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‘Half-Life’ physics, big eggs & more

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When it comes to computer game industry events, nothing succeeds like excess. Case in point, last week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, a study in sensory overload. Imagine, if you will, a small city of multi-story exhibitor booths built along the specs of a post-modern Albert Speer. At eye level, an army of costumed characters and overzealous marketers compete for attention. And on monitors everywhere, games — thousand of them.

OVER 60,000 INDUSTRY types visited the Los Angeles Convention Center to play the games slated for release later this year. I was one of them. After enduring both crowds and mind-numbing techno — the muzak of game industry events — I’m happy to report a couple discoveries. First, Excedrin works. And second, the next year looks good for games.

Here’s some of the winners (and some random observations):

The big one: “Half-Life 2” (PC)

E3 attendees waited in line for hours to catch the demo to sequel to the popular first-person shooter for the PC. Here’s why: The graphics and game physics are incredible.

Developers Valve Software consulted a research psychiatrist at the University of California to produce realistic facial expressions using 40 different muscles. Eyes actually glint based on local illumination.

Gabe Newell, Valve’s managing director, demonstrated game physics by pulling a virtual slat of wood along a virtual concrete floor. “It sounds like wood, scrapes like wood, and if I shoot it, it will shatter like wood,” Newell explained before blowing the object up.

When “Half-Life 2” hits the shelves this fall, expect sales to extend well beyond the first-person shooter market. It looks that good. (Note: Due to its graphic portrayal of violence, “Half-Life 2” is not recommended for the kids.)

Best game in Cantonese: “Rise to Honor” (PlayStation 2)

“Rise to Honor” abandons the tedious button-mashing common with most fighting games. Instead, players use PlayStation 2’s right analog stick to make martial arts moves. Both the graphics and the interactive environment are unusually rich for a PS2 game. Anything from a chair to a table can serve as a weapon.

One nice touch: As the action of this cop vs. Triad adventure moves from Hong Kong to San Francisco, the dialogue switches from Cantonese (with English subtitles) to English. Jet Li, the acrobatic movie star, lent his voice and digital doppelganger.

Best use of a journalist: “Beyond Good & Evil” (GameCube/PS2/Xbox/PC)

As girl reporter “Jade,” you must discover the source of a mass hysteria sweeping her world. Your weapons: an aikido staff, a camera and good old-fashioned journalistic skills. Developer Ubi Soft created a new engine for the game and the result is a beautifully rendered universe rich in deep purples and greens and blessed by heavenly lighting effects. Between the graphics and the plucky heroine, there’s much to love about this game.

Best graphic novel adaptation: “XIII” (GameCube/PS2/Xbox/PC)

First-person-shooters receive a face lift with “XIII,” which shares its design aesthetic of clean lines and cel shading with the graphic novel of the same name.

The plot is similar in execution and complexity to the indie film “Memento”: The protagonist suffers from a bad case of amnesia. A tattoo of the number “XIII” and a key to a bank deposit box are the only clues the player is provided at the beginning of the game. Game play and nicely rendered flashbacks gradually expose the protagonist’s real identity.

Best performance in a chicken suit: “Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg” (GameCube)

Young Billy likes to dress up as a chicken and roll eggs. When Billy utters a command the eggs hatch and the resulting monster’s powers can be harnessed. The object of the game is to defeat a tyrant king, but the environment — created by Sonic creator Yuji Naka — is so refreshingly odd that it really doesn’t matter.

Oversold feature: Ragdoll physics

The term describes the way that games today try to show what happens when a character gets riddled with bullets. Bad guys no longer fall and fade away. Instead, their heads loll, limbs hang akimbo and bodies drop in a messy clump with assorted parts splayed in a very uncomfortable position. “Ragdoll physics” adds a touch more realism, but as a selling point it gets tired, fast. During the demo of one first-person shooting game, the developer spent a little too much time riddling an already dead bad guy.

Over-hyped media story that won’t die: Games and Hollywood

Marketers can congratulate themselves that there’s not a single Inuit village in Greenland that is not aware of the Hollywood/game industry nexus. Who isn’t tired of “The Matrix” hype? Even Doug Lowenstein, president of E3’s parent organization, the Interactive Digital Software Association, said last week that the industry “should be wary of an overdependence on licensed games.”

The good news is that upcoming movie-related titles are at least combing cinema’s past. Take, for example, “The Great Escape” (PS2/Xbox/PC) where you help Steve McQueen flee Stalag Luft III. Coming in 2004, “The Warriors,” promises to help you relive that 1970s gang-banger classic. Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” is getting a game, although the plot and the overall game design — as envisioned by science fiction artist “Mobius” — is far, far different from the original movie. In “The Movies” (PC) by the U.K.’s Lionhead Studios you play the part of a studio head. You choose the scripts, hire the actors, choose the costumes and make your movie. No word yet on whether “The Movies” also allows you to also build the game promoting the movie. Now, that would be meta.

Trend to fear: Gamers who sing

Brace yourself for the Xbox Music Maker. The add-on allows Xbox owners to create their own song lists and then match songs with personal photos, mpgs and what-not to create sophisticated slideshows and visuals. Here’s the scary part: Music Maker ships with 15 karaoke tracks as well as vocal stripping technology allowing owners to sing their favorites. Ever hear a friend sing a karaoke “Free Bird?” Shudder.

Best trend for people with too much free time: Interactive everything

If there is any overriding trend to this season’s crop of games it is that gaming environments have grown exponentially. Objects and people can be picked up and manipulated in an increasing number of games; a lot of fun when playing “The Hulk” (GameCube/PS2/Xbox/PC).

Exploration will serve as an end in itself for multiplayer games like “Star Wars Galaxies” (PC). In Microsoft’s XSN Sports network, a player’s past will serve as ripe territory for game content. In a head-to-head battle on “NFL Fever 2004” (Xbox), for example, sideline coaches will offer play suggestions based on your rival’s performance in past league games.

Even the power of the sun — yes, the real sun, that bugbear of pasty gamers - has been harnessed for interactivity. “Boktai” by Konami includes a solar sensor for the Nintendo Game Boy Advance. The add-on enables players to take advantage of special powers triggered when the gamer ventures outside. Now if only someone could create a virtual E3. I could do without the headaches.

When not babbling about computer games, Tom Loftus produces interactives for