Half-Life 2 ended in an appalling cliffhanger. (Spoiler: You and the female lead were caught in the midst of an explosion. Time stopped the moment before you were obliterated, and then there was a little monologue from one of the other characters. Roll credits. There were ways to justify the main character’s survival, but Alyx seemed to be doomed.)
The opening of Episode One wiggles out of the situation established at the end of Half-Life 2, and while it had the stench of deus ex machina, it was also fun and humorous.
Half Life 2 didn’t really answer any of the main questions: Who is the G Man? What is his goal? Why is he using Gordon – who most likely resents him – to achieve his goals? As I played the game I started to get the feeling this was an X-Files sort of mystery: Lots of mysterious stuff that doesn’t really lead anywhere except to further mystery. I’m a big fan of story arcs and endings, so I’m not crazy about the prospect that there may not be any answers to reasonable questions about the plot. If they aren’t going to tell a coherent story, the least they could do is give us something fun to do.
Which is exactly what we have here. The upside to this making-crap-up-as-you-go approach to storytelling is that it lets them look at the response from one game and adjust the sequel accordingly. Did you like the stuff with the gravity gun at the end of Half Life 2? Did you like teaming up with Alyx? The voice-acted and motion-capped characters? The physics puzzles? These elements seem to be what scratched everyone’s particular itch, and this time around we get a double helping.
The first half hour of the game is… not cutscenes, but scenes nonetheless. Half-Life never breaks immersion by moving the POV outside of the protagonist, and doesn’t lock the player in place without a very good in-game reason for doing so. What we end up with are scenes where NPC’s interact with each other (sometimes nodding in the direction of the camera) but leave you free to move around and watch or ignore them as you see fit. Sometimes developers talk about making the player “a character in a movie”, and this sort of setup is the closest we’ve come to that lofty ideal. The plot may grind on, but you never have an external POV imposed on you, and you’re never deprived of control of your character. I wish more games went this route. (Then again, I wish there were more first-person games in general.)
The game is just packed with cool moments. I’m not against a little padding here and there as required. Half-Life 2 had longish stretches of conventional combat without any dialog or plot advancement, and I didn’t mind. But here they’ve taken the various scenes and set pieces and placed them one after another, without stretches of filler. The result feels almost decadent.
Some mild spoiler comments follow:
You spend the first section of the game with the awesome super-powered gravity gun from the end of Half-Life 2. I can understand why they wouldn’t want to turn you loose in the rest of the game with that much power, but I thought the device they used to take it away was sort of cheap. It would have been better if you had to (for example) toss the gravity gun or otherwise sacrifice it in order to save the reactor. You could have then been provided with a (normal) replacement. The way its super powers blink on and off at the whim of the plot just seems lame.
You spend a lot of time with Alyx this time around. I usually hate “sidekick” games, but Alyx works so well that I don’t mind having her around. She’s also good for directing player attention to the right spot. Her cues were invaluable for showing me where the puzzles were and what I should be doing, without solving the puzzles for me. Having her around allows the designers to take on some gameplay elements that wouldn’t work nearly as well in solitude. In one section the two of us were riding a lift and debris were falling down on us, which I had to intercept and deflect with the gravity gun. With her warning, “Look out! Above us!” I was able to see the stuff coming and deal with it. Without her, it would have taken several instant-death (reload a save game) situations to realize where the threat was and how to deal with it.
My first thought at seeing Barney was, “Geeze man, are you still wearing that Metrocop outfit?” Then I realized that while it’s been years since I saw him, within the context of the game it’s only been a few hours since the main character and Barney parted ways. Still, if I were him I’d make a point of getting out of the enemy uniform as soon as possible. I don’t think either side is interested in the Rules of Warfare at this point, but from a more practical point of view it would make him a lot less likely to get shot in a friendly fire incident.
The point where Dog threw the car over the chasm? With me in it? That was awesome. Laughably implausible, but so much fun.
Tremendous fun so far.
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