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Half-Life 2

Originally posted at Sun 30-09-2007 12:10:21, in the gaming category.
For the record (and possible future reference), this review was written after release of Half-Life 2: Episode One, and before release of Episode Two.

Why?

I've been wanting to write a review about Half-Life 2 for a very long time now. I know the game was released years ago, but since new add-ons are still being made, I thought I should throw in my two cents. The reason I guess is that while Half-Life 1 caught me in a way not many games ever did, Half-Life 2 never gave me the same kind of feeling. When I first found out that Valve was working on a second Half-Life installment, I was thrilled. Would they be able to capture the feeling of Black Mesa once again? Or would they do something completely different? Would they explain who on earth this G-man guy is? Would the gameplay be as immersive? Would the graphics be cool?

I got very excited when Valve announced a release date for the first time. I started counting months (no, not days :-P) and got more and more happy as the deadline drew near. And then there was the theft. Supposedly, some hacker stole a whole lot of HL2 source code and art work, and dumped it somewhere on the net. For some reason I never really bought it, I just couldn't shake the feeling that Valve just wasn't ready, or just found a huge security issue they couldn't fix in time. But whatever the truth surrounding that event may be, it took something like a year extra before Half-Life 2 was finally released.

It was sitting in my DVD player the day it was released.

The good

The good about Half-Life 2 is obvious. The Source engine runs smoothly, it produces georgeous images, the physics engine is well integrated into it, the sound is fine. The gameplay is really cool too. Although the boat and car bits were a bit boring at times (all the time according to some, but I don't agree), there is a lot of fun stuff to do in the game. You can have a lot of fun with your enemies, and play the game in any way you want. You can run right through it, ignoring the enemies that aren't near. Or you can explore every piece of the levels, and never be let down about the detail. Their level of overall quality is very impressive.

Many good things have already been said by so many websites. Most of them give Half-Life 2 a 10 out of 10, a score of 99%, or call it the greatest game of all time.

However, again, I don't agree.

The competition

Before I start my criticism, I'd like to elaborate a bit on Half-Life 1 first, focusing on the parts where it greatly exceeds Half-Life 2, in my opinion.

What made Half-Life 1 one of the best games ever made? I already once wrote a blog entry on it: I think it's the immersion. When you're a gamer that can really live the game he plays, Half-Life 1 has all the right things for you. All you need to do is be sure you're alone at night, put on headphones and pump up the volume. Then, just play. The game takes you on an unforgettable ride through an amazing world and an even more amazing story. The game's obvious power is that you never leave Gordon's point of view, so from A to Z you're living the story. And everything that happens makes sense too - in its own right ofcourse, whether or not the story is realistic is not the point here. The only thing that sometimes slightly breaks immersion is a software issue: the AI movement code sometimes fails. Scientists can get stuck behind walls, Barney's can't cross certain difficult obstacles, that kind of stuff. Again, it's just sometimes, but it's there.

Another great thing about Half-Life 1 is that it brings a great story. Why, after the event, does the government instantly try to cover everything up? Who on earth is that blue suited bastard working for? Why does he disappear all the time when you try to follow him? The game doesn't answer many of these questions, but be fair, there's no real chance to do it anyway. It's way too busy raising them in the first place.

And then last, but definitely not least, to a gamer on a killing spree, the game offers you options. You can just try to finish yet another FPS, and enjoy the ride. But if you want to be the king of the game, you can run through all portals back and forth, and kill every last alien scumbag you can find. Or fight the very last marine still standing. You can leave each level behind, knowing that you're the only last living entity present. The choice is yours.

The bad

Now to Half-Life 2. All of the aformentioned aspects of Half-Life 1 that made it so great, are done slightly to a lot less well in Half-Life 2. Let's start with immersion. While Half-Life 2 definitely scores way better than most other FPS games, it's just not up to Half-Life 1's level. There's just too many little things that are annoying to me. For example monster types and monster placing. The manhacks are the best example: as you progress through the game, you find some weird room with a lot of explodable barrels that just don't fit in, and then seconds later over 30 manhacks fly in. Very, very cheap shot. Or the big hunter chopper you have to defeat on the boat? The behaviour of first one you encountered made sense, it left as soon as it was damaged too heavily. But the last one? Dropping a zillion mines on top of you? Why the immersion breaking element of a chopper that can carry an unlimited supply of mines all of a sudden? It's just not worthy of the game. It shouldn't be there. Oh, and finally, the poison headcrabs. Whatever your health, it gets reduced to 1 if you're hit by one of these... It makes no sense, it feels cheap to have your health reduced to a fixed amount like that. Either removed a fixed percentage, or better, make the player "feel" the poison by letting the controls and the rendered image simulate a poisoned state.

Brings me to another big immersion breaker. Who are those philanthropics that have taken over Valve? Why on earth can I not kill every character in the world? Why do I automatically put my gun down when I point it at someone? I understand that it would make sense for Gordon not to point his gun at friends, but as as a gamer you control Gordon, I would like to have a choice! And ofcourse, it's not in line with the story if Gordon kills Alyx, but as a gamer I'm offended that I'm not even able (or allowed?) to do so! Half-Life 1's way of handling this - terminating the game whenever a character gets killed on which the story or the gameplay depends - worked just fine! It doesn't break immersion, it just makes you more aware that you just can't kill 'em all!

