Since even Half-life 2: Episode 1 is two years old now, it’s probably not fair to write a proper review of it so I’ll just jot down some of my thoughts on it. Its graphics are noticeably better than that of the original Half-Life 2, but still some way short of current standards. The most confusing thing about these episodic sequels is that they’re named Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and so forth, when as even Gabe Newell has said, it would make more sense to name them Half-Life 3: Episode 1 etc. Still, wholly brand new sequels are usually a lot more ambitious than Episode 1. The improvements, while noticeable, aren’t spectacular, and the way the story continues immediately after Half-Life 2 makes it feel like you’re playing new chapters of the original game rather than something completely new.
Episode 1 continues with Valve’s tradition of telling stories without cutscenes, choosing instead to keep the player in control in a tightly restricted environment to give for the NPCs to finish their canned speeches. It does work well, thanks to decent writing, good voice acting and, as before, Valve’s impressive technology of enabling the NPCs to have realistic facial expressions. But the way the game keeps locking you in rooms that can only be unlocked by an NPC after finishing a speech does get a bit too transparent.
Continue reading Half-Life 2: Episode 1
Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow? No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No, says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God. No, says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone. I rejected these answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose RAPTURE.
– Andrew Ryan, founder of Rapture
Bioshock has been named by multiple sources as the best PC game of 2007, so it was some trepidation that I picked it up, hoping that all the hype wasn’t totally unfounded. As the much heralded spiritual successor of System Shock 2, also written by Ken Levine, Bioshock has always had a lot to live up to, and judging at least by its unexpected commercial success and the near universal acclaim of game critics, it has largely succeeded at that. To me, there’s no question that Bioshock is a pretty much a unique gem, there’s nothing else quite like it in the market, but at the same time, I’m painfully aware that a lot of the hype is undeserved and the thought of what Bioshock could have been, if the designers had just been a little more ambitious and daring, is positively agonizing.
That Bioshock is a triumph of aesthetic design and storytelling goes without question. The opening FMV of the protagonist sitting in a plane, reading a mysterious handwritten message, segues seamlessly into the first scene as the player takes control of the sole survivor of a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Flames rage on the surface of the ocean as you, confused and exhausted, swim through a gap in the burning debris of the plane to the shelter of a lighthouse that stands, incongruously, on a lonely rock in the middle of nowhere. You push through the gilded double doors and suddenly it’s like walking into a different world. A banner proclaims, “No Gods, No Kings. Only Man”. Music wafts in from an unseen source. Plaques on the walls valourize the virtues of “Art”, “Science” and “Industry”. The grand stairs lead down to a roughly spherical pod sitting in a small pool of water, a bathysphere. You step inside, because there’s nowhere else to go. Then you settle in your seat as it takes you to the bottom of the ocean. The year is 1960. Welcome to Rapture.
Continue reading A Game: Bioshock
Quartertothree regular and EA producer Jim Preston tackled this very question recently in a thoughtful essay on Gamasutra that’s worth reading both for anyone seriously interested in video games and the question of what constitutes art. He claims to have been inspired by two things: freelance game reviewer Tom Chick’s review of Bioshock which answered the question simply by saying, “Games are this” and renowned film critic Roger Ebert’s review of the recent Hitman film (based on the video game series of the same name) in which he boldly claims that video games will never become an art form.
You really do need to read the full essay to appreciate it, but Preston basically argues that it’s pointless for video games to aspire to the status of Great Art as it is popularly conceived through the process of reasoned debate. Instead, he argues that things become art by gradually sublimating into the consciousness of the mainstream and acquiring a revered status in the minds of the people who like it. Eventually, the people who do like it will place it in a context, as in a museum or a concert hall, in which it becomes publicly acknowledged as art.
The importance of context towards interpreting whether or not something is art is reinforced in an intriguing story that Preston references. On the morning of January 12 2007, the Washington Post organized a little experiment. They arranged for Joshua Bell, one of the greatest living violinists in the world, to play six classical pieces representing perhaps the greatest musical achievements in Western culture on his invaluable 1714 Stradivarius violin in the L’Enfant Plaza metro station in Washington for 43 minutes. Hidden cameras and reporters for the Post carefully recorded the reactions of the passersby of the morning rush hour. Out of the 1,097 people who walked by during that time, only two people truly recognized the quality of what they heard and only a handful of others stopped what they were doing for a few moments to listen. Bell earned a total of $32.17 in tips, excluding another $20.00 from the one person who recognized him. The irony of course, as Preston intended to point out, is that Bell is the kind of performer who can earn $1,000 a minute by playing in the right context to the right audience.
