Return of Gordon Freeman
Welcome to Black Mesa
A long, long time ago (well in gaming terms, 5 long years) a game was released that won over 80 awards for its sheer story based, first person shooter action. Even now it still sells thousands of copies each year with a huge dedicated crowd of followers creating new artwork, levels, sounds and complete mission packs. That game was Half Life. I must say it still plays like a dream and with today's processing and 3D video card power it runs on your monitor screen like a silk-worm covered in oil. It was amazing that the game that won so many awards started out as a simple level mod for Quake2.
As soon as the G-man ending faded to black at the end of Half-Life everyone expected that a sequel would appear, the only question was, when. Well after 5 long years and countless rumours which turned out to be nonsense a demo of Half-Life 2 was demonstrated at E3. Where as other companies might have simply cashed in and threw out a sub-standard sequel 4 years ago, Valve software have spent this long time wisely and created their own 3D engine. From the 22-minute Quicktime movie I've seen it looks absolutely fantastic as you would expect any new engine would. What makes Half-Life 2 stand out is how good Valve have combined the physics, modelling, control, AI and story-line elements all together to create something very special indeed.
Some hardcore gamers might dismiss all this hype and chant "Doom 3 is king". But IMVHO HL2 is gonna steal ID software's thunder when later this year (some time in September 2003) it hits the gaming community.
"r u lookin @ m3?"
You only have to watch the first minute of quicktime trailer movie to realise that Valve software have really put some effort into their next release. The "G-man" demonstration shows a very detail face with over 40 muscles used to model his face, his eyes blink depending on the local lighting (using some Radiosity calculations) , his mouth (and face) move realistically in time with the voice over. A wide range of different and believable facial-expressions flow effortlessly from one into the next without any glitch or pause between 'animations'.
As the camera moves around the G-man his eyes follow you in their self-shadowing glory. Behind the scenes is a very impression A.I. system that helps creates this digital magic. It almost seems like those polygons actually have emotions.
Physics and materials
The next part of the movie trailer goes on to demonstrate the dynamic nature of surfaces with the ground errupting in a small cloud of dust and forming a tiny hill. Objects are then lifted off the ground with a gravity-gun and moved around. Old matresses flop, slide and roll of round surfaces and other objects. Metal barrels sink to the bottom of a deep indoor pond as the wooden raft is shot to pieces. We learn from the guy demonstrating the engine that the world is built out of 'materials' so anything that looks like wood behaves like wood, it can be smashed, interacts with other materials and realisticly sounds like wood. When you see this in action for yourself with the intergrated physics system you can only be impressed. Another example of the interaction is a table, pick up an object and push it against the table, now everything on the table moves and rocks just like in the real world. Pick up a corpse and it will flop over any complex model it touches. The ragdoll system also handles explosions nicely with corpses flying through the air and bouncing off other objects.
"This will run on my 486?"
The next part shows off the various surface effects that Valve software have install for us die-hard HL freaks. The engine itself (like you would now expect) is based around shaders. Water modulates and reflects light. This was nicely demonstrated by building a human out of water and having him/her stand in front of some dynamic flames. It reminded me of Terminator 2 mixed with Predator where you can make out someone is standing right in front of you by the glass lense-type effect over the background.
The water was again shown off with a wide-open dockland like area that reflected the beautiful evening sunset and surrounded the small, creaky old wooden walk ways. The black silhouettes of distant cranes and industrial buildings completed this impressive landscape. In fact you might spend lots of time simply standing around and looking at those lovely shaded pixels, that is, until one of the two mutant scientists with "head-crabs" start to bitch slap you around.
"You're staring at me again"
This line comes from Alex, one of the helpful characters in HL2 as she flashes her eyelids and plays with her hair until a scientist interrupts her believable, fluid acting. Many games have brought amazing animations to the monitor, but what separates HL2 is the fact this is "in-game!". She interacts with other characters and you in a non-scripted manner. Knock a monitor off a table and the scientist will ask you to "Do be careful" before resuming his experiments and explaining to Alex what he is doing. You have to watch this to truly understand how good this is. Its more than simply playing a sequence of animations, each character listens and reacts to each other without any sign of a single glitch in the fluid animations.
But this social chit-chat is soon interrupted when Alex spots an alien scout and throws you a gun to catch. Next the wall explodes to revieve the top of a huge 'strider' alien/machine something that looks like it has escaped from War of the Worlds with its three gigantic legs and scene disorting gun (another effect worth checking out).
To help you battle against these massive enemies are helpful alien creatures such as "ant lions" that burst out of underground pits and will attack anyone else you tell them to, such as running straight into the path of two rapid firing turret guns (ala Aliens). In fact the screaming 3-legged alien dog-like creatures in the original Half-Life were supposed to be helper creatures but most of the game testers simply shot them so Valve changed them to attack you with a sonic shockwave.
Some of your allies are thankfully human so shooting them by mistake should be a thing of the past ;) The trailer movie showed a very nice running battle through the streets of "City 17" with the AI system making Medal of Honour (Allied Assault) looking very jerky and scripted. The humans take cover, fire and help shield you as they fight their way around the numerous burnt out cars, half demolished buildings and alien fortesses. If the battle wasn't so intense with so many new surprises around each corner or rooftop you could spend ages simply standing around and admiring all the beautifuly created and shaded buildings. They are probably some of the most detailed and realistic structures I've seen so far in a computer game. Taking into account that the city appears to stretch far, far to the horizon (as well as reaching high into the clouds) makes this even more impressive.
Burn, Baby, Burn
The next surprise is that HL2 will feature vehicles which can be jumped into and driven around some very large, wide-open landscapes dodgying flying alien ships which look like something straight out of Terminator with huge fans that kick up a large amount of dust or water. The trailer shows off a rusty old off-road vehicle that weaves its way through a very large, dry river bed and jumps over a pier before smashing through a window and bouncing along the road. All the time it is being chased by the hovering alien ship. A few turns around the mountain road and your path is blocked by a road block of burnt out cars. The ship fires constantly knocking these cars inch by inch along the tarmac in all their physic laden beauty, their suspensions rock and bounce, doors swing open and scrap along the road and they slide perfectly off other cars. A few heat-seeking mission soon dispells the alien ship that crashes (ala Aliens) along the roadway and on top of you.
As you might guessed I'm impressed with the demo trailer of Half-Life 2 and can't wait to see what the finished engine can do. You can check out some screenshots, information or (if you have a fast net connection) download the huge 600mb 22 minute Quicktime movie from www.planethalflife.com in the Half-Life 2 section. You can find a faster server and one without the need for registration (Grrrr) by using www.filemirrors.com and searching for the the name of the movie/zip file.
"Welcome Mr Freeman, We've been expecting you."