Half-Life 2 needs no introduction. At a recent pre-E3 event hosted by Vivendi Universal, we finally had the opportunity to get our hands on an early version of Valve's upcoming sequel and play through a couple of different sequences that revealed aspects of the story as well as elements of the gameplay. In short, our verdict based on our 15 minutes with the game is that we have no verdict at this time--sorry. There are still too many questions up in the air. But we're certainly still intrigued, and in many ways, now more so than ever. Who wouldn't be by such a game, and such a strange course of events surrounding a game, as this?
After Half-Life 2 missed its projected, widely publicized September release date, and despite the unfortunate reality of how part of the game's source code was stolen, we left last year's E3 with many questions. Many of the set-pieces in last year's E3 movie were certainly impressive, but were they representative of actual gameplay? And now that several excellent, high-profile first-person shooters have beaten Half-Life 2 out the gate--specifically, Unreal Tournament 2004, Far Cry, Painkiller, and Battlefield Vietnam--Valve's game is suddenly faced with some extremely fierce competition and has to live up to even higher standards and expectations.
But we know from the case of the first Half-Life that anything is possible and that we should expect only the unexpected. At any rate, the situation now is as follows: In March of this year, Half-Life 2 finally went alpha, which means that the game's content has been assembled and is now undergoing extensive testing. The game is currently slated for tentative release this summer, but understandably, there isn't a more-specific date to look forward to. At Vivendi's preshow event, a Valve representative candidly admitted that the source code theft last year contributed to the game's lateness, but now the team is back pushing full steam ahead, revitalized by the alpha milestone, and is excited to be able to play through the game from start to finish. Now the team can concentrate on giving Half-Life 2 that all-important layer of polish it's going to need to make a strong impression, according to Valve anyway.
So what, exactly, did we get to play? We got to play through a couple of different sequences, one of which was a story-driven, largely noninteractive expository sequence near the beginning of the game and the other of which was an action sequence involving action both on foot and behind the wheel of a nitro-equipped buggy (the one shown off at last year's E3). We can say that the initial sequence, though there was no real gameplay to it apart from just walking through an environment, was more impressive; it demonstrated to us that Valve still has a knack for creating dramatic, suspenseful sequences that can be exciting even without any kind of real action happening onscreen. That's as impressive of a feat as ever.
As for the action sequence, it seemed reminiscent of the original Half-Life, with one exception: the drivable buggy. Then again, drivable vehicles are no longer anything new for a first-person shooter. As a matter of fact, the implementation of the buggy rather reminded us of the buggy-driving sequences in this year's outstanding Far Cry. The buggy is limited to driving on a narrow ravine, on one side of which is a cliff face without any kind of guardrail to prevent you from careening off of it. To make matters worse, sticky mines keep appearing along the road, latching onto the buggy and disrupting its steering, making that fatal drop much more likely. We died here several times and noted that at least Half-Life 2 seems to retain its predecessor's brief loading times.
Something about the action that caught us off guard was that most of the weapons in Gordon's arsenal this time around seem virtually identical those of the original game, right on down to the sounds they make and their alternate firing modes. Specifically, while Half-Life's crowbar, pistol, revolver, submachine gun, shotgun, rocket launcher, and crossbow all received an obligatory face-lift for the sequel, each of these functions pretty much exactly as it did in the original game. Granted, a gun is a gun, though it was surprising to see that at this point, the new game's weapons seemed so similar to those of the original game--though perhaps there's more tweaking to be done, and more audio left to be added. Of further note, while we observed in one of last year's E3 videos that Gordon needed to drop his submachine gun so that he could pick up a rocket launcher, in the demo we played, we could hoist all the weapons simultaneously as in Half-Life.
Black Mesa Memories
The other weapons we got to try out included grenades, a high-powered experimental rifle (also reminiscent of a Half-Life weapon), and the gravity gun, which was featured prominently in last year's E3 demos. It can be used to suspend solid objects in midair and then fire them off with a burst of force--seems like it'll be fun to use, and certainly is a way to show of Half-Life 2's physics engine.
We got to try these weapons out against some commando-style foes waiting for us at the bottom of the ravine. We were able to focus our attacks right on these bad guys' foreheads, so while we got to see them dodge around a little and return fire, there wasn't much of an opportunity to get a good sense of the game's artificial intelligence. Anyway, the action basically seemed solid, and the audio was nice and clear, but what little shooting we got to do didn't really seem that far out of the ordinary. The game does incorporate realistic physics, but so have many other games that have been released since last year's E3, so Half-Life 2 will face some stiff competition.
What we've seen of Half-Life 2's basic gameplay seems very similar to its predecessor. There's a "use" key, and weapons are once again sorted by category, so you can toggle through different weapons in a category by hitting the respective number key multiple times. As mentioned, some weapons have an alternate firing mode; the shotgun, for example, can be used to fire two rounds simultaneously instead of one. The running speed, the way in which Gordon Freeman's HEV suit talks to him when he's injured, and the overall feel of the game are all highly reminiscent of Half-Life and other first-person shooters that have been influenced by that game.
Let's back up to the earlier sequence, though, which, as mentioned, was more remarkable. Like the first Half-Life, our demonstration of Half-Life 2 began on board a train--one with a couple of sullen passengers. Once the train stopped at the station, we found ourselves on the streets of City 17, the game's setting, which appears to be a near-future European town of some sort. And this otherwise quaint town is apparently in a state of martial law, at the hands of the mysterious gas-mask-wearing Combine forces. The Combine occupation of City 17, and the way in which their seeming leader, the white-haired administrator alluded to in the first Half-Life game, could be heard imploring the citizens into complacency over the airwaves, made this sequence reminiscent of some latter-day George Orwell's 1984--only with those gigantic, spindly strider creatures walking around in the distance.
We were unarmed in this sequence, but that didn't stop us from moseying on up to one of the Combine troops...who brutally and threateningly shoved us back into line, which was pretty cool. Another great moment happened when we tried to stray from the beaten path; a security camera bot suddenly sprang to life, its eyelike lens glowing red and warning alarms blaring, all while a camera quickly snapped multiple photos of our transgression. We immediately felt humiliated at our mistake, then realized it was all part of the experience. Eventually we found our way into a Combine interrogation chamber, in which we were strapped into a sinister chair, which was when the scene ended. To be continued.
The truth is that this gameplay sequence, as tantalizing as it was, raises more questions than answers. We're no closer to having a sense of whether Half-Life 2 will live up to the legendary status of its predecessor, and we're no closer to knowing how, exactly, the game will pan out. We also still know nothing about the game's multiplayer portion, though Valve reassured us that the game will, in fact, ship with multiplayer features.
At the Electronic Entertainment Expo, there will be two new noninteractive demonstrations of Half-Life 2, which will hopefully shed new light on the game beyond what we saw in the hands-on gameplay demo. We'll be bringing you the details on these and reporting on whatever else we can definitely learn about the game.