Half Life 2
Just How are your favourite games put together? Each month, we sit down with a top developer and pick over the bones of their opus. This issue, Valve's marketing director Doug Lombardi (with shades) and writer/game designer Marc Laidlaw (no shades) talk about the making of the best shooter ever - Half-Life 2...
Making A Sequel
Lombardi: "The first Half-Life was made available in November 1998. Immediately after the game was sent to replication, folks j here took a break to recoup from crunch time and spend some time with their families. Once everyone was back from all that, the decision was made to pursue Half-Life 2. It was agreed that Valve would self-fund the project and time would not be a constraint. The only benchmark set for the team was quality: make the greatest game experience you can imagine in the Half-Life universe."
Laidlaw: "One of the key story elements that hung on technology was the extent to which we believed we'd be able to develop strong, well-rounded characters and put them in dynamic, dramatic scenes. For a long time, the character and animation systems were very rough, and those of us closest to the story had to live with a strong level of trust that the technology would eventually get to the point where we could actually implement the scenes we were sketching out.
"Writing for a Half-Life-style game is an ongoing collaborative effort that starts in the earliest phases of project development and doesn't really end until the game is finished. The writing of dialogue ends once all the English language voice-acting has been recorded and the script sent off to localisers; but even then, there are many little decisions regarding how the game unfolds which each affect the way a player perceives the story. However, the writing is no more (or less) important than any other element of the game, which is one obvious way in which it differs from a book, where the writing is everything."
Lombardi: "We had a glimpse of the larger threat when we were working on Half-Life 1. In other words, we knew that once you cleared out the Nihilanth (end-of-game boss), you were going to discover something worse beyond it. We knew that some immense threat had chased the Nihilanth and its creatures out of their own world and into Xen, from which location they were all too glad to seize the opportunity to continue on to Earth with suppression through the citadels. But the exact nature of the threat was left to be solved in Half-Life 2."
The Half-Life 2 Univers
Laidlaw: "It's a classic science-fiction technique to build your world with details, any one of which could be made into a story or a book in its own right. There's something skimpy and cheap about trying to extract full-scale entertainment from every single little detail, rather than just liberally scattering them about Some writers will take one idea and spread it very, very thin; others will take that one and five others like it and stuff them ten to a page for hundreds of pages. Guess which kind I prefer? We're trying not to be stingy, but to strike sparks and suggest more stories than can possibly be told. In a game especially, some of our fans love looking for clues that help them piece together a sense of the world, others want to get on with the shooting. We try to satisfy both camps; perhaps this is impossible, but we do try."
Laidlaw: "Levels, creatures, characters and gameplay elements were in flux for a long time. Many ideas arose, became our favourites and then eventually fell by the wayside. The early plans for HL2 called for a story that spanned the globe and covered many days, but this would have meant discontinuities in space, time and Gordon Freeman's consciousness.
"So we gradually tightened our focus on City 17 and the immediate area, and condensed the story so that all events could take place within a relatively short timespan, without requiring Gordon to sleep, black-out or do any of those other things that usually mask a transition. Every time we tightened up the game, we'd shed a level, a monster or a character. This tended to make the surviving elements stronger and ensured that we made better use of them.''
Lombardi: "The Ldar physics festered their way into the game through the results of our playtesting (which we do for months before any QA testing begins). Ravenholm, the original home of the 'physics part of the game' occurred a bit later in earlier versions, and it was the only place you had the gravity gun. But, as more and more testers told us this was gameplay they enjoyed (and we could start eliminating fears of being compared to bad experiments with physics in games), the closer Ravenholm moved to the start." Laidlaw: "Ravenholm and the gravity gun co-existed in our minds for a long time. The sawblades didn't appear until we'd spent some time in Ravenholm looking for things to throw..."
The Crying Couple
Laidlaw: "The germ of that idea came from a couple who appear both in Nintendo's Zelda: Ocarina Of Time and Zeida: Majora's Mask - oblivious to their surroundings and totally absorbed in each other. I wanted to do a darker, City 17 version. It was easy to summarise the idea, but difficult to convince people it was worth the production costs. While all I had to do was write a few lines of dialogue, someone else had to pose and animate them, set them up in the level, make sure they were invulnerable to playtesters... All that added up to quite a lot of work for quite a few people and is indicative of how much thought goes into even the smallest scenes in the game.
Alyx And Dog
Laidlaw: "I sympathise with people who wanted more interaction with Alyx during Half-Life 2.I was happy with where we ended up on this, but I'm also glad now that the expansion pack Aftermath is giving us the opportunity to revisit some of these partially-realised ambitions.
"As for Dog, the constraints on him were many and I often found myself arguing against including him in certain scenes because I was afraid we wouldn't be able to do it right Fortunately, certain animators shouted me down. More importantly, they then went on and did the work to make sure that wherever Dog appeared, it was more than worth the time invested.
Laidlaw: "I'm always surprised to hear that people found the ending sudden, since I thought from the opening scenes of the game we'd made it pretty clear where you were going to end up and who you were going to confront It was the coolest ending we could dream up that seemed fitting to Gordon Freeman's role in the universe. I don't think a denouement would have added much to the game, and in fact would have closed some options that we're glad (in Aftermath) to haveleft open."
