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Natural 20's blog

9:03 PM on 04.23.2010

E is for Effort: Half-Life 2

Half-Life 2 is considered a masterpiece by many. Whilst the original Half-Life is the game that can be credited as the game that started the long walk away from arena based shooters and towards FPS games being used as a compelling storytelling medium it's the sequel that built on that foundation and created a game that truly made everyone believe. Half-Life 2's influence in gaming is obvious, the sheer abundance of FPS games in gaming today is a testament to its popularity but to limit its influence to numbers is an insult. Amazing games like Bioshock and Call of Duty 4 would simply not exist had it not been for the brilliance of Valve's writers.

But it's not only storytelling that Half-Life 2 advanced. The Source engine raised the bar for accuracy of control and environment. The engine itself has proven to be durable beyond belief, only now 6 years after release is it beginning to show its age. Half-Life 2 at its time was a piece of technical mastery, designed not only to provide a compelling story but to also showcase the technical prowess that the guys at Valve possessed.

Half-Life 2 has been described by this site as a "shining example of what videogames can accomplish, both technically and emotionally."

It's a pity I don't get it.

Before I go on, for those of you who prefer to listen than to read I have a podcast where in the midst of awesome music I describe the feelings I'm about to pen down. I'd encourage you to listen to it seeing as my voice is apparently a lot nicer than my writing.

To accurately describe my feelings about Half-Life 2 it's probably necessary to divvy the game up into two portions; the gameplay and the story. Ultimately whilst Half-Life 2 has a lot of other memorable features, like it's awesome soundtrack or graphical quality, it's these two that people point to when they talk about how amazing the game is. They're also the two most disappointing parts of the game for me.

Gameplay-wise then, what is Valve trying to do with Half-Life 2. Well the easy answer is, "Show off their awesome new physics engine," but it's more than that. What Valve is trying to do is what any other developer wants, to provide a rewarding experience for a player without the game ever becoming too difficult and perhaps more fundamentally, prevent people from getting bored with the game.

So how does Valve do this? Well through a couple of means. Those who've played Half-Life 2 for more than an hour will have quickly realised that health drops scaled according to how much damage the player had taken. If Gordon was on critically low health then when he smashed open a crate, lo and behold there was a large med-pack ready to heal him back up. By contrast, Gordon on high health would likely find nothing or ammunition for his pistol instead. The system was more subtle than most and via this method Valve wanted to keep a level of tension in the game, without it becoming that frustrating, the principle being that just as a player was about to die they'd reach the next health drop.

But that wasn't it, Valve also realised that a game could quickly become stale if the protagonist was just left in an open field shooting people. To that extent, the variation in locale from chapter to chapter was, well vast. Ranging from chases through canals to prison complexes to battles in the middle of a half-destroyed city Valve pulled out all the stops to keep the player entertained and engaged. Variety of location is supplemented with variety of weapon, just when a player gets used to his current arsenal, a new item is thrown into the mix just to spice things up. Then finally as the icing on the cake, Valve break up combat with fun puzzles which really do show off Source engine.

At least, that's what everyone else will tell you.

Ultimately none of what I've written is true in my own mind. See, it wasn't long before I was incredibly bored by Half-Life 2's gameplay. It may be because I played the game two years after release, but quality should not fade that quickly. Valve's failure in the gameplay department was clear to me. The adjustable difficulty setting was great, until I realised what was going on. Yes, it created a sense of urgency for the first hour but when I realised I was getting to ten health and consistently surviving every time I realised that my health being low wasn't actually a problem. But that's relatively minor, it certainly isn't game killing.

My problem lies in that the pacing of the game as a whole was just wrong. While weapon variety is nice, when almost every enemy dies in the exact same way, point gun at head, shoot, it becomes difficult for a game to remain fresh. Great, so some enemies have just surprised me, guess what guys? I'm going to do the EXACT same thing I've been doing for the last six hours of the game, aim my gun at their soft unprotected faces and blast away. That may be a problem with the shooting medium as a whole but Half-Life 2's longevity is meant to be a selling point, to me it becomes the game's biggest weakness.

