Tuesday, December 21, 2004

My Goodness! Gordon Freeman!

Half-life 2 - Valve

So it's the most anticipated PC game of the year and, as reported, it's pretty cool. It continues right on from the end of the last game (literally, I wonder how many days has Gordon gone without sleep now?) although you are immediately transported some years into the future. The Earth has been taken over by a bunch of nasty aliens called the Combine, and it's up to Gordon Freeman to kick their arses.

The gameplay is much the same as the original, which is a very good thing. The only real changes are the vehicles (a boat and a buggy, nothing super exciting, but fun to use all the same), and the realistic physics engine. The physics engine works pretty well, you very rarely see it fuck up, and it makes the game a lot more realistic and immersive.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed it. There's some excellent level design, and a lot of work has been put into the atmosphere of the game. There's only one complaint I have. The story, she is no good.

Spoilers follow....

That's not to say the story is rubbish, I was pretty interested in finding out what the Combine were, and what they were up to. The problem is that it just ends without explaining anything. Apparently there is to be a third game which will finish off the story, and that's fine, but for those few of us who actually like a reasonable narrative in our games it would be nice to be rewarded with a bit of plot advancement after battling your way through the entire game. Game designers often skimp on the story like this, cackling away but promising to reveal all in the next game. And then of course the series gets cancelled (see Gabriel Knight) or new designers decide they don't like the old story and change everything to suit themselves, resulting in an incomprehensable mess. And then they get cancelled anyway (see Command and Conquer/Red Alert).

Another thing that pisses me off is the lame climax. After fighting your way through 10 levels, the final confrontation happens because... you get captured. Well gee, maybe I should have just surrendered right at the start (OK, right after I got the gravity gun) and saved myself some time. It pisses me off in books and movies when the results of the climax depend in no way on whatever it is the characters have done along the way, and it's even worse in a game, when you've done all this stuff yourself. It's really a deus ex machina, but it's still a big fucking cop out.

One thing that did impress me with the story is pointed out on Game Matters (in the comments). The gameplay actually reflects the theme of the story. Throughout the game your character is referred to as 'The One Free Man', yet the gameplay is completely linear! You have almost no choices at all! I would have just laughed this off as a bit of unintentional irony, except for the comments of the man in the suit in the closing scene, "Rather than offer you the illusion of free choice..." (referring to the stupid choice you had to make at the end of the first game). So it would appear that despite what all the other characters think, Gordon Freeman the character truly does have as little freedom as the player. It makes me wonder what the third game will do with this, will the climax actually let you make real choices? Maybe the guy in the suit will set you up on the side of the Combine... anyway, I guess we'll find out in another five years, assuming Valve doesn't go bankrupt or get bought out by morons.

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