Download Half Life 2
This is it. This is the day you've been waiting for. For four and a half years you've wondered, you've speculated, you've guessed. You've talked about its existence endlessly with friends, family, strangers, your pet dog and even Rodney, your hamster. But today, all that will come to an end. Because today is the day you find out all about the game which every gamer has wanted to hear about more than any other PC title in history. No more speculation. No more hoping. It's time for your questions to be answered.
I was lucky enough to spend a day at Valve's HQ in Seattle, where director of marketing Doug Lombardi and Valve's managing director Gabe Newell took me through just about every element of a game that simply belies belief, that realises the dreams of every gaming vision you've dreamt about. So join me now as I recount what I saw and try to share with you my excitement at the sheer beauty, innovation and magnitude of a game that is about to reinvent the way we look at games forever.
So It Begins
"Once again, you play as Gordon Freeman," began Doug Lombardi as I sat in silence, soaking up his every word like a crusty sponge. "A certain amount of time has passed since Half-Life, and you've moved well beyond Black Mesa. However, the alien threat has now spread to various reaches of the world, and a great deal of it takes place in a fictional city called City 17 in north central Europe, although you won't be restricted just to this area." He was being purposefully cagey, clearly not wanting to reveal too much about the plot too soon. "The alien invasion is on a far grander scale this time around. In Half-Life they were just sending in the scouts, so to speak. This time, they're bringing in the big guns."
At this point, a tired looking Gabe cut in. "When the game starts, you'll be a little confused about what's going on, but you'll soon start to find out. There's going to be a set of NPCs that are going to be really important to you, some of those will be people you already know from Black Mesa, while others you won't have met before." And what about the sinister suited man, known as the G-Man? "Don't worry, you'll find out much more about what the G-Man is up to and what his plans are for you."
My head was filled with questions, hankering to be satisfied after so many years of unsubstantiated rumours and personal speculation. I didn't know what to ask first. How about the length of time HL2 had been in development? Six months? A year? "We actually started work on Half-Life 2 right after we shipped the first game (1998). We've been really very quiet on purpose, as we found ourselves with an interesting opportunity. Given the sales and critical reception of the product, and the online and mod community that's developed around it, we had a rare opportunity with Half-Life 2, a chance to shoot for the moon so to speak, and we've already spent twice as much time on HL2 than we did on Half-life, with a much larger team, and much more understanding about going about creating an FPS." Gabe's features, lined with sleep deprivation (he and his team are currently working round the clock on the project) couldn't hide his excitement and passion for the game. It was hard to believe that Valve had managed to keep the biggest game of all time a secret for so long. His next comment stunned me. "So we're in the unusual situation of announcing the product at E3 this year and then shipping it on September 30." That's September 2003 right? "That's right." No, that's incredible.
I needed time to catch my breath, but Gabe was keen to push on, every minute precious with Half-Life 2's shipping date just five months away. "We wanted Half-Life 2 to be a much larger leap forward than Half-Life was. There's been no external funding, no external producer looking at a milestone list or telling us what to do. We've been able to isolate ourselves from those kinds of constraints and concentrate instead on building what we believe to be the right game."
But why leave it so long to tell the world? "A lot of games get announced and a year later, you're still waiting to see it. And we've certainly fallen into that trap in the past. Typically the product is announced before you have a clear idea of how you're going to resolve all the complicated issues of how to build everything and get it to work.
Clearly Half-Life 2 is reaching completion, and is currently in a stage of extensive play testing. The deep-set rings under the eyes of Valve's talented team testify to that. With Gabe's introduction to HL2's development background done, it was time for him to return to work, leaving me in the hugely capable hands of Doug. As he started loading up the game, caught myself gripping my chair, knuckles drained of colour t
and sweat beads marking the leather covering of the
arm rests. This was the moment I'd travelled 6,000 miles and waited my whole career to see. The screen went momentarily dark, and then slowly came to life. We were in...
The Laws Of Physics
"The first thing I'm going to show you is the tech engine, which we're calling Source. We've decided not to come up with a big engine name. First off, I'll show you the physics," began Doug as he panned around the tech-level on screen. Barrels, cans, bullet casings, bottles and dead bodies lay discarded on the ground, all boasting a level of detail I'd never seen in any game before. Although sparse, the environment was crisp and convincing, beautifully textured and shaded. With an object manipulation device (which won't feature in the game itself) he picked up a barrel and dropped it from a height. It slammed to earth, sending a hollow metallic crash resounding round the room, as it wobbled onto its side and began slowly rolling towards I the edge of the screen I with a satisfying grate, p "Basically, we wanted to have this great environment where things look, feel and act as they should. One of the great things about Half-Life was that everything around you told you that you were in a world which felt real, and that you were immersed in it absolutely, rather than just being in a shooting gallery." So how has Valve achieved this ambitious goal? "We want to have physics that just lend to that realistic feel. We don't want it to be an over the top display which shows how well we can do physics, but rather we wanted to make them organic, so they feel part of the gameplay world. We wanted to design a physics system which kept the mod makers in mind, so they can use our physics tools in a way that is convincing and fun for gameplay and designing, without burdening them with physics properties." (For more information on the mod capabilities of HL2, check out the A Half-Life Beyond The Shelf panel).
Order And Chaos
Suddenly something unexpected happened. The rolling barrel, which we'd both assumed had stopped, had somehow gained enough momentum to drop into a pit on the other side of the level. "Wow, I've dropped that barrel a thousand times and it's never done that before." exclaimed Doug, a wide grin spreading across his face. Chaos Theory in a game engine? Now that's quality.
