Half-Life 2 Preview

We fill you in on the setting, the look, the gameplay, and the technology of Valve's upcoming sequel to its breakthrough first-person shooter, Half-Life.

How do you make a sequel to one of the best, most popular action games ever made? Very carefully. Just ask Valve, the creator of the blockbuster 1998 first-person shooter Half-Life. This enigmatic company has seemingly been dormant ever since the release of Half-Life, emerging only for the occasional announcement of a new patch for Counter-Strike or another refurbished Half-Life bundle for retail outlets. Now Valve has started talking again--and talking big, for a change. But it's been keeping busy all along. After all, as Valve's founder and CEO Gabe Newell is quick to point out, the sequel to Half-Life has been in the works for the past five years, ever since Half Life's release. Yet only now, with the finish line in sight, has the company decided to come forward with some hard facts about what exactly Half-Life 2 is going to be. Recently, we were fortunate enough to take a look at an early version of the game in action and speak with key members of Valve about what they've been doing all this time. So it practically goes without saying that we have some exciting details to report.

Gordon Freeman is back in Half-Life 2, and he'll have some help from Dr. Eli and Alyx Vance.

The original Half-Life brought a real sense of surprise and suspense to action gaming. As if to set us up for more shocks, Valve was quick to hit us with this little doozy: Half-Life 2 is on track for a worldwide release on September 30 of this year. We're not talking "when it's done" here. We're talking "really soon." What about multiplayer support? Half-Life is still on people's minds after all these years because of the incredible work done by fans of the game, who used Half-Life's 3D engine to produce entirely new and outstandingly good multiplayer games such as Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat. If not for these multiplayer mods, Half-Life wouldn't have enjoyed nearly the sort of longevity that it has. So the good news is, Half-Life 2 will indeed have multiplayer features out of the box. The bad news, for now, is that Valve won't elaborate any further. More details on multiplayer Half-Life 2 are forthcoming, but it has been confirmed that Half-Life 2 is being built--or rather, the proprietary technology powering the game was built--with the mod community in mind. We'll cover that later on in this preview.

In case you were wondering, the game is also being built, first and foremost, for the PC. Leading up to the official announcement from Valve that Half-Life 2 would be publicly displayed for the first time at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in May 2003, rumors spread far and wide about what the game would and wouldn't be. One of the more popular rumors was that, much like how Bungie Software moved development of its outstanding first-person shooter, Halo, from the PC to the Xbox, so would Valve switch to focusing on console development. Newell laughed this off--no, Half-Life 2 will be a PC game. At first. Newell did confirm that an Xbox version, at least, will follow suit, though there's no hard release date for it yet. At any rate, Newell emphasized that the success of the original Half-Life can be attributed in no small part to the game's huge, worldwide following of PC owners. Valve would have to be downright foolish to abandon its huge installed base when making Half-Life 2.

What about the game itself? Read on to learn more about what Half-Life 2 will play like, who's in it, and what's going on in it.

From Gordon's Perspective

As much attention as Half-Life 2's cinematic aspirations are bound to inspire, the game promises plenty of pure action.

Half-Life certainly wasn't the first game of its kind. Many other 3D first-person shooters, such as id Software's Quake, had long since popularized the genre for fans of single-player and multiplayer action. What Half-Life did was refine and in some ways redefine the genre's formula, bringing it to its current high standards. Half-Life is still the high-water mark as first-person shooters go, because it was the first game to present, as Newell aptly put it, "a seamless string of surprising events." The object of the game wasn't just to reach the other end of every level. The gameplay wasn't about finding color-coded keys to match color-coded doors. The object was survival. And the gameplay was exceedingly intense, thanks to the game's excellent audio, special effects, enemy design, and artificial intelligence. In Half-Life, players became Gordon Freeman, a scientist who happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. The game's opening act is as memorable as they come: Freeman inadvertently triggers a dimensional rift, causing terrible alien creatures to pour into the Black Mesa research center--and causing government black-ops agents to come after both the creatures and any human witnesses. Fortunately for Freeman, he gets his hands on the HEV system, a powerful and high-tech environment suit that enables him to overcome incredible odds, shooting his way past hordes of aliens and commandos and eventually warping to the aliens' home turf and hitting them where it counts.