Next up are weird events happening in the world. Why are you a celebrity and a hero to all those in the resistence? If I get the story right, then the moment you decide to keep working for the G-man in Half-Life 1, and the moment you start the game in Half-Life 2, are supposed to be directly following each other from Gordon's perspective. Ofcourse, you've been on some weird plain or in another dimension, so the fact your own 'real' world is actually years later in time makes perfect sense. But how could you have become a celebrity in the meantime? The two scientists still alive that knew you back from Black Mesa can only briefly have met you during the whole event in Half-Life 1. How can they know about your actions? How can they know you saved the world? But okay, let's accept we're famous. Near the end of the game, why on earth are there so many followers around, that are really the dumbest sons of bitches alive? They don't seem to care about their lives at all, they will happily run into enemy fire and seemingly forget they don't even wear armor like most of their opponents. You can command them, and they take orders blindly. It just doesn't make sense! And why, when they get killed, are they respawned around each and every freaking corner? You just cannot get rid of them!

Then, there's the story. I already touched the subject a bit when I explained the hole in the whole celebrity thing. But what annoys me even more from a completely different perspective is that Half-Life 2 in stead of answering all - or just some - of the questions that Half-Life 1 raised, it adds a whole lot more! Why are the Vortigaunts friendly all of a sudden? What exactly happened with earth in the meantime (I know, you pick up bits and pieces throughout the game if you listen to TV and to Alyx, but it's not much at all). What's up with Doctor Breen (yeah he's "your old administrator", but not much background info is given)? And again, what on earth motivates the G-man? Why - in Episode 1 - does he say "we'll see about that"? Questions, questions, questions, and no answers. After Half-Life 1 all of us fanatic gamers deserve answers... Okay, like Half-Life 1 the game takes a lot of time raising questions in stead of answering them, but Valve could have at least given a few answers at the start of the game.

And then finally, my biggest grief against Half-Life 2. Spawning. Uncontrollable spawning. It's the biggest issue that kept me from loving Half-Life 2 as much as I loved Half-Life 1. The ant-lions beach scene actually made me quit playing the game for a few days. Yes, at the start of the scene you can control the spawning a little by not touching the sand. But obviously, as you progress, you can't stay on sand for ever. So you get to a point where you start shooting the ant-lions - as that's what you (or at least I) like to do in an FPS - ... big mistake. It's a waste of ammo at all times. This forces you to ignore them! See the big mistake? In stead of making them interesting, the whole spawning things renders them obsolete. Why pay any attention to them? It's no use shooting them, a new one will always spawn for each one you kill. Very, very, big mistake in my opinion. As I already said, I'd like to leave a level in a game knowing that it's a safer place, that I've killed everyone in there. But with Half-Life 2, I just don't get that chance. And to give a suggestion, I'd say let Valve take a look at Soldier of Fortune. At least there you could control the spawning by keeping your noise level to a minimum. Don't use your shotgun too much and you'll be fine! That's how spawning is done properly!

But the ant-lion thing is not all. As I already mentioned, near the end of the game the followers are very annoyingly dumb. But you can't get rid of them at all by just quickly sending them towards their deaths (or killing them). Because a new group will always spawn around the corner.. So you're forced to fight enemies with stupid help at your side. You don't get the choice to either dispose of them (bang bang) or dump em somewhere where they'll stay put. No, new, fresh batches of morons around each corner. A very, very big pitty.

Conclusion

Half-Life 2 rocks. I love the game, it's in a league of its own. But just not as high as Half Life 1's league. Valve made a bunch of poor judgement calls if you're asking me. Although art-wise the game is flawless - at least in the eyes of a coder like me - gameplay wise they could have done better.
To Valve I'd only like to say, please refrain from spawning at all times, and please, give us some answers. Explain your mysteries. Not meticulously (always gotta leave some to the imagination), but just globally.

Thanks for reading :)

-- Foddex



2 comment(s)

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On Fri 05-10-2007 15:45 Burn wrote: I couldn't agree more on the whole front, both critic and praising comments are perfectly in place within what has been my HL2 game play experience.

The only thing I'd like to add is that the physics and puzzle solvable through it was a bit disappointing... too obvious, too easy, and not at all that frequently used. A complete waste!

The greatest problem of all, today, is that quantity > quality on most of the aspects of game design. And one important thing that I noticed: games are made for the average brain. Not challenging, too cautious of not hurting the feelings of those out there that can't pull a stunt, or plot action a couple of moves ahead. Why? 'cause they represent the biggest market share. Games for dumbs, that what we get today.. or you can call them "commercial".

I challenge you to play System Shock I & II again, games where you walked scary hallways for half hours, hearing scary sounds.. games where monsters popped out just when needed, and seldom enough to keep the player in a constant tension. Pretty much as opposite as today's monster sworms (Bioshock... *sigh*) of which after 20 minutes of play you get so used to that you completely ignore them.

That's a key factor in today's loss of immersion in games. Quantity over quality.

And I go play Alone in the Dark, HL1, System shock, Thief, again and again.. Fuck the new stuff, our generation coded the most brilliant stuff ever, and dosbox made them readily available on today's machines. The genius that characterized the games we've grown up with is now lost, ever since the gaming industry started making more money than porn.
On Fri 05-10-2007 15:50 Burn wrote: Shit, now you got me thinking and I get all melancholic.

Do you remember going to the past with a character and planting a wine bottle in the garden, to unearth vinegar with the character playing in the future? (The day of the Tentacle)...

Damn, I need to plot a gaming road map for when I'll have kids, or they'll turn out as dumb as any other playing *pew pew, lazers!*
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