Over the next ten minutes, Doug let me play with a series of objects, each of which reacted exactly as they would in the real world. Bottles clunked and bullet cases rang as they hit the floor, each material and object making a different sound depending on what it came into contact with, and from what height it was dropped. But it was the rag-doll physics of the dead bodies that were most impressive, spinning and bucking when thrown against walls, sliding convincingly off a ledge when placed precariously on the edge of one. Taking a shotgun, I blew a wooden box to pieces, and watched as it splintered into a heap of jagged-edged planks. Then, walking over the wood-chippings, Gordon's movement became hampered by the irregular surface as he battled to maintain balance. "Both you and the NPCs will be weighted, and have physics properties simulated. Jay Steloy, our lead programmer since 1996, has been working on this technology for the better part of four years." Clearly it's been time well spent, and despite Doug's understated comments, Half-Life 2's physics system is without a doubt the most life-like I've ever seen.
With the tech level done, it was time to see something even more impressive. No amount of staring at the screenshots on these pages and no matter how many superlative-laced statements I write here can come even close to doing this next part justice. Doug had loaded up a level, an office with a woman standing by a desk, who he introduced as Alyx. "Is that in game?" I asked, stuttering more violently than a scratched Gareth Gates record. "Yeah, this is all in game."
Incredible. For the first time ever, here was a game character that looked real. Not gaming real, but REAL real. The way she stood, the subtle sway of her hips as she shifted her weight, the way her upper body rolled as she put her hands on her hips. Most extraordinary of all, though, was her face. Exuding a subtle beauty, her eyes strayed around the room, arching round to stare at us with a look of genuine disinterest.
Her face sported faded freckles and different depths of shading, furnishing her with a personality before she even spoke, something I was now incapable of doing. Fortunately, Doug still retained the power of speech. "Characters are probably one of the biggest investments we made in the game. In Half-Life we put in rudimentary characters as a test, to see how it would work if they actually spoke to you rather than you having to read a load of text. Something we hate more than anything is the idea of stopping the action Jo watch a movie. We tried to keep the story pretty simple in Half-Life and people loved it, but many said there weren't enough of those characters. A lot of people said that the first time Barney or a scientist died, they felt bad, that they felt a personal connection with those characters. So we've taken pretty much all of the money that we made from the first game and invested it into this one, most of all, into the characters." I urged Doug to continue with a near inaudible grunt.
I'M On Your Side
"Alyx is your ally. Story-wise, she is the bridge from Half-Life. There is an African-American scientist in Half-Life (who's also in HL2) and she is his daughter. Ken Birdwell, one of the lead engineers on both games, decided that we were going to put shaders on each character's skin, but not so that it's ultra shiny and waxy like in most other games. After all, no-one's skin is blemish free, is it? Another thing that we wanted to address was this feeling that when characters move, they always feel like they're just these pegged together hockey stick players. So we've built an entire musculature system, so that when, for example, Alyx puts her hands on her hips, there's a rolling between her breasts, shoulders and arms. These subtleties make her more realistic."
"The other thing Ken researched was how game characters look at you. And he realised that they always look like they're looking over your head or are cross-oyod. So he studied why that was and there were a couple of things he learnt. First off, eyes are not circular. In most games they're round. Also, people's field of views aren't straight. You always look slightly sideways, which is why a lot of game characters look like they're cross-eyed. So we adjusted their eyes accordingly. Then we separated the layer of sheen that's over the eye and the layer for the actual pupil, to give it that depth and shininess of a real person's eyes." This was all getting too good to be true. How many times have we all dreamt of life-like characters in games, with believable movement, action and reaction, a sense that we are truly in another world, one so believable that you never doubt it's reality? Half-Life 2 is that dream. But wait, there's more.
"We then wanted to make these characters able to deliver lines with emotion," continued Doug. You mean with proper facial expressions? "Exactly." With a press of a button, Alyx started cycling through her facial repertoire. Happy, sad, angry, coy, assertive. The list just went on. But did they all look convincing? You'd better believe it. "We wanted the characters to be emotive, so if they're angry or suspicious, or they want to give you a kind of 'Hey, look over there' gesture, they can communicate emotions just through their facial expressions."
Doctor In The House
Once again, a great deal of time, money and research went into making this stunning system. "There's a guy called Dr Paul Ekman who did a bunch of research on the mentally ill, to find out what it means to look mentally ill. He came up with this whole language of facial expressions, incorporating the 40-odd facial expressions we all make, which can be mixed to create a sub-set of facial expressions. We basically took things from his research and made it applicable to Half-Life 2's facial animation system. So we have these simple sets of facial animation fonts, and they can be applied to Alyx, to an alien or whoever we want." Later on in the day, when I caught up with Gabe again, he expanded on the process Valve went through to achieve complete authenticity for their character's facial expressions. "There's a part in the brain which figures out where other people are looking. So we've tried to make the characters as real as possible so that when they react to you, your brain will tell you whether they like you or not, or whether they're looking at you or somebody else."
But I hadn't heard Alyx speak yet. After all, what's the point of a character looking realistic if they deliver a line less convincingly than a Home And Away extra? Again, I wasn't disappointed. "Do you want my help or not?" Yes please Alyx. Hold on, I'm talking to a bloody computer game. "If you want my help, we'd better get moving." OK, I'm ready when you are. Shit! I'm doing it again. In fact, I nearly did say those things out loud. She really was that convincing.
