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One mans' two-day odyssey through Half-Life 2
Published on November 21, 2004 By Zoomba In PC Gaming
So last night around 8:30pm, I finished my trek through Half-Life 2, just about two days after it was released. How was it you ask? How did I do it in two days with a full time job and a human need for sleep? Is something else you may be wondering. Well, let me share with you my complete take on Half-Life 2, the hype, the delays and the distribution…

The Hype
No doubt about it, this is one of the most hyped PC games ever, which is surprising given the fact that I don’t think I’ve seen a single in-store advertisement in any EB or GameStop in my area. I didn’t even see a magazine advertisement for it in the past few months. Now, this may be because Valve was trying to play down the hype after the disaster of Sept 2003, or perhaps it was Vivendi trying to stick it to Valve due to their less than stellar relations. Regardless of the reason, Half-Life 2 still managed to reach epic hype proportions. Of course, what can we expect from the game that is the sequel to what is considered by just about every PC gamer to be “Teh Greatestest PC Game Evar!!!” We had such high hopes for the story, penned by the same mastermind behind the narrative for the first game. The new Source engine looked so amazingly sweet, we were expecting near photo-realism (well as close as can be expected from anything that isn’t a Myst game). And then there was the physics. Wow the physics. Who would have ever thought that the average person would ever utter the words “physics” and “cool” in the same sentence? Well, for Half-Life 2, many did. I mean the teasers showed you using a gravity gun to throw table saw blades at zombies, cutting them in half! How kick-ass is that?! The game promised everything… sweet visuals, realistic physics (within the boundaries of “fun” because we all know being bound by the laws of gravity and such isn’t a particularly amusing experience), and a story to rival a good conspiracy film. Oh… and on top of that, Valve promised to “revolutionize” the PC game distribution system.

So, how did it do?

Steam… Be careful, it can burn…

Online game distribution… download it direct to your hard drive and when the release day comes, BOOM, you’re good to go, you don’t even have to get up out of your comfy chair. Never worry about losing your CDs again! Bask in the light of a new era for man! A revolution in the way we get games… right? Well, maybe not. As just about everyone here at JoeUser knows, Stardock has been doing this for a while with Stardock Central and subscriptions to TGN and ObjectDesktop. They’ve proven that direct delivery of commercial content works, and works well just so long as you have broadband. But with Steam it’s a slightly different story as it’s the first time a AAA blockbuster title has tried this route for its initial release. Can any content delivery system handle millions of users downloading gigabytes of data and then all trying to authenticate and unlock that data at once? Steam has long been plagued by bugs, crashes and other annoyances, but in the past month or so it’s been slowly trickling out game content to thousands of hungry fans, finally just waiting for authentication from the central server so the game would be playable. At midnight PST on the 16th, the game went live, and finally everyone who had the game sitting in complete form on their hard drives for a week or three could play. Oh, and all those people who bought the game a few days early were finally able to play too. Wait, you didn’t know that even if you bought a physical copy from a store a few days early you wouldn’t be able to play it? That was just one of the disadvantages to tying HL2 so closely to steam. Well, despite sever clogs and a few bugs, it all worked out and within 24hrs everyone who had the game was able to play it. Did Steam prove the idea could work for the really big games? Well, sort of. Despite a massive amount of bandwidth and a LOT of big burly servers to handle the load, the entire thing still collapsed in on itself. No major game that depends on an online infrastructure has ever survived launch day unscathed. MMOs always crash under the opening day load, and so did Steam. Let’s take a quick look at the pros and cons of using Steam to distribute and authenticate Half-Life 2…

• Convenience. I didn’t have to try my luck with local stores, or slow delivery services. I had the game as soon as it was released
• No lost CDs. I’ll never ever have to worry about losing my CDs for this game. The only thing I have to remember is my Steam login and I’ve got the game again should I need/want it
• Despite problems, it has proven that this is a viable delivery method for big-name games. Development houses now have some freedom from publishers should they want it/be able to afford it.