Half-Life 2 will be a traditional sequel insofar as it continues the storyline established in the original game and reintroduces many familiar characters. So in short, Half-Life 2 will be fundamentally similar to the original, both thematically and in terms of gameplay. It's going to look much better, take place in bigger and more-detailed environments, and feature a stronger cast of characters. Players will reprise the role of Gordon Freeman. In the sequel, as in the original, players will see everything through Freeman's eyes and will never be taken out of his persona. And, as in the original, Freeman will never say a word--it will be up to players to play every bit of the character's role.

The huge strider can be seen stomping around City 17, the European city where the new game takes place.

According to Newell, Half-Life 2 is going to fulfill the original game's potential as a medium for first-person storytelling, as that game merely "scratched the surface." In other words, though the original Half-Life was praised for its ability to immerse players in the dangerous world of the game, the sequel promises to do an even better job of it. At the same time, it seems wise of the designers to not go out of their way to alter the parts of Half-Life's formula that worked well. We thrilled to being in the middle of an alien invasion. We grew tense at the realization that our actions in the world of the game had real consequences, such as when, early on, pressing an elevator call button caused an elevator full of scientists to come crashing down, killing them all. Half-Life 2 will rekindle these feelings, and more. Newell often referred to Valve's intention to make Half-Life 2 an "emotional" experience--the designers want to make Half-Life 2 players empathize with the game's main character.

Essentially, Valve hopes that Half-Life 2 will be exactly the sequel that the original game's legions of fans want it to be. As such, it has a familiar cast and a familiar setting--though that's not to say it's about all the same people having it out in Black Mesa again. Next we'll tell you more about the setting and some of the new characters--both friendly and unfriendly--in Half-Life 2.

Working for the G-Man

The original Half-Life certainly had an epic feel to it, but the game did take place almost entirely within a cold, subterranean research laboratory--hardly the place for serious heroics. Half-Life 2 won't be confined to Black Mesa. Instead, the game will take place entirely in a fictitious European city known only as City 17--Valve implied that there would be no action on alien turf this time around. For the most part, what we saw of the city looked quaint and modern. However, some decidedly futuristic touches, such as the high-tech outfits worn by some of the inhabitants of the city, made us wonder when exactly Half-Life 2 is supposed to take place.

You're now working for the G-man, who has been updated with a new, much more detailed look.

So as not to spoil anything, Valve wouldn't reveal specifics about the plot except that the game takes place not long after the events of the original. We do know that Gordon Freeman is back and doesn't really look any older. We know that other characters from Half-Life are back, such as the mysterious briefcase-toting G-man, who had offered Freeman the option to work for him at the conclusion of the first game. In Half-Life 2, we find out that Freeman has accepted the offer, but it's unclear how that affects his relationships with the other characters. Barney the security guard managed to survive this long, too. We know that many of Half-Life's best, most popular alien foes, from headcrabs to barnacles, are back as well. But Valve spent less time showing us these familiar faces and more time showing us Alyx, a young woman who will apparently be Gordon's comrade-in-arms during parts of Half-Life 2.

Alyx turns out to be the daughter of one of Freeman's less-fortunate colleagues, and her mother was also killed during the events of the original game. She seems to have inherited her father's scientific know-how and technical aptitude, and she's pretty good looking to boot. In the technical demonstration we were given, she also served as Valve's poster child for the work the designers have done on character modeling, animation, and lip synching. Alyx could be seen smiling, frowning, grimacing, and accurately forming every syllable of her dialogue, all in real time. The lip synching is based on wave-pattern recognition, which will not only allow Valve to more easily localize Half-Life 2 in many different languages, but will also provide benefits to mod makers to reap the benefits.

Indeed, Half-Life 2's characters are so detailed that even the characters' eyes are modeled in great detail. So when Alyx was made to look toward the screen, the effect was that she was looking right at us, rather than staring blankly at nothing, as game characters tend to do. Newell expressed that a great deal of time was spent getting the characters of Half-Life 2 to look really good and act and move in a lifelike fashion--he admitted that the designers didn't really expect the characters from Half-Life, such as the scientists and security guards, to be so endearing, but said that this time they have been specifically trying to bring out unique personalities in every human in the game. Their efforts seem to have paid off. These are definitely some of the better-looking real-time 3D characters that we've seen in a PC game to date.