Her eyes gave me attitude, her body swayed as she gesticulated to make her point, and as she spoke her lips formed every syllable to near lip-reading standards. "After we got the faces and expressions right, we decided we had to go beyond the standard puppet, one-bone mouth look that we had in Half-Life, when characters spoke. Creating realistic lipsynching and acting was a really hard thing to do. We came up with a system that can go through and take the basic structures of a WAV file and extract the data for the mouth movement. So you can extract your sound or line of dialogue, inbed it into a WAV file independent of the game's language, and play it back across the facial animation system. This system identifies the sounds and volume which dictate the size of the opening and closing of the mouth.
So you could drop in a line in L English or Spanish and it will lip-synch it accordingly."
The Old Meets The New
So onto the more specific areas of the game, starting with the cast, which is a mixture of the familiar, the new and mixture of the two. "We've taken some of the generic characters from Half-Life and evolved them here by giving them names and specific faces" began Doug as he loaded up a whole new level full of characters. "So for example, the African-American scientist who was in every third room in Half-Life (check out the Scientist Makeover panel for more on this), is now Dr Eli Vance, Alyx's father. He's the guy who'll tell you what happened between the end of Half-Life and the start of Half-Life 2.
You'll be seeing a lot of tie-ins like that, where you'll find out who certain people were from Black Mesa.'' Sounds intriguing, tell us more. "Eli has brought Alyx up to be a bit of an inventor. As a result, she's built a side-kick robot called Dog." Doug homed in on Dog, a large yet friendly looking robot who will no doubt pack some hefty firepower. Strafing left, the camera fixed on a familiar looking individual. Barney, the fat security guard. "We've made Barney a defined guy with pretty noticeable characteristics. There won't be loads of Barney's this time round, just the one." Doug also showed me the G-Man, looking sinister in his sharp attire, and some Alien Slaves. Alien Slaves? In the good-guys room? What was all that about? "In the last game, Alien Slaves were the bad guys, but they've moved over to your side." I pressed him for specifics on how this will come about, but Doug simply flashed me a smile which said it all. "Wouldn't you like to know?"
After this we moved to an area which Doug referred to as his Character Zoo, a series of rooms filled with enemies new and old. Reprising their role as cannon fodder are the Bullsquids and Head Crabs, although this time there's a whole family of the latter, ranging from the tiny to the unsettlingly large. Likewise, Zombies reappear, the symbiosis of the face-hugging Head Crabs and the hapless humans they infest, as do the ceiling hanging, string-on-a-mouth Barnacles, boasting incredibly detail with their multiple moving parts, which made them look little short of horrific. Apparently, there'll be more than 50 different enemies in all.
Ants And Lions
Finished with the familiar, Doug moved onto the new, starting off with Starship Trooper-like aliens called Antlions and the Antlion Guards - a larger, tougher and altogether more terrifying prospect than its smaller, generic cousin. The light shone off their armour plated backs as they twitched, ready to spring a deadly attack. Moving into another room, Doug introduced me to a host of new, biomechanical enemies.
Scanners are small flying units, with the ability to track you if you try to escape or hide. A host of turrets and hulking biomech troopers stood menacingly by them, while the gas mask clad police (the replacements for Half-Life's marines) looked instantly hostile. "We're trying to make it really obvious who's positive and who's negative in the game," stated Doug as he moved to an outdoor area, where the really heavy-duty enemies were based. I looked on in awe as we rounded a comer, to be met by a 90ft high, three-legged Strider, towering into the sky and armed to the fillings with machine guns that could fillet a whale in seconds, let alone a speccy ginger scientist. They stalked backwards and forwards, each step sending shudders through the level and chills down my spine. "As you can see we're doing full animation on these guys. One of the interesting things about them was getting the collision detection correct, so that it looks right when they're taking steps. These guys may need to climb stairs, or walk over uneven terrain, and all the while there's a whole load of work that's going on under the hood to make sure all this stuff comes to life, which we think will make the game really unique." Finally, sensing my impatience to see the game in action, Doug quickly showed me a room full of extras, citizens of City 17 who will go about their lives around you. "These people won't have quite the level of facial animation that the main characters will have, as they won't be delivering any heavy duty lines. They'll all be unique, but many of them will be variations of each other." And on that note, he quit out of the level. It was time for me to get my hands dirty.
Lights. Camera, Action
I've never been so nervous, or as excited about playing a game. I looked around, to find I was standing on a basic but sturdy wooden bridge spanning the gap over a river, whose shimmering water lapped serenely against the wooden beams. Suddenly, tranquillity gave way to panic, as two hideous, faceless zombies came shambling towards me. As they approached, one of them picked up a barrel and threw it at me. Instinctively I fired, the power of the shotgun shell sending the barrel back at its attacker and making it reel in pain. But the second zombie was still advancing. One well-placed shot to the head sent it flying off the bridge, coming to rest facedown in the water where it bobbed with the tide. But there was no time to celebrate. The other zombie had recovered and was once again advancing, intent on ripping out my lungs and using them as bagpipes. And then, an idea (a first for me). Aiming at the bridge just in front of my assailant I fired. Shards of wood flew into the air just as the zombie stepped into the now gaping hole, flailing wildly as it sunk into the water, helpless as I finished it off.
I looked over at Doug, who was grinning, and realised I was panting like dog in a sauna. Even in that one, short minute, the combination of many of the elements Doug had shown me had came together in one sublime whole.