• Forced authentication for retail copies. If you bought a box copy, you still had to authenticate through steam to play. Where in the past you just had to enter your CD key and the installer ran a quick check to make sure it was valid, now you had to have a net connection and a steam account to install the game.
• Steam offline? No game for you! This applies specifically to the online purchased copy. I don’t have the retail version so I can’t verify this problem for that version. If you can’t login to Steam for whatever reason, it looks like you’re out of luck for playing. People have said you can load Steam in offline mode, but I’ve only ever been presented that option once or twice in all the time I’ve used Steam, it seems random when it lets you choose.

Final verdict? Steam was a major step forward for proving the online distribution method, but it has its own share of problems that need to be resolved. I think we may start to see more games use this method now that a game as big as Half-Life 2 managed to prove it viable. It’s just too bad that Valve is going to get all the credit for being the “first” to try something like this. Stardock should have played the unfair patent game and locked up all rights to the idea of digital distribution of games and charged Valve a pretty penny for the tech

The Visuals

I would be including screenshots in this review, but I’m writing this during down-times at work and don’t have access to photo editing tools. So you’ll either have to use your imagination or go check other game sites for their screencaps.

The Source Engine is a completely home-grown 3d graphics engine developed by Valve. This is a departure from Half-Life 1 which was based on a heavily modified Quake 1 engine (yes, that’s right… it was based on Quake 1). In a year with games like Far Cry and Doom 3, both sporting their own highly impressive next-generation graphics engines, you’d wonder how Valve could compete, after all, they have very little experience building engines (well none… especially with only one game to their name previously). iD is the king of 3d engines, nothing has ever really been able to touch them. Sure the Unreal Engine is pretty neat, but it always lags behind iD technology. Crytek’s engine for FarCry was impressive as all get-out too. Stiff competition this year to be sure. So how does Source stack up?

Very, very well.

There are a number of places where the game visuals really shine. Water, lighting, character animations and faces and materials.

Source doesn’t have the physical oomph that the Doom 3 engine does. Doom 3 definitely has a higher poly count to models and world geometry and generally the textures are of a much higher resolution… but Doom 3 is a real system hog and can’t handle outdoor scenes. Source blends all of its elements together to present a highly polished package. The water is the best I’ve seen in a game and you can set it to reflect EVERYTHING if you have a good enough vid card for it. Another thing is how Source utilizes light as a complement to a scene. Unlike Doom 3 which was all about light (or the lack thereof to define a scene) Source uses it as an integral *piece* to the overall picture. The effects range from subtle (beams of light coming in through windows and little specks of dust floating in them) to really cool and obvious (if you’re traveling down a dark tunnel, as you near the well-lit exit, all you see is the bright outline of the tunnel exit with a bright halo of light around it… very much like in reality). But where this games visuals REALLY stand out and just trounce the competition to hell is in character faces and animations.

Valve managed to develop an amazing facial motion tech for this game. Characters look more real than in any game we’ve ever seen. They have little imperfections (the G-Man has a bit of lazy-eye), visually express the emotion they’re feeling (Alyx has worry lines on her face when she talks about her father… so cool) and they lip sync to the spoken text amazingly well. If I had to single out one real step forward for game engines that Source brings to the table, it’d be character faces. If you haven’t played the game, or seen the shots, go check out the opening cinematic for the game, you can get it from FilePlanet.

Materials are another area they did a good job on. In some cases you’ll notice some really low-res textures and materials on objects, but this is pretty rare. For the most part they managed to create textures that looked *really* real. Paint flaking off of an old wall that’s been partially blown apart by shelling… it’s impressive.

All of this comes together to create a visually compelling atmosphere. It feels old and very lived in. Many people have compared it to the war-torn ghettos of Europe from WWII. There’s no question that’s the look Valve was going for and they captured it so well. Another nice thing was they didn’t just use all of their effort and visuals on just one sort of scene. The game starts and almost ends in the war-torn City 17, the ghetto scene piece I just described, but a fair bit of the game is spent in a variety of different environments (City canal system, coastal roads and towns, a destroyed dark town called Ravenholm which is almost directly out of a horror film, Nova Prospekt a run-down prison, and The Citadel… home of The Combine) all of which receive the same loving care and attention to detail as City 17.

