It's hard to believe that it's been a year since Half-Life 2 was announced, but finally, after months of silence from developer Valve after part of the game was stolen by opportunist hackers late last year, we've been invited back to Seattle to play the latest version of the game. You may well have got sick of waiting for HL2 to appear - perhaps the release of Far Cry has satiated your lust for a ground-breaking shooter. But as you're about to find out, there's just as much reason to be excited now as there was 12 months ago.
Before we start though, if you haven't been following the Half-Life 2 saga, you might like to refresh your memory about what we already know about the game. After all, it's been a long time since any new facts have been available, so if that's you, why not head off to the 'Beginners Start Here' panel on page 35 and swot up before you dive into the new stuff below.
But if you can't wait to jump straight in, why not join me now at Valve's offices, along with the company's managing director Gabe Newell and director of marketing Doug Lombardi as we glean the latest info and playtest the game first-hand. Excited? Me too.
Touring City 17
"We're going to let you play through three levels," begins Doug. "This first one's about 15 minutes into the game, and will give you some classic Half-Life gameplay, where we'll try and scare you and give you a good look at City 17." The hard disk chatter ceases and the level fills the screen. We're in.
I'm standing in a large hallway. On the far side of the enclosure hangs an enormous screen, from which gazes a kindly yet slightly sinister male face. I pause, hoping to garner some vital information before I rush out of the inviting doorway to my left and into the bustling courtyard beyond. This man seems to be providing some kind of information service. I listen intently.
He's reading from a letter in which the author is outlining his concerns about a lack of human freedom. "Don't worry," begins his reply. "You're being treated like this for your own good. You're not ready to make your own decisions yet. But soon you will be free to do as you please."
Confused, I scan the room and spy gas mask-wearing guards blocking every doorway bar one. "Do not be afraid," continues the amplified voice, as I approach one of the guards. Before I'm even a metre away, his gun is out of its holster and pointing at my head. "Move away!" booms his bellowed warning, causing me to reel back and run for the doorway, his torrent of threats still assaulting my eardrums.
Gabe interjects. "As a character, the last thing you remember is having a conversation with the G-Man. Now it's ten years later and all sorts of things have happened. But you don't know what happened to that time or even what side you're on. As you're about to find out, everyone seems to know more about you than you do."
The sunlight makes me blink violently as my eyes focus on the new vista before me. All around, people walk with bowed heads, dressed in matching white clothes as circular drones buzz around the square, and more gas mask-clad guards stand around menacingly, ever watchful. "Hey, don't I know you?" comes a question from a passing pedestrian. "Haven't I seen you somewhere before?" asks another. Gabe was right: how do these people know who I am?
A commotion at the far side of the courtyard from behind a partially closed door distracts my attention. I can't quite see in properly, but it looks as though some of the town's denizens are being brutalised by guards. The sentry shoos me away with a wave of his stun-baton and I reluctantly move on.