More, More, More
I wanted to see more, but first, remembering my journalistic duties, I asked Doug about the weapons and the multiplayer games, but was told that Valve isn't talking about either of those things at this point. So instead, l asked what we can expect from the Al. This time, he was more than happy to elaborate. "We're taking the old Al system from Half-Life and adding some things to make it more intense and real, so that it has more layers and dimensions. The two most notable things that are really important are the Al combat pathways and NPC behaviour. In the original game, enemies didn't jump to grab you. So you could jump over a waterway and you'd lose the threat behind you. Not this time though. Now the enemies can look for you, they can jump onto and walk over complex surfaces. If you're running away, jumping on crates to get away from a Head Crab, then it'll chase after you, so that you have to deal with it. The other thing was, in Half-Life, characters like Barney, wouldn't follow you for long. That was because Barney couldn t get to certain parts of the level and so would have to stay behind. Which of course won't happen in Half-Life 2." And what about the actual combat Al, what nuances can we expect there? "If an enemy sees you as a threat, but there's also another creature in the area that's also a threat, the Al will work out which is the greater threat to it and attack that target first."
To prove his last point, Doug fired up a recording he'd made of one of the levels. In it, Gordon attacked an Antlion Guard before running away and taking cover under some rocks. In a show of canny determination the Antlion probed the makeshift shelter from every side, trying, struggling, but ultimately failing to reach its quarry. From the distance came the rhythmic pulses of an engine. Seeing his opportunity, Gordon sped off towards the sound, pursued by a now incensed Antlion Guard. Within seconds, they were in sight of an armoured vehicle guarded by marines. The terrified soldiers opened fire on sight at the Antlion Guard, who waded in viciously, clawing rabidly at its new targets, and ripping them to shreds. Then it turned to the vehicle. Sniffing at it at first, it gave it a tentative shove, sending the APC rocking sideways onto two wheels. A blue flare arched from the vehicle into the sky, as the marines desperately called for reinforcement. Seconds later, the APC was sliding down a ravine, toppled by a ferocious attack by the Antlion Guard. While it was still occupied, Gordon unloaded a clip into the beast, and as it slumped to the ground, exhaling its last and sending a cloud of dust spiralling into the air, a drop ship full of reinforcements arrived.
Enter The G-Man
"That was all Al, came a voice from the far end of the room." It was Gabe, who had come back to sit through the final parts of the demonstration. "If you played that level yourself, it could have ended up completely differently. Nothing you just saw was scripted." I must have looked amazed, probably disbelieving, as Gabe took a seat next to me, and explained how HL2's Al system has been designed in order to give the player a sense of total freedom and immersion. "Because the Al can react in so many different ways, you'll never know what it's going to do. Is it going to smash through a door, open it, cut a hole in it? This makes them seem scarier and more consequential than your average Al. The way we see it is that if a creature is no more than a weapon's delivery system, then that creates a really narrow choice of interaction possibilities. If humans can climb ladders and open doors, you have to let them be able to do it. There are other creatures that can do things you can't do, like the Antlions who can jump to places that you can't. This will also influence how a creature can get to you and will let it vary its attack strategies." But how does this translate to a sense of freedom within the whole gaming world? "We wanted our characters to act very realistically and naturally towards you. We also wanted to create an immersive experience. So you want everyone around you to react realistically to you, as well as feeling that you're immersed in a very strong narrative. One of the things we had in Half-Life were scripted sequences on the other side of locked doors so you couldn't interfere with them. But now we feel that if you close off choices to the player you're making a mistake. We had many challenges in getting the Al to talk to the level design. How we could hint to the Al that there may be something interesting in the level for them to interact with. So if a radio says something interesting and a character hears it, they may walk over to it, to hear it better. If you then shot the radio, the Al would ask itself what a reasonable reaction would be and act on that decision." It was all getting too much, and what's rttore, everything Doug and Gabe had claimed about the game was being backed up with hard evidence with in-game footage.
Another pre-recorded scene showed a firefight in City 17. with locals battling two gargantuan biomechs. In an attempt to avoid a confrontation, Gordon ran through a nearby door, closed it and crouched down. Silence. Then, a mechanical buzz infected the air. Gordon looked up to see that a camera had been thrust through the letterbox and was scanning for him. A couple of seconds later, it disappeared. The door buckled, then shattered as the biomech burst through. Hostilities resumed.
The next level saw Gordon fighting six Antlions, which jumped on ledges to get to him as he desperately tried to get away. Then, to show off the particle effects, I was shown a level on a burning cargo ship, the flames licking at the scenery and spreading like a disease as it consumed the vessel. But before what Gabe and Doug referred to as the 'Finale' I was given one more chance to take the controls and pit myself against easily the most unpredictable and lifelike Al of any FPS to date. Leading a prison break-out, I had to get past two guards, who were taking cover behind a set of barrels. There was only one thing for it. Crouching down I rolled a grenade into their position, and watched in awe as their bodies hurtled through the air and over the barrels, coming to a rest, lifeless and crumpled, on the other side.
