On more than one occasion, a developer will release a “tech demo” to demonstrate the capabilities of a new computer game engine. This is what we have with Half-Life 2: Lost Coast. Valve has a new “Source Engine,” and this little game showcases what the Source Engine can do. Most notable are the inclusion of high-dynamic range, realistic water, and use of light and shadow.
There are commentary tracks, and the very first track is Valve’s own Gabe Newell, saying “We would like to show you a new technology we’re developing called ‘high-dynamic range.’” To me, it’s mind-blowing that Valve developed the tech, as high-dynamic range (HDR) a selling point on modern televisions. The idea is that the brightest colors are attempting to look brighter than your monitor is capable of, while all of the colors are more vibrant. The idea is similar to well mastered music, where there are both very quiet and very loud sounds, to highlight the “dynamic range” of the recording.
The water is also very real. Someone in the commentary mentions that the water is rendered three times for realism, and that most of the old code for rendering water was completely rewritten. Of course there is light and shadow, but this is a pre-ray tracing era, so presumably shadow maps are used. The effect is still impressive today.
There is a little combat sequence and a little plot. The end is marked with a final commentary from Gabe Newell. Playing Lost Coast for me stemmed from a desire to play the remaining Half-Life games I still haven’t finished, and I’m glad I picked it up. The demo will last only a half-hour, but you see clear advantages in the new engine – Valve is attempting realism where they weren’t before.