Saturday, 29 November 2008

Return to the Citadel

If I were to be honest, I would have to admit that sometimes I play games that I do not expect to entertain me a great deal. Sometimes that is because I have bought the thing and want to see it through, if only to see if I can salvage some value. Other times it is because I am intrigued enough by the story to do battle with the dodgy game to see where it leads. There are times when I have to fill an afternoon and playing a game on autopilot is better than the alternative (wandering round the 'net trying not to spend money) and then there are the times when all the critics say I should be enjoying something but, despite this encouragement, I really am not. Sometimes (very occasionally) the tedious experience I expect from the game doesn't materialize and I am pleasantly surprised.

This leads me nicely on to Half Life 2: Episode 1.

If you read my last post you will know I am not a fan of the original Half Life 2 for a whole variety of reasons, not least because it is lengthy and empty and the characters are almost entirely unlovable. Somehow, HL2E1 manages to address these problems without any gaping gaps in logic or dramatic alteration in personalities and I think the secret to all this is a greater sense of immersion in the world you are wandering around (and destroying).

HL2E1 opens up with a bit of a rewrite of the end of the previous game, then you being rescued from a huge pile of rocks by Alyx and Dog. Alyx is, predictably, pleased to see you and for the first time playing HL2 I genuinely felt she was pleased to see me. She moves around in a believable way, talks to you about your previous experiences in a way you can relate to and then the two of you call her father and decide to head back into the Citadel to stop a cataclysmic explosion. The set piece dialogue is still slightly odd in that you aren't saying anything, but the NPCs make up for it by successfully expressing a whole range of emotions, which lead up to one overriding fact: you are going into the Citadel and you aren't expected to come out again. Whilst this may seem like a trite bit of storytelling, it was conveyed in such a way that I could feel Alyx's sadness as she told her Dad not to worry and her sense of desperation at the task, but bizarre confidence that Gordan Freeman would get her through it alive. That's you, that is. I cannot get across the difference it made to actually be able to relate to the characters in my vicinity and it gave me a wonderful sense of purpose. I would not let Alyx die in this place, and I would get her back to her father. And thus, immersion was injected into Half Life 2.

Technically speaking, HL2E1 is a step forward from HL2. The graphics have been noticeably tarted up. The set pieces are tighter and closer together - far less wandering from one place to another for no apparent reason - and there are puzzles within the combat encounters which need solving before you are overwhelmed by the continual stream of badguys. Alyx follows you around for most of the episode and it is the first time I have played through such an experience without developing a strong desire to blow apart the second character. Alyx is intelligent enough to stay out of the way when she needs to, as well as tough enough to hold her own in combat and not die (with inevitable mission-failing results) the moment she is exposed to a stiff breeze. Coupled with that, she has enough lines to be an entertaining companion - firing off a selection of one-liners that are amusing and in character and chatting to you like you are a human being (as opposed to a crowbar-waving mute gorilla). Alyx is genuinely likeable and it's great to see a character as well scripted as her.

The second big problem with HL2 as far as I am concerned is the length. It takes hours to play though and that time is spent driving from one abandoned place to another shooting faceless nameless goons, monsters or zombies. Since Valve have moved to episodic gameplay for the next part of the HL saga, HL2E1 is much shorter and it is all the better for it. The lengthy, tedious driving sections have been removed. The sections of the world populated entirely by people with no name and no personality are gone and instead the good ideas are packed together. This has the added benefit that if you find yourself in a section you are not enjoying you can push onwards, safe in the knowledge it wont last much longer. Unlike, for example, Ravenholm in the original. I can only approve of the compressed nature of this game as it makes it far more entertaining.

Do I have any criticisms? Well, inevitably yes. The sections fighting the striders, whilst very exciting, do have a very contrived feel to them - you have to keep running and dodging and you find just enough medpacks to keep you alive whilst finding single rockets in what amounts to a breadcrumb trail. At the end you find a big box of rockets which you can use to finish the strider off. You can't use any other tactics because a combination of the ammo restriction and the sheer number of shots the striders take before they do the decent thing and die forces you to follow the planned path - and woe betide you if you stray off it by mistake because then you are stuck in a place with no ammo and an enraged walking thing out for your blood. This obvious linearity draws attention to the fact you are playing a game, not fighting a battle for humanity and acts a bit like the modern equivalent of collecting floppy disks for bonus points in a platform game as far as damaging atmosphere goes. Gordon not talking or showing any emotion grates a bit when you are part of an emotionally charged set piece and you want to interact with it, but that is part of what makes Half Life what it is, so I can see why that happens. The requirement to use the gun the game expects is another big flag being waved with the words "Hey! This is a computer game!" written across it, but it is tempered by occasional caches of ammo for other guns so if you're a good shot you can just about get by on these secondary weapons. Oh, and why didn't it save my key mappings from HL2? Finally, the plot still lacks direction. Whilst it is very clear someone knows where it is going, because the NPCs don't share their long term plans with you (well, their plans any more specific than "save the human race") you still don't feel like you're fighting for anything much. True you now like you're striving towards something but the lack of specifics is quite frustrating at times.

