The Half-Life of Entertainment, First Impressions

Long ago – November 16, 2004 to be precise – a little game called Half-Life 2 came out.  At the time, the game stood as one of the most anticipated video games of all time.  It was the follow-up to a game many considered long overdue for a sequel, Half-Life, which had been released about 6 years earlier.  It was a First Person Shooter (FPS) hailed for its unique use of interactive storytelling, never breaking user control and conveying the world, dialog, plot, and action sequences all under user control through the First Person perspective.  This brought a whole new way of experiencing the FPS genre, because from moment one, you are the character; the only view you ever have is from your two eyes. It was a revolutionary concept as story sequences that usually tend to break in-game action with cut scenes had been in videogames since they’re inception.

With the release of the second Half-Life, the game, once again, was praised for its unique in-game presentation, creative puzzle solving, crazy action set pieces, progressive character development, gorgeous graphics and the like.

I expect this to be a multipart series which chronicles of my experiences and thoughts as I make my way through a game that is considered a must-play and one of the best of all time.  I am not looking to write a review of this title, but more a log of my journey, and the things I notice as a player who feels like he’s in for a mountainous adventure.

Yes, it has taken me 5 years to finally play past the first 10 minutes of Half-Life 2.  Why you ask?  Well, good question.  I’m not really a PC gamer, and for a very simple reason.  I never like, nay, in fact, hated the fact that I had to change the resolution of my screen.  So every time I would exit or come out of a game, all the programs I had open, would be resized, very annoying.  Now, compound that problem with the fact that since sophomore year high school, I’ve used a multi-monitor setup on my computer (it’s a productivity and multi-tasking effort that could be the subject of it’s on blog series).  Lets just say games and multiple monitors never really got along so well.  Now considering I have three monitors (a 30”, x2 22”s) I have no real desire to figure out how to get it working, just give me a controller and a big screen tv, and I’m at home.  So I stopped playing PC games, and still don’t.  I used my computer for a large number of things, gaming isn’t one of them.

Half-Life 2 was the first game in years that I had installed on computer all those years ago, because I was looking forward to it so much.  But still, the same resolution problems occurred, so I choose to forgo the game experience, even as I continued to hear, year after year, what I was missing.  Cue the entrance of Orange Box, a full Valve content pack for the Xbox 360, includes: Half-Life 2, HL2 Episode 1, HL2 Episode 2, Portal and Team Fortress, for $60.00 USD, hard to argue with that.  And it sat on my shelf for a year. No longer.

So, what happens after the first 10 minutes?  Officially one of the most epic chase sequences I’ve ever experienced in a video game.  When I say the game hit’s the ground running, I mean literally.  We’re talking about a multi-part, multi-area, multi-set piece series of events all within the context that you’re being chased like hell, by an entire government organization around, through and outside of a city in order to escape capture.

And as crazy as it was, all the running, the shooting, the smashing bad guys heads in with a cro-bar, after the hour 2 of this chase sequence (yes it’s that long, no that wasn’t the end) a thought in the back of my head popped up and would go away.  I started wondering, if this crazy run, was EVER going to end.  It is such a long sequence, but I understood it at the end.

Valve continues to protract out this sequence, first on foot, running through a train and sewer system, running, jumping, swimming, killing radioactive creatures, shooting men in black and defying death.  Then once the foot chase ends, a high speed boat chase where you’re chase by a Helicopter for what feels like 3 hours starts, where you missile shooting cars, SWAT team repelling cronies, sub-machine guns, grenades, bombs, a Helicopter machine gun that seems to find you no matter how well hidden you think you are, closed gates and all manner of things.  At the end, the sweet justice you feel in fucking destroying that god damned helicopter cannot be defined in words.  But had that Helicopter sequence ended an hour before it did, would I have felt the same?  Probably, but then it might have been less of an experience and felt more like a level in a video game.

It was hard, it was long, and it truly felt like I was escaping from every military force known to man.  Naturally I had help from the resistance, but those mofo’s never shot a damn person, really they just let me restock supplies and gave me health.  I was thankful to them for that, but they could have picked up some fucking guns!  Still, at no point was it a given that I would escape, and that’s what made it a unique experience.

As a seasoned gamer, my expectations of game situations are very jaded.  In order for my to be impressed with something, my expectations have to be completely broken, that’s what I’ve come to find.  As sad as that sounds, it’s the truth.  I’m not interested in playing games that show me things or give me experiences that I’ve had before.  Sure there’s inevitably going to be some sort of redundancy with genre, but the stuff that truly stands out, doesn’t abide by rules, it does what it needs to make an impact.

