Month: April 2014

Half-Life 2

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Rise up against Earth’s alien overlords.

PC Release: November 16, 2004

By Ian Coppock

Well, readers, the game is up. In my bid to become more like Valve, my Lord and Savior, I’ve adopted habits that seem to make me, well, literally like Valve. I disappear for weeks at a time, I leave no notice of when new content might be expected, and my articles seem to be about as good as goddamn vaporware. I could extend the usual platitudes about life being chaotic and me trying to find a good creative balance with this blog, but truth be told, I started losing energy when I went to a measly one game a week. I suddenly felt like I had nothing to talk about. Let’s get back to the games.

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Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 15 years, the story of Half-Life is one of the mainstays of video game lore. Taking place in modern times, that story followed Gordon Freeman, a physicist who accidentally rips open a gate to another dimension. Aliens come spilling through, and he has to take a long, lonely journey through the Black Mesa Research Facility to stop the extraterrestrial aliens at the source (or GoldSrc, in that game’s case. Anyone? Oh…).

I won’t spoil what happens at the end of this sci-fi epic, but I can say that Gordon is whisked away to a place beyond our time and understanding, and suddenly wakes up on a train bound for the heart of a crumbling city in Eastern Europe.

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Gordon wakes up on a train with no memory of the past two decades.

With such a snap beginning, Half-Life 2 sets the stage rather quickly. Gordon steps off of the train to find that the city, and indeed, all of Earth, is under the control of the Combine, a totalitarian alien empire who invaded the planet through the very portal Gordon accidentally opened in the first Half-Life. They’re not the enemies from the first game, but a new, more insidious foe who heard all the racket going on at Black Mesa and decided to take a look. And then do a lot more than that.

As the silent, stoic Gordon, I crept cautiously through the heavily guarded streets of City 17, shielding my face from security cameras and watching mouth agape as columns of soldiers and vehicles trod the streets of this European dystopia. The atmosphere of Half-Life 2 is thick enough to be cut with a knife but far too dense for such a tiny instrument. Secret police beating civilians, rations being allotted, all while Big Brother-style info-casts drone without end on big TV screens.

After 20 years spent away, Gordon returns to finds his homeworld in an alien vise grip.

After 20 years spent away, Gordon returns to finds his homeworld in an alien vise grip.

If I thought my guilt at getting a few scientists in Black Mesa inadvertently killed was substantial, it paled in comparison to seeing the entire world at the mercy of an indifferent alien apparatus. Those are the emotions I chose to transfix onto Gordon, who is a silent character for just such purposes. Half-Life 2 builds its atmosphere on both grand and subtle scales, mixing the raw terror of secret police home invasions with euphemistically worded policies about why it’s good that the tap water erases your memory.

Conveniently enough, a bunch of Gordon’s buddies from Black Mesa are inexplicably concentrated into City 17. Valve took a few of the nameless NPCs you interacted with in Half-Life and superimposed names and back stories onto them. Gordon is re-introduced to his best friend Barney, a former Black Mesa security guard, his former mentor Isaac Kleiner, and Alyx, the resistance leader’s daughter (of course).

Gordon was the only named person in Half-Life, but Half-Life 2 brings in a full cast of wonderful, complicated characters.

Gordon was the only named person in Half-Life, but Half-Life 2 brings in a full cast of wonderful, complicated characters.

Gordon is immediately roped into joining the human resistance against the Combine, in my mind as a result of the guilt felt for opening that damn portal. He gets back into his trusty HEV suit just in time for the Combine to learn of his return.

His reputation from Black Mesa having preceded him, the aliens and their puppet human overlord, Dr. Breen, waste no time in mobilizing their forces against the world’s deadliest physicist. So begins Half-Life 2, a nightmarish, dystopian and beautiful journey that uses Half-Life as the jumping point for a new narrative.

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Yeesh.

