Sunday, January 23, 2005

Half-Life 2 (PC, ****)

Half-Life 2 was an especially rare shooter for me, in that I finished the game 100% legitimately, with NO turning on cheat mode to temporarily get past a difficult section or just whiz past the endless monotony of blasting people over and over again with different machinery. This is partly thanks to the fact that the difficulty was just about right for me, with no one section getting me so frustrated that I just wanted to ignore the game and see what came next. But it was also a testament to the fact that it was incredibly varied in gameplay, for a FPS. I never really felt like skipping ahead, because what I was doing at the moment always seemed interesting to me.

A few months ago, I posted that playing Doom 3 is like riding on a Disneyland ride, in which all the events are scripted but they give the illusion of freedom.

That is still the case here; HL2 is quite linear and there is definitely one path for you to follow all the time. At one point, I was driving a car along a coast of beach, and I thought "What happens if I jump in the ocean and start swimming?" And the obvious answer was: you get eaten by an infinite number of piranhas, stupid. There's a wall there, it just doesn't look like a wall. Tricks of the Disney Imagineering team: make it look like there's a world out there when there's not.

And yet, when you come down to it, I had much more fun playing Half-Life 2 than Doom 3, or even Half-Life 1. Why?

Because HL2 does something really slick, and really rare in a shooter, which is make each segment of the game have a (mostly) different feel from the other segments.

Examples of the things you will be doing (MINOR SPOILERS):
  • Standard FPS gun and run levels; a few mini-bosses.
  • Levels where you must drive really really fast and dodge all over the place to avoid getting hit by gunfire, mines, etc. Also jumping ramps.
  • Levels where you must drive and blast stuff with turrets.
  • Fighting with a personal army at your back.
  • Going for long stretches with no ammo drops at all. You need to use a specialized weapon and pre-laid traps cleverly to avoid dying.
  • Sneaking across beams on a roof where the floor is swarming with headcrabs.
  • Fighting in and out of a building with a squadron of independent players.
  • Blasting an unlimited supply of guided rockets at a pilot who dodges a lot, before he kills you first.
  • Using an uber-powerful gun that makes it feel like you are in god mode even when you're not.
  • A puzzle level where you have to create your own path through dangerous terrain.
There's just an awful lot of different things to do here, and the pacing is excellent. Every time I started to think "I'm pretty bored of this sequence" a guy would come out and say "Park your car, Dr. Freeman, we have to hurry inside before the Big Bad arrives."

I think I liked Doom 3 more than most reviewers, but here's how a typical game goes:
Shoot stuff, shoot stuff, shoot stuff, JUMP SCARE, shoot stuff, shoot stuff, simple puzzle, shoot stuff, shoot stuff, shoot stuff, shoot stuff, JUMP SCARE, shoot stuff, shoot stuff, easy puzzle, shoot stuff, shoot stuff, JUMP SCARE, shoot stuff, boss.

Although both games are linear, you can feel the difference in what you are doing between the two games.

I think the difference can be summed up by the fact that HL2 had a lot more entertaining ways to get killed than D3 did. In Doom, if you die it's pretty much because a monster attacked you until all your hit points were gone. And sometimes, you fall down.

In HL2, you can die while trying to pick up a grenade and throw it back to the owner, become lunch for the aforementioned piranhas, total your car off a cliff, get hit by a train, not notice the land mines, make a wrong move that brings in an unbeatable swarm of enemies, step into the wrong transport and head for the incinerator. Idiot.

Also: nice soundtrack. I don't remember any music in Doom 3 at all. If there was some other than the obligatory thrash metal ballad for the closing credits, I must have missed it. Half-Life 2 has mood music all over the place. Not music all the time, but when you're doing something important, you'll definitely know. This makes the game far more cinematic.

Also, lots of HL2 takes place outside. Definitely a good thing. And even when you're inside, you don't just looking at the same boring office textures over and over again. There are a lot of different indoor environments.

Also, good NPC's who don't show up only on TV monitors or when they are about to die. There are people whose only role is "cannon fodder #53". But you also have friends, and you'll feel bad if you let them die.

Also, an interesting villain.

So to sum up my objections to this game: very long load times, and only illusory control over the story or the sequence of events. But overall, thumbs up.

One other thing: people will likely complain about the ending, which feels like a cheap way to not resolve things so that they can leave it open for a sequel. I can't say I disagree, but I read that this was coming, so I didn't care too much.

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