A Hard Day'S Play
And so to the 'Finale...' Day had begun its slow decent into dusk as Gordon walked slowly towards. a majestic, 60ft-high archway. From a distance, something caught the eye. The sound of machine parts and heavy footsteps replaced the tranquil calm, as a 90ft, three-legged Strider appeared, pausing in front of the now dwarfed archway. It tried to shift it with a round of machine gun fire, but realising that force wouldn't work, it ducked under instead. "Follow me!" came from behind. Wheeling round, Gordon spotted Alyx, who was gestunng for him to follow her into a sewer. Once inside, the two characters stood breathlessly staring at each other. Alyx was smiling. Then, slowly, her eyes moved from Gordon to look at something behind him and her smile morphed into a look of genuine horror. Gordon swivelled, just in time to see a giant blue tentacle reaching for a policeman who had clearly followed them into the sewer, but unaware of what was behind him. The tentacle wrapped around his body, snatching him into the murky depths below. As the demo faded the room fell silent, and I was convinced that I had just witnessed one of the most cinematic, atmospheric and realistic moments in gaming history. A fitting Finale' indeed, I thought, blinking violently as Doug switched the lights on, signalling the end of an incredible day.
Too good to be true
Words failed me. My body felt exhausted as I relaxed my taught muscles, drained from the tension of watching a game which is re-writing the rule book and making a mockery out of every other first-person shooter I've ever seen. If you don't believe me, buy a ticket to E3, and find out for yourself. One thing's for sure though, come September, the world of gaming will change forever, and just like four years ago, it's Valve that is showing us the way. With 40 hours of gameplay promised, it's going to be one hell of a ride. All of a sudden, September seems like a very, very long way away...
It's hard to believe that it's been a year since Half-Life 2 was announced, but finally, after months of silence from developer Valve after part of the game was stolen by opportunist hackers late last year, we've been invited back to Seattle to play the latest version of the game. You may well have got sick of waiting for HL2 to appear - perhaps the release of Far Cry has satiated your lust for a ground-breaking shooter. But as you're about to find out, there's just as much reason to be excited now as there was 12 months ago.
Before we start though, if you haven't been following the Half-Life 2 saga, you might like to refresh your memory about what we already know about the game. After all. it's been a long time since any new facts have been available, so if that's you. why not head off to the Beginners Start Here' panel on page 35 and swot up before you dive into the new stuff below.
But if you can't wait to jump straight in, why not join me now at Valve's offices, along with the company's managing director Gabe Newell and director of marketing Doug Lombardi as we glean the latest info and playtest the game firsthand. Excited? Me too.
Touring City 17
We're going to let you play through three levels, begins Doug. This first one's about 15 minutes into the game, and will give you some classic Half-Life gameplay, where we'll try and scare you and give you a good look at City 17." The hard disk chatter ceases and the level fills the screen. We're in.
I'm standing in a large hallway. On the far side of the enclosure hangs an enormous screen, from which gazes a kindly yet slightly sinister male face. I pause, hoping to garner some vital information before I rush out of the inviting doorway to my left and into the bustling courtyard beyond. This man seems to be providing some kind of information service. I listen intently.
He's reading from a letter in which the author is outlining his concerns about a lack of human freedom. Don't worry," begins his reply. You're being treated like this for your own good. You're not ready to make your own decisions yet. But soon you will be free to do as you please."
Confused, I scan the room and spy gas mask-wearing guards blocking every doorway bar one. Do not be afraid." continues the amplified voice, as I approach one of the guards. Before I'm even a metre away, his gun is out of its holster and pointing at my head. Move away! booms his bellowed warning, causing me to reel back and run for the doorway, his torrent of threats still assaulting my eardrums. Gabe interjects. As a character, the last thing you remember is having a conversation with the G-Man. Now it's ten years later and all sorts of things have happened. But you don't know what happened to that time or even what side you're on. As you're about to find out, everyone seems to know more about you than you do."
The sunlight makes me blink violently as my eyes focus on the new vista before me. All around, people walk with bowed heads, dressed in matching white clothes as circular drones buzz around the square, and more gas mask-clad guards stand around menacingly, ever watchful. -Hey, don't I know you? comes a question from a passing pedestrian. Haven't I seen you somewhere before?" asks another. Gabe was right: how do these people know who I am? A commotion at the far side of the courtyard from behind a partially closed door distracts my attention. I can't quite see in properly, but it looks as though some of the town's denizens are being brutalised by guards. The sentry shoos me away with a wave of his stun-baton and I reluctantly move on.
In the distance, a 90ft Strider (a giant three-legged war machine) stalks by. I turn to a woman standing next to me and attempt to engage her in conversation. Quiet, they may hear us." she threatens, hurriedly moving away. But my attention is snapped away by an electric drone that appears as if from nowhere and begins photographing me. Something tells me this isn't the local paparazzi.
Finally, I round a comer and enter a playground, where I push the realistic swings and rock the lifelike see-saws. I was the last guy to play in that playground," comes the sad lamentation of a young man nearby. He's right, no children play here. The stark reality of this early level is clear. There's no joy in this city, just a sense of terror and oppression. At the start of the game, you're trying to reconnect with your friends, begins Gabe, as the level ends. You find out that some of them are still alive. You don't know why you're there or what agenda the G-Man has for you, but later on you learn a lot more about the G-Man and who he really is. You'll have a relationship with him that follows logically from the conversation that you had at the end of Half-Life
Yet no quality story is complete without the protagonist growing in some way too, becoming a better or different person by the plot's climax. Will we see Gordon take this journey? Gordon must become what a heroic scientist should be. But in order to be heroic, there are certain things that he's going to need to do. So yes, there will be a transformation that he's going to go through. Will the antagonist be the G-Man? Perhaps it'll be Dr Breen - which Doug informs me is the name of the man on the giant TV screen. Perhaps someone we haven't even seen yet?
