Special: That's DOCTOR Freeman you alien scum! Or do you want to talk to MISTER crowbar?
The Half Life Sequel
Half-Life 2 is to Half-Life what Half-Life was to Doom II.
As the sequel to one of the most respected games of all time, Half-Life 2 had huge shoes to fill, and Valve did an excellent job of picking up where they had left off. Again, stepping up to save the world was Gordon Freeman. Only this time the alien menace was welcomed to Earth. The insidious Dr. Breen bartered with the Combine: an exchange of power for the human race.
The totalitarian metropolis City 17 that was crafted for this sequel is hauntingly beautiful and filled with some of the most detailed graphics that I have ever seen in an action game. Everything from the character models to the art design, the textures to the visual effects, were crafted without equal and helped to give substance to Half-Life 2's story and world. Valve accomplished all of this without requiring that everyone go out and purchase a supercomputer, too.
Of course, the story and graphics were only the first two jabs in a knockout combo. The action in Half-Life 2 managed to exceed the original in almost every way. Perhaps most notable was the way that the game was able to create a sense of urgency early in the game. Fleeing from the soldiers of the Combine across city rooftops evoked an emotional response that is typically reserved for the best of Hollywood cinema (this is one sequence that benefited heavily from HL2's intelligent level design).
There were also several additions to the Half-Life formula that made Half-Life 2 stand out even more. Vehicles helped to vary the gameplay while showing off the immense game world that HL2 populated, while the Gravity Gun - oh, the Gravity Gun - taught us just how fun physics could be.
This time around, the world was counting on our pal Gordon. A resistance movement sprang up to fight against the injustice of Combine rule, and they were expecting our hero. Among the resistance were familiar faces, as scientists from Black Mesa were struggling to make amends for the errors of their ways. You also ran into Barney, the security guard hero from Blue Shift. And then there was Alyx, the daughter of another Black Mesa survivor, who showed you around City 17 and saved your ass a time or two. Like the original Half-Life, HL2 ended with a perplexing turn of events wherein the G-Man stepped in and pulled Gordon out of the middle of another catastrophic mess. But what of Alyx? The destruction of the Citadel? The future of City 17? All of the unanswered questions lead to one thing: More Half-Life.
The Source Engine
Half-Life 2 brought with it a brand new engine, the Source Engine. It is this tool that made HL2 come alive. It also allowed Valve to breathe new life into old favorites as just about every one of their back titles received a Source-powered makeover. The retooling of Half-Life, the Counter-Strike titles, Team Fortress Classic, Day of Defeat and others gave some gamers a chance to relive their favorite HL moments and other gamers a first chance to experience these classics. Disappointingly, Blue Shift is conspicuously missing from this update list.
Of course, Valve is never one to sit one its laurels. The free expansion, The Lost Coast, took the graphical prowess of Half-Life 2 and pushed it to the next level. Delivered free of charge via Valve's software service, Steam, The Lost Coast took a previously scrapped stretch of HL2 and tweaked it, implementing their High Dynamic Range lighting system. This system taxes even the heftiest of gaming rigs, but the difference is superb.
Also available free to owners of Half-Life 2 is a cute little side-scrolling game called Codename: Gordon. Reminiscent of the shareware classics Duke Nukem and Captain Cosmic, Codename: Gordon took after its spiritual father and redefined the genre. A unique mouse and keyboard control system managed to recreate the HL experience from a completely different perspective.
Valve decided to licence out their baby out to other developers and the first non-Valve Source powered title was Troika Games' Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. Bloodlines was a completly different style of game than Half-Life 2; it was an action/RPG that dealt with an underground battle between vampire sects. Troika was able to build some stunning and moody environments with Source and although the game was finsihed before Half-Life 2, they had to wait till after HL2 hit shelves before it could ship.
Ubisoft and Arkane Studios are using the Source Engine for their first-person RPG, Dark Messiah of Might & Magic. The game looked fantastic at a recent demo we were privy to, thanks in a large part to the power of Source. The level of detail was fantastic and the environment is incredibly interactive. There's a taste of Half-Life in the game, not because it's a FPS, but because of the mix of great design and a realistic gameworld.
At this point, everyone is clamoring for more Half-Life. HL2's release on the Xbox (a decent port, even if the traditional "loadless" level didn't make the cut) did little to satiate the Half-Life faithful and left them asking, "When do we get Half-Life 3?" Now, Valve knows better than to rush a Half-Life to market, so they have compromised with an addition to Half-Life 2.
The aptly titled Half-Life 2: Episode 1 is the first of many episodic titles that will tell the story that ended with Gordon stopping Dr. Breen. Valve promises that these new four to six-hour adventures pack in more detail than most traditional releases.
If you are new to the Half-Life series, don't fret. Half-Life 2: Episode 1 does not require you to have the full version of Half-Life 2 to download and play it. They are even throwing in two multiplayer titles, Half- Life 2 Deathmatch and Half-Life Deathmatch Source, to entice you to give the episodic venture a try. All you have to do is purchase and download the game via Steam.
Valve promised that we'll get Half-Life 2: Episode 2 before the end of 2006, which is real sweet...but Episode 3 isn't coming till the end of 2007. Since it'll be the last expansion, perhaps it'll be much longer than the others....then someday, someday far, far into the future we'll have Half-Life 3.