“Can you hear me now? Good”

Now a game can look great, but it also has to sound great to really seal the deal and immerse you in the game world. This is an area that often receives very little attention when it’s done right. If sound is done properly, you don’t notice it, as it fits in with what you would expect from the visuals. It’s when sound goes wrong that it sticks out and you have to turn your speakers down to suffer through it. Gun sounds, environment, ambient machinery noises and spoken dialogue is all done amazingly well. There’s chatter from radios, guards talk to one another, every character in the game has something to say, even if it’s just “Please, don’t draw the guards’ attention”. The world sounds spot-on, but it’s those spoken lines that really pull you in and show you that this is a living breathing world with real people in it, not just AI automations put in place to give the visual impression of a full world.

Professional voice acting goes a long way to help this area, and Valve got some top-notch talent. The voice of Eli Vance, the black scientist you saw in Half-Life 1 (the one who asks you to go for help right as the shit hits the fan) is done by Benson (can’t remember the actor’s name right now… but you’ll recognize the voice for sure). In a neat bit of trivia, the guy who voices The G-Man also does the voice for Barney the security guard.

Directional sound also plays a big role in this game, and I’m glad I have surround speakers as there were many times I had to figure out where a bad guy was based off of where I heard the gunshots coming from.

An object in motion will remain in motion…

Physics. Who would have ever thought physics could be cool? Well in this game it is. Valve licensed the Havok physics engine and it seems like they tweaked the hell out of it to get it to do everything they wanted to. Everything in the world has physical properties that you can act upon given enough force. You can pick up and throw bottles, cans boxes and any other number of small objects. Once you get the gravity gun, you can start playing with a whole new set of world objects which opens up new avenues of gameplay. The physics comes into play in a number of places as you’ll have to use world objects to solve puzzles. One of the earliest ones is using cement blocks to weigh down one end of a large plank of wood that’s balanced over a cylinder to create a ramp to get to a higher area.

There are tons of places where you can use the environment to your advantage in battles, setting up barricades with tables and barrels, dropping very heavy things on top of groups of aliens, squashing them, or using the gravity gun to pick up giant saw blades that you can then fire through enemies, cutting them in half. Wrecked car blocking your path on the road? Push it off the cliff nearby to clear the way. In a dockyard and see a horde of baddies coming your way? Climb up in the crane and drop a shipping container on them. Way blocked by a giant window? Drive right through it! Bad guys on a ledge above you shooting at you? Blow out the supports and watch them fall to their death. The possibilities, and fun, are endless.

Paging all X-Files fans… come in please…

Now, what’s a game with good visuals and great sound and excellent physics if there isn’t a compelling reason to play? I’ve railed on in the past about the need for good stories in games, and in many cases I’ve been promised the world by developers only to be given the equivalent of Rhode Island. Half-Life 2 had a lot to follow-up on as Half-Life 1 had a stellar story that was rich, detailed and twisted. It unfolded in a very movie like fashion, and they had to do as well if not better in the sequel. Did they? In some places yes, in some places no. This area will be pretty short as I want to avoid spoilers for those of you who haven’t played/beaten it yet.

The good? It’s compelling, well crafted and well written. You want to find out what comes next and try and soak up every bit of story hidden throughout the entire game (and some of it is pretty subtle/hidden… always listen to TV broadcasts of PA announcements). Also, there are parts of the game that are just epic and cinematic in a way I haven’t seen in a game before… You’ll know what I mean when you get to The Citadel.

The bad? It poses more questions than it answers, and a good number of questions from the first game are never answered either. You’ll notice that the Vortigons (sp?), those one-eyed aliens from the first game that teleported around are now your allies. No reason is ever given for this. You also never really find out what’s going on in the wider world. It’s hinted at in bits and pieces throughout the game, but you are left to make several very large mental leaps to try and come up with the big picture. But the single biggest problem? The story just *ends*. And I don’t mean it comes to a conclusion, I mean it just stops dead in its tracks, no explanation, nothing. You’re going along, do the boss fight, and you’d expect either another level or maybe some exposition from the NPCs, but no… you get yanked out at the end very suddenly and are given no explanation. It’s like watching a murder mystery and having the credits start right when the lead investigator goes “I’ve figured it out! The murderer is…”

What story there is, is excellent, no question about that… it just seems too spotty and ends too abruptly. I wish they could have given a complete narrative as opposed to leaving the game open for yet another sequel. I can’t wait another 6 years to cap off this series (and this game definitely feels like the 2nd part in a trilogy, it doesn’t entirely stand on its own as a story… just like ESB or The Two Towers… excellent in their own rights, but from a story perspective, incomplete).

