Sunday, February 12, 2006

Follow Freeman!

I finished Half-Life 2 on the Xbox the other night and boy, did it suck. Half-Life 2, the game, didn't suck, but finishing Half-Life 2 did, and not in a "man this ending sucked" kind of way, but more of a "there's a gaping hole in my existance where this game and our special moments together used to be. What kind of cruel God would provide me with such a fantastic gaming experience and not make it last forever and ever and ever and ever until the galaxy collapsed upon itself?" kind of way. Maybe I'm just nostalgic for the original Half-Life, maybe I'm just generally irritated with the offerings on the 360, or maybe, just maybe, it's geniuinely a very good game and I'm just calling it like it is.

For some reason, despite it being 6 years since the original Half-Life came out and won every gaming award ever created, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize, the NBA Rookie of the Year award and the Blue Ribbon in the Ohio State Fair Pie Eating contest, developers seem to be unable to tell a coherent story in a shooter. I don't really know why. One would think that they could just play Half-Life and get some good ideas there, but maybe they're not allowed to. I can see some contentious design meetings if all everyone says is "make it like Half-Life", but still, at least try and take some good ideas away from the game.

What Half-Life did, and Half-Life 2 does, better than any shooter I've ever played, is place the player directly in the story. There are no cinematics to fill in the background details, no in-engine movies showing our hero running around and figuring things out. There is you, your eyes, your ears and your actions. The entire story unfolds around you, and because of you, as you play the game. Now, as a result, that leaves some details less fleshed out than others, but when, in life, do we ever have all of the answers? Exactly. I can see there being the temptation to want to show external events through cut scenes or other form of exposition, but by sticking to the idea that if you don't see it or hear about it, you don't know about it, it keeps the player firmly entrenched in the story.

Of course, if the story sucks, this ain't such a good thing, but in this case, the story is quite good. At the end of the original Half-Life, you were given a choice by the mysterious Cigarette Smoking Man rip-off guy to either go with him and do things, or, um, you know, don't. It's been 6 years since I played the original, so the ending is a little fuzzy. Half-Life 2 starts up with your choice having been made for you. You're on a train, heading to the very oppressive City 17 which, like all of the other cities of Earth, have been taken over by the Combine, a race of aliens who have only our best interests at heart, as long as you count total subjugation as one of our best interests. In these situations, what's a theoretical physicist to do but jump in his enviromental suit, pick up some firearms and free humanity from alien oppression? As interesting as it would be to watch Feeman work on some physics theorems, or come up with a list for the grocery store, making with the bang-bang is the more fun, if somewhat less realistic choice.

Once you start shooting, you'll be doing a ton of it, and the weapons and enemies provide a nice mix of things to shoot and things to shoot at. The balance of weapons is nice, and while some have a very specific purpose, there's plenty of variety with the others for you to pick a favorite and stick with it. Not content to stick with the usual set of weaponry, Valve added the gravity gun, which allows you to pick up and shoot objects such as paint cans, tables, explosive barrels, massive saw blades, etc. You'll get over the strangeness of seeing explosive barrels all over the place once you pick one up and chuck it into a group of Combine soldiers. Just be sure to actually throw the barrel, rather than use it for cover, as they react rather violently to bullets.

The levels are equally as varied with scary, zombie filled levels, levels piloting air boats and dune buggys, run and gun levels while leading a squad of resistance soldiers and sneak into the enemy base levels. On that last point, every shooter has a point in the game where our plucky hero has to infiltrate the enemy base. Usually the game camera swoops over the fortress, lingering on guards walking across catwalks and sentry points, until it ultimately flies back to our hero who is now supposed to be scared. Or something. I can assure you, that when you make it into the heart of the Combine, the subsequent journey will show you that the enormity of the situation you now face makes the previous time fighting the Combine look like a trip to the Gas & Sip. As I sat there, watching the enemy around me, I found myself thinking "how the hell am I supposed to fight them?"

It's not all perfect, though, primarily because this is a port of a PC game, rather than something created natively for the platform. There are some choppy moments, especially when levels first load, and when battles get particularly heated. This can be annoying, as the reason the battle is so heated is that there are like 9 hojillion people all trying to kill you at the same time, and choppy framerates makes it hard to aim. The level load times are also on the long side, which, based on how the game is split up, can be distracting. On a high-end PC, I'm sure the levels zip along as they load. On the Xbox, well, just pack a lunch and you'll be fine. I can tell you that by the end of the game, either the level loading got better, be it faster or less frequent, or I just got used to it, because it didn't bother me any more.

If you're planning on playing this on the 360, because you sold your Xbox, well, see if you can pick an Oldbox on the cheap, because the emulation sucks. Level load times are significantly longer and there's some very annoying audio and video stuttering, and this was just as I opened up the main menu. After seeing these problems, I didn't even bother any more, but I have read of others having the same problems as the game progressed. There also isn't any multiplayer, however I don't consider that a flaw, as if I'm going to be filled with bullets, I'd like the story to be something other than "Man meets 14 year old. 14 year old shoots man several times. Man quits in digust." The game clocks in around 15 hours, so even if you pay the full 50 that the game dropped for, it's more than worth it to pay what amounts to 3 bucks an hour for an experience of this caliber. Of late, you can get the game for less than 50, so the fun per hour rate climbs through the very-high-o-sphere. The ending can be considered by some as being somewhat anti-climactic, but I enjoyed it, and it sets things up for a Half-Life 3, so bully for them.

It's a shame that this game came out in November of '05 when no one was buying Xbox games in anticipation of the unmitigated joy that would be the 360 experience. Now that said experience has proven to be um, mitigated, there are a lot of people who won't play this game either because a) they sold their Xbox (see emulation, sucky) or b) they didn't know that it dropped and won't think to look for it. Maybe they already played it on the PC, but somehow I doubt that. The only PC game my fellow console aficianodos play is World of Warcraft, and good luck getting them off of that. Your decision making process when it comes to this game, can be summed up in a flow chart of three boxes. Box 1: Do I like shooters? Box 2: Am I alive? Box 3: Am I trapped under something heavy? Answering yes, yes, no is the key to joyous rapture. Anything else provides you with a set of problems I am unable to help you with at this juncture.


Bones said...

This, like most single player games I'm interested in, is on my "wait until I find it cheap" list. It's just so hard to spend $50 on something with no multiplayer. I always say, "I'll go back through it again after I finish it", but I never do.

suburbanjoe said...

Best Buy has it for 30 bucks online. I'm tempted to buy it again at that price. ;)

ram2600 said...

I rushed to play this on the PC when it was released... What an F'n game. You are correct that it sux it had to end....

Comming from the PC, on the xbox it looked kinda off... but still damn good.

Asphyxiate said...

Hands down the best single player fps ever. Bar none. Almost the best game ever but BG2 / Torment still hold that honour for me.

suburbanjoe said...

Ah, BG2. My friend, if you liked Baldur's Gate 2, you will be pleased in the upcoming weeks. I have many the post planned for that particular opus.

Greg said...

Too bad you had to play the game on XBox. I've played through the PC version 2 and a half times. So damn good.

And on May 31st, we get to see what happens to Gordon and Alyx after the combine's tower explodes with Half-Life 2 Episode One!