The Half-Life 2 Experience
I'm a little late to this party, but this evening, I began to play Half-Life 2. I'm about an hour into it now, and I just wanted to note a few things. I'll try not to harp too much on points that have been covered ad infinitum by other sources.
First of all, I bought Half-Life 2 and downloaded it over Steam. This process was completely and totally seamless and transparent. It's one thing to say you're going to make an end run around traditional publishing with online distribution, and quite another thing to put together a system as easy and reassuring as Valve's Steam. I'm not a PC gamer; I much prefer consoles for the no-hassle experience. However, Steam took care of pretty much everything involved in getting the game running on my machine even reminding me to update my graphics card drivers, which was the only part where my intervention was required. I love it.
Second, Valve has created an engine capable of spectacular feats of real-time rendering. At the same time, they've created an engine that scales pretty well to less beefy machines. I'm playing on a laptop with a wussy mobile processor (Pentium M 1.5 GHz). Granted, I have a gig of RAM and a 128 MB video card (GeForce FX Go5650), but hardware guides have indicated that the CPU can be a bottleneck. In any case, my laptop seems to be able to run the game pretty well with decent graphical options turned on (no-anti-aliasing though). The game looks amazing, which leads me to my next point.
I've always been in the camp of making games more artistically stylized, moving away from realism. The uncanny valley always bothered me, and I'd much rather see games with distinct art styles (Ico, Windwaker, World of Warcraft) than creepily flawed attempts at photorealism (the close-ups in Halo 2). That said, Half-Life 2 makes a convincing case for the pursuit of realism. The quality of the graphics, combined with the stellar animation, absolutely contributes to the physical and emotional involvement of the player in the world of City 17. I'm not saying Half-Life 2 doesn't have an art style. In fact, I'd say their art director did a fantastic job of making sure the world has an understated style and cohesive look. However, I would say that in terms of graphics, Half-Life 2 has bridged the uncanny valley. Oh yeah, and the physics doesn't hurt.
One little nitpick so far: why don't I have a body? In the Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, another first-person game, the player can look down and see Riddick's feet. I find it seriously jarring to look down and see no Freeman feet. It's even freakier when I "pick up" an item and it's just floating in front of me. It breaks the illusion.
Other than that, I'm loving it. The atmosphere is incredible, and the storytelling is incredible. And don't get me started about the indirect control. I'll post more as I progress.