Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Half-Life 2 Impressions

It doesn't really matter that Valve botched customer communications on a massive scale for the last fifteen months.

It doesn't matter that Vivendi and Valve have several very nasty lawsuits going.

It doesn't really matter that Steam (re-named 'Ream' for a good portion of today) couldn't handle all the authentications and puked on itself for a while.

No, what really matters, what finally matters after six years, is how good is Half-Life 2? Valve originally created the best first-person shooter and possibly the greatest game in history when they created Half-Life. They also redefined the importance of plot and story in games. After six years, could they possibly do it again?

Oh, hell yes.

Not only have they done it, they've blown the doors off. Again.

The greatness of Half-Life 2 is completely over the top. It's visually startling beyond all expectation. The story is intense and gripping. The pacing is magnificent, switching from measured caution to exhilarating speed in only seconds. It is, in a word, sensational.

Yes, it's derivative, at least in a literary sense. It borrows heavily from Orwell and H.G. Wells. Yet seeing these dark visions of the future living and breathing on the screen in front of me is nothing short of fantastic. It speaks to the quality of the game that Valve can make these written worlds come alive.

I am reminded of John Carmack's iconic comment about plots in computer game being like plots in pornographic films: no one really expects them. Id, in many ways, defined the breakout era of computer gaming with Carmack's brilliantly advanced engines, frenetic gameplay, and the genius of shareware distribution.

That era, though, has passed.

The new era is about advancing beyond pure action into a more complex experience, one that is not defined solely by the body count. It is Valve's era, and no one who plays this game will have any doubt about that. Where Id's games are all about killing, Valve's games are about life, about a living, breathing, vital game world. It is bursting with detail, with movement, with vibrance. Yes, you will kill, but unlike an Id game, the killing is not what you remember most. You must kill to live, but in Valve's world, what you remember is the living.

And that, as you might expect, makes all the difference.

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