On November 16 2004, gamers finally got to play what was quite simply was the most eagerly awaited game of all time. In a year that saw the arrival of blockbuster titles such as Far Cry, Doom 3 and Halo 2 for the Xbox, this was quite some achievement. But then no other game has had the same impact as the original Half-Life did. It wasn’t just the cutting-edge graphics of the first game that enthralled gamers worldwide. It was the fact that it was the first game that offered a plot that you actually cared about, meshing graphics and characterisation to pull you into the game.
Not surprisingly then, a lot was expected of the sequel. However, the wait for the game turned into a saga of its own. The much heralded 23 September 2003 release date came and went much to the chagrin of ATI and all those who had bought that company's graphics cards expecting a free copy of the game to quickly materialise. There was uproar at the proposed Steam online content delivery service and then the game's source code was dramatically stolen . All of it however, is water under the bridge, and on November 16 the game was finally released to the world. Like eveyone else, we’ve been trying to fit work and real life into the small space between our gaming sessions. Since release, a few niggles have been voiced concerning the reliability of Steam, the need for an Internet connection when launching the game for the first time for a once-only authentication, and a stuttering issue, but from our experience everything ran smoothly.
But if you’re a natural fence sitter, and haven’t already jumped aboard the Half-Life 2 bandwagon, you might well be wondering if the game is worth all the hype. The short answer is, oh yeah baby! Half-Life 2 is an incredible game. It’s not perfect to quite the extent that some have claimed, but it does meet expectations and even exceeds them at times.
Graphically, it’s no exaggeration to say that Half-Life 2 is the best looking game I’ve ever seen, making even Halo 2 look ordinary. Doom 3 may be technically more advanced offering per-pixel lighting, but as far as creating a world that feels real, nothing has ever come this close. Whereas Doom 3 takes place mostly in dark confined spaces, Half-Life 2 will take your breath away with its open air scenes while doing a good job indoors as well. All the graphical tricks that card manufacturers and game developers have been talking about are put to use here – high polygon count models, bump mapping, and a shader-based renderer that apparently is used by Pixar for its blockbuster animated movies - all work together to produce a truly stunning looking game. To see it at its best you’ll need a decent CPU and a DirectX 9 capable card, such as a Radeon 9800/X800 or an nVidia 6600 or 6800. nVidia’s GeForceFX cards don’t make the grade for DX9 due to poor performance, though a hack to make them use DX9, without running like treacle, is drifting around the Internet. As well as making the best use of your graphics hardware, Half-Life 2 also offers widescreen support. This ensures that if you’re playing on a widescreen monitor or projector you can actually see more of the game to the sides than you would on a regular 4:3 monitor, which really adds to the cinematic feel of the game. In the early levels, you’ll really drink in the level of detail the new Source engine offers. Sunlight flares brilliantly, walls and barrels are detailed and textured and faces are easily the most realistic you’ll have yet seen. If you’ve got full DX9 level hardware, you'll be particularly impressed with the water. In Far Cry the water looked more like jelly, but in the Source Engine it’s totally convincing, rippling and reflecting everything realistically.
Always playing second fiddle to the ‘eye-candy’ is in game audio. This if anything is just as impressive as the graphics. The voice work is excellent, imbuing characters with feeling, and environments with atmosphere. Many of the sounds from the original game make a comeback, which really helps create that satisfyingly familiar Half-Life feel.