Then as if to add insult to injury the sections that are meant to break this monotony up, the vehicle sections specifically, are badly timed. Why is there a massive vehicle section at the beginning of the game? Why is there another one with only a chapter's break in between? Why the hell are they so long? What should have been fun diversions from an otherwise monotonous shooting experience end up being so long they could be games in of themselves. And then we have the puzzles. Don't get me wrong, they're not bad, in fact they're really quite fun to begin with. But after the twentieth time I've used a gravity gun to form a bridge across acid/sludge/fire/radioactive goo from random objects that just happen to be acid/sludge/fire/radioactive goo-resistant it's begun to lose its shine.

But this isn't really a fair examination, Half-Life 2 isn't driven by its gameplay, it's driven by the plot. So in the same way that a game like Mass Effect 2 can have you running through the same cover fire scenario again and again, Half-Life 2 can put you through repetitive gameplay because its story is so amazing.

To make the story amazing Valve do a few things. The first is a dedication to the first person perspective for the purposes of greater immersion in the game. Valve never uses cutscenes, everything Freeman does, everything he experiences is directly associated to you because Freeman is never anything more than a pair of hands in the game. The use of the first person perspective in this way makes it feel as if the characters in the game are interacting with you as opposed to anyone else.

Valve further this by creating characters who in all senses of the word actually act like normal people. Alyx Vance isn't an over sexualised teenager with massive narks, she's legitimately someone you could find in the real world and have a conversation with. What this does is actually create a level of empathy between the player and the game's characters. After all, it's a lot harder to empathise with some perfect superhuman that never gets anything wrong and looks amazingly hot, they seem unrealistic and it hurts the immersion of the game.

But where Valve's master strategy kicks in is after developing these characters it puts them firmly into the line of fire. The game ceases to be so much about taking out an evil corporation like every other game in the world and becomes a game about fighting for people you actually like, to help them. It makes the prizes the game does throw at you more rewarding and it makes the tragedies that much more heart wrenching because they're happening to your friends.

At least, that's what people have told me.

See, my own issues with Half-Life 2's plot lie come down to a single problem. Everything I said about caring for my characters was a lie. Half-Life 2's greatest flaw is that in the early stages of the game you have what? 10 minutes of dialogue? (And by dialogue I mean Alyx monologuing) to want to care about this character. I'm sorry Valve, that isn't enough. If your story is character driven then whilst I feel slightly bad that Alyx's life isn't normal and I think her pet robot mech Dog thing of doom is fairly awesome, I don't want to save the world for her. I sure as hell don't want to invade a prison to save her father who I've had even less of an interaction with. Alyx's father quickly became Random Black Scientist Dude in my head and Alyx became, "that bitch who I need to protect for some reason." Gordon Freeman had ceased to be an extension of the me that you'd normally see in real life; instead he was the extension of the powergamer who really couldn't care less about the characters in the game and just wanted to get to the next objective so more things would blow up.

Valve's crucial mistake in Half-Life 2 was that its time allocation was all over the place. But further, it was compounded by the fact that the silent protagonist narrative prevented me from ever being able to find out more. I honest to God wanted to like Alyx for who she was; I wanted to develop some measure of empathy. But because I could never interact with her beyond a couple of scripted minutes, most of which entailed us talking about the mission rather than how she may have been a normal person before all of this crap happened, I never did develop that rapport. That's what made me lose steam. Valve created a world that I wanted to understand, it created a story that I could have been interested in, characters that I might have liked. But I could never interact with them.

My biggest regret in gaming is that I understand why Half-Life 2 is meant to be good, I hope all of you can see that, I respect why other people enjoy it but no matter how much love I try to shower on that game, I can't make myself like it.

I suppose the E for Effort should go to me, but that would just be silly wouldn't it?   read

4:39 PM on 07.18.2008

E3 Expo 2008

Let's face it people, I'm not, nor have I ever been the most active member of Destructoid.

I'm not sure why I'm blogging now as opposed to any other time. Perhaps it's the fact that almost every third comment on this site is whining about what happened at E3. Perhaps it's the fact I've got lots of time on my hands, or perhaps it's the delicious prizes that await those willing to make a post.

