No sign of decay. Preview

No sign of decay.

Back in 1998, Metal Gear Solid was taking over the Playstation and the Nintendo 64 was reveling in the success of Ocarina of Time (the Sega Saturn was sleeping in, or something). It was a great time to own a console, but the PC market lacked direction. Nearly every release seemed to be just another version of an earlier, better title; witness the rash of real-time strategy games patterned almost precisely after Command & Conquer and Warcraft.

The biggest news came from the multiplayer front as the success of Ultima Online and the subsequent arrival of Everquest signaled a shift in the popular game design paradigm. Would massively multiplayer gaming be the Next Big Thing? And if so, would everyone jump on the boat, leaving single-player gaming in the dust?

The answer came from an unlikely source, an upstart developer who had yet

to release their flagship title. That developer was Valve Software, and their

game, Half-Life, would

forever change the face of single-player PC gaming.

How good was the original Half-life? Good enough to earn over 50 Game of the Year awards. Good enough to completely revolutionize first-person action. Good enough to rewrite the definition of cinematic gameplay. It was so good that it even spawned the most widely-played multiplayer game around, the beloved Counterstrike mod.

But it's been many moons since we wrapped ourselves in the lab coat of Gordon

Freeman to do battle in the Black Mesa facility. So many other FPS' have come

and gone that Half-life has almost fallen into myth.

Well, it's time for another coming out party, because if the final version of Half-life 2 is anything like the 30-minute demo I enjoyed at E3 2003, then this enormously anticipated sequel will make its older brother look like Pong.

You reprise your role as poor Gordon, who is now struggling to survive on

an Earth torn apart by the very hideous aliens he helped create and then kill

in the first place. But unlike his first romp through Black Mesa, Gordon must

now make his way through all manner of urban (and not so urban) environments,

a departure from the corridors, pipes and machinery of the first game.

The original Half-life engine powered more games than Duracell, but now it clearly looks dated. The folks at Valve figured on this, and so have spent the past four and a half years cooped up in their magic boxes working on the brand new "Source" engine. And as a firsthand witness, I can testify that all that hard work has paid off.

Big time.

Let's start with the player models, which are now so eerily realistic that

you get a little creeped out when they stare at you. Forty facial muscles are

utilized to create a wide range of expressions, from the subtle raising of an

eyebrow to to the curving of a lip in disgust. This attention to detail also

leads to the most accurate lip-synching around. They even showed a character

speak the same line in English and Chinese with totally different synching.


the models is a physics system so lifelike that you really have to see it to

believe it. In-game objects react to force with stunning realism, particularly

as shown during the demo. Using an anti-gravity gun, Valve's Managing Director

Gabe Newell flipped barrels into a pool of water, the heavier ones sinking,

the lighter ones bobbing on the surface. He then grabbed a mattress and tossed

it over a floating barrel, lending enough weight to make the object bob a little

deeper while the mattress flopped and conformed over the barrel as it should.

Taking it a step further is the fact that surface types will define how objects react to the environment. Wood chips and flakes as it gets shot, while nearly unbreakable metal cans slam into one another with a satisfying clang.

Call it perfect hit detection or call it uncanny physics; I call it the kind of graphical detail than could lead to countless gameplay enhancements. Imagine fighting a giant enemy and hurling random debris at it to keep it at bay. Shoot off the legs of a wooden platform and watch your ragdoll enemies slowly slide into shimmering water. Lob a barrel at a gang of baddies and hope for a strike. Bowling for carbine!

To demonstrate how the Source physics model could impact the gameplay, Newell

took us on a trip through one of the indoor/outdoor segments of the war-torn

City 17 locale. During one sequence, Gordon was attempting to make it up a staircase

under heavy fire from a baddie at the top. Again using the anti-grav gun, Gordon

yanked a radiator off the wall, used it as a shield from fire and then hurled

it at the enemy.

Another example of the synergy between physics and gameplay took place later in the demo while Gordon was fleeing from an enemy airship. Running up a dirt road littered with overturned cars, our hero found the wrecks to be the only source of cover. However, the airship's outrageous firepower created enough force to literally push the cars backwards, skidding and grinding their way back into Gordon. Narrowly escaping, Gordon then grabbed a rocket launcher and took out the airship with a solid hit...only to watch in horror as the ship crashed to the ground, roaring towards Gordon while smashing wrecked cars out of the way, a runaway alien train. Sweet.

But Half-life wasn't really about graphics - it was about fantastic

flow, cinematic scripting and great AI. Half-life 2 looks to up the ante

with enemies who actually TRY to kill you, even if you think you've outsmarted


One example of this in the demo took place when Gordon ducked into a room to avoid gunfire. He entered the room, shut the door and barricaded it by moving a desk and several heavy objects to block entry. The enemy tried to get in, found the door jammed and proceeded to break a window with his gun and shoot almost blindly into the room, figuring he'd nail something.

This intellect goes for your allies as well. Lay down some cover fire and

they'll move to a better position. They'll duck and hide to avoid being shot,

slowly slinking their way forward rather than jumping out like Rambo to take

one in the mullet. Half-life 2 is not a squad-based game at all - you

do not directly control your allies - but the advanced AI almost makes it feel

like one.

There are still many unanswered questions surrounding the multiplayer setup and mod potential, but suffice to say that Valve understands the value of the fan community better than most developers. So far, it's known that a map editor will ship with the game, but beyond acknowledging that there will be some sort of multiplayer, Valve and Vivendi have been tight-lipped.

As well they should be. It isn't often you see a game with as much potential

as Half-life 2, and it's ever rarer to feel entirely confident about

its final promise. But when you're dealing with a track record like Valve's,

it's easy to see why so many jaded gaming journalists are clamoring to find

a cozy spot on the bandwagon. I've got mine, that's for sure, and I'm not giving

up this front row seat until the game ships on September 30 of this year.