So; to conclude: HL2E1 is HL2 with the biggest problems ironed out and a nice sense of humour added in (towards the end of the episode Barney gives you a new crowbar - there is no point to it by this stage, but it's nice to see the NPCs as well as the players think a Freeman without a crowbar is just wrong). This makes it brilliant and by far the best reason to play through HL2.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Half of a Life

Many years ago I played through an excellent first person shooter. It redefined what was possible at the time with its puzzles and excellent set pieces. It went on for quite a long time and at by the end I was shooting things on an alien world. That game was Half Life - the game staring everyone's favourite mute physicist Gordon Freeman (aka Jeff Goldblum) and his crowbar. Rocking along with him were a pile of expendable scientists and guards (to talk to) and a platoon of marines (to shoot). That game was good. Now it is time for the sequel. And by Now, I mean four years ago. Bring it on.

So, HL2 then. The game opens with you being brought out of some kind of suspended animation by the G-Man - a sinister bloke in a suit without a name. You're stuck on a train and sent into a dystopian city run by your old boss along with some aliens. You meet some old friends, shoot some people and head off to meet some more old friends. When you get there everything goes wrong, the place is attacked by the police and you run off elsewhere. Eventually you meet up with the people again and get attacked again and run off again - but this time with a gravity gun and Physics on your side. And so it goes on. And on. And on.

I'm going to lose all credibility by saying this, but I did not particularly enjoy Half Life 2. Although the graphics were beautiful, the controls slick and the physics engine very clever I found the game far too long with too much wandering from place to place with little or no reason for doing so. The set pieces were still very well put together, but that did make it feel like all I was doing was walking to the next one and the plot was purely to string it together.

I have moaned about plot in first person shooters before, and I still think I am quite alone in caring (certainly I am alone in criticising HL2 - it has a phenomenal 96% in metacritic) but for me the plot means immersion. Although I understood the world that HL2 presented me, I just didn't understand my place in it. Everywhere I went I was saluted as a hero - the one who could save mankind - but I never really understood why. They seemed to be doing well enough forming their little rebellion against the aliens and all I seemed to be doing was wandering from place to place with the authorities chasing me. It wasn't until right at the end I felt my actions had any kind of influence on the plot (at this point I was storming a stronghold with a load of insect things at my back) and then I was suddenly sent off with a girl who was invulnerable. Why on earth she needed any help from me I cannot imagine. And still it dragged on and on...

Maybe I'm being a little unfair - although the vast majority of characters you meet just say their piece and get blown to pieces, those that have a name are genuinely likable (or hatable in the case of the villain) and you do start to bond with some of them. The girl (who is clearly the long-term love interest) is actually very cool and behaves credibly which makes a nice change for a character you are supposed to like and the various scientists are all pleasantly eccentric. There just isn't enough character development or plot hooks for my liking - wandering round a base trying to free the girl's father doesn't feel like you're engaged in a rescue mission; it feels like a series of tunnels with people to mow down with your shotgun. This in turn makes it very difficult to get lost in the atmosphere - I found myself playing on autopilot a lot of the time, occasionally surfacing to wonder how much further I had to go. The only place I felt any kind of atmosphere was during the (as far as I can determine) utterly pointless Ravenholm section - and I got so sick of things jumping out at my face that I stuck on some happy disco music and charged round with the shotgun trying to get to the end as fast as possible.

It wasn't until the very end when things really picked up. At this point your allies have taken your signal to start the rebellion (although you set that off by accident I think - it's not like you've made any choices for yourself) and you're left running round the ruins of the city taking on giant walking things. At this point things are very cool - and they remain so whilst you break into the citadel for the end gunfights along with a supercharged gravity gun.

I'm not sure what else to say about Half Life 2. I honestly can't see why it has gotten so much praise. That isn't to say it's bad - bits are great fun and you'll love the set pieces. But the thing goes on for so long it is very easy to lose the will to live as you just wish that all your cool shooting would actually accomplish something. And that's it. Worth playing, but only if you have a lot of free time and some good music to stick on the stereo whilst you're doing it.