So, let’s jump into why Half-Life 2 belongs in the library of any self-respecting interactive story collector. Though the game is set under different circumstances and its Eastern European setting is a far cry from a New Mexican space lab, Half-Life 2‘s narrative is immediately reminiscent of the first game’s minimalist tale. The game has only one cutscene at its very beginning, keeping your feeling of interaction with the story at 100% from the get-go ’till the very end. The game’s dark, dense atmosphere is comprised primarily of Gordon being alone for the rest of the game, and secondly by the constant armies of alien military units hounding him throughout Half-Life 2.

Every environment is meticulously detailed to reinforce the notion of fear and despair. Gordon traverses environments ranging from bombed out skyscrapers to radioactive swamps, and Valve meticulously decorated all of them with detritus, corpses and wreckage to make the stinking, dying world of Half-Life 2 that much more in your face. In a shoutout to both Half-Life and my nightmares, the alien animals from the first game have spent 20 years taking Earth’s place as the planet’s wildlife, so if you still have night terrors about headcrabs… well… there’s three different kinds of them now instead of just one.

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If headcrabs aren’t Half-Life’s most notorious enemy, then they’re its most iconic.

The pacing of Half-Life 2 is just delicious. Each of the environments you visit has its own hazards and theme, delicately implementing intense shooter sections alongside horror portions that made me, the Amnesia junkie, jump and shout. Sometimes you’ll team up with other rebels for raids and firefights, and other times you’ll be in for lonely two-hour drives along beaches pockmarked with burnt houses. The constant changes in pacing don’t detract from the atmosphere implemented via the artwork, and they’ll keep you engaged long after your third or fourth playthrough.

Speaking of the artwork, let’s talk a bit more about it. Though a bit dated now, the Source engine of 2004 was groundbreaking for its time, implementing facial animation technology that was amazing then and pretty run-of-the-mill now. The Source engine is great for putting in a simple, clean look, which is why so many modders can’t get enough of it. Some of the textures are a bit grainy and blurry, but the game’s riot of colors and art assets will give you plenty to look at. More importantly; they reinforce that dreadful atmosphere I can’t shut up about.

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Half-Life 2’s visuals mesh perfectly with the theme the game goes for.

 Unlike the first game, Half-Life 2 features a cast of full characters. Though they all have their respective, well-written quirks and dialogue, the character that stood out to me the most was Alyx Vance. She quickly becomes Gordon’s best friend and partner in many of the game’s sections.

Alyx is a female video game character done right. In an industry saturated with sexualized female characters, who are reduced to boobs and makeup by cowardly designers and whiny, insecure male gamers with microscopic genitalia, she stands out as perhaps the strongest female character in all of gamedom. She doesn’t wear makeup, her clothing is tough and practical, and she is highly knowledgeable about the world. She takes command, takes no shit, and feels as close to a genuine human being as video game characters usually get.

Alyx is my favorite Half-Life 2 character, because she was written as a real human being.

Alyx is my favorite Half-Life 2 character, because she was written as a real human being.

What I love about Alyx is that she’s also not prone to random emotional outbursts. This is a common trope in gaming; the insecure and emotional female character succumbs to her womanly weaknesses while the strong male character protects her and takes care of her. Alyx isn’t without her moments of grief and sadness, but it was her refusal to cry and whine that made me more sympathetic to her plight than the usual pouting ever would have. Anyone who cares at all about the portrayal of women in video games needs to play this game to see how it’s done, because Valve done good.

Anyway, back to the game.

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Find the All-Knowing Vortigaunt if you can!

I suppose at this point it’s best to bring up the gameplay. Half-Life 2 is a first-person shooter with simple, workable mechanics. Nothing fancy, but then again, you don’t need to get fancy to get the job done. Gordon can wield about a dozen human and alien weapons on his tour de force against the Combine. You’ll also get to drive vehicles, man turrets and sneak around just a bit.

Gordon’s health is measured via a health bar and his suit’s shields. You can get points for both from vending devices or pickups scattered around the world. I will say that Valve made Half-Life 2 a lot more accessible to non-shooter fans by increasing the number of pickups. A smart play, giving this story more accessibility.

