Half Life 2, one of the most anticipated games for PC gamers at this year's E3, is also one of its most inaccessible. The Half Life 2 booth setup is deceptive. It's tucked away in the far corner of the enormous South Hall, and finding it is the biggest challenge. Upon arrival, convention goers are treated to a large enclosed room with a long line running into it. The outside walls each have a plasma monitor hanging from them, which is playing the new Half-Life 2 trailer, or so people think. A large crowd gathers around the monitor and they are treated to a long sequence of scenes from the first Half Life, littered with cross fading texts to the tune of "Five years ago, a revolutionary game graced PC systems."
These morsels only whet the appetite, but never came to the final payoff of gameplay movies from the new Half Life 2 sequel. After some inquiries, you quickly find out that the only way to view the twenty-seven minute Half-Life 2 demo is to wait in a line that's approximately one hundred people long, and best of all, they are only accepting twenty-five viewers at a time. When asked by a Valve employee, one exhausted gal stated that she had been waiting in line since 9:00 a.m., when the show first opened its doors. It was now 12:30.
It's hard to justify spending a half-day waiting to view one game, especially with the lingering taste if disappointment that the DOOM III trailer left in our mouths. In the absolute worse case scenario, a person could spent majority of their time waiting in line only to leave with little more than glorified screenshots and marketing hype.
But there was an alternative.
There were murmurs throughout the crowd of a separate showing of Half Life 2. It allegedly took place off the convention site at a location that was disclosed through invitation only. On the third day, this humble reporter finally received that invitation.
The trailer showing took place on the 11th floor of the Standard Hotel, a swanky lodging positioned in the center of an affluent Los Angeles commercial district. With all 30 seats filled, and sitting directly in front of the large plasma television, Ken Birdwell, a developer for Valve, started the presentation.
Much to everyone's surprise, the viewing would not be in QuickTime, and the demo would be similar to Quake's .dem files, basically a code sniffer that runs on a fully functional executable. That means two things: A) Half-Life 2 is, at the very least, playable and B) how well it runs on this test system can approximate how the final product will run on home systems. Ken stated that a Dell XPS with a 3.0 GHz processor and ATI Radeon 9800 was used for the demo, which is basically a high end system by current standards.
The presentation started off with a straight forward shot of the original Half-Life model of G-man, the mysterious businessman who popped up in the original from time to time to observe Gordon Freeman, the main character from the original (who, incidentally, you happen to take the role of again in the sequel). The older model shows its age with a low polygon count and fuzzy textures. It then pulls away and in comes the newer model and looks photo realistic. The textures are detailed showing wrinkles, liver spots and other minutia that could not be conveyed 5 years ago. He scowled, pulling his eyebrows down, his mouth frowning, and showed sympathy by giving onlookers puppy dog eyes and shaking his head in a "tsk tsk" fashion. Ken stated that he personally had worked on the facial expressions and said that each model had forty separate muscles that were utilized to show human emotions. Even the lips moved perfectly in sync with English wordsand also Chinese.
After G-man leaves, the general gameplay demo starts and the first thing that everyone notices is how good the physics engine is. Current game physics engines consist of little more than gravity formulas, throwing arches and glass breaking routines. Half Life 2 leaps forward by compensating for materials. Metal bounces differently than wood. wood cracks when tossed against another hard surface, and a mattress flexes and bends if thrown. Materials behave like they would in real life. When you see something thrown or get cracked, it looks and feels right and makes sense to your eye.