But for some reason, I feel compelled, moreso than I ever have been before.

First however, allow me to give you some context for this little blog post.


Microsoft's Conference Overview

Sony's Conference Overview

Now I understand that the faithful among you have already seen these before, but reading Destructoid isn't a chore now is it?

So I hear the masses asking, what the hell is the point in all of this?

Undoubtedly by now, I think the majority of people on this little website have come to believe that whilst a lot was said at E3, not a lot was really revealed. This has had our entire community aflame with blog posts and front page stories about whether the industry is headed in the correct direction for the core gamer. Is the Wii slowly eroding what was once a proud bastion of the hardcore? Are Microsoft and Sony finally giving in to the pressure and turning away from their true supporters?

My answer in light of these press conferences is a resounding 'no.'

The question I pose to all of you is not whether good news for hardcore gamers exists, but whether gamers are looking in the right place for it?

What I say now will probably mean I never get near the front page or a delicious prize, but I can live in the vain hope that somebody will read the verbose piece of crap I'm writing.

E3 press conferences are not the places we as gamers should be looking to for what we want. They never will be unless E3 is to change.

A year ago, Destructoid went to E3 2007 with a degree of trepidation as to whether the new show would match the old. At the time though, E3 seemed inconspicuous enough, everything seemed to be in place, announcements were being made and things generally looked nice all around. The problem was however, Destructoid is part of the press. A part of the press I certainly love to bits, but a part of the press none the less and one that is gaining more and more legitimacy with each passing second.

The downsized version of E3 is brilliant for the press, the "more intimate" surroundings[1] lead to a better dispersion of information. Great.

But I question now, whether the downsized version of E3 is brilliant for the gamer. The fact is, pre-2007 E3 was an iconic event, it was the event all gamers rallied around. The big companies didn't put on a show for the press, they put on a show for all of us because they knew we'd be watching, they knew what they said here would set the tone for the next year of gaming. Why? Because media coverage was difficult. If you didn't announce your big games in your press conference they could get lost and they'd never be heard from again.

Now however, E3 is a very different kettle of fish. With the streamlining of the event it's very easy for members of the gaming focused press to get updates on what they want. But the mainstream media, don't care about an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto. They want the big announcements and they get them at the main press conferences. I seriously doubt the BBC will report on, for example, Sega's blowout. The main press conferences however?

In the old format, even though mainstream media might not care about the latest Gears game, they were shown it anyway so it wouldn't get lost.

And finally, I get to the heart of the argument.

If the mainstream media only attends your main press conference and if the gaming media will attend all the smaller ones and if no information risks being lost, how do you structure your main conference?

The answer is simple, not for the core gamer.

The E3 press conferences we see now are a result of that logic. Nintendo was right to showcase Wii music. That's what the mainstream audience wants. Microsoft was right to showcase their new avatars. That's what the mainstream audience wants. Sony was right to showcase all its old content again, the mainstream hadn't heard about them yet.

But then if we look at the rest of the show, it's juicy innards as opposed to its rough outer shell, what do we see? Pikmin 3 announcements, Flower, and Hydrophobia.

The fact is, we as gamers, we as the people that will actually buy these creative, cool new games have found out about them. We will probably read more news to come, we'll probably spend time blogging about how much we want to see them released. The news has reached us, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony have done their jobs well.

Suddenly, at least to me, it doesn't feel like the casuals are muscling me out of the gaming I so richly deserve. No, to me, quality gaming is as strong as ever and with the wealth of spectacular titles released in 2007, Bioshock, Orange Box, Mario Galaxy, Halo 3, Metroid Prime 3 to name but 5. Followed the widely loved GTA4 and Brawl being released this year to name but two. I don't truly understand people's concern with gaming as a whole.

Instead, where concern should be placed is on the conference that started this little discussion. Is E3 really the paradise of gamers when the very structure it implements prevents what we want being discussed at the main press conferences?

That is my question to the community.

[1] Citation:   read

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