The vehicle sections are particularly fun. Limitless ammo and no penalty for traffic collisions makes me very happy.

The vehicle sections are particularly fun. Limitless ammo and no insurance penalty for traffic collisions makes me very happy.

Despite being a landmark work of art in the gaming world, not even Half-Life 2 is a perfect game. A heavy criticism I wish to lay on this game and retroactively to Half-Life is that the combat isn’t very creative. Enemies are programmed to simply run up to you and shoot until one of you dies, a tactic that can be overruled with simple cover and running back and forth. I expected a bit better from Valve in this area, especially since this was a problem I first noticed in Half-Life, which came out in 1998. So, the combat can get pretty boring and the enemies are easily exploited.

The game also seems to have a puzzling number of bugs. I’ve played the console and PC versions both and was stunned to see the PC flashing a few errors at me. Sometimes, characters will get stuck in their routines and not open doors or give out supplies. The biggest problem I had was a lighting bug that washed the entire game in a sickly white light reminiscent of the doctor’s office. I was alarmed to find that this bug somehow spread to a few Half-Life 2 mods as well. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a permanent fix.

Combine soldiers can be dangerous in big groups but they're almost nothing one at a time, thanks to their simplistic programming.

Combine soldiers can be dangerous in big groups but they’re almost nothing one at a time, thanks to their simplistic programming.

Despite all this, though, Half-Life 2 is definitely worth it. The strength of its story lies a bit more in characters and writing than in the first game, but the primary pillar of its glory is its atmosphere. You’ll become deeply invested in rising up against the Combine, and it won’t be a pretty battle, but the characters, environments and artwork will compel you to see it through to the end.

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You can buy Half-Life 2 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

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Portal

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Escape a scientific madhouse and its psychopathic administrator.

PC Release: October 9, 2007

By Ian Coppock

It’s been a long time since we’ve had some decent puzzlers come out. The modern gaming scene seems to be embracing a model of “incinerate as much alien genitalia with as little interaction as possible” modus operandi, further staying my decision to throw my hat into the “current-gen” ring. Nope, I’ve been staying in my cushy realm of new mainstream and indie PC titles with occasional reaching back into what Wikipedia has called the seventh generation of video gaming. Now that we’re on a once-a-week schedule, I have more time to think about what games like Portal achieved and why they’re so goddamn important. Plus, this game has cake. Never turn down cake. Unless it’s a urinal cake.

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Portal rather spontaneously appeared from Valve’s all-mysterious inner workings as a component of the Orange Box anthology. The centerpiece of that five-game collection was Half-Life 2: Episode Two, but this quirky puzzler ended up stealing the spotlight and creating a series that only Half-Life can outmatch in terms of endearment.

Portal is a first-person puzzle game starring Chell, a silent female test subject cooped up in a squeaky clean laboratory called Aperture Science. As explained by GlaDOS, the facility’s robotic administrator, your goal is to navigate a series of puzzle chambers using portals. These inter-dimensional gateways are linked, allowing the player to step through one doorway and out of another, even if it’s through a ceiling or out the window.

These test chambers can only be solved by using portals, positioned with that handy gun in the corner.

These test chambers can only be solved by using portals, positioned with that handy gun in the corner.

The plot of this game is simple but not simplistic. GlaDOS has promised you your freedom if you can solve all 19 test chambers using your handy-dandy portal gun. GlaDOS is one of the most infamous characters in all gaming history, a seemingly benign robot whose loudspeaker announcements become more ominous, confusing and hilarious in equal measure as the game progresses.

The writing in Portal is spectacular, something that one might expect to hear in a Coen brothers film. Though not physically seen until much later in the game, GlaDOS adds some flavor and witticism to this stark laboratory with her insufferable self-importance and her dedication to Aperture Science’s obnoxious rules and regulations. You’ll be told that the gun you’re wielding has been known to melt both teeth enamel and teeth, and that if you fall into an abyss, you’ll receive a failure mark on your testing record… oh and also death. It’s some of the funniest video game dialogue I’ve ever heard and easily the most quoted.

