Half - Life 2 In Action

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    This week at E3, in a theater at the ATI booth, Valve Managing Director Gabe Newell took us another tour, showing us a (mostly) new series of roughly a dozen demos, as well as a very brief look at the game being played live in front of us.

    To open, Newell gave the group a short primer on the new engine and its strengths. "The Source engine gives up capabilities in four main areas: (1) believable and realistic human beings; (2) graphics that were previously only possible in a Hollywood movie studio; (3) integrated materials and physics systems that create an unprecedented level of interactivity; and (4) artificial intelligence that welds these characters, these effects and this world into an experience that gamers have never had before."

    The G-Man Cometh

    To start the presentation, we were treated to a full-screen glimpse of the newly remodeled G-Man (deep blue eyes, heavy bags and all), and cycled through a series of facial expressions. As mentioned in our last preview, Valve has dedicated a lot of time and research to creating characters that can express a wide variety of emotions, however subtle.

    "An enormous number of details go into creating a character like the G-Man," said Newell. "The eyes glint based on a radiosity calculation and local illumination. They self-shadow and follow you as you move. He has 40 separate muscles in his face, and his emotions are based on the taxonomy of facial expressions created by Dr. Paul Ekman, a research psychiatrist at the University of California."

    Newell continued by explaining how the Source engine automatically ties audio to lip-synching, first showing the G-Man speaking in English. "His capabilities are language independent," continued Newell, "so it's just as easy for him to speak in Chinese as it is in English." On cue, the G-Man started speaking in Chinese, his lips moving along with the words.

    How does all this technology tie in with the game? "This character technology gives us a broad emotional palette," said Newell. "You will hate your enemies, and fear for yourself and for your friends. And perhaps, you'll discover feelings you've never had before." To punctuate the point, the G-Man slyly raised an eyebrow, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

    I Feel The Earth Move

    Now finished with the G-Man display, the demo shifted to a new location, beginning with a small outdoor area being deformed and reshaped before our eyes. "With characters that can react emotionally, we need a world that's similarly flexible and interactive," explained Newell. "The world of Half-Life 2 is very dynamic, and each surface can have a displacement map that can be altered dynamically along with its collision hull. This terrain system gives us very large outdoor areas, that due its LOD based system, can run on even low-end hardware."

    Moving indoors, the demo shifted to an area that we'd seen in our prior visit to Valve, using the anti-gravity "manipulator" gun to move around barrels and pick up bodies to show off the engine's rag-doll physics.

    We were given a brief explanation of how the Source engine handles physics for different items. "In Source, worlds are made out of materials," said Newell, taking out a shotgun and shooting a few planks of wood standing up a few yards away. "If something looks like wood, then it sounds like wood, and if you shoot it, then it will fragment like wood." Sure enough, the wood broke up into a few larger chunks, and then smaller ones. In a nearby body of water, a series of barrels rested on a floating wooden palette; when shot, the palette fell apart, dropping the barrels into the water where they bobbed up and down realistically.

    From there, the demo shifted to a nearby wall with a series of wooden planks sticking out, with a series of barrels sitting on a platform on top. "And of course," said Newell, "what tech demo would be complete without a giant pachinko machine?" After shooting the wooden platform, the barrels fell through the series of planks, bouncing around in varying patterns.

    The third area of the demo started out in a small grotto, and Newell explained how the Source engine uses shaders to create unique effects, showing off how items submerged in the water refract realistically. Up ahead was a wall made of water (creating a near-transparent effect), a colorful stained-glass portrait of Gordon Freeman, and then a human form built out of water. "One of the cool things about Source is that there aren't any arbitrary restrictions on how you use these effects," said Newell.

    One of the most impressive sections of the demo came up next, as Freeman approached a video camera set up in front of a 3x3 video wall. A lone headcrab knocked the camera off its tripod, which our character picked up using the manipulator gun. As the camera moved around, the video wall images changed right along with it ... until the video camera was propelled through the center monitor, shattering it.


    With Source overview out of the way, the next series of demos shifted more towards actual gameplay and environments we might see in Half-Life 2. The first section started out on a pier with the sun shimmering off the water (a scene which was simultaneously realistic and picturesque), and a few familiar faces. "It wouldn't be a Half-Life game without our old friend, the zombie, and our trusty crowbar," said Newell. Freeman moved up the pier, smacking a zombie a few times and knocking him into the water, before getting pushed into the water himself.

    The next section introduced the crowd to Alyx Vance, a new character added for Half-Life 2, and Dr. Kleiner, a scientist who managed to escape from Black Mesa. The two conversed for a few moments about an experiment that might help them against the Combine soldiers, starting to hint at possible twists and turns the plot might take. The conversation quickly became moot, as Alyx yelled "scanners!" signifying it was time to run, punctuated by an explosion ripping a hole in a wall to the left.

    The following sequence, starting in a City 17 alleyway, was one of the most impressive of the presentation, hinting at how Valve could meld the interactivity and physics of the Source engine with actual gameplay. Using the anti-grav weapon, Freeman picked up a barrel and flung it at an attacking enemy, and then ducked inside a door. With zombies approaching, Freeman barricaded the door with a table, and we watched the door get pounded a few times, causing a bowl on the table to drop to the floor.

