As refreshingly optimised as Half-Life 2 was to run on low and mid range PCs, there's no doubt that a hugely significant chunk of its owners went out and upgraded their rigs with the specific intention of playing Valve's game without compromise, in all its staggeringly gorgeous glory. But while many of us went out and upgraded to a gigabyte of RAM, stuck in a high-end Radeon or GeForce and spent a fortune, it's pretty clear that our PCs had plenty of headroom left - and now Valve wants to take advantage of that with the forthcoming release of a specially designed level called 'The Lost Coast'.
More details of this intriguing prospect have been published in an exclusive Half-Life 2 feature in the May issue of the UK PC Gamer, out today. Valve's Victor Antonov explains the rationale about the level, which will require a 3.2GHz processor, 1GB RAM and a top spec graphics card: "Three months before shipping Half Life 2 the art and production team were shutting down," he recalls. "We had to think about the future, had to come up with a strategy for post Half-Life 2 art. What was the next level of visuals we could reach?
"We knew we hadn't reached the limits of graphics with Half Life 2. We had the idea to create one level that would extend the Half-Life 2 universe, and test our strategies for next generation art. We called it The Lost Coast. We picked the most ambitious, most difficult area to create. It's a coastline with a lot of rocks, a village, and a church. We have a lot of wet surfaces, nature, architecture and exteriors. We wanted strong themes; very defined rocks, a lot of water, really detailed, almost organic looking architecture down to a brick and a shingle," notes Antonov in PC Gamer.
Indeed, the handful of screen shots that accompany the PC Gamer piece look staggeringly beautiful, and bear out his lofty claims, but, alas, copyright restrictions prevent us from publishing them here. Expect Valve to make them widely available soon.
Also included in the PC Gamer feature are some intriguing examples of the kind of eye candy we can expect; and they're literally just that. Using the concept of High Dynamic Range (HDR) he explains the premise is to reproduce the effect of how our eyes adjust to the varying conditions of light.
"In all current games, including Half-Life 2 the lighting is wrong," he admits in the PC Gamer piece. "Part of the gamey look is the inconsistency between the sky, the lighting, and the reflections. They don't look the way that they should." Looking out over the grey skies of North West London, we're quite sure we'd rather they looked like the nice blue ones featured in the gorgeous screenshots released so far. Having said that though, the sun's just come out. The power of positive thinking, eh?
"The only way to solve this is if we do what a real camera does, and that's dynamically adjust the exposure depending on what you look at. If look at the dark spots they will have a bigger exposure, the bright spots have a smaller exposure," Antonov explains in PC Gamer. "If I took a photograph of a sky, everything on the ground will appear much darker, in order to read the detail in the sky. If I wanted the correct lighting to show up the foreground, the sky becomes completely bright - overexposed. I lose the detail," he says.
"We use software to paint in the different exposure levels. We had to create every asset specifically for this; it creates more work for our art teams than what's gone before. For each sky, we draw it four times, for each area," Anatov adds in the PC Gamer exclusive. Screenshots certainly give a decent impression of how this works, with a series of shots taken from within a series of pillars and archways initially blinding the player with bleached out light, before adjusting to the flood of sunshine and returning to normal.
Blinded by the light
And as Valve's designer Robin Walker points out in the same PC Gamer piece, this has gameplay implications. "If you jump out of a dark space into a light area you're going to be blinded. It's going to be really bright until your eyes adjust. It can be used the other way around, too. Hide from a monster in a dark area and it will take a couple of seconds to go from a silhouette to detail," he says.
Thinking about it for a moment, it could have terrifying implications for how we play games. Tim Edwards, the writer of the PC Gamer piece in fact witnesses a section where Gordon is lead into the church (with a screenshot revealing incredibly detailed bump mapping techniques enabling Valve to truly go to town on creating photorealistic murals and gorgeously ornate gold incense burners hanging from the ceiling), with a chopper clearly heard in the distance. Before you know it, the chopper opens fire, blasts through the stained glass windows, sending bright light streaming into the hall. As if by way of demonstration, the light bleaches out your view, making it incredibly tough to even see what's attacking you. As Edwards notes "the light itself feels hostile".
To sum up the PC Gamer piece, Antonov admits this part of the unending push for true graphical realism in gaming: "In graphical media, the first objective has always been about photorealism. Real pictures. After that comes stylised images and art." But married to Valve's design sensibilities, it's shaping up to be an incredible partnership. Next generation, anyone?
Check the May 2005 issue of PC Gamer (out today) for the full article, complete with world first screenshots.