So, after this chase sequence, I was drained of energy, and figured, I stop, did I?  No.  Entering the second part of game what did I discover?  Completely different atmosphere, feeling, and game play type.  I’m introduced to a gravity gun which can suck things in, and hold them then eject them at high speeds, and when I say anything, I mean anything non-organic – which is beyond frustrating.  If you’re going to give me a gun that uses “gravity” on objects, it shouldn’t matter if those objects are organic or not!  Though in terms of game play, I can totally understand that they don’t want users to have such an easy time of it, using a weapon that has unlimited energy and could repel them with easy.

I received this gravity weapon, just in time to start running again, but this time, it’s through a highly Resident Evil influenced, decimated town called Raven House.  Sounds like the setting for a horror movie right?  Well with good reason, cause it is.  The town is filled with zombie like characters, and radioactive looking chickens dubbed “headcrabs” which take control of their host by jumping toward they’re host and attaching themselves to what seems like the brainstem.

Though it’s a cool and interesting milieu, the zombie genre really isn’t my preferred game setting.  None the less, I will charge on.  Until the next update folks!  =Sterling

Resident Evil 4

So, lately, I’ve been on this kick about finishing (or at least playing) games I should have played long ago. I call this my pile of shame.  The games have ranged from super popular game of the year type games, to indie cult classics.  And now, finally, feeling I didn’t really have a sufficient sound board to talk about or discuss the things that really stood out for me, I decided to start blogging about it.

Now, I’m not making any promises, because obviously, to start blogging is hard, it’s something, that for me, to keep it consistent, has to come from a habit.  So I’m going to try to write a blog with each game I plan to write about.

Now, this will sort of be a review from my perspective.  But it will not be one in the traditional sense.  There will be no structure to these ramblings.  They will be very much stream of consciousness, have little or no editing, and will not guaranteed to actually be talking about the physical game itself, but maybe how it made me feel.  I like to call this an experience game review.  It’s based on the experience I had with it.

The best part about this process is that, most of the games I’m playing are no longer on the ever so prominent hype train.  So I haven’t read reviews, message boards, listened to podcast discussions or anything relating to the game in a long time.  So it feels like a new and fresh experience, not colored by any opinion other than the fact that these games, are held as classics in some fashion.

All that said, this weeks game is Resident Evil 4.

I think it’s good to experience something that throws you from your comfort zone.  Keeps you thinking that you’re still alive.

The first primary thing I have to get off my chest about this game is that, for the first time a game traditionally about zombies made blowing heads off not fun.  I literally couldn’t believe it.  When the lethal and satisfying splatter of a zombies head goes “POP” it is one of the most entertaining and frustration relieving experiences ever in a video game.

But I’ll be damned (btw, these are spoiler ridden, so if you haven’t played it or won’t play it, don’t read), Capcom actually NERF’d the damn the head shot in this game!!!  The “zombies” actually aren’t zombies, but are humans in a small hidden, and secluded Spanish village who have all been infested with Parasites, so the head honcho guy can eventually try to conquer America.  How’s he going to do that?  Simple, but kidnapping the presidents daughter, infecting her, and through that infection controlling her and getting her to infect the other people that surround the president, all the ones that have his ear and influence him.   And if that doesn’t work, they just invade from the inside, spreading the parasite like a virus.

The parasite attaches itself to the nervous system, from what I could tell on the spine, and proceeds to grow.  Once it hatches inside of you, it’s quite difficult to remove, can’t only be removed through a special type of radiation, directly applied by energy knives.

I say all that to say, because the bodies are being controlled by parasites, and they are not zombies, if you get a critical hit (which pops the head off) or you get a head shot, the body can still function!!  Granted this doesn’t start happening until you’re about a third of the game, but that means, for two fucking thirds of the game you actually DON’t want to get headshots, because then, you have to deal with the parasite that pops out of the neck where the head used to sit. (clear time for me was apx. 36hrs – but the game count’s pausing time, which is ridiculous, cause sometimes I’ll pause and go eat for two hours, so I’m going to say about 30 hours it took me to finish – so 20 hours of that).

Every time I was done playing for the same, I couldn’t help but be upset.  The fact that when a head exploded the enemy got harder.  The first thing you always think of is to aim for the head.  It made inaccurate weapons like the automatic shotgun frustrating, because if you accidently got a head shot, you’d have to get a SECOND harder headshot to put the fuckers down.

In past games, you pull out a shotgun, you point it at a head, the head splatters onto a wall or disintegrates in the wake of a shotgun to the face, those bodies collapse.  But ooooohhhhhh nooooooo… In RE4, a parasite head shoots out of the neck, and has a long tail with a blade on it that reaches about 6ft.-10ft. in the game, and can attack you from any position, including if the body is the on the ground, the tail can slice your legs.

So the entire game, if an enemy get’s close to you, you’re practically begging not to get a critical hit.  Because if you do, the body doesn’t always fall and give you time to either get away or kill it.  So weird enough, I was shooting for legs 90% of the time in this game.  Critical hits are a lot more likely when shooting for the chest.  So the feet and legs were my bread and butter.

