In Late November 1998, what were you doing? Can you even remember? PC Gamers can. They were finally celebrating the release of Half-Life, that game which had been delayed for at least two years. Developers Valve squeezed every last drop from the original Quake Engine and people were feverishly adding Voodoo 2 cards and RAM to upgrade for it. Only the fans were in on it, everyone else was taken by storm as they battled to escape the Black Mesa Complex. The rest is history, which repeated itself when Counter-Strike, a multiplayer military mod re-adopted by developers Valve and given the same level of support as Half-Life, held a record for the highest number of servers worldwide for almost two years. This record was assisted by the re-release of the Generation pack, which absorbed every new add-on and brought Blue Shift back from the Dreamcast to the PC, and let the sales carry on mushrooming.

Since then, the bar has been raised by many other First Person Shooters, not least of them the horror-filled and movie-licensed Aliens vs Predator, released six months after Half-Life in the UK, followed by Unreal Tournament on the multiplayer side, Deus Ex, Elite Force, Medal of Honour, Return To Castle Wolfenstein, Vietcong, Halo and Far Cry as games that stood out and gave a bright, bold new experience which others did not. The penultimate game on the list would have been the Half-Life of 2003 had it reached the PC with its features intact. Let’s not forget Doom III, which had the weight of its own history to deal with (as well as its own torturous wait) only three months ago. True to form, Valve have been drip-feeding fans for 18 months from E3 2003 but general delays and the small matter of code theft, pushed it further back - just history repeating itself. Now here we are. All the build up and the frustration and the waiting, is forgotten when you hear that single guitar chord for Valve’s jingle.

The presentation screen is no longer static, with the radios of the City Guards patrolling giving you a sense of where you are about to enter. The other difference is a widescreen mode and the ability to select chapters to replay, which help blur that game/movie line further than before and there are so many loading points, the one advantage is very little need to save early on as you’ll have a bundle of auto-saves which load more quickly. This makes up for the slower loading on machines closer to the minimum specification.

We’re not giving out plot details I’m afraid, although it’s no great spoiler to know that the G-Man’s much publicised improved facial movements are given a thorough demonstration right at the start, before the slightly shortened introductory titles - you are given slightly less of the surroundings than in the first game’s train ride, making it a bigger shock as you happen upon the first open square of the city. Then characters that were little more than fast food for the aliens in the first game, reappear as much more rounded, individual characters, helped by the use of the same voice actors. The first couple of levels are fairly linear and in my wandering I was wondering when the first shock would hit; true to form I’d walked past the ladder I needed several times. There’s still plenty of the platformer in HL2 and another heralded feature is the ability to move crates and other medium weight objects around when you need climbing blocks or very makeshift shields. As you travel around you have the choice of allowing surveillance to follow you, or, when you have a weapon, violently terminating the connection.

Like Half-Life, you’ll have interactions with several strangers who will feed you little clues or story advancements. Thankfully there isn’t too much build up, Valve realising this is a sequel. That’s why when the action begins, it’s like you’re kicked to “We Got Hostiles” from the original game when you’re taking on the city guards with guns - and you’ll think “finally”. The grunts aren’t dumb- if you’re getting too close they’ll take cover or try to flank you, and there will be several moments where you’ll try to push each other too near the exploding barrels. The difference between the original and HL2 is, it’s not like you could put the barrels precisely where you wanted before to make such a perfect trap in the first game.

Good graphics are a given nowadays. HL2 tries and largely succeeds in giving you a living, breathing and in some cases, near-war-torn city. That’s helped by the engine of course- smash a box for example, and it now folds out flat instead of just exploding, and we could list the quirks of the engine’s physics until the cows came home. Update your video drivers, defragment your hard disk before you play and aside from the occasional judder, a 1.5GHz PC with Radeon card and 768Mb RAM will handle the game. Anything faster/over 2GHz and 1Gb RAM should only have to put up with audio stutters although as usual, physical PCI soundcards will suffer slightly less than the integrated variety, which would have to fight even harder for resources. The machine’s not as much of a vampire as Doom III, but really demands everything from your hardware.

It’s an achievement to celebrate that the game’s actually here, and we’ll treat Counter-Strike Source in a separate review. Making everyone authenticate HL2 over Steam before playing has caused the servers to crash out for a while, though they seem to be coping with demand now. Some fault-finders are racing through the game and completing it in around 20 hours. They’re insane. Rack up the difficulty to maximum and enjoy the experience, and while that will add 7-10 hours to the playing time if you aren’t a hardcore gamer, that’s the way to enjoy this brilliant game, where the money’s on the screen and you can see the result of almost totally independent games development with no publisher interference. The CD version is in our opinion, pointless and since the game requires at least 4.4Gb of space with Counter-Strike, you might as well spend another £20 to upgrade make sure you can buy the DVD if you only have a CD-ROM drive- it’ll definitely be one of the cheapest upgrades you’ll make to accommodate the game.
However, take time out and get ready for it, as it’s hideously addictive. Action gamers who couldn’t understand the pulling power of Championship Manager, will now understand. On my first play it was a six-hour stretch, slowed down by my “testing” and enjoying the game at my own pace, but the other four hours drew me in once the story picked up. It’ll make you late for work, mess with your mind, endanger your relationships - everything budding football managers know, will happen to the action crowd, and it’s the first time when it’s almost worth it for a game this good. Just buy it. Looking past the hype and the history, you have an A-list single player title for which more content is on the way. Then you have the re-interpretation of the most popular multiplayer mod based on that game, both in the same box. So if you pay £28 (the average internet price), that’s £14 for two big games, the second of which won’t reach an “end” of a story and can be played with friends. In fact, that’s a cue to remember the co-op mod is in production with full Valve approval for the single-player. So, there’s nothing to dislike, as long as you make it last.

Verdict

We had to weigh up the two great games in the one package (and more versions besides), the server activation hassles which have largely abated, and the comparison with the original, which is highly favourable given HL2 doesn’t have novelty on its side. If you avoided all hype after the early movies, then we stand by the score. If you spoiled the game for yourself by looking at every single screenshot and news story on the internet, and every single E3 movie giving away some of the best bits, or you don’t have a brand spanking new PC then you’ve done yourself a disservice and you’ll need to subtract one point from our verdict - as you will in future anyway. If you’re taking a break from games as you wait for console favourites to hit the PC next year, this is a great pair of games to stick with for a while. It’s good to have Dr Freeman back with us after so long. Don’t bother waiting for a demo. Just get into the City and make time to play it- unless you’re already lost in the world of football management. We’re not allowed half-marks on pocket-lint.co.uk though, so…