Monday, September 11, 2006

A Clear Cut Case of WTF

Ok, I know this is a little (read VERY) late, but I finally finished Half Life 2.

(Oh, and if you’re not into gaming, imagine I’m writing about a movie, because it’s mostly the story I’m going to be writing about).

I’ll be completely honest and say I’m surprised HL2 got the coveted ‘Game of the Year’ award.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an excellent game, but for me it had a few fatal flaws.

First off all, the loading screens. While the story is good and deeply involving, the sheer amount of time you spend loading takes you right out of the experience. At times it feels like you play for 5 minutes, load for 3, play for another 5…

It’s like watching a movie on TBS…too many interruptions to get into it.

The other big problem is your allies AI, or more accurately, lack of it. It seems their job is to get in your way, get you killed and remind you to ‘reload’ as often as possible. The sheer number of times I did a heroic dash out of a door, let loose a perfectly aimed rocket at a gargantuan strider, then tried to duck back into safety only to be blocked by a so called ‘ally’, standing in the door holding his dick.

Then, to add insult to injury, just as the last shot blows my head off, the door blocking bastard says “Hey! Don’t forget to reload!”

Anyway, I promised I was going to write about the story, so here goes.

You play as Dr Gordon Freeman. In the first game, you worked at the Black Mesa research facility. (Think area 51). While helping conduct an experiment on teleportation, a doorway to another universe is opened, and in pour the alien beasties.

You fight you way to freedom, only to be put in some kind of freaky ‘stasis’ at the end by the mysterious G-Man. Apparently, you’ve proven yourself ‘useful’, and are kept to one side in case you’re ever needed again.

(Very little is known about the G-Man…is he human, or alien? What is his interest in you..etc)

Fast forward to Half Life 2.

The aliens, now known as ‘The Combine’, have taken over the planet. You’re awakened by the G-Man on a train on its way to ‘City 17’. The easiest way I can explain the situation is imagine you’re Jewish in Nazi Berlin.

This is where the storyline and atmosphere really start to show through.

On the train, you hear people swapping rumors in hushed voices. When you get off the train, you’re shepherded to a checkpoint, where a woman is standing by the chain-link fence, desperately asking everyone who passes if they’ve seen her husband. Apparently he was dragged off the train when they were traveling, and she was ‘assured’ he would be arriving on the next train…It seems he hasn’t shown up.

You talk to a guy sitting at a table, looking as though he’s about to throw up, and he tells you “He’s just working up the nerve to go through the checkpoint.”

Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere. Let me tell you, this is just a game, but it’s scary walking through that checkpoint.

You get pulled to the side, and escorted by a half-club, half cattle-prod carrying Combine Soldier, and forcefully thrown into a room. In the center is what looks like a dentist’s chair covered in blood. Things look bad…

Then the combine soldier pulls off his mask. It’s Barney, a friendly character from Half Life 1, undercover. He fills you in on a few details, and sets you free.

And that’s your introduction to Half-Life 2.

The rest of the game is just as atmospheric. You’re surrounded by people in a constant state of terror. They could be summarily executed at any moment, or sent to the dreaded prison ‘Nova Prospekt’, where the inmates are genetically and surgically altered, then brainwashed to be turned into Combine soldiers.

It’s a game with heart…and one of the games that to me answers the question whether games are ‘art’ or not…and that answer is “Yes they are.” Basically, if you don’t get emotionally involved with this game, there’s something wrong with you.

This is down to three things. The first is the story, which is amazing. The second is that the voice acting is absolutely top-notch, feature film quality, and the third is that the graphics are amazingly good, to the point where even the character’s facial expressions really allow them to ‘emote’.

It’s these scripted scenes that really add to the sensation of ‘being there’. At the start of the game, when you’re walking through an apartment building and see two men discussing things with fear in their voice…or a woman broken down on the sofa, crying, with her partner trying to comfort her…it becomes as ‘real’ as any movie you’ve ever seen.

This is why the ending sucks so much.

There are spoilers here, so if like me, you’ve not finished the game yet, you have been warned.

You’ve fought your way to the Citadel, a gigantic structure in the middle of City 17. The citadel is where the Dr. Breen, the human administrator, )who has basically given himself relative freedom and comfort at the expense of the rest of the human race), resides.