As we already know, the female inventor Alyx is another major player in Half-Life 2, so I ask Gabe to elaborate on her background a little more. Her father is one of the few people who's survived from Black Mesa, and Alyx represents the hybrid between the old and the new. She helps you understand about the changes in the world, which have also affected her and what it means to live in this world. She's got lots of connections to the past, but she's much more aggressive and revolutionary than her parents were. She's going to help you go from being a loner to a champion. She'll also help you understand who all the new characters are.
Time to experience more of the game. This time, it's a night-time level, a mad dash through an alien-infested graveyard with a gung-ho orthodox monk called Father Grigory. It's a somewhat simplistic level to say the least, and feels more like a training mission than one of the stunning set pieces we've witnessed in previous demonstrations. Wave after wave of zombies shamble towards us, as the mad monk and I hurtle through the level. Conveniently placed saw blades allow me to make full use of the all-new Manipulator weapon - with which you can pick up and propel almost any object in the game.
The blades fly through the air and scythe off the zombies' hideous noggins, as we stumble across some even more conveniently placed exploding barrels. I fire at them and a bone-bending shockwave rocks me back as I watch dismembered enemies fly across the cemetery like rag dolls in a hurricane, their still twitching bodies engulfed in flames. Other zombies walk over their fallen comrades and ignite as they pass, flailing wildly from pain and kindling more of their companions.
I wheel around suddenly and come face to Head Crab with four zombies. Instinctively I reel back, pumping the shotgun trigger but firing ineffectually over their heads. Seeing my predicament, Grigory dives in front of me and dishes out some punishment, saving me from almost certain death. In some levels, we've put obvious things like those saw blades in on purpose, so that people can easily work out and learn what they can do with the Manipulator, reassures Doug.
Length Does Count
Which leads us nicely onto the game's physics system, which is promising to furbish you with a wealth of new gameplay possibilities never before seen in a shooter, and ensure that Half-Life 2 will be anything but short-lived. In fact, Gabe and Doug believe that HL2 could well prove to be twice the length of its predecessor thanks to the depth offered by the Source engine's revolutionary new abilities. We've seen so many different types of playing styles. Some people want to explore and try everything, especially with the new physics system, while others just want to charge through the game as fast as possible. We've actually found that
we've had greater problems with the more experienced players, who don't seem to be able to grasp the fact that everything in the game is a physical object, says Doug. Gabe picks up the thread. You can learn from the Al though, so you may see them doing something you didn't know you could do and then use that later on to your advantage. Now if you see a dumpster, you can pick it up and throw it at the enemy if you want to.
Who's A Clever Boy?
But will we see the same kind of individuality and autonomy as we did from the bots in Valve's other recent project, Condition Zero, who, depending on their psychological makeup, would follow your orders to varying degrees?
Sure, chimes Gabe. They'll argue with you too. So if you tell someone to go and defend a certain area, they can turn around to you and say that they don't want to, as there could be a lot of risk associated with that action. They'll wait till you're not looking and then go off and do their own thing."
And so we move on to the final level of the day, one that may have a ring of familiarity if you've seen all of the Half-Life 2 movies we've run on our discs over the past year. In this third level, we're actually using the new technology to drive new types of gameplay," explains Doug as I dive in. There's a buggy right next to me with a mounted machine gun, and the nearest thing of interest - a dry dock - is a long way off. Smoothly, I slide into the vehicle and accelerate across the bumpy terrain, the frail car bucking like a wild bull beneath me. I fight for control, barely avoiding a spin as I round a corner only to embarrassingly wade straight into a lake. The engine cuts out. I've lost the buggy for sure and a long trek lies ahead of me. Why don't you try getting out and giving it a little push with your Manipulator? says Doug with a hint of amusement. He's not wrong. Using the Manipulator's alternate fire button, I start shunting the car out of the water, get back on board and resume my uncomfortable journey.
Suck It Up
At the dock, I use a crane with an enormous magnet attached to suck up the increasingly abused vehicle and plop it onto the pier, only to alert several very pissed off guards with the commotion. They waste no time trying to mince me with their machine guns. I return the compliment, ducking behind crates as they pin me down with a hail of lead. Diving out, I bear down on two of them. They disperse and flock for shelter with startling realism, firing wildly as they run, but one falls as a volley from my MP5 connects with his back and bows his spine. The other one soon follows suit, crumpling to the floor with a thud.
Jumping back into the car, I accelerate through a storage shelter towards a ramp leading to a huge window. Images of a heroic escape fill my mind, a majestic exit of splintered glass and a flight through the air to safety. Instead, I lose control again, decelerating pathetically and coming to a halt with half of the car teetering on the outside of the building, while the back wobbles awkwardly within. Back and forth it goes, each dip forward more precarious than the next, until at last the nose begins its slow motion-like plummet to the earth. Great! I'm upside down. Now where did I put that Manipulator?
Rock 'N' Roll
I get going again. In the foreground, circular metallic objects begin rolling towards me. Roller bowling ball and Mines," exclaims Doug gleefully. A burst of machine-gun fire sends one pinging backwards like a V bowling ball and bouncing against A the road barrier; the others I seem to avoid.
However, one's attached itself to the car and is now draining it of energy. Again, I come to a halt and shoot the mine off, only for it to resume its incessant charge over and over again. Then, an idea. Switching to the Manipulator, I suck the mine up and cast it over the ravine at the edge of the road, watching as it drops into the sea below.
