The awesome experience of installing Half-Life 2

It took over an hour to install, requires you to be online the whole time, and includes some behind-the-scenes validating to ensure you have a legitimate copy. But without any doubt, it is worth the time and procedure – Half-Life 2 really is an exhilarating game.

Only 45 minutes playing time so far – that’s got me to the second level – but more than enough to clearly see that this game is an evolution in PC game development, with its truly gorgeous graphics quality, incredibly realistic gameplay environment and digital characters that react to you in ways that show real intelligence, artificial or not.

You don’t need a mega-PC on which to install and run the game, either. The minimum hardware spec is a 1.2Ghz PC, 256Mb RAM, Windows 98 and a graphics card that supports DirectX 7, plus about 5 gigs of hard disk space. The game comes on a DVD, not CD-ROMs, so a DVD drive as well.

While I wouldn’t try and play it on a PC with only 256Mb RAM – you really need at least 512Mb – the rest of the spec would be enough for a reasonable gameplay experience. Not spectacular, but reasonable.

As with most recent PC games, though, the better the spec, the faster and more smoothly the game runs, at higher screen resolutions. Unlike games such as Doom 3, which really does need a much higher spec than the advertised minimum (especially the graphics), I’ve got Half-Life 2 up and running on a 1.8Ghz Toshiba laptop (the same one that had a hard disk failure last month, now fixed), Windows XP Pro SP2, an Nvidia GeForce4 440 Go chip with 64Mb of video memory, all of which enable me to run the game fast and very smoothly at 1024×768 resolution full screen. While this PC has a native screen resolution of 1600×1200, that just isn’t worth trying with only 64Mb of video memory.

So, to the actual installation.

Be prepared – it will take an hour or more as game installation includes being online to Steam’s servers as part of the installation process (Steam is game developer Valve‘s ‘delivery partner’). You’ll need to open an account (free) with Steam, otherwise you cannot install the game. Not only that, once the game installs, a server process validates your installation by unlocking the game files (meaning, ensuring the game’s not pirated) and building a cache of the game on your PC’s hard disk. That includes downloading more files from the servers and auto-installing them. Even with a high-speed broadband connection, that takes a while.

You’ll also need your internet connection every time you play the game. Yes, you will be able to play it offline from the installation on your hard disk (and with the DVD in your DVD drive) but when you start up the game, it logs you in to your Steam account. I noticed that, when I started the game each time today and my PC connected to Steam’s servers, new files were downloaded to my PC.

During installation, it’s crucial you leave unchecked this little box in the Steam account settings dialog about remembering your Steam password, otherwise you will not be able to play the game in offline mode:

It may all seem a complex process, but I imagine it’s a major part of what we’ll be seeing more of with PC games – far more robust anti-piracy measures.

Half-Life 2 is an astounding game, well worth the installation experience. The graphics are jaw-dropping, the story line is intelligent and seamlessly follows on from Half-Life released in 1998, and it more than lives up to expectations. My vote: 10 out of 10.

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