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.

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