We were as skeptical as anyone going into the Half-Life 2 E3 demo. For the first time, Valve would be showing off scenes of actual gameplay from the upcoming shooter, which the company states will ship on September 30 of this year. Can Valve truly manage to repeat the incredible success of the 1998 original? From what we've seen just now, the answer is hell yes.
Valve's Gabe Newell opened the presentation with a technology demo of the Source engine, which is being used for Half-Life 2 and the forthcoming Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. The Source engine has a number of key features, and it does a particularly impressive job of integrating realistic physics and graphical effects with some unbelievably detailed character models. You may have seen the screenshots of Half-Life 2's characters already, and you may have been suspicious of whether those characters would truly look that good in the game. Well, they do. The demonstration opened with Half-Life's G-man, the enigmatic suit-wearing character, shown in a tight close-up. Newell stated that more than 40 "muscles" are used to determine this character's facial expressions, and indeed, we could see him smiling, snarling, sneering, looking fearful, looking sinister, and looking victorious--subtle and incredibly convincing facial expressions that all were shown in real time. Valve also demonstrated the lip-synching technology used for the game--the G-man repeated his speaking lines in Chinese, forming the syllables perfectly.
We saw that the Source engine features displacement map technology, which allows for scenery to deform in real time. We saw that different surfaces and types of objects all have different mass and respond differently to different types of actions. For example, Gordon Freeman could be seen shooting out a wooden pier, which collapsed into a pool of water. The wood splashed down into the drink and then floated to the surface, but the barrels atop the pier sank. This sounds mundane, but seeing it occur in real time is quite impressive. Other simple objects--bed mattresses, for example--also came across as surprisingly remarkable, since they just acted like their real-life counterparts do. Often, Valve demonstrated the game's physics by having Freeman use a "gravity gun" weapon, which could rip things like radiators and cabinets from off their hinges and then fling them into enemies or other objects, producing dynamic and believable results.
Valve showed off the game's artificial intelligence in another great scene that put Freeman against commandolike enemies called the Combine. Freeman was seen engaged in a shootout against these deadly foes, and we watched as he retreated into a ramshackle house to take cover. Freeman bars the door by pushing a table against it, and sure enough we see the Combine trying to break in. The enemy changes tactics and starts shooting out windows, and soon enough, they manage to smash down the door. Gordon continues to flee, but he stops long enough to do away with a Combine trooper by flinging a radiator square into his chest, which flattens the thug against a soda machine, crushing both of them.
Another scene showed Freeman using a huge propellerlike device to rip a bunch of zombies in half. One gets blown apart by a grenade, yet the top half of the zombie continues its pursuit. To ward off another zombie attack, Freeman blows up an explosive barrel, which causes the destroyed husk of a car to crush the lot of them. The car then ignites and catches flame, incinerating yet more zombies.
Still another sequence revealed that Half-Life 2 will have drivable vehicles in it. Freeman hops into a dune buggy armed with a high-tech weapon and begins yet another escape sequence as a huge flying buglike monstrosity begins its attack with a high-powered machine gun. Freeman smashes through obstacles and Combine troopers in this car, sometimes using its weapon to take them out. Freeman eventually gets blocked by destroyed vehicles and hops out of his buggy, only to discover a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, which he uses to guide missiles toward his persistent assailant. The creature returns fire, laying into the destroyed cars that Freeman is using as cover. The cars start to move toward Freeman threateningly under the immense power of the machine gun fire, and even the vehicles' suspension could be seen rattling. Freeman finally shoots the thing down, but it comes careening toward him in its death throes as the sequence ends.
Another very impressive sequence showed Freeman leading a pack of resistance fighters in a pitched, close-quarters city battle against the Combine. Here we saw Barney, the security guard from Half-Life, valiantly helping Freeman fend off these foes. As Freeman clears the way for his allies, they quickly rush to new cover, taking care to stay out of harm's way. The artificial intelligence was very convincing, as all these soldiers seemed to fight for their survival.
We saw even more. Newell explained that Freeman's allies won't all be human. Using special pheromone globes, Freeman could summon the buglike creatures seen in the first Half-Life 2 screens. By tossing one of the globes at his foes, the bugs would swarm toward the scent, marauding the Combine foes in the vicinity.
A final sequence showed Freeman in the war-torn City 17 fighting against the spindly "strider" creatures also seen in screenshots. Armed with railgunlike weapons as well as machine guns, these creatures proved to be more than a match against Freeman's freedom fighters, and they towered over their victims.
Frankly, we were blown away by what we saw of Half-Life 2 here, and though this was a rolling demo (albeit of real-time gameplay), Valve proceeded to demonstrate the bug bait level in action, which looked just as good as in the rolling demo. Based on the 25-minute Half-Life 2 demo, we can say with reasonable certainty that this is definitely a game worth looking forward to. It's hard to believe it's only a few months away, and if the whole game is as dynamic and great looking as what we saw today, then it should be just as big a deal as the original Half-Life was.
We'll try to bring you more on Half-Life 2 very soon.