You, Alex and Eli Vance (The two main leaders of the resistance) have been captured. In classic villain style, Dr. Breen gives some big speech about how he’s really saving the human race by helping enslave them, and starts monologueing.

He says basically, that he was keeping Eli and Alex alive in the hope that they’d convince the rest of the resistance to give up. Now you’re there, he can have them killed and force you into telling the resistance to give up.

He gets ready to have them killed, when Dr. Judith Mossman, who turned traitor early in the game has an attack of conscience and sets you free…Dr. Breen does a runner.

Basically, you chase him through the Citadel, until he reaches a teleporter, which will send him to another universe. He has to be stopped.

This last battle is a lot of fun. Basically, you’re charging around, trying to disrupt the teleporter, while he goads you from inside his teleport chamber…the fear in his voice getting stronger the further you progress.

So, you destroy the teleporter with him inside, as he begs you to stop…warning you that it could bring the entire Citadel down.

Tough shit, bad-guy…You’ve heard nothing but his illogical rhetoric through TV screens the entire game. This is what I mean about the game getting you emotionally involved. By the end, you’re not wanting to stop him because he’s the bad-guy and that’s the point of the game…you want to stop him because you can’t stand the smug bastard.

Basically, he’s not a ‘cool’ bad guy like Darth Vader, who you secretly root for…He’s the equivalent of the weedy, annoying kid at school who would piss you off as much as possible because he was best friends with the bully. Considering 20 minutes ago, he was strutting around his office like a peacock, telling you how you’ll do as he says ‘or else’…it’s a sweet moment of payback.

Then we get to the ending.

You’ve destroyed the transporter. Alex (The love interest) comes bounding through the door with a big smile on her face.

Let me talk about Alex for a moment. She’s the perfect movie love-interest. Tomboyish, fiercely independent and strong, while still remaining entirely feminine.

In short, the game makes you care what happens to her. At one point, she gets cut off from you, and through the gun fire, she screams at you to run…and all you want to do is go rescue her.

(Yeah, yeah…I know she’s not real. I know she’s a video game character…but you felt bad for John Coffee at the end of ‘The Green Mile’…and I don’t see this as any different just because it’s interactive)

So she comes bounding it, just as the floor starts shaking. After a moment’s celebration, she turns to you and says:

“Quick, we have to get out of here! The whole place might be about to bl…”

…and that that point, the teleporter chamber explodes in a huge fireball.

Well, it does, but it stops, like it’s frozen. For a few seconds, you sit there thinking “What the hell?” as you gaze at the tableau of Alex shielding her face from the blast, the fireball frozen above the teleporter.

Then the G-Man appears.

He gives a speech about what you’ve accomplished as the scene slowly fades, and says, in not so many words, that you’re being put back in limbo until you’re needed again.

I mean, seriously, WTF???

I know these questions will probably be answered in Half Life 3, but I felt cheated. What happened to Alex? What happened to Eli who is still in the Citadel a few floors below you?

The problem with cliff-hanger endings is there still needs to be an ending. There was absolutely no closure at the end of this game. Sure, we get the badguy, but that was just this one city. What about the rest of the world?

Basically, this game adds a lot of emotional content because you’re not just out to save the world. You’re out to save a handful of people who the game has got you emotionally invested in.

The fact you have no clue what happened to them is unforgivable. It’s like getting through a very long book, only to find the last chapter missing.


MC Etcher said...

I hear ya! Cliffhangers are hard enough to take for TV shows, when you only have to wait a few months. Waiting years is just wrong!

Anonymous said...

(Kato, the poser, said...)

I thoroughly enjoyed HL2, and yes, the loading screens were the most annoying part. But they did so many things right in the game (and it looks so gorgeous) that I was willing to forgive it and use the chance to stretch my legs and do things like eat and eliminate.

The cliffhanger is, I assume, partially resolved in HL2: Episode 1, which I haven't played yet but has been out for a bit now. Obviously, they went with the cliffhanger because they were setting up their line of episodic content to follow.

Incidentally, that ending is nowhere near as bad as the one for Halo 2. The game literally just ends. You see a cut scene that makes you think you are about to play another level and then the credits roll. It sucked hard!