Ah, but how does it PLAY?

Great graphics… Check
Great sound… Check
Cool Physics… Check
Good Story… Check

Ok, all the setting elements are in place, now we just need to see how it feels to actually play around in the world… is the game actually any good?

In a single word: YES!

Valve did an amazing job with pacing and mood setting in this game. You go from calm exploration to frantic chases and it all feels right. The sense of urgency as you run from the cops at the start of the game was so good I didn’t even realize I was tense and breathing heavily until I got out of danger. The vehicle chases are frantic as hell and you feel a real rush when you make a jump or escape what seems like certain death. Another great bit of pacing is ammo distribution. There were countless times where I was down to a few bullets and had a ton of enemies to fight. Just as the anxiety started to ratchet up and I was worrying about running out of ammo and being eaten alive, I would find a lone supply crate or unused gun, giving me just as much as I needed to make it to the next crate. This helped create a real survivalist mood for the game, like you really were getting by just by the skin of your teeth.

The physics really come in to heavily influence gameplay with elements like the gravity gun (which is so much fun, I’d spend all day just playing with that if I could), the air boat and the dune buggy. These are all soooo much fun to play with and really add to the experience. I originally thought the gravity gun would really just be a gimmick to use in a few areas, but I found I had it out and ready for a large chunk of the game… tossing exploding barrels into a pack of enemies is so much fun.

The game was so much fun that there are a number of levels I plan on going back and playing again.

Final word and misc comments…
Well, this review has now grown to about 6 pages, so it’s probably time I wrap it up and post it. I really enjoyed the game, and hope to see Valve use Source to put out episodic content, possibly fleshing out more of the story. I beat it in two days essentially because I was sick on Tuesday and stayed home from work (I actually was sick… if I hadn’t been and stayed home I would have beaten the game in a single day, but being sick I had to take frequent and long breaks). I’m kinda sad I beat it so quickly, but with so many new games coming out this time of the year, I need all the free time I can get to explore and enjoy as many as possible!

The game ran surprisingly well for me with only a few stutters when loading a new area. I ran at 1024x768, all details at high, water set to reflect everything, no AA, trilinear filtering, vsync off (mistake… curse my motion sickness)

My machine specs
3.0GHz Pentium 4
ATI Radeon 9800XT 256MB
Sound Blaster Audigy 2

Comments (Page 1)
on Nov 18, 2004
That was a herculean effort there. And while I didn't read it in depth entirely, I did skim it and think it was a great write up. I may give Half Life 2 a try one of these days. My aging hardware (supposedly) should be able to run it, but I have been sort of taking a break from gaming, so it won't be soon.

I hope this gets featured, well worth it!
on Nov 18, 2004
I originally intended to do a short write-up when I rolled into work this morning, something to warm me up for the day... but it ended up taking the first 2 or so hours of my day and was much longer than I was planning I really get into games sometimes.
on Nov 18, 2004
Good review. I wanted to vent my frustrations at how pathetic the storyline is, but can't do it without spoiling it for those who haven't played it.
on Nov 18, 2004
It wasn't that it was pathetic... it was just incomplete. If they had just taken a little more time with it, given it more of the foreground in the action they could have filled in the holes.

But the ending was pretty lame... though the effect and visuals of it were pretty cool.
on Nov 18, 2004
A few additional notes on my HL2 game package.

I bought the Silver package via Steam and got Half Life Source, Day of Defeat Source and Counter Strike Source. All are pretty much straight conversions of the named game to the new Source engine. DoD isn't available yet, but the other two are and I've had a fair bit of time to play around with each. CS Source is pretty neat, while it's still classic CS, it got a much needed visual overhaul and looks like a modern game, hopefully breathing a bit more life into it. It's still CS, but it's visually bearable now, and it has the possibility to incorporate physics into gameplay should an enterprising map maker choose to incorporate it. The possibilities for CS are pretty cool.