Half-Life 2 has plenty of surprises in store for us, including many new mysterious new threats.

The monsters don't look half-bad, either. Old favorites like those freaky headcrabs and the ceiling-hugging barnacles are unmistakably similar to their original incarnations, only much more detailed, featuring smooth, almost oily-looking skins and rounded, far more natural-looking bodies. We saw almost all the other monsters from Half-Life, as well as some new ones, including a number of gigantic insectlike creatures reminiscent of the Klendathu bugs from Starship Troopers. We also saw a huge, flealike creature called a strider, which could be seen stomping around City 17 on its three spindly legs. And we saw a lumbering, heavily armored alien trooper, similar to the hulking, flamethrower-wielding alien from Half-Life.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Half-Life game without military forces going up against the aliens, and we saw plenty of heavily armed soldiers, too. Half-Life's artificial intelligence and scripting were two of its finest qualities, so read on to find about how those features have been enhanced for the sequel.

You Can Run, But You Can't Hide

In what was perhaps the best demonstration of what Half-Life 2's gameplay will eventually be like, we saw a sequence (from Freeman's perspective, of course) in which a squad of soldiers was battling a swarm of alien bugs inside a prison complex. The frenetic action was taking place all around, creating a scene that was, in a word, chaotic.

The sequel will combine both dynamic and scripted elements to ensure it makes a big impression even on a second or third time through.

And yet those who played Half-Life know that the artificial intelligence for the game's deadly commando squads was surprisingly orderly and efficient. The soldiers would act as a team, using flanking maneuvers and flushing Freeman out of his hiding places with grenades. This made for action sequences that played out differently each time. However, most of Half-Life's surprises were scripted. At key moments, things would happen in the game, such as when a zombielike scientist with a headcrab for a head would come crashing through a door or a ceiling. Half-Life 2 will likewise make use of both advanced AI routines and scripted sequences, but it will integrate them to allow for more gameplay sequences that take surprising turns, no matter how many times you play through them.

In one relatively simple demonstration of this, we saw a sequence in which one of the gigantic strider creatures was chasing Freeman. Freeman bolted under an overpass, hoping that the strider would be unable to proceed--but then we saw the strider bend down and clamber under the overpass to continue its pursuit. The strider, Valve explained, "knew" that it could get past the bridge only by crouching down.

A more startling example of scripting and AI once again had Freeman fleeing from something, this time one of the new, heavily armored alien soldiers. Freeman ducked into a doorway and slammed the door shut, hiding in the corner, hoping the alien would just pass him by. No such luck. First a huge, armored fist came crashing through the glass window of the door. Then a cameralike probe entered the opening and started scanning the area. It found us. Freeman, that is. The sequence ended as the steel door began to cave in under the tremendous pressure of the alien striking it with its fists. Again, Valve explained that the entire sequence occurred only because the player unsuccessfully tried to hide.

We saw a few other sequences demonstrating some of the different types of scenarios and environments that will be in the game. We saw a gigantic ocean liner, modeled to authentic proportions and in great detail. We also saw Freeman shooting it out against some headcrab zombies on a pier. In a great touch, after the zombies were brought down, the parasites would scramble off their hosts and lunge at Freeman in a desperate attempt to claim another victim.

Valve has put a great deal of effort into making the character animations, facial expressions, and lip synching look particularly good.

We were also given a demonstration of Half-Life 2's realistic physics, which will affect both the objects and the characters in the game. Objects will have realistic mass--in the pier sequence, one zombie hurled a barrel at Freeman, which rolled toward him but was stopped short by a shotgun blast. Objects have realistic buoyancy as well--some float, while others sink. Killed characters will slump down in lifeless heaps as "rag doll" physics kick in. If a zombie standing near a wall takes a close-range shotgun blast, you might see it slam backward against the surface and slowly slide down. The improved physics engine of Half-Life 2 should not only help make the game look more believable, but it will also figure into some of the game's puzzle-solving elements. As a conceptual demonstration of this, we watched as an oversized wrench was thrown into a piston-driven machine--and sure enough, the machine ground to a halt when the wrench got caught in the machinery.

This all looked quite good, although the game's proprietary 3D engine was designed to emphasize flexibility and functionality, rather than just great visuals. Read on to find out what kind of system you'll need to run Half-Life 2, learn more about why the engine ought to be a real boon for mod makers, and get our final thoughts (for now) about the game.

