By Thomas L. McDonald
For a little while there, it seemed like Vivendi Universal would take Valve Software’s Half-Life 2 ball and spike it at the 10 yard line out of pure pique. The reasons are pretty clear: Steam, Valve’s online service, has pulled off the first effective digital-only delivery of a game. This rocks the retailer/publisher/creator relationship to its core, and jeopardizes all those millions of dollars publishers make via boxed copies and the retail channel.
Given Valve’s overwhelming success in selling pre-orders for Half-Life 2 over Steam, it was no surprise that Vivendi pitched a hissy fit and refused to let Valve “unlock” the downloaded version of the game a few days early, leaving fans vibrating with anticipation at a frequency high enough to crack glass. Masterpiece is not too strong a word for Half-Life 2. There are precious few works of certifiable genius and perfection in the history of gaming. This is one of them.
It’s been six years since the original Half-Life, and as year after year ticked by, I began to doubt Valve could pull it off. The long development cycle and years of silence left me deeply cynical that the Valve team was wasting time playing networked Sailor Moon Video Strip Poker (now with Chibi-Moon!). Clearly, this sentiment was wrong in a truly monumental way. As they say about over-budget movies, “It’s all up there on the screen.” In this case, those six years seem etched onto every frame.
We explore Half-Life 2 in detail on page 44, so I won’t belabor the details, but what strikes me most is how this experience is the anti-Doom 3. Half-Life 2‘s detailed and sublimely involving world and effortless forward thrust serve as a megaphone for Doom 3’s many deficiencies. Its crude, funhouse tricks look even more tatty and uninspired now. From the first 10 seconds, HL2 creates a sense of dread, dislocation, and disorientation, leaving the gamer feeling helpless as he stumbles, unarmed, through a new, confusing, and hostile environment.
As the game opens, information is fragmentary, but it soon becomes clear that everyone views you (Gordon Freeman) as a messiah figure, and when The Suit is finally unveiled, it takes on a quasi-religious dimension: vestments for the avenging savior. It’s a moment that will long live as a game-geek barometer: The hardcore among us admitting (if only to ourselves) that at the moment we saw the hazard suit and the music from the original Half-Life kicked in, we got goose bumps.