Half-Life 2

Could the gravity gun lift the Xbox?

Half-Life 2 is a game I always wanted to review but never got the chance to [Ed snips 4,000 words]. In the end it was a science-fiction first-person shooter - usually a very narrow-minded genre - that managed to encompass many themes on many levels, but the thing I probably liked most about it was the way it applied "less is more" logic all over the place.

The debate over the storytelling approach, where it was perhaps most transparent, is likely to rage forever (personally I liked it [I wished there were more scraps of narrative dotted around for you to find in hard to reach places - Ed]), but the way Valve applied it to the actual game mechanics was also one of my favourite things, and less divisive on the whole. It managed to steer me toward new experiences chapter by chapter, but rarely did they outstay their welcome. Antlions, chucking circular saws, siege sections, physics puzzles, what it did on the last level (which was enough of an end sequence for me in itself) - I loved most of them, but just as I was getting really excited it stole them away again.

If I were writing a novel (and I am not, repeat not writing a novel [although you are novel - Ed]), I'd probably conceal the whole truth so that it endured beyond the final page. Valve did that with the story, but also did it with the mechanics.

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Which is handy really, because if you finished Half-Life 2 on the PC a few months ago and haven't touched it since, you might well fancy playing through it again soon. Perhaps on the Xbox, where it's bound to sell in huge quantities anyway. Clever bastards.

There are lots of other mini-debates to be had about this Xbox version, including the one about its proximity to the launch of Xbox 360 and whether it would have been better on that (it would, but after two and a half years in development you can forgive them for seeing it through on the machine that already has a huge installed base). But let's ignore those for now (since you're going to do them all in the comments anyway) and talk about what it's actually like to play, since I've played it now, and you all came in here expecting me to talk about that anyway and not just wax self-indulgent about the PC version.

First things first, the single-player game will be intact, according to Valve, although there will be no multiplayer. In an interview prior to E3, the developer, which is handling the conversion in-house, spoke of downloadable content later in the game's life, but there's no suggestion yet as to what that might be.

And when Valve says "intact", it means more than most PC-to-console FPS conversions. According to the same interview, the load screens will be in the same place, and thanks to a mixture of preloading data to the hard disk and streaming certain elements as you play, the experience should be comparable, albeit at 30 frames per second rather than the high-end 60.

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On the show floor at E3, the developer showed off a few demos - on the Microsoft stand, incidentally, since Valve won't be revealing its new publishing partner until the summer - giving the assembled hacks (and green-badge types) the chance to try out the opening station section and a couple of bits of Ravenholm.

The E3 demos ran 480 progressive scan, which is something European gamers will only be able to experience on import machines or using some sort of software modification, like the one mentioned by Luc in the comments on this article. You still got a good idea of what to expect though; the resolution and level of detail was obviously down on what a lot of PC owners will remember, but the overall effect was just as beguiling, and the standardised hardware meant that a lot of neat lighting effects could be employed without fear of them getting edged out on lower-end machines. As a facsimile of Half-Life 2 it's brave and often successful; as an Xbox first-person shooter it's one of the best-looking I've even seen, with more incidental detail than Halo, Riddick et al, lovely shadowing, and those same normal and bump-mapped textures adding to the illusion of proper 3D.

The proof of the controls will be in the overall pudding of course, and not just the dollop of cream crowning the Xbox E3 sundae, but first impressions suggest they've been translated to the pad rather well, with sensitivity and the right-thumb look-movement stick acceleration at the right sort of rate, invert-Y-axis options, and functions sensibly strewn across the various buttons. There's even a toggle button for the gravity gun, much as there was on the PC, and it's just as useful.

Mention of the gravity gun, of course, brings me to another key point: the physics. One of Half-Life 2's undisputed triumphs on the PC was in creating a physical world that responded to your touch and movement far better than any other, and although there are a few glitches in this Xbox build and there is slightly less incidental involvement, the world seems to have been recreated quite convincingly on the Xbox hardware.

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Indeed, I spent a good few minutes killing zombified people wearing headcrabs, turning on spinning blades to chop them up as I crouched underneath giggling, chucking explosive barrels around using the gravity gun and reminding myself that testing out what you think is the secondary fire button whilst clutching a machinegun with grenade launcher attachment in a small room is not a great idea. Especially when you're being filmed by some crazy American people, who were quite possibly the same crew that punched you the previous day for accidentally walking across their shot [he's wandering again. Snip - Ed].

While the sections of the game shown at E3 were fairly "safe" choices compared to some - I do, for example, wonder how the poor thing's going to cope with the boating sections, or the fighting-on-the-streets bit which almost killed my fairly recent PC last November - this was an impressive showing nonetheless. The only slight disappointment was hurling an explosive barrel off a rooftop into a crowd of crab-hats and watching the Xbox drop a couple of handfuls of frames to keep up with the results.

Still, with some last minute optimisation Half-Life 2 could be the last great first-person shooter on Xbox. True to form, its E3 showing left us wanting more.

Half-Life 2 is due out on Xbox this summer.

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