How shooting a parasitic human in the legs with sub-machine gun, sniper rifle, hand-gun or automatic shotgun would kill them I don’t know.

The reason I spend so long on this is because, as a basic mechanic of the survival-horror genre, and something you’ll be doing a countless amount of times, I ask Capcom for one thing in RE5, don’t you dare make headshots NOT fun.   If I blow off a head I want to have to worry about moving on to the next enemy, not struggling even more with a hard enemy with a reach 4 times as long, and more difficult to kill.

In a video game, shooting zombies in the legs IS NOT FUN.  So for that fuck you Capcom.  *phew*

Now, this is not to say I hate the game.  I actually had a thoroughly entertaining time with this game!  It was innovative on so many levels.   It kept you paying attention to the cut scenes, because, at any moment, it could prompt you for a controller action to continue the cut scene, you miss that moment, you die.  Unfortunately, what this resulted in, was inevitably that you couldn’t always sit back and enjoy what was going on, because believe, on occasion, it was highly entertaining.

The character models in the this game are beautiful, the details were grand, and I didn’t feel like the game suffered at all being played on a my 55″ HDTV.  Sure the colors were a little vapid, and it felt like there was a lot of motion blur, but those felt like homage’s to the horror genre itself.  They felt like artistic choices, not a lack of technology to make it all crisp.   This was the first game I played on my PS2 with the component cable, and I must say, it made a world of difference.  If I had known games could look this good for the last 10 years, I would have gotten an HDTV a long time ago.  Well if I had 12 grand to drop on a Plasma then, I would have.

Not being able to move when you shoot was really annoying.  Sometimes all I wanted to do, was back up when I’m shooting at a zombie walking towards me.  But I understand not putting the ability in there.  It keeps the tense moments tense, and forces you to try to be more accurate with your shoot.  Because if you can’t back up, and guys are walking toward you, you only have a couple of choices: drop your gun and run, stand there and shoot potentially missing and dying, or kill those fuckers before they even have a chance to get close. Naturally I chose the latter.

Granted, I was never a crack shot, my shot percentage was 58% overall by the end of the game.  But I didn’t really care, they gave me enough ammo, I usually didn’t have to worry about it.  However, there were times when they’d throw a dozen plus enemies at me, and not give me ANY ammo afterward.  This was the very definition of annoying.  I am the type of game player that likes to over prepare, I like to be overstocked with everything I can manage.  I want to carry as many herbs, full health herbs, weapons, ammo, grenades, incendiary grenades and flash bangs as I can.  Resident Evil, however, has always been an exercise in resource management.

They’ve always held the mantra “make that shot count, you might not get another bullet”.  And as fucked up as it sounds, it felt like at every moment, the game adjusted itself to what I had in my inventory.  If I had mad health herbs and lots of ammo, it decided to be harder and drop less shit, if I didn’t have a lot, every enemy I killed and barrel or box I destroyed had items in it.   In this way, it was very clever how the kept the balance of making each fight intense because I never wanted to use too many bullets, because I might not get more.

The game was much longer than I was expecting it to be.  I thought it was going to be 10 or 12 hours, didn’t know it’d be three times that length.  It didn’t really feel like it was dragging, but I was trying to get done with the game quickly, cause I thought, it couldn’t be that long.  I was not expecting to get into an epic.  But that’s what I got.

I play as Leon, I’m sent as a lone person to save the Presidents daughter.  (but we all know in real life, that one dude in a leather jacket with a one gun on him is going to sent for this mission; we would send a fully equipped and highly trained tactical team)  So the premise is a bit ludicrous, but as Joss Wheadon says, they way you make a good story is that: “you take some people, put them in parole, and you see what they’re made of”.  And boy is Leon snarky, sarcastic, and well trained enough to be fighting parasite infested humanoids for 30 hours.

All in all, I had a blast of a time with this game, even with the parts I felt frustrating and stupid.  I mean, dying because I missed an on screen action is really annoying, and having to go through and see the same cut scenes every time is rather repetitive and frustrating.

But the atmosphere of the game was amazing.  The misty darker corridors, the creepy broken down shacks, the freaky ass sound effects, and the highly disturbing and emotionally shocking score.  This is a game where you learn to value more than anything, silence.  As soon as music starts, or sound effects play, you know you’re in for something.  Sometimes it was the creepy groan or moan of a pack of zombies, sometimes it was a chain they were carrying rattling on the ground.  Whatever if it was always creepy and uncomfortable, and at every chance, you wanted to destroy everything that was making a noise until you could have silence again.

I don’t like scary games, maybe because I don’t like my personal space feeling like it’s being invaded, even if it is by a slow moving half-man half-parasite.  But I’ll be damn if it didn’t excite me and creep me out at the same time.  I think it’s good to experience something that throws you from your comfort zone.  Keeps you thinking that you’re still alive, and thank god.  No way a fucking zombie’s going to take my life!