Half-Life 2 went “gold”. On the off chance I’ve never explained that, when a computer or video game goes “gold”, it just means it’s finished and headed off to manufacturing – a holdover from when CD-R’s tended to be gold, so the master disc was gold (as opposed to going gold in the record industry, which means you sold 500,000 copies). It hits stores November 16th.

I’m in an odd position – again, I’m not sure if my system will run the game, but I’m going to buy it anyway. Specifically, I’m going to buy the collector’s edition. I’m doing this for a few reasons – for one, this version of the game, like Unreal Tournament 2004, ships on a DVD instead of six CD-ROMs. Additionally, it comes with Half-Life: Source, the original Half-Life game redone in the Source engine. Oh and it comes with a T-shirt and some other crap. Anyone out there have any good ideas on how to convince the Wife to let me spend $79.99 in November? Here’s to hoping Fry’s comes through on a cheaper deal.

Now what I’m not doing – and what I think Jimmy is – is purchasing the game on Steam. Valve came up with this thing called Steam a few years back. I was actually one of the original beta testers. I downloaded it, installed it, told it I wanted to play Half-Life and before I could blink it had downloaded 500MB+ to my hard drive and had me in the game. I had thought by asking to play Half-Life it was going to search for the installed local copy I had. I had no idea it was going to download a second copy of the game to my hard drive.

The idea behind Steam is this sorta nebulous concept wherein games can be purchased, played, updated, etc. from within Steam. Essentially it’s one step further towards this “buy things online – no need for physical media anymore” concept that, along with video phones and the like, is pretty much in everyone’s Epcot Center view of the universe. Now, given that things like the iTunes Music Store have worked and taken off, this is not an unprecedented concept. Take for example how my Wife decided she liked Insaniquarium enough to buy it online.

However, no matter how “ready” a concept like this is, at least in the case of Half-Life 2, I’m just not ready for it yet. There are games (like the aforementioned PopCap affaris and games which can’t be purchased in stores) that it makes sense to me to buy online. However, I’m just not interested in the idea of buying a game, whose multiple gigabytes in size match affairs like DOOM 3, online and waiting for it to download. Valve has been allowing people to pre-load the game, so there’s 99% complete copies of Half-Life 2 on people’s hard drives right now waiting to be unlocked and completed, but when you do a format/reinstall – you get to let all that crap redownload again.

“But you can just take your downloaded HL2 cache and back it up to a DVD!” yeah, well besides the fact that I just haven’t jumped on the DVD burning bandwagon yet, again – I’m not interested. I want a real, official DVD sitting on my shelf that I can install from. Some will agree with me, others will think I’m being silly. Whatever. It’s my problem, I guess.

This is not to say I won’t be using Steam at all. Steam either is or will be (as in – at some point in the future) the lone method of playing HL2 online. Actually, I’m not sure there really is a “HL2 Online” per se. I mean, I guess there has to be in the respect that HL2 will be a base for mods, but there’s not going to be a “Half-Life 2 Deathmatch” from what I understand, but rather the “official” HL2 online component is Counter-Strike Source, a Source-engine remake of Conter-Strike. People who purchase a HL2 package right now get to play CS:S immediately.

I’m also a bit confused as to how the original Half-Life works on Steam at the moment. Half-Life was one of the first game with the notion of “authenticating” online before you were allowed to play the game online – your CD Key was sent to WON.net for authentication and you got to play if your key wasn’t in use or wasn’t blacklisted. I think WON.net has been abandoned (and/or disbanded in Vivendi’s dissolving of units) in favor of Steam, so I’m not sure that, if I did do an install of Half-Life from CD’s, that I could even play it online – I’m thinking it’s all Steam at this point.

Now I’m not completely against Steam. In fact, I’m not really against it or using it at all – just not for buying huge, eagerly anticipated games. Steam provides many advantages, chief among them the fact that it keeps the games completely up to date – requires this to be the case in fact. When Steam went Open Beta, Valve decided to entice people into helping it stress test things by offering Half-Life and its popular mods (i.e., ones that Valve had bankrolled) for free. This is where the problem hit – Steam just wasn’t equipped to handle it yet. The experience pretty much sucked for everyone – to the point where to lighten the load Valve released huge files for download through other venues (FileShack, BitTorrent, etc.) to handle the majority of the files needed. Many gamers decided that Steam would be uninstalled and never seen or heard from again.

Then when Valve announced that in the near future Steam would be required to play any Valve games online, gamers went batshit. This, coupled with the delay of Half-Life 2 (which may or may not have been a result of the source code leak) turned off a large number of gamers.

But Steam got better. Valve staved off people losing it on Half-Life 2 release day by doing staggered preloads. They hired the BitTorrent guy (proving that little fringe concepts can get you work). People started buying into the idea of automatic updates. And a lot of people like the idea of buying games online.

Not everyone likes Steam of course. Namely, Vivendi Universal Games. Valve signed on to Sierra to publish Half-Life which wound up being the smartest move Sierra ever made. Somehow, Valve was able to keep their intellectual property rights in the contract, meaning that if they did a second Half-Life game, they weren’t neccessarily indebted to release it through Sierra. They did have to go through Sierra as a publisher, unless of course they were able to skirt the publisher bit entirely.

Now the story gets complicated from here and only highly paid lawyers really know what’s going on. Sierra has been dissolved by VUG for underperformance (namely the lack of a second Half-Life caliber title and the Tribes 2 fiasco). VUG is now publishing the boxed copies of Half-Life 2 but they either see nothing or very little from Steam purchases. They have supposedly tried in court to stop Valve from being able to use Steam to sell Half-Life 2, going so far as to say that their original arrangement is void and that Valve doesn’t own the Half-Life IP. The rumor was that VUG was going exercise to sit on the release candidates for Half-Life 2 for six months, pushing the game to 2005.

Valve made concessions to VUG. They won’t let people unlock and play Half-Life 2 on Steam until the game hits stores. They’re charging the same for it online as they are in stores (though this works for them since it makes them more money). Their $79.99 package in stores includes Half-Life: Source and Counter-Strike: Source but their $89.99 package through Stream also includes Day of Defeat: Source – this is I believe both because this makes the package online different than what’s being sold in stores and because I think it’s Activision that controls publishing rights to that mod.

So Valve and Half-Life 2 go from a slam dunk and a pleasant surprise to a hellish release and delay nightmare. But PC Gamer gave the game a 98%, tying it with Sid Mier’s Alpha Centauri for the highest rated game ever and calls it “possibly the greatest game ever made”, so yeah – I’m getting it.

But I’m getting it on DVD dammit. I can’t push for DVD packaging and DVD games this much for this long and then buy the stupid game online.