Though GlaDOS is sort of your jailer, she's a lovable character... in her own demented way.

Though GlaDOS is sort of your jailer, she’s a lovable character… in her own demented way.

Valve’s high-quality character writing and acidic humor make for quite the pairing with the laboratories of Aperture Science, a cake-and-ice cream medley of competent game design. Which is an apt comparison, because the frequency with which GlaDOS promises you cake and grief counseling is outstripped only by the number of portals you’ll be firing up, down, and throughout the test chambers. Each puzzle is a self-contained environment comprising a stark-white room and numerous puzzle pieces. Some puzzles will take no time at all, and others, all the time in the world.

Even at the height of my concentration, I could never shake the stark, spooky atmosphere that Portal presents. Throughout the game, you can never quite abandon the sense that something has gone terribly wrong in the laboratories. Things start out spick and span at the beginning, but between GlaDOS’s ominous broadcasts and a few clues you start to find later on in the game, you get a sense of the mystery blanketing Portal. It’s an effective mechanic rooted in Valve’s classic show-don’t-tell method of game design, and a soundtrack of eerie layered synths.

You'll always have the feeling that something is out of sorts here. It's just too clean and pretty.

You’ll always have the feeling that something is out of sorts here. It’s just too clean and pretty.

Mechanically, Portal checks out in virtually all areas. Chell is capable of basic physical movement, and as the game progresses your portal gun will get more powerful. You can shoot up to two interlinked portals but may occasionally be forced to work with a preset portal already in the puzzle.

You’ll have to use these portals to solve any number of puzzles. Sometimes you’ll have to fly through one and out of the other and use momentum to soar out of the puzzle, or transport blocks onto switches. You’ll be able to shoot portals onto some surfaces and not onto others. You’ll also have to dodge acid pits, robotic turrets and other dangers. Even the turrets speak, and speak funnily.

Each of Portal's 19 test chambers contains a unique puzzle that will require you to think critically.

Each of Portal’s 19 test chambers contains a unique puzzle that will require you to think critically.

Graphically, Portal is fine. I’m not sure there’s really an emptier discussion to be had than graphics; there’s a certain level where graphics are just fine to me and I can roll with it. I think the important question here is not whether the visual quality is simply “good”, but whether it accomplishes what the game sets out to do.

The visuals espouse spartan clarity and minimalist design. Wide rooms and blank chambers, twisted into science fun-houses by Valve’s masterful game design. The visuals take a minimalist approach that meshes perfectly with the game’s dark humor, deep atmosphere, and twisted yet fun puzzles. I suppose it’s all a perfect match because it all promotes the same feeling: you’re alone, you’re resourceful, and you’ve got to get out of here.

Sometimes I'm tempted to write that the main character in this game isn't even GlaDOS, but the facility itself. This game's environment will stay with you.

Sometimes I’m tempted to write that the main character in this game isn’t even GlaDOS, but the facility itself. This game’s environment will stay with you.

So now we come to the question of why I believe Portal is so goddamned important. It’s important because it proves that you don’t need super-crisp visuals, an intense plot and constant, unrepentant action to create a competent video game. Valve took a single spoken character, a basic environmental palette, and a simple physics mechanic, and what they created was one of the greatest puzzle games of all time.

Aside from occasional frustrations with the game’s ball-of-light puzzles, I really don’t have anything negative to say about this game. Ridiculous, I know, but then again, all of the elements of this game operate in perfect synch. The black humor writing, GlaDOS’s monotonous voice, the challenging, engaging puzzle play and the bright visuals of Aperture Science. It comes together to produce a work of art that is magnanimous in its simplicity, despite its simplicity.

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Are you still there?

I pretty much just asked this game to marry me, so please interpret that as a full recommendation. Portal is available via disc form in The Orange Box, or, if you’re feeling particularly awesome, digital download via Valve’s Steam service. Cash in an hour of your time in exchange for a funny, well-designed puzzle game with endless replayability and quotability.

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You can buy Portal here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.