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.

Matching

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

them.

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.