Who wouldn’t love a game called Off-Road Velociraptor Safari? Not long ago, I blogged about how sophisticated Flash games were getting and how much gameplay they could offer even when restricted to being 2D. Well, the folks at FlashBang Studios have done one better and created a simple but fun 3D game that runs right on your browser. You do need to install the Unity Web Player application that allows 3D browser-based applications and, being a 3D game, you’ll probably want to run it on a computer with at least an entry-level video card for acceptable performance, but you’ll soon be driving around in your off-road vehicle running down and gathering poor velociraptors for points.
Its graphics are serviceable if not terribly impressive, but there’s a simple physics and vehicle damage modelling system and practically anything that you do, from doing stunts to causing damage to your jeep can earn you bonus points. All in all, a nifty little game to liven up an afternoon at work. Of special note is that the velociraptors in the game are portrayed not as the scaly lizards of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, but as the feathered ancestors of birds that the current scientific consensus thinks they are. Which in the game, means that you end up chasing what looks like spiny thin, colourful chickens more than anything else.
Half-Life 2 is a 4 year old game at this point and already a classic of the genre, so writing a conventional review of it would be pointless. But I’ve just spent the past week playing it for the first time, so I thought it would be interesting to write about my impressions on it as someone who’s played most of the current crop of modern FPS games. Technologically of course, Half-Life 2 can’t hold a candle to its successors. 4 years is after all a long time in the computer industry, and the latest graphics engines put the Source engine to shame (even the Source-engine powered Portal, new and innovative as it is, looks somewhat bland compared to current games). But overall the game still looks good enough that playing through it didn’t feel painful (unlike say, when I tried to replay Aliens vs. Predator 2 a couple of years ago) and the game’s many strengths more than made up for it.
One of my first surprises was how long the game felt compared to more recent shooters. I find that most modern shooters these days can be finished in three or four evenings of dedicated playing, but Half-Life 2 sprawling tale stretched out for the most part of a week for me and took me into a variety of locales and situations that most other shooters can’t match either. Another factor that added to its length are the storytelling sequences. Half-Life 2 has no cutscenes per se since the entire story is told strictly from Gordon Freeman’s perspective without any temporal jumps from the player’s point of view. But the story is advanced in a number of scenes which are only minimally interactive in which other characters hold lengthy dialogues with one another in Freeman’s presence. These are worth hearing alone because they show off one of the strengths of the Source engine that is still valid even today: the facial expressiveness of characters animated in the Source engine but they’re not skippable and do add to the overall length.
Continue reading A Half-Life 2 Retrospective
The gaming world has been lit abuzz by a fiery editorial piece by conservative writer Kay Hymowitz entitled “Child-Man in the Promised Land” that appeared in City Journal and was featured on National Public Radio in the U.S. You can read a reply to her editorial on Gaming Today here. Hymowitz’s basic point is that men today don’t grow up. Whereas the previous generation used to leave school, get a stable job, marry a wife and raise children in his own house, men today tend to drift through life aimlessly and refuse to commit to marriage, and are often still living with their parents even well into their 30s. To her, the phenomenon of adult men playing video games, the biggest segment of gamers are men between the ages of 18 and 34 she cites, is the perfect symbol of the child-man.
The blatant sexism of the entire article is disgusting. As one commenter to the article in Gaming Today put it, if Hymowitz had been a man and talked about women in the way she talks about men, it would have been impossible for her to keep her job in the United States. For example, she writes, “Single women in their twenties and early thirties are joining an international New Girl Order, hyperachieving in both school and an increasingly female-friendly workplace, while packing leisure hours with shopping, travelling, and dining with friends. Single Young Males, or SYMs, by contrast, often seem to hang out in a playground of drinking, hooking up, playing Halo 3, and, in many cases, underachieving.” Why is it that women spending their leisure hours shopping, travelling, and dining with friends is perfectly okay while men spending their leisure hours drinking, socializing and playing video games is a sign of their immaturity?
Continue reading The Child-Man
As you can see, my copy of The Orange Box is finally here. I’d actually ordered it a couple of months back from PCGame.com.my to be delivered to my wife’s house so that she could get it from her parents when they visited Australia. Unfortunately, when I tried activating it, I got an error message about how my license key is only valid for Russia and surrounding territories. I suppose that the Russia part is some mistake by Valve, and in any case, it clearly says on my box that this copy is only valid for Brunei, Cambodia, Indonedia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam and the Solomon Islands is not in this list.
Continue reading My Orange Box