    After the zombie moved to a nearby window to break in, Freeman ran to a flight of stairs, with another enemy waiting at the top and shooting. Using the manipulator gun once again, a radiator was ripped from the wall, first used as a shield as protection from incoming bullets, and then hurled at the enemy, knocking him over.

    Climbing out the window, Freeman spotted a group of zombies waiting in a construction area below. By shooting out a piece of scaffolding, the structure collapsed, causing a girder to swing across and smack a few zombies on the way. Off to the side, Freeman tossed a grenade under a large storage container, causing its supports to collapse, and sending the container sliding onto the remaining zombies below. Using the fallen container as a makeshift step, Freeman climbed down to the area below and finished off one final group of enemies by blowing up a few cars, instantly killing a few zombies and cooking the rest in the ensuing fire.

    The Sewer

    By now, you've probably seen the screenshot of a mysterious blue tentacle stabbing a Combine soldier in a sewer area, in front of Gordon and Alyx. We got to see an extended portion of this scene, watching the creature swing the soldier about for a bit before yanking him below and out of sight. In an ominous moment, two tentacles rose from the sewers, hovering menacingly in front of Gordon and Alyx as the screen faded to black.

    Street Fight

    Something we hadn't seen much of during our various Half-Life 2 demos was team-based combat with AI fighting by your side. Back on the city streets, we were re-introduced to the new version of Barney the security guard, who offered the comment, "Remember when we thought Black Mesa was as bad as it could get?"

    The ensuing firefight spilled out across the streets, with bullets filling the air and chaos the order of the day -- even a car alarm went off after one explosion. At one point, Barney called out to Gordon for cover, and soon after, cars were exploding left and right and the streets were filled with debris flying in every direction.

    The next demo was set in a run-down prison, and illustrated how you'll be able coerce some of the lower level aliens to fight by your side. By using "bug bait" (used much like a grenade), Freeman could summon alien ant lions from the surrounding area, and in effect "order" them to attack certain areas.

    In this case, a few Combine soldiers were first to be dispatched, and then a set of automatic turrets set up on tripods around the corner. In one area, Freeman needed to shoot out some glass windows in a roof to allow a new group of ant lions into the area, and there was a definite vibe that Freeman played a commander to these creatures, hanging in the back while the aliens did their thing.


    One of the most exciting parts of the presentation was getting to see one of the controllable vehicles, something we hadn't yet seen in any of our previous demos. In this case, Freeman was in control of a land buggy, speeding across a dried-up seabed, eventually being attacked from above by a futuristic hovercraft (we weren't quite sure if it was alien or human). The buggy was outfitted with a machine gun of its own, and during the demo, Freeman was able to look in one direction while the vehicle continued in another.

    After getting out of the vehicle, we were treated to a look at the new rocket-propelled grenade launcher, which was key in shooting down helicopters in the original Half-Life. As in the first game, you'll be able to direct the RPG through the air, but the effect was FAR more dramatic this time. Missing the aircraft on its first pass, it was guided through a dramatic arc back towards its target … where it narrowly missed again. Continuing through the air, Freeman guided the missile in for yet a third pass at the ship, but failed to destroy it. Tired of playing around, Freeman fired a second rocket straight ahead and nailed the ship with a direct hit.

    In a spectacular display of the engine's physics at work, Freeman ducked behind a series of overturned cars for cover, but as another flying craft pelted the cars with bullets, the wrecks were slowly pushed back by the force of the gunfire. Eventually, Freeman was able to destroy the craft as it was making a bombing run his way, but as the ship crashed, its momentum carried it skidding along the ground, directly at Freeman …


    The last full demo of the presentation showed off the striders -- the 40-foot tall aliens that stalk City 17 on skinny legs, wreaking havoc in every direction. The arrival of the creatures, fittingly enough, was signaled by a group of humans fleeing a nearby area, screaming "STRIDER!!!"

    We'd already seen this part of the presentation at Valve's offices a few weeks ago, as the Strider crouched down to limbo underneath an archway before straightening out on the other side. This time, however, the battle was drawn out longer, using the manipulator gun to hurl various objects at the creature's head. Just about everything was fair game for the anti-grav gun, including letters from the side of a building, flung through the air at the creature (although not having much effect).

    Finally, the demo ended, fading to a final full-screen shot of the G-Man, who said (fittingly), "Well, well. Isn't this just like old times?…"

    Epilogue: The Prison, Playable

    Up until this point, everything we'd seen had been pre-recorded demos of the Source engine in action. To finish things off, the prison level was reloaded, and we were able to watch one of the Valve guys play through most of it, starting by tossing out bug bait to lure the ant lions and going all the way through to taking out the turrets. The entire demo took barely a minute or two, but everything ran fairly smooth (the hardware involved was a Dell machine and -- of course -- an ATI video card).

    It's hard to do justice to the video in words, but suffice it to say that the crowd in attendance was completely blown away by the demonstration, and E3 attendees have been racing to the ATI booth throughout the show and waiting in massive lines just to get a glimpse. More than just technology for tech's sake, it appears Valve will be using the new Source engine in innovative and interesting ways, and we're looking forward to seeing how Half-Life 2 turns out when it's released -- as Valve says -- this coming September.

    source:Gamespy (www.gamespy.com)