I race over hills and obstacles, slowly mastering the amazingly lifelike vehicle physics which prove even more authentic than those featured in Far Cry. Just as I think I'm safe, a storm of bullets kicks up a maelstrom of dust and a hovercraft fills my view.
I stamp on the turbo and accelerate off. scenery flying by faster than my brain can register it, jumping over a ravine and narrowly missing a metal gate where more guards open fire, only to be cut down by my vehicle's mounted weapon. With that, the level ends, an exhilarating ride -although I'm left somewhat disappointed that only two of the weapons available to me, the Manipulator and a hugely powerful alien machine gun, seem to have been added to the Half-Life arsenal. Apart from these, the hardware at your disposal seems much the same as before.
So what's the deal with the machine specs I ask, now the gaming fun has finished? Is the minimum spec still going to be a Pill 733 as promised 12 months ago? We're probably going to push that to a 1 GHz processor with 128MB RAM and a DX7 or DX6 level 3D card - we're not sure which yet, comes Doug's reply. We'll be pointing people towards running 256MB RAM and an ATI 9600,9600XT, 9800 or 9800XT 3D card for optimal performance. Once you get over a 1.2GHz processor, the improvement that you'll see will be negligible, so long as you have all of those other pieces in play."
It's been almost seven months since we were assured Half-Life 2 would hit the shelves, a date which was compromised not only by the theft of an early version of the game, but also unforeseen programming complications. So when can we finally expect to get our anxious, clammy mitts on a finished copy? We're targeting this summer for completion. We're hopeful we'll be able to declare a date at E3 in May," says Doug.
Better Than Real Life?
With Half-Life 2 so close to completion, and with the likes of Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 3 to look forward to (see Looking Forward', above), the future is surely bright for a company that's constantly striving to roll back the barriers in an attempt to take the FPS genre to all-new heights.
On the evidence we've experienced first hand, Valve seems well on course to achieving its goals of providing an unparalleled cinematic shooting experience, one that's threatening to not only knock A-List top dog shooter Far Cry off its perch, but potentially blow it away. And in just a few short months time, you'll be able to find out for yourself if Valve has pulled it off.
Valve Confirms Team Fortress 2 And Half-Life 3!
Valve is working furiously to meet its deadlines, but Gabe is already planning ahead. We're still working on Team Fortress 2" he reveals, talking about the sequel to the much-loved class-based online shooter. When we first showed it, it was on the Half-Life tech, and the Half-Life team was already halfway down the road to building the HL2 technology. So when the TF team saw what the new engine was capable of, they decided they wanted to use it too. The problem then was, how do we talk about TF2 without talking about HL2? We kind of screwed ourselves there, so we decided to say nothing more on it till we announced HL2."
And what are the chances of us seeing a Half-Life 3? We've got a lot of thoughts about the universe and things that we can do. We love the design challenges too. We'd like to do other stuff as well, but we'll definitely be doing a third Half-Life game. There are a lot of cool things left to do in this style of game and this universe.
What's more, from the sound of things we won't have to wait another five or six years for it either. Part of what we're doing is trying to build things which haven't existed before. But now that they're there, we can continue the process with smaller steps. We've got a lot of things that we can do with the new technology that we haven't done yet, as opposed to the technology for HL. When that game shipped, we decided that there were all of these new things that needed to be built. Now all of these things have been built, we really need to use them. I think what we'll do next is go off with these new tools and try to set ourselves a whole lot of new challenges.
Plugging The Leaks
Valve's Md Gabe Newell Speaks About Last Year's Source Engine Theft And Its Effect On The Game And The Company
It was a little bit hard to know how to react," begins Gabe melancholically. The idea of having something that you're not entirely done with thrown out to the world is pretty traumatic and the morale of the team was terrible after it happened. We'd invested so much time and ten times the budget of Half-Life to build this game, only to have a load of people have their first experience of it through this unfinished random release. Some parts of the game had to be re-written as a result. We had to go back and look at our network protocols for multiplayer games and mods, and make sure we didn't leave any holes that people could exploit.
But was the leak the main reason behind the game's delay? No, the fundamental reason was because we underestimated the amount of work left to do and how long it was going to take, especially when the team were so demoralised after the leak." And what's still left to do on the game? Tuning, tuning and more tuning," comes Gabe's reply. If that's truly the case, then summer's looking like a fairly realistic target.
Just Like The Movies
How Do You Make A Game As Cinematic As A Movie?
During our visit, I got to spend some time with HL2's facial animator Bill Van Buren, who explained how Valve is tackling the problem of making its game as cinematic as a film. It's really easy when you do a predefined cinematic to have very high production values, because you know where the camera and characters are going to be. In HL2 though, because you can roam around each room and the Al is designed to react dynamically to your actions, you never know where the player is going to be during a key scene. So we have to have something good ready, no matter what the player does. We've managed to find a balance between something that's really intentional from the level designers and the animators - such as a line of dialogue from a key character - but which continues to look good," says Bill.
Aptly demonstrating this was a scene where Alyx, Dr Kleiner and an unnamed character in full body armour discuss the dangers of having Gordon in their lab. Bill moved Gordon around the room, and all three of the supporting characters adapt perfectly, turning to Gordon at the right times and making the scene look as convincing as any pre-defined cinematic could. Each character's animations are blended into their postures so they can deliver lines and actions convincingly and logically wherever the player is, continues Bill. You could be about to see a shooter that genuinely feels like a movie.
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.
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.