Then there's Half Life Source... the original with new graphics... right? Well, not really. The new engine cleans up the visuals a fair bit, but they didn't spend much time on this one and didn't change probably 75% of the textures and didn't do much with the AI character models. So the game scales better to higher resolutions and has cool water... but ugly as heck textures and really very little added to the overall experience. If I hadn't gotten this at all, it would have been no real loss... a disappointment for what it could have been.
on Nov 18, 2004
There is supposed to be a half Life 3 coming, and possibly a complete re-do of 1 using the Source engine. It really is gorgeous isn't it?
If you click the save my password box on Steam you should be able to start off-line and play if your internet is down. This is in the limited instructions you get with the retail discs.
on Nov 18, 2004
The redo of HL1 in Source was included with the Steam purchase packages (Silver and Gold)... very unimpressive. As far as HL3, where did you hear that? I haven't seen any mumble or mention of it on any of the news sites.
on Nov 18, 2004
PC Gamer (DEC issue) mentioned it in their article on the first play through at Valve. No a complete remake is a possibility, not just adding some textures. G. Newell said there is about a 65% chance.
on Nov 21, 2004
Other news is that they've already started preliminary work on HL3... which would make sense as 2 felt very much like the 2nd part in a trilogy.
on Nov 21, 2004

For the record, despite how I'm enjoying the SP game, Half-Life2 has repeatedly made me physically ill while playing through it.

I'm really not sure what to make of that, given the similar reports I've seen elsewhere. Are games getting to the point where the facimile of your POV knocks you on your ass? Honestly, I think its a side-effect of the technology, because not all FPS do that [for me].

The engine and (to a somewhat tainted extent, given the deployment/retail/gold/etc) the platform bits that they've accomplished are really pushing the current envelope [in an good way - it's coming, people]. Story [apart from pacing/parts] and the "no closure" bits, less so. Hello, Halo2/Riddick/everyothergamethatwillhaveaSims8.3version.



on Nov 22, 2004
Two things to do to help with motion sickness (I suffered it too... though less with HL2 than with other games)
1) Make sure the games refresh rate is set fairly high (i.e. 75Hz)
2) Enable vsync in the graphics options

Those two bits helped me a ton.
on Nov 22, 2004
Regarding Steam..
This is the reason I did not purchase Half-Life 2.

So I am against online distribution/purchse of games?
No.I subscribe to instead - where the games work offline.
on Nov 22, 2004
I've heard from everyone that purchased the retail (box) copy that they only had to be online to initially authenticate, after that they could play offline just fine.
on Nov 22, 2004
Hey, I'm playing half-life2 on this:
Windows XP SP2
~1.2 gig of ram ddr (266version)
Athlon XP 1900+
and yes a shitty ati 9200 suckers edition with 128mb of ram

Works great a slight edge blockiness but it is a very beautiful game and no hickups on my system other than the in between shift load times (takes about 10-20 seconds it seems) feels longer than it really is.
on instant comment halflife2 does work offline after you register it through steam. Otherwise, I would never have bought it. I'm on 56k and everyone quickly starts looking for me when they notice the lag (subsequent booting occurs). Same thing as having to activate windows xp; oh on that note it takes quite a while for unencrypting the files damn that was quite a wait. Over a gig of ram and a relatively quick processor didn't help much in this regard.

semi-game spoiler so ignore (if you can):

Currently, just met up with dog & barney after the end of the street fighting and killing all those damn striders (make sure you carry a full load of rockets and have at least one person with a rocket launcher with you to help out if you run out). Now going down that hole dog exposed when he lifted the wall to find more baddies to kill.
Favorite parts of the game: the vehicles, the air/water vehicle was fun but so was the buggy.
on Nov 22, 2004
Half-Life2 has repeatedly made me physically ill while playing through it

Noticed this too but I did play from about 5pm after installing and activating until ~4.30am when I finally quit for the day. A break in between is recommended definately some where else I heard someone say it was conflict between you brain saying you are moving and your body saying its not (I think he was talking about motion sickness) but there is also the epeleptic (spellcheck needed) seizure risk especiall for those who don't know if they suffer or can suffer from that. I quit (for the time being) mostly because I had destroyed the last helo quite a long time before and was now running and gunning and kept hearing the helo sound despite no helocopters being around
Been playing in 2 hour spurts since.