Half-Life 2 came out today. It merits review on two fronts:
The Install Process. In a word, awful. The progress bar didn't actually show progress, it just showed the indeterminate swiveling Cylon eye. And once I finished the install, then the real nightmare began. First, I had to sign up for a Steam account. Since I was trying to do this at the same time as hundreds of thousands of others, this timed out about ten times before finally working (at a couple a minutes a pop on the timeout). Then I got to log in, which took just about as long... AGAIN. Finally, I had to type in my CD key, which also timed out -- although at this point, it finally gave me the benefit of a doubt, and said I could play for now and try to authenticate again later. Then, I had to wait for all of the content to get unlocked, which, I swear to Bob, took just as long as it did to copy it all of the disk in the first place. Finally, I spent all that time looking at the most god-awful gray-green color I've ever seen.
Actually, there's one highlight: the collector's edition does come on DVD so you don't have to go swapping through a billion different disks. C'mon, manufacturers, just start shipping these things on DVDs, it's time.
Now, here's the install process for Halo 2: open XBox drive. Put in disc. Close drive. Play.
The Game. All the capital blown on the install was won back in spades once I got into the game. Let's dispense with the gameplay first: it's Half-Life. With one nice addition: a zoom key (which makes for some nice pistol sniping early on). If you liked the first Half-Life, you'll love this one.
Graphically, it's astonishing. OK, fine, there are fair number of textures in the medium texture set that are kind of gross and muddy, but they nailed two things: faces and light. The face animation is incredible; these are the first in-game digital actors I've ever seen that really convey emotion well -- it reminds me of some of the face work in the Final Fantasy movie. And the light -- well, there's a point early in the game where you emerge from a station and find yourself in a plaza in neo-European City 17. And the light and shadow falls across it perfectly, including the highlights and details. This is perhaps the first game where I find myself thinking: wouldn't that be interesting to photograph?
The atmosphere is also great (in part because of the incredible graphics). The art design is well done. When I first saw the screen shots, I thought "why the heck do I want to run around City 17"? It turns out I want to run around it because it feels real. Doom 3 had some nice stuff, but it was so dark you never saw anything. Here, there's plenty of variety to keep you going. There's lots of great touches (like the roving drones and the video screens) that make the world feel really alive.
It's arguable that Doom 3 has the superior graphic engine, but I think HL2 achieves better art, hands down.
Finally, the pacing is top notch. I was completely sucked in, and only stopped because it was time to eat dinner. A typical pattern for me is: run into a room, kill everyone, wait for adrenaline rush to ebb, save, quit. There are a lot of FPSes I play for 15-30 minute intervals. Here, there's a sense of urgency. I get to a new area, and bad guys descend upon me, and they keep coming in completely believable ways. Slowly I realize I'm not going to be able to clear this area, and I start looking for escape routes. I dive into a tunnel, and run and run... and it happens again. Or I run into an ally who encourages me to continue. Either way, I'm encouraged by the level design itself to keep running until I'm safe... and perhaps until I can start to really strike back.
Another way this plays out is, early on, you have no weapons, but haven't yet been identified as a threat. The bad guys are around, being pricks, and you see plenty of downtrodden citizens. And you... you really want to help these citizens out and strike back. You really want to bash one of those intrusive drones down. And once you can... well, then the roller coaster really starts.
This is all a way of saying that, like the first one, the story happens in the game, from your perspective, and there's nothing to pull you out of that. And it's incredible.
One mechanic of note: like the first game, quick-saving saves in a rolling way. You always have your last two quick-saves. Why has nobody else swiped this idea?
Finally, Half-Life: Source sounded cool, but they didn't revamp any of the textures or character models, so it pretty much looks like Half-Life. Meh. Not worth the purchase, except for the small nice detail that you can start a game from any chapter, so you can review the prologue and epilogue of the previous game. 7:14:11 PM ()