Half-Life 2 E3 2004 Updated Impressions

Valve and ATI show off two new Half-Life 2 demos, and we're there to see both.


A funny thing happened near the ATI booth at E3 this morning. As soon as the doors opened to the show, dozens of gamers quickly came running to stand in line to be among the first that day to see ATI’s demonstration of Half-Life 2, running in its Half-Life 2 theater. Meanwhile, a couple of hundred feet away, Valve’s own Gabe Newell was running a different Half-Life 2 demonstration in Vivendi Universal Games’ own Half-Life 2 theater. And we were there to see both.

We should mention that neither demonstration involved live gameplay. Instead, both relied on what appeared to either be recorded gameplay running in real time off of a computer or gameplay that was recorded and edited into a playable movie. For the most part, while each demo showed different content, it appeared that Valve only showed different portions of the same levels in each demo. And in some cases, they showed the same events and locations but from two different play sessions.

Both demonstrations start with the same scene, with the mysterious G-Man from the original game talking to you. “Wake up, Mr. Freeman,” he intones. “Wake up, and smell the ashes.” We have to admit that Valve’s cutting-edge facial technology looks just as good as ever. In fact, it’s positively eerie looking at his face. Meanwhile, Valve superimposes scenes from the original game on the screen and offers some tantalizing glimpses of what’s in store for you.

The next scene happens early in the game, and it intends to serve as the expository introduction to the game, much like how the tram ride kicked off the original Half-Life. You find yourself standing in the hallway of a run-down apartment building. Down the hall, sinister-looking police officers clad in body armor and weird masks are banging on the door to an apartment. Other residents peek out of their doors in fear, not wanting to draw the attention of the cops but curious about the commotion. The police finally break into the apartment and gang in, while Gordon walks through several different apartments. Everyone he encounters looks dispirited and scared, and they talk in hushed tones about what’s going to happen next. A noise outside draws your attention out the window. On the street below, a police vehicle comes to a screeching halt, and more cops jump out. They run into the building, and the residents are fearful of what’s going to happen next. Gordon walks to the end of the hallway, while the newly arrived cops appear at the other end. He walks up the stairwell to the next floor, and someone whispers for him to hide in his apartment. The scene ends.

The next sequence in the demo starts in the dune buggy that was introduced at last year’s E3. Gordon is racing through a canyon, and he’s using mounted weapons to battle the ant lions that are emerging from the ground. He then drives onto a dried-up beachfront, much like the one from last year’s demo. There’s a stranded ship on the beach, because the water level has receded. Gordon then encounters the Combine’s military troops, and a firefight erupts. Many of the weapons at Gordon’s disposal are immediately familiar from the first game, including the shotgun and the combination submachine gun/grenade launcher. A wild firefight ensues, and at one point, Gordon resorts to using his guided rocket launcher to take out a sniper. The force of the explosion flings the sniper’s body across the screen. But then Gordon hits a dead end. He climbs up a big construction crane and climbs into the control booth. Using the huge electromagnet attached to the crane, he picks up a shipping container and drops it on some Combine troops. The scene ends.

We are next introduced to another new character, Dr. Mossman, who works with Eli Vance, one of the scientists we met in last year’s demo. Dr. Mossman is talking while she and Gordon are riding an elevator down to meet Eli. We then see him come into view, and he’s talking to a strange alien creature--as if he’s giving it orders. The elevator door opens, and Mossman introduces you. It turns out that Eli is one of the original scientists from Black Mesa, and there’s some dialogue at this point that illuminates the fact that many years have passed since the original Black Mesa incident. Interestingly, Eli sounds like the actor Robert Guillaume, though this is just conjecture on our part. The scene ends.

The next sequence in the ATI demo takes us to Ravenholm, a new town outside of City 17, the mysterious city where the game takes place. Valve’s Doug Wood, who was running the demo, explained that Ravenholm will be something of a horror-genre town where you’ll have to battle lots of zombies and other strange creatures. Additionally, you’ll need to use everything in the environment as a weapon. To demonstrate, we watched as Gordon used his gravity gun to pick up huge saw blades so that he could hurl them at zombies in hopes of slicing them in two. The physics engine is in full play during these sequences, and it’s pretty impressive.

The last sequence is a city battle that highlights the group artificial intelligence. A bunch of humans are battling a couple of giant striders in the game, and they’re firing rockets and machine guns to no avail. The striders use their powerful beam weapons to wipe out the humans, and they hurl vehicles left and right. Part of the building that Gordon is taking cover in collapses, so he runs into a nearby ditch. However, before he can get there, a strider locks on with its blue energy beam and fires. This is the last scene in the ATI demo.

Newell himself ran the Half-Life 2 demo at Vivendi Universal’s theater. It too had a long waiting line, but, thankfully, Valve was running VIP tours for the press. The demo starts with the same exposition by the G-Man, and then it starts with the beginning sequence of the game, which we saw at Vivendi’s pre-E3 press event a few weeks ago.

The next scene showcased more of the buggy-driving sequences we also saw at the pre-E3 demo. However, after fooling around with the gravity gun to save the buggy from falling off a cliff, Gordon quickly advances to a roadblock, where he gets into a battle with more Combine troops. The round, metal sticky mines that pop out of the ground and roll toward Gordon make an appearance, and in a neat twist, Gordon is able to use the gravity gun to pick them up and hurl them back at the Combine guards. An even cooler moment is when a Combine guard throws a grenade at Gordon, and he uses the gravity gun to quickly throw it back. Clearly, there is lots of fun to be had with the gravity gun, especially considering the game’s powerful physics engine.

The next sequence involves a hovercraft-like vehicle that looks like a cross between a fan boat and a Jet Ski. Gordon rides this hovercraft down a dried-out canal, where there’s barely any water, so he often has to ride over land. Meanwhile, on the bridges of the canal, Combine tanks are firing at him, and the explosions are destroying the wooden pylons in the canal. They’re also hurling cars and other large pieces of metal around, so Gordon has to avoid them. A helicopter-like vehicle then appears, and Gordon begins a battle with it on the hovercraft. Here the scene ends.

The final scene goes back to Ravenholm, with the mysterious Father Grigory, who explains in some dialogue that you need to follow him quietly through the next sequence. After both jumping a fence, they enter a narrow canyon. Fast zombies appear at the top of a hill and charge toward Gordon and Father Grigory. They’re really fast, and they quickly overpower Gordon. Here, the scene and the demonstration ends.

After both demos, Valve demonstrated Counter-Strike running on the Half-Life 2 Source engine. Newell explained that they are porting all original Half-Life content to the Source engine. More importantly, he said that we should expect Half-Life 2 this year.

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