelike level has a feel all its own. Plus, what else are you going to buy for your Xbox this year?
We've been waiting for five years.
I mean, what else can I say? This game ranks equal to Halo 2, perhaps better in marks for anticipation. I'm happy to say that it was well worth the wait, as Half-Life 2 is one of the prettiest, most immersive sci-fi games I've had the pleasure to review. Valve has delivered on most of its promises, including absolutely stunning physics based gameplay.
I should take a moment to talk about the gravity gun. This is the coolest feature in the game, and in fact, may be the coolest in any game ever. You can pick up any manner of small objects in the game, and in many cases, fight purely using the manipulation gameplay this gun provides. Far and away, this is my favorite feature in Half-Life 2.
Sadly, in contrast, one of the least entertaining things in Half-Life 2 is the weaponry. With the exception of the gravity gun, this game features the same boring weaponry that we've seen time and time again. Fortunately, the basics, pistol, shotgun, and in this case two rifles, are well represented. In particular, the RPG is satisfying, especially since you'll be using it against those frightening strider walking tanks that you've seen in the trailer.
Visually, Half-Life 2 is just as pretty as advertised. The graphics are as good as promised, and while they still aren't perfect, this title features some of the most well done faces in any game ever. Motion capture is good, and I've got to say my only real complaint is the rag doll physics. Like every game with ragdoll features, bodies go completely and totally limp on death, which looks more or less totally and completely unrealistic.
All in all, Half-Life 2 is a really good game with just a few weaknesses, all of which are minimized by this game's incredible quality. You may not like the endgame of Half-Life 2's storyline, but it's still a good single player experience. Now, Half-Life 2 doesn't actually have multiplayer in and of itself, but it does come packaged with Counter-Strike CS, which more than makes up for the experience. And for sake of all of you without top end systems, mine is good, but not really great. My system is an Athlon 2400 XP with 1 gig of ram an ATI Radeon 9700 Pro. Good luck, and enjoy one hell of a game.
Picking up after an undetermined length of time from the first title, our hero Gordon Freeman is dumped into alien infested territory. Bad guys, both alien and human are everywhere as are allies. But if Gordon is going to get through this mission it's going to take, guts, determination and that unique quality that our hero possess above anything else, luck.
OK, this is the reason the Xbox was made to begin with; stunning storyline, kick-ass graphics, screaming sound effects and full-on action. To say you have never heard of the Half Life titles is to say you aren't familiar with games themselves. These are the games to have if you like your action lean and mean. The A.I. in this title is fantastic. Monsters and opposing military work together in tandem to try and out flank you and out gun you. Aliens attack in waves while soldiers toss grenades over the items you're hiding behind. If you are looking for a game that's even remotely close to being easy, this isn't it.
The graphics featured in HL2 are as good as the Xbox can deliver, the face animations are spot on and the in-game physics are clean and realistic. The architecture and creature design is both inspired and fully immersive. In fact, the monsters from the original Half Life are back, new and improved. It's as if they have had time to adapt or some outside genetic mutations has been going on with their new human allies. Still, the graphics are really nice to look at and more then once I really did get freaked out and jumped in my seat. The only thing even worth mentioning in a negative light, is that the game takes a few seconds to get going whenever a new scenario is loaded, so there is a little stutter as the level gets good and ramped up. But afterwards, it's all good.
The sound can also be described as fantastic, pumping this title through my surround sound is like watching a big budget Hollywood action flick. Gunfire, massive explosions, warning noises coming from you H.E.V. suit warning you that you are getting hit and of course the creature noises. All of it is slick, and I loved every minute of it.
Look, this is probably the last really big, slam-bam mega hit that is going to come out on the original Xbox. All the new big titles will be breaking on the 360, but that's no reason to let this slip by, the game is absolutely fantastic. If you are passionate about your games then you cannot afford to miss what is arguably one of the three best Xbox titles ever made. Get it now.