Ben Cantrick (mackys) wrote,
Ben Cantrick

The verdict on Half-Life 2 (XBox).

The Good:

Excellent level design. I've never seen this mixture of great large-scale level design coupled with detail on all the small things. Great textures, great engine. The bridge level had my inherited fear of heights ticking over pretty good. (G) Also in this vein, enemies almost never respawn unrealistically or arbitrarily. Once you clear an area, it generally stays cleared, unless there was some reasonable explanation why enemies would re-appear.

Really fun gameplay. I was reading an interview with one of the game designers, and he said that they very consciously tried to keep throwing new gameplay elements at you on a regular basis, so you wouldn't get bored. And generally it works very well. Just about the time you get bored of hoverboating around, the missle trucks show up...

Good narrative. There's a good plot, though I think they tried to cram a bit too much into the last cut-scene. The other characters are interesting and well varied, and I generally liked them on a personal level even when the AI annoyed the absolute @#$% out of me.

Save at any time. What a godsend! This was the one thing wrong with Far Cry, good on Valve for getting it right here. This does two great things. Firstly, it allows you to put down the game instantly when you look up and realize you've played until 4:30am. (Which happened to me a lot with this game, because the gameplay was very immersive.) Secondly, it neutralizes any attempt by the game designers to make cheap "you must complete this sequence of tricky tasks correctly all in one go" puzzles, which are almost never fun.

Fun vehicles and physics. The hoverboat is alright, the dune buggy is lots of fun, and I think they used the gravity gun as well as they possibly could have. I might complain that you don't get to use it to yank around enemies until the very end of the game, but then again given how unbelievably easy it makes any kind of close or medium quarters combat, I can see why they kept the best for very last.

The Bad:

You'll notice that "Graphics" isn't listed among "The Good." I think we have another victim of crappy TV resolution and lower-end console hardware here. I'm told that Half Life 2 on the PC looks very nice indeed. But they apparently had to dumb the graphics down a bit to make it work on the XBox. A real pity, that. I mean, it still looks good, but one can imagine how much better it really could be.

Loading gets annoying sometimes. There were a few places where I was trying to carry multiple items around, sometimes through load points. At one juncture I carried four medkits through a savepoint. Watching that "Loading..." bar creep along eight times in a row is not my idea of fun. This is just a general problem with consoles and high-end games, I think. Given the level of environmental detail, I have my doubts that a streaming approach would have been workable with this game.

Physics of carrying and environment interaction needed more playtesting. If I have the ability to pick things up and put them in containers, what do you think I'm going to do if I see three medkits sitting on the ground, right next to a convenient plastic crate? Well then how come that doesn't work, you damn jackasses?? Here's a hint: when I pick up a crate full of medkits, I'm going to use both hands. So it should NOT spin like a propeller and dump all my medkits on the ground because you were too dumb to use two points of force on the handles. Even a 5 year old naturally knows how to pick up box with both hands! But apparently you opted to use a single IK joint at the very middle of the crate. One that has no roll damping. Hence the propeller behavior, and my medkits spilling all over the ground. Hey look, now I get to carry them ONE AT A TIME to the next loading spot! And then watch the loading bar creep along six times, once for each time through and back! Yeah, this is fun!!

Really now, I understand if you can't be bothered to properly consider all the possible ways I can stack up objects and get on top of walls, and so you just impose an arbitrary ceiling so I can't get "above" the level. (Though I still think that my inability to pick up a barrel that's on its side, rotate it 90 degrees, and then put it back down upright is a sad, sorry, pathetic crutch. And a testament to your failings as playtesters.) But this bit about my not being able to carry three medkits that fit quite nicely into those plastic crates that you scatter all over the game? The plastic crates that you explicitly allow me to put things in? That is just STUPID. Did you stop and *think* at all? Did you PLAY YOUR OWN GAME? Almost certainly not. If you had, I would be able to carry three medkits in a crate without the crate cartwheeling over like an amateur gymnast. Nor would the medkits bounce crazily out of the crate when I walk over a bump in the ground.

Just give me a freaking backpack. Alyx could have given it to me at Dr. Kleiner's lab. Then you wouldn't have to throw down gratuitous dead bodies everywhere, so you can have an excuse to also put down items next to them, to replenish my always meager stocks. Which are always meager because I can carry so little. (The one exception to this would be the submachine gun, for which you have absolutely the perfect amount of ammo carrying capacity.)

The human ally AI is so unbelievably obnoxious. Near the end of the squad mission, I began to intentionally kill my own squad. They annoyed the living piss out of me that badly. The garden variety bad AI problems are all avoided here, but there were three big things that more than made up for it...

1) When I tell you to come here, COME HERE! I'm calling your dumb asses back for a reason! Like, there's a freaking mortar shell about to land on your heads!! When I call you back, don't stand there, look around, or reload your gun. Hoof it back here - Now!! I mean, unless you really WANT to die. See I don't want you to die. In fact I'm doing everything I can think of to prevent it. So help me out here!

They really shouldn't have included this feature if it didn't work. What this game really needed was a "stay here and don't move until I call for you" feature. That would allow me to go ahead and either fight it out myself (if that's what I want) or at least figure out how I'm going to use my squad without them starting up a huge battle while I'm still peeking out from a doorway.

