(This week's new releases.) Miiiisster Freeman will see you now.
Then it struck me. A ball. Gaily tossed by a since-repentant flatmate.
In striking me just above the wrist on my mousing arm it totally threw my aim, and the crate I'd been preparing to use as an over-sized bullet pinged uselessly into the air up to the right of where I was standing.
Only for the big block of wood to survive the impact and rebound forcefully in the direction of an approaching enemy, who copped it full on in the face and wound up stumbling into a freestanding rotary blade that I'd had the foresight to enable just seconds previously.
Splat. Giggle. Quicksave.
Half-Life 2 is worth most of its 10 points out of 10 because I've been watching Smallville. That show - regardless of whether you like it or not - does make you wish you had superhuman abilities. There's very little in life as exciting as the idea of being able to crush things with your bare hands, hurl vast objects over vast distances, and generally tear the world apart.
The important point here of course is that you want to be able to do these things in the real world. Every game since, well, Pong has given you the superhuman ability to do something or other - to cut the corners of real-life - but has also imposed limits that have diluted the impact of being able to throw people off ledges, leap over chasms and spin your legs over your head like the blades of a chopper.
In Half-Life 2, the team at Valve has focused on making all the right things interactive. They have this innate sense of what it would be fun to do with all the toys in their sandbox, and they've endeavoured to make sure that you can do every one. Theirs is still a world where delicately textured backdrops belie invisible barriers that cut the scenery off before you can get as far as the eye can see, where certain doors do not open and certain machines and objects will not react to your tools. But their world is real enough that you can spend literally hours just revelling in your freedom to fumble with gravity - and well rounded enough that it can conjure up happy accidents like the ball-crate-slicing episode detailed above.
As for the other points that make up the highest accolade we're able to hand down: they're accounted for by the gorgeous spectacle, the slow-burning narrative, the intelligent level design that doesn't try to show everything off in the first ten minutes, the measured pacing, the variety of gameplay mechanics and the seamlessness of their integration, and on a personal level one of the most absorbing first hours of a game that I can remember since, surprise surprise, our first trip into the heart of Black Mesa some six years ago.
To cannibalise an old cliché, Half-Life 2 is the first-person shooter to reshape all first-person shooters. And as a self-confessed FPS refugee, I should know.
Which is unhappy news for a number of people, especially those who worked on EA's Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, which is not only surprisingly excellent after enduring what we'd generously describe as a "strained period of development", but had it been released a few weeks earlier would have been one of the finest FPS titles of the year to date. As it is, not only is it destined to be left on the shelves for another day by most of the FPS-loving public, but Half-Life 2's successes may well lessen their enthusiasm for it overall.
Other victims of Gordon Freeman's brilliance this week include Mario vs. Donkey Kong, Mortal Kombat: Deception, Need for Speed Underground 2, SingStar Party, Tales of Symphonia, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines and Worms Forts: Under Siege. Irrespective of how good any of them are or how popular the brands may be, they're guaranteed to suffer to some degree on account of Half-Life 2's release.
Some of them deserve to of course. SingStar Party is good, but not good enough - full of songs that we tend to just scroll on past, and still plagued by the same technical failings, despite standout moments like listening to drunk people slur No Woman No Cry, and listening to me screech my way through Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. And I just plain don't like Need For Speed Underground 2. Millions will, but I can live without a Day-Glo neon baby oil advert of a racing game wrapped in a generic city shell and obsessed with strapping Christmas lights to the axels of a Peugeot while feebly attempting to mask it's hopelessly and unfairly elastic AI controlled opposition with pictures of Brook Burke coquettishly nibbling on the rim of a hubcap. (Sorry. Sore point.)
Disappointingly, Worms Forts is another that we probably won't mind getting swept away with the rest of the flotsam and jetsam. For many, Worms doesn't work in 3D; getting anything to go where you want it to go is much harder, and the sort of accidental, earth-moving extinction-level bombardments that made the 2D back-and-forth so addictive never find their feet for various reasons. But even if you don't feel that way, you may well curse the way Team 17 has changed the fundamental set-up to make base building and expansion the central focus - robbing the game of its speed and simplicity amongst other things. We'll be giving it a chance to redeem itself over the weekend, but first impressions have not been favourable.
However there are casualties on the abovementioned list that are either unknown-but-promising quantities or that we already know to be well worthy of investment. Tales of Symphonia on the GameCube for example; how typically Nintendo that the system's finest traditional role-playing game to date finds itself peeping out of the shadows of bigger titles. And, sticking with Ninty, Mario vs. Donkey Kong - a wonderful update to the classic Donkey Kong puzzler.
Perhaps the strangest game to be released in Half-Life 2's shadow though is the game that shares its own Source engine technology, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. Due to all sorts of strictness and secrecy we haven't even played it yet, but given the raft of high quality titles due out this week - and the fact that developer Troika Games must have known how good HL2 was going to be given that they licensed the technology yonks ago - the decision to release it on November 19th is destined to go down as one of those mysteries of the unexplained. Along with "Who still buys Mortal Kombat games?"
Whoever does, there are lots of them, and unlike the other games on the list today we don't fancy Mortal Kombat: Deception's chances being impeded too much by Valve's magnificent shooter. On the grounds that I sat next to a Mortal Kombat fan site operator outside E3 in May watching the Half-Life 2 presentation on my laptop and he never even snapped out of his involved mumblings about whether Deception's version of Sub-Zero would be better than Deadly Alliance's. Reading a press pack, or watching Gordon Freeman in action...
Then again, when it comes to ignoring big spectacles in favour of fanboyistic obsession, yours truly really cannot talk. After all, as soon as this text is filed there will be frantic juggling of cables, discs and memory cards until Metal Gear Solid 3 - one of this week's key import releases - is playing its tune on my big-screen TV. With Half-Life 2 still unfinished on my hard disk, I've a lot of nerve mocking the free T-shirt brigade and their Sub-Zero soliloquies.
Still, if anybody's looking to hand down my comeuppance, I'd appreciate they stick to throwing the sponge football. Or at least letting me quicksave first. There's enough to play this week without getting bogged down redoing the same sections.
The Snakes can wait no longer. Have a nice Life.
- PAL Releases
- Blitzkrieg: Rolling Thunder (PC)
- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Double Pack (PC)
- Disney Move (PS2)
- Half-Life 2 (PC)
- Junior Sports Basketball (PS2)
- Lineage II (PC)
- Mario vs. Donkey Kong (GBA)
- Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault (PC)
- Megaman X Command Mission (PS2, Cube)
- Mortal Kombat: Deception (PS2, Xbox)
- Ms PacMan - Maze Madness (GBA)
- Need For Speed Underground 2 (PS2, Xbox, Cube, PC, GBA)
- Payback (GBA)
- Pool Shark 2 (PC, Xbox)
- R-Type III (GBA)
- Return to Mysterious Island (PC)
- RPM Tuning (PS2)
- SingStar Party (PS2)
- Super Power 2 (PC)
- Tales of Symphonia (Cube)
- Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (PC)
- Wings (GBA)
- Worms Forts: Under Siege (PS2, Xbox, PC)
- WWE Survivor Series (GBA)
- Key US Releases
- Baten Kaitos (Cube)
- Blinx 2: Masters of Time & Space (Xbox)
- Call of Duty: Finest Hour (PS2, Xbox, Cube)
- Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2)
- Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (Cube)