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Developer: VALVE Release Date: 11/04 Rating: 9/10 stars


In November 2004, Half-Life 2, the long-awaited and long-overdue sequel to what has been lauded as one of the greatest PC games of all time, Half-Life, was finally released to the public. Along with its controversial Steam anti-piracy and content delivery system, Half-Life 2 brought to the table incredible new graphics courtesy of their brand new Source engine, a revolutionary new physics engine thanks to Havok, and the chance for the fans of the original to once again take on the role of Gordon Freeman, scientist-turned-hero extraordinaire.


Half-Life 2 has without a doubt, some of the most impressive graphics any game has ever seen. Doom 3 and Far Cry also have excellent graphics, but Half-Life 2 has excellent scalability; it can run on DirectX 7, 8, and 9-level cards, with obviously increasingly breathtaking results. One can adjust the graphical settings to get it to run on almost any modern video card, but obviously to get the benefit of all the fancy effects, one will need a pretty hefty video card. It ran fine on my Radeon 9800 Pro, using 1024x768 with 2X Antialiasing and 2X Anisotropic Filtering; unfortunately, AA & AF are almost a requirement for this game, as aliasing and texture blurring are quite pronounced otherwise. Water is rendered beautifully, with accurate reflection and refraction effects; note that both can be detrimental to performance if you have a slower card. Note also that nVidia botched their DirectX 9 implementation with their Geforce 5xxx and so will either use the DX8 codepath or run like garbage. For those of you lucky folks with widescreen displays, HL2 has support for 16:9 and 16:10 as well as conventional 4:3 screen ratios.


Half-Life 2 also boasts an impressive positional sound system, with support for headphones, stereo, 5.1 surround sound, and 7.1 surround sound. Also, there is a wide variety within each sound effect; shoot 3 different windows and you will hear 3 slightly different glass breaking sounds. Also, if a grenade goes off in close proximity to you, you will be deafened for a few moments, and hear only the ringing of your ears. Furthermore, the game accurately plays only the low-frequency part of sounds when they are at a distance or when your hearing is still muffled from a grenade.


Gameplay is fairly straightforward; in addition to the usual first-person shooter style of gameplay, there are a few times when you'll need to drive vehicles and lead teammates. Vehicles are driven consistent with other titles such as Halo or Battlefield 1942, although the physics of the buggy can get quite annoying initially as you attempt to climb a rock-laden ramp. Leading teammates is also straightforward, but unfortunately they are essentially expendable so you never really develop an attachment to them. In addition, the AI is fairly simple and rather stupid; the HL1 AI seemed better. Enemies frequently ignore your grenades and instead of flanking you, just rush you en masse. Yawn. One of the most innovative features of Half-Life 2, however, relates to its phsyics: you get a so-called gravity gun, which can attract and repel objects lying around. You can, for example, yank saw blades out of the wall and then launch them at zombies, cleaving them in half. You can pick up propane tanks or flammable barrels and launch them at enemies with predictable results, or pick up a wheelbarrow or piece of siding and use it as a bulletproof shield. The possibilities are nearly endless.


Originally, a remake of Counter-Strike using the Source engine, appropriately named "Counter-Strike Source" was the only multiplayer option for the game. Essentially the premise is a team of terrorists and counter-terrorists clash over objectives such as planting/defusing bombs, guarding/rescuing hostages, and so forth. Now using the Source engine, the graphics are incredible, but cheating once again has become rampant. Hopefully Valve will implement their anti-cheat protection on CSS soon. Shortly after release, Valve also released an update enabling a Half-Life 2 deathmatch mode, replete with the gravity gun which leads to many interesting battles. A favorite tactic is to wait for someone to pick up an explosive barrel and then shoot it while they are holding it, which is both effective and amusing. Pulling toilets off the wall and launching them at opponents is also effective. Originally released with only two maps, there was a map design contest that recently ended, and new maps are therefore due to soon be released.

Special Note - Steam:

There were two ways to procure Half-Life 2: either conventionally in the store, or through Valve's Steam system. Either way, a Steam account and an internet connection are required to play the game, single-player or not. This has been the source of much ire for many, but there is an "offline mode" that you can use with limited results if you do not have an always-on internet connection. The upshot is this: the game becomes linked to your Steam account, and as such you can log in anywhere to your Steam account and download and play the game. As mentioned above, you can also purchase the game through Steam, as I did. I bought a package which, in addition to Half-Life 2, included Valve's entire back catalog. I simply entered my credit card info, and then after a somewhat lengthy wait was able to play all of Valve's games. I wanted to show a friend something from one of the back catalog games; I simply logged into my Steam account from his PC and after a few minutes was able to play the game. No CD or Key or anything required. Steam also keeps your games up to date automatically, thus eliminating the need to find and apply patches. While it does have its downsides (what if Valve goes under?), it is a valuable tool, and soon should remove the middleman, i.e. the game publisher, from the game creation process which should result in lower prices since all the money goes to the developer (due to their agreement with the publisher for HL2, they were not allowed to undersell the CD version with the Steam version).

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