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Half-Life 2 - more shocking revelations

Gabe Newell demos amazing HL2 features

If a week's a long time in politics, then it's an eternity in games journalism and now we're back from the hotbed of gaming intrigue which was E3 2004, it's perhaps time to pause, reflect, kick back and take stock of the wonders...

Only kidding - sod that for a game of soldiers -our unadulterated gaming lust continues unabated and following our first impressions of Counter-Strike running under the Half-Life 2 engine, we're now ready to spill our guts with even more details from Gabe Newell's stunning behind-closed-doors HL2 briefing.

On show was a succession of in-game movies which Newell used to illustrate some of the game's groovier features, and even as we collected our free HL2 t-shirts at the end (signed and now available on eBay), our tongues were still dragging a couple of feet behind us.

HL2's opening sequence certainly lives up to its predecessor and immediately thrusts you right into the heart of an almost living, breathing City 17. However even as you first step off the train, there's already plenty of signs to make you feel uneasy.

First up, there's the floating camera which hovers right in your face to scan you; then there's the giant video screens which are plastered across every wall, proclaiming, "City 17 - It's safer here." As you make your way through the elaborate security checks, your sense of disquiet starts to grow.

Gas-masked, pig-like security guards are everywhere, dishing out casual brutality to the city's inmates and overheard snatches of conversation also set the alarm bells ringing. One man mumbles to himself "Lots of people arrive, but none of them leave. Why is that?" Another warns you, "They put something in the water, to make... to make you forget." Sinister, but just as you think you've made it through the final hurdle, one of the guards orders you to "step this way" and you're manhandled towards a holding cell.

The screams from next door don't exactly make you feel right at home and as you're thrust into the cell, a sinister interrogation chair, like something from Michael Palin's office in Brazil, awaits. Fortunately the screen blanked to draw a discreet veil over proceedings at this point, but from the off, the tension and atmosphere in HL2 is right up to scratch and you can't help feeling you've stepped right into the middle of some bizarre Orwellian nightmare. Top marks Valve!

One little publicised fact about HL2 has been the number of vehicles you can get your hands on, but fortunately the next demo provided ample evidence of their credentials. Powering along a mountain road in an armed dune buggy was awesome, but we were soon under assault from bouncing ball enemies which bore a resemblance to miniature Prisoner-style Rovers.

This was quickly followed by a vehicle-led assault on a heavily-defended guard outpost, but then the action switched to a new scene with us piloting a heavily armed hovercraft skirting through an elaborate outdoor sewer network.

Flying along at high speed, guards and tanks were soon bombarding us from the shore, but twin machine guns allowed us to lay down some suppressing fire. Then a guard helicopter turned up and it was chopper versus hovercraft in a bitter battle to the death with machine gun fire and missiles raining down from above. On this evidence, HL2's vehicles may look splendidly unconventional, but will be a real joy to drive - and should provide for some supreme jollies in multiplayer.

Next we had a brief run through with Father Gregori, a shotgun-toting priest who promised to show us the way out (presumably to the next level). Only problem was, in between lay a graveyard full of what Newell described as "Fast Zombies".

No kidding; there was barely time to set foot on the hallowed ground before sleek shadows were zipping along the cliffs and massing above us under bright moonlight. Again the screen faded before they had a chance to attack, but it was an interesting vignette of the atmosphere and tension Valve has created in even the simplest level of the game.

Of course, the old maxim in showbiz is "always leave them wanting more" and Newell's final demo was the pièce de résistance, designed to show how you could fight co-operatively alongside your fellow NPCs. Cue a massive Strider assault as we joined ten-to-twenty members of the human resistance in trying to take down two of the huge three-legged machines, which you'll know from the HL2 screenshot archive.

Dropping onto the edges of the fight, we were quickly heading for the frontline where the rocket-launcher wielding resistance had engaged the two striders towering over the battlefield.

Short, violent and nasty is the only way to describe the ensuing gunfight, with our own rockets scoring direct hits, but scarcely seeming to dent the mechanical foe. Small arms fire rattled of their casings, heat rays melted surrounding squads and we were just lining up for another launch when the strider turned its beady eye our way. One heat ray later and we gained some appreciation of what it must feel like to be a kitten microwaved on full power.

Then, suddenly, the lights came up and blinking and stunned, we were transported from Half-Life 2's alternate universe and back to the harsh reality of the E3 showfloor. Although all these demos were admittedly just video clips, they were of actual gameplay footage and judging from what we've seen, there's no reason to change our opinion that Valve has worked its magic all over again and that HL2 is not only going to be a more than worthy successor to the original game, but is also going to re-define the genre once more.

Accept no substitutes, on this evidence, Half-Life 2 is the real deal.