Half-Full or Half-Empty?

Half-Life turned out to be the biggest sleeper of 1998--there was relatively little excitement about the game until it finally hit store shelves. Meanwhile, much attention was being paid to other shooters scheduled for release that year, such as Sin and Shogo: Mobile Armor Division--games that had generated more prerelease hype than Half-Life, but were quickly eclipsed by Valve's game and are now long forgotten. Five years later, Half-Life 2 is once again going to enter into a fiercely competitive category. Most notably, the impending release of id Software's Doom III (slated for later this year) means that many people will draw comparisons between the two games. Doom III has already gotten a lot of people excited because of the impressive screenshots that id Software has released of the work in progress. At a glance, Half-Life 2's visuals don't stand out as much. Though Half-Life 2's graphics engine definitely looks good, it doesn't look dramatically better than the already-impressive graphics produced by some of today's 3D engines, such as the Unreal engine (used for games like Unreal Tournament 2003 and Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell) and the Lithtech engine (used for games like No One Lives Forever 2 and the upcoming Tron 2.0).

Dr. Eli is another returning character who provides an example of the sequel's improved graphics.

Half-Life 2's engine was designed to be scaleable. Valve built the engine so relatively low-end systems could run the game reasonably well. That is, the minimum specs for the game should be around a 700MHz Pentium III with a TNT graphics card. Valve designed the engine for the lowest common denominator because its close ties with the huge community of Counter-Strike players gave it the impression that a large number of the game's potential fans still have old systems. We ourselves saw the game engine running on a 2GHz Pentium 4 machine with a GeForce 4 card--nothing out of the ordinary--and it performed nicely, with lots of realistic lighting and shadow effects, and shaders and bump mapping to bring out the detail in the textures.

Anyway, sheer graphics quality was never really Half-Life's strong suit--the game looked about as good as other shooters of the time, but more importantly, it played much better, and the game's 3D engine proved to be incredibly flexible and enduring. Similarly, while the Half-Life 2 engine might not have floored us from a purely visual standpoint, we were definitely impressed with Valve's intentions to release the engine and the "Hammer" toolset to the mod community even before the release of the game itself. Valve explained that the engine is designed in such a way that objects can automatically acquire the properties of their textures. For example, a mod maker can take a rectangular object and apply a bricklike texture to it, and that object will then automatically function like a brick of that approximate size. It will sink if dropped in water, shatter if shot, make an appropriate noise if stepped on, and so on. Basically, the engine will allow mod makers to quickly and intuitively construct environments using a broad range of realistic surfaces and textures. As a result, mod makers should be able to produce realistic levels more quickly than ever before, and with superior results. Valve knows that the mod community played a tremendous part in Half-Life's commercial success and staying power, and the company is designing Half-Life 2 with those fans in mind.

So what about the game itself? Will it really be better than the original? Will it be longer and will the plot and the pacing be better? Will it revolutionize the first-person shooter? We don't know yet. And since we've seen none of the actual gameplay of Half-Life 2, it's hardly even worth speculating. We don't know what weapons will be in the game, we don't know what (if any) new moves Gordon Freeman will have, and we don't know much about the storyline. Actually, most of what Valve showed us of Half-Life 2 wasn't even from the game, but rather was mostly just a series of technology demos and "proof of concept" sequences that were more or less digital storyboards.

And in fact, the build of Half-Life 2 that we saw actually dates way back to the summer of 2002, even though the game has been in full production ever since. Valve has always been tight-lipped, and despite finally unveiling its biggest project to date, the company hasn't changed its ways. We know that Half-Life 2 will have to live up to some incredibly high expectations--perhaps impossibly high expectations--in order to meet the standards set by its predecessor. But we also know that Valve has had many more people, much more funding, and far more time on the sequel than it had on the original. So it's a gamble as to whether or not Half-Life 2 will end up truly living up to its name, and the stakes here couldn't be any higher for Valve, but for what it's worth, the odds are looking good. For more on the game, check out our exclusive 40-minute video interview with Valve founder and managing director Gabe Newell and senior software development engineer Jay Stelly.

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Discussion

2 comments
DarkAngeles
DarkAngeles

Still getting a smile on my face with this review. :)

jakeboudville
jakeboudville

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]