I never got around to finishing my thoughts on Half-Life Episode 1. I enjoyed the game, but I wasn’t driven to write a lot about it at the time. Fans of my long, rambling posts and self-indulgent blather will be delighted to hear that this is not the case for my Episode 2 commentary. It weighs in at around 6,000 words and will be split into a number of different posts. I’m not sure why I’m inflicting this on you, except that I feel a need to get this stuff out of my system and this seems to be the most expedient way of doing so. That fact that you’ll likely go blind trying to read it all is indeed regrettable.
One final note is that these posts are going to be rife with spoilers, so use discretion.
The opening of Episode 2 is pretty much what I expected: We wake up in the wreckage of a train without our weapons. I don’t really mind how the game clears the player’s weapons between episodes. It’s understandable to want to start the game with a clean slate, as it were. What I do wish is that they would mix it up a bit. We always get the same weapons in more or less the same order, starting with the pistol and ending with the rocket launcher, working our way up from the weakest to the most powerful. It might be fun to do this a little sideways. Give the player (say) a Combine assault rifle and the pistol, without giving them the machinegun / shotgun first. Experiment with different combinations of weapons and foes, so that we aren’t climbing the same ladder each time.
The first moments are wonderful. Waking up in the twisted railcar is disorienting at first due to the unexpected slope. The metal groaning and creaking all around us creates a sense of danger and a feeling of claustrophobic desperation as we struggle to find our way out of the wreckage.
One thing that bugged me in the opening scene was the change in our apparent position relative to the Citadel. In the final moments of Episode One we were at the same elevation with the Citadel, heading directly away from it. At the opening of Episode Two we’re in the mountains above it, and the tracks are running perpendicular to our former course. The change in direction could be explained by something as simple as the train going around a bend between the two episodes. Perhaps it kept going for a while, until it got to the ruined bridge. But the change in elevation is a bit harder to justify. I know why they did this, but the break in continuity is annoying.
(Thankfully this only happened during cinematic moments in the game, and never during combat. If they start flinging special effects like this around during fights in Episode Three it will make the game unplayable unless I upgrade. Yes, I know I’m due. But new cards keep coming out, they keep getting cheaper, and it never seems like a good time to buy. Plus I’m a cheapskate. And lazy.)
When Alyx contacts White Forest we meet a new character, Dr. Magnusson. He’s rude and self-important, and I figure he’s a bad guy as soon as he appears. So far in the series they have portrayed the bad guys as arrogant jerks (Breen, and to a lesser extent, Mossman) and the good guys as friendly and likeable. (Dr. Vance, Alyx, and Kliener.) This is a bit crude and two-dimensional, so once I see that Dr. Magnusson is actually good guy (much later in the game) it comes as a relief. It turns out he’s not evil, he’s just prickly and difficult. I’m glad, because I really didn’t want to endure a plot point where all the good guys are astounded that the rampaging jerk in their midst is *gasp* a spy!
I avoided spoilers for the game, so I had no idea what was going to happen to Alyx. When the hunter ran her through it was very shocking. Being trapped under the rubble feels a bit contrived (what caused it to fall at that exact moment, exactly?) but only in retrospect. The whole thing happened so fast I didn’t have time to think about it. It’s a wonderfully executed moment.
There are a couple of spots where you can catch glimpses of the hunter before it strikes, but I ended up looking in the wrong direction and missed all of them my first time through the game. This is a constant challenge for Valve, to get the player to look in the right direction when something important is going on. They’re very good at it, but given the chaotic nature of the player’s attention it’s impossible to come up with anything that’s 100% effective short of shooting at them whenever you want them to look.
When the Vort shows up to help take Alyx to safety, I’m sort of surprised by how odd he looks. In previous games Vorts have been very wrinkled. In this game they are smooth, almost to the point of being glossy. Did the Vorts seize a truckload of Combine moisturizer or something?
The game separates the player from the Vort and Alyx by sending you down a falling elevator. I realize that given the destruction and decay of this world elevator failure is inevitable, but Gordon seems to fall victim to this a lot. It’s almost as if he inhabits a world where he must endure many one-way trips into deep, obstacle-filled locations that require puzzle solving and combat to escape.
The infamous crowbar lures the player into the broken lift. It’s kind of odd. I know the crowbar is Gordon’s signature weapon, but with the gravity gun it’s obsolete. There’s nothing the crowbar can do that the grav gun can’t do better. I have yet to use the crowbar on purpose in either of the two expansion episodes. The only time I see it is when I’m in a mad panic to bring up the gravity gun and I click once too many times.
Encountering the antlion grubs for the first time was very unsettling for me. I hate bugs. Most players enjoy squishing these things, and I’ve even heard people refer to them as “cute”. Not me. I avoided touching them whenever I could. (I didn’t even realize they dropped health… pellet… things the first time through the game.) I wasted a lot of ammo shooting them from a distance. I didn’t know if they were dangerous or not, and I didn’t want to find out the hard way.
The acid antlions are very interesting, both as foes and as a justification for the hive-like tunnels we have to navigate. In experimenting with the AI, it looks like they evade your crosshairs. I found that they liked to dodge when I aimed at them (even when I wasn’t shooting) and so it was often better to let them make their move and then nail them. I really wish they had a different sound when flying. I don’t know why, but it bugged me that they sounded just like regular antlions. The same sound at a different pitch would have been just fine, but using the exact same sound seemed odd somehow. I don’t know why. I’ve never dealt with five-foot flying insects in real life, so it’s not like I know how they should sound.
Onto part two: Half-Life 2 Episode 2: This Vortal Coil.
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