Game of the Moment: Half-Life 2

That's right, it finally shipped! Half-Life 2 is now sitting on store shelves, just begging to go home with you. I've been looking forward to this game for a loooong time. It was originally scheduled to be released in September of 2003. That's right, 2003. Well over a year late, I had a Simon gift card I had been sitting on waiting for the release of the game. I got the card last Christmas, so I guess I can consider this a very belated Christmas gift.

So how is it? AWESOME! It is totally engrossing. I sat down at 7pm last night and didn't stop playing until 2am. That means I'm a bit of a sleepy boy today, but it was time well spent in my mind. I'm not going to give a full review of the game, as the game media have tons of coverage already. However, there were a couple of things that struck me right off the get go.

First, lets talk about Steam. Valve developed Steam as a platform for distributing their games, hosting on-line games, and communicating news and updates to players. Steam is an application that runs in your system tray, and you can use it to launch your games, start a multiplayer game, chat with friends, or buy new Vavle games. When you buy a game on Steam, it is downloaded to your computer. If you login to Steam from someone else's computer, your games are automatically downloaded. So you can play anywhere that has a web connection. This is great if you play at a lot of computer labs, cyber cafes, or libraries, as you don't have to carry your media (CD / DVD) around with you everywhere you go. There is a drawback to this though: you must be online to play. Once you've signed in, you can check a box for offline play, but you still may need to get online from time to time. This means that you are at the mercy of your ISP and the Valve content servers when you want to play. We have a pretty fast computer at home, and the load times were still really long between chapters due to the latency from authenticating with the Valve content server. This really took away from the emersiveness of the game. It isn't any fun to be in the middle of a heated chase, and then have a two minute pause while the game gets permission to load the next level.

I decided to purchase the game from a brick and mortar store rather than from Steam. I wanted to have the physical media so I wouldn't have to wait all day to download it. I had also hoped that it would allow me to play the game without connecting to steam. No such luck there. Even though I was able to run through the entire install without connecting, I had to login to Steam before I could play the game. When you login to steam, you give your CD-Key and it gets associated with your Steam account. Then you get a set of keys for unlocking the game files. The entire install process took a full hour. Installing the files took about 20 minutes, and getting the keys and unlocking the content, and then downloading new video drivers took the rest of the time. The installer is pretty vanilla too, nothing to keep your interest for that hour. Be content with starting the install, and then finding something else to do for a while.

Which brings me to another point: purchasing the game. Like I said, I wanted the physical media for install, and I got that. I bought the Collector's Edition of the game, which included a DVD containing Half-Life 2, Half-Life : Source, and Counter-Strike : Source, as well as a t-shirt and Prima game book. The price ran $87. To get the regular edition at the store is $55. On steam, the regular (Bronze) edition is $49.99, the silver edition (which includes Half-Life : Source) is $59.99, and the gold edition is $89.99. The gold edition will get you some posters, a hat, a t-shirt, a sound track, and various other stuff sent in the mail. I wanted to the Collector's Edition so I could get Half-Life : Source, which is the original game upgraded to use the new game engine. Now that I've been through the process, I think I would have been better off buying the game on-line on steam. I was interested in the game, but not so much in the extra swag. I could have saved $25 by going on Steam and getting the Silver edition, and I still would have had everything I wanted. Plus, with our cable internet connection, I could have just started the download at night and play the next day. Oh well, live and learn. So if you are considering purchasing Half-Life 2, and you have a fairly speedy web connection, I would definitely recommend purchasing from Steam. If you have a slow web connection, go ahead and get the store copy. Be warned that the $55 version in the store has five CDs rather than a DVD though.

Graphically, the game is pretty amazing. I don't have the worlds most incredible graphics card at home, I have the base Dell configuration (NVidia GeForce 4 440). It works well for everything we need, but doesn't support all of the fancy rendering stuff that the $500 cards out on the market now do. That means I can't take advantage of all of the special effects in the game, but the game itself plays very smoothly. There is a little chop right after a level loads, and when the action gets fast and frantic, but overall it plays very well on my machine. And some effects are still pretty stunning, even on my older graphics card. The water rippling effect in the game is mesmerizing. And the facial animations of the characters lends a lot to their performance in the game. They aren't the stiff manequins with a hinged jaw anymore. They now smile, frown, raise eyebrows, blink, and do everything you might expect a real person to do.

At the very beginning of the game, I was reminded of Schindler's List. You enter City 17, a no name chunk of city that appears to be in a police state. Civil Patrol is constantly monitoring your actions, and doling out scheduled beatings to the citizens. Propaganda is blared from video screens mounted throughout the city, coercing everyone to give up their sense of instinct, and just give in to the Combine. The Combine is an alien force that has somehow overtaken the planet. A puppet human government is in place, headed by the Administrator, Dr. Breene. Dr. Breene coordinated the surrender of earth to the combine, and as reward they have appointed him the head cheese of the puppet human government. All of the people not in Civil Patrol uniforms are wearing blue denims, much like a prison uniform. As you arrive on the train into town, you see that the people are stripped of their luggage, and shuffled into a line for questioning. Out on the streets, conversations are forbidden in the open, so people huddle together in whatever shelter they can find. All of the doors on the apartments have been ripped off to allow for easier surveilance, and raids are a routine of life. You learn from some of the inhabitants of City 17 that the Combine forces have been working to limit the number of births, and that drugs have been added to the water supply to cause amnesia. Many people can't remember how long they have been in the city, if they have a family, or even who they are. It's a very bleak outlook for mankind.

And this is where the game picks up. You learn of an underground railroad of sorts that shuttles people out of the city. From there, a resistance is forming to combat the Combine. The resistance is headed by your old group of pals from the Black Mesa facility, and when they learn of your arrival, they are thrilled to learn that their messiah has returned. It seems that your story from the first game has taken on a somewhat mythical proportion.

I won't spoil the rest of the game for you, but there are some moments that are just amazing. I'm totally hooked, and I think anyone could enjoy this game.


Adam said...

Another reason to buy your copy on Steam: no CD required. I thought this was a fluke last night. I started the game without the DVD in the drive. Then I got a message "CD Not Inserted". So I put the DVD in the drive and it started up. I assumed it just had to check one last thing as part of the install, but after some forum reading, I learn that I will need to always have the CD inserted when I play. This is a big pain, as it means I need to bring the DVD back and forth with me to work if I plan to play with the guys here. I read through the Steam forums, and there are lots of people complaining about this. Hopefully they issue a patch or something. And it doesn't even matter if you installed from the discs or from the steam download. It is the CD-Key the matters. So even if I deleted all of my content and installed from the web, it would still ask me for my cd, because the cd-key is associated with the disc. What a bunch of hooey. Oh well, I suppose I don't play video games in the office that much anyway, but it is still a disappointment.

Jade Mason