Valorous Men of Duty called to Honor?
For instance, the demos for Activision's Call of Valor and EA's Men of Duty are little more than elaborate cutscenes (to be fair, there was a huge multiplayer session of Call to Valorous Men being held in a faux bunker). These demos are great to watch, but for all we know, they're rail shooters. Before the demo for Men of Duty Calling, a.k.a. the World War II shooter set in Vietnam, the guy announced that we were seeing actual gameplay. But my friend Trevor said that when he went to see it, the Xbox crashed, so they reset it and started again from the beginning. Sure enough, the same things happened this time around. The same guys were hit, the same comments were made, the same enemies appeared from the same places. Trevor said he heckled, but the sound was up so loud no one could hear him.
Even the Half-Life 2 demo, a wildly successful crowd pleaser that had people whipped into a frenzy of messianic proportion, is a cause for suspicion. I think part of the reason people were so impressed and willing to trust what felt uncannily like a Trespasser demo is that Valve showed off the original Half-Life the same way, yet they still delivered an amazing game. They've built up a lot of good will among players and their cool confidence about delivering a complete game on September 30th is reassuring. It’s also refreshing next to interminable 'when it's done' mantras like we’ve been hearing from 3D Realms, whose Duke Nukem Forever was conspicuously missing at this year’s show. The fact that Valve is so cool and certain and laid back reinforces the idea that these guys really know what they're doing. Nevermind some marginally credible rumors that there's no way in hell they'll make that date.
A date which will live in infamy
I'm skeptical about more than just the September 30th date. Valve has made exactly one game. They've shown a remarkable talent for fostering a community of fans in the wake of that game. They've revolutionized third party mods with the way they've nurtured Counter-Strike. If you consider how many people are using the technology, Valve has certainly out-idded id in terms of engine building, much to id's chagrin (I once had an id representative ask me to change a reference to 'the Half-Life engine' to 'the Quake engine'). Unlike id with their sometimes soulless technical acumen, Valve knows the ins and outs of narrative. With excellent pacing and carefully controlled action set pieces, they've tricked everyone into thinking Half-Life has a great story.
But with the Half-Life 2 demo, they seem to be implying some sort of wide-open, physics-driven, emergent gameplay. For instance, during one 'cut scene' in which a scientist is noodling away at his experiment and a female character is delivering a bit of exposition, Gordon (i.e. you, the player) accidentally knocks over a monitor. The scientist reacts to the fumble: "Oh, do be careful," he says. The audience watching the demo laughed, not because there was anything inherently funny about some guy knocking something over, but because we never see this in a game. So is Valve implying their characters will work this dynamically, even in the middle of cut scenes? At another point, while demoing a group of soldiers fighting in a city and running through a conveniently unattended opening to flank some guards at a barricade, Gabe Newell said that you'd rarely be alone in Half-Life 2. He said they're designing the friendly AI to figure out what you want it to do. How does this work? Will I be wetwired into my computer through the USB port?