2) I don't give a damn if you think you can take down a Strider with your machine-gun, YOU CAN'T! Trust me on this one, I have a hundred reloaded savegames to prove it. You're only getting yourself killed in spite of my best efforts. If allies would actually COME when called, this might not be such a horrible, glaring obnoxious problem. But, as explained in point #1, if they are doing absolutely ANYTHING else, they do not even seem to hear "come here" orders. Can't tell you how many times I watched them die because they wouldn't stop attacking a huge, 40 foot tall, energy bolt spraying, heavily armored alien monster... with a pea-shooter.

And lastly, and by far the most obnoxiously.

3) Get THE FUCK OUT OF MY WAY!!! When I dodge out a doorway to take a quick potshot, do not move forward and stand in the doorway, thus preventing me from getting back under cover! God damn, that is so fucking infuriating!! This single thing by itself had me swearing out loud (shouting at the TV, in fact!), ready to sell my left leg for the ability to kill my own squadmates. To crack their goddamn fool skulls wide open WITH MY CROWBAR! I was killed many times by this. Early on, single NPCs are pretty good at getting out of your way. If you look at them, and then walk towards them, they'll actually say "Let me get out of your way" and step away. Great! However, as soon as you get three or four of them following you, they form the "auto-following wall of doom." Which blocks all retreat (especially into doorways), is completely impenetrable, and totally impossible to shove out of the way. And you can't shoot the fuckers in the face either, thanks to the (otherwise good) "no friendly fire of any kind" feature.

If I ever hear the words "Follow Freeman!" again, I swear I'm going to rip out the unlucky NPC's trachea - with my bare hands - and then drink the blood from his spurting carotid arteries! Single NPCs do a great job moving away from your view direction vector. That's an excellent start. But as with many things in this game, it really amplifies the contrast (and rage) when a minute later your squadmates begin repeatedly doing the stupidest things imaginable. At a minimum, your squadmates also needed to A) actively avoid your velocity vector and B) have the ability to push each other out of the way if they're blocking each other's path. Come to think of it, it would have been really nice if *I* could have pushed them out of the way, too. (I think it's asking far too much for them to notice when I was pushing them out of the way frequently, and react by staying farther away from me in the future...) Having them refuse to stand still in or near doorways would have been nice too.

Thank god the "send squad to where you're looking" feature works fairly well. You can't use it carelessly, but when used with a modicum of intelligence and foresight it actually works fairly well. One thing your squad IS good at is mindlessly blasting away at any enemy they see. Provided you put them behind decent cover, they're darn good at laying down supressing fire. But that one thing aside, the rest of the human ally AI is a total disaster.

I find it odd that the human ally AI was so poor. The antlion allies you get earlier in the game are great. Of course, they are much simpler creatures: Look for enemy. Jump 30 feet towards enemy. Thrash enemy to crap in about 3 seconds. Yes, it's good to be an antlion...


There were some things that other people might consider failings, but that I didn't really mind. Like how you can only carry 3 rockets for the rocket launcher, but it takes 5 or 6 to down a gunship or Strider. Generally I felt that their solution to this, which was to put a trunk full of infinite rockets nearby, was a pretty good one. It led to some obvious "run away until you can find the ammo trunk" levels, but even though I noticed, I didn't care - it was still fun.

Some might find the physics based puzzles annoying. Generally I found these puzzles straightforward and simple enough that even with the extremely limited pick up and drop mechanics, they were still fun. I think it helps that about half of these are optional, just ways for them to give you some extra medikits and ammo.

A lack of medium/long range rifle type weapon is a double-edged sword in this kind of a game. On the one hand, it means you're reduced to sniping with your pistol (haha) more often than seems reasonable. On the other hand, in the kind of relatively dense, close, urban levels that predominated the game, a submachine gun seems to work pretty well most of the time anyway. You don't get the (sniper's joy) crossbow until halfway through the Highway 17 level, but at least you get it. That's the most open level, and you really benefit from it there. However, ammo is always very scarce for the crossbow, so you have to use it quite sparingly. I think one solution would have been to tweak the pulse rifle a bit. It could have been a lot more accurate, but done half as much damage. Then it would have filled the medium range weapon role nicely. Pulse rifle ammo is still relatively sparse and you can't carry much, so it wouldn't have been unbalanced. As it is, I generally only ended up using the pulse rifle when I needed a more powerful, quicker dropping submachine gun.

(Maybe when I get a PC capable of playing HL2, I can modify my copy of it and make some of these tweaks. I'd be really interested to see how well they'd work...)

The Verdict:

Hindsight is always 20/20. Looking back is still a bit fuzzy. Speak of mutually assured destruction? Nice story - TELL IT TO READER'S DIGEST!!

Er, no wait! Wait, wait! That's not it...

Hindsight is always 20/20. I think that some of these things annoyed me far worse because the rest of the game was so good. I had a great time playing through Half Life 2, and it wasn't just 5 hours worth of gameplay, either. When you save, it shows you how long you've played so far. But the counter maxes out at 999 minutes (16.5 hours). I was only about one-third when I hit 999. (Though let it be noted that I just luuuuv to play "sniper in the grass," and spend hours crawling around levels, looking for the perfect spot to kill everyone without them ever seeing me.)

8/10 - Though not without its flaws, you'll have to spend some real time and effort to find a better overall game than this.

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