Saturday, October 13, 2007

Testing Posting from Microsoft Word

Supposedly you can post from directly within Word now, so that's what this is! Neat!

Why I Love Half-Life

The latest installment in the amazing Half-Life series is out as part of The Orange Box from Valve. Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is the continuation of the story from Half-Life 2: Episode 1, which was a continuation of Half-Life 2. Silly naming convention, but the games are awesome.

I love how the games have the consistent goal of making you feel as if you're in your own action movie. What makes this work for me is the perfect choices they make in where to put music. All the games have these memorable moments in particular that stand out because of the awesome action music that starts at just the right time. In HL1 it was your first firefight with the soldiers. In HL2 it was the beach assault on Nova Prospekt right after you gain control of the antlions. In Ep1 it was when you and Alyx mow down zombies with shotguns in the hospital. In Ep2 it's the final part of the turret vs. antlion battle when the Vortigaunts show up. I love the more traditional scores from many games such as Elder Scrolls and Halo, but Half-Life's sparingly placed techno beats elevate those moments to true action hero awesomeness.

The various sounds are part of the experience. When I heard the suit's Geiger counter go off in this latest episode, a big grin appeared on my face. The weapon sounds are instantly recognizable, as are many of the voice actors and other sound effects. The Halo games have many familiar sounds throughout, but they don't give me that warm fuzzy feeling that Half-Life does. I don't know if that was intentional or not, but it works wonderfully in my case.

So overall I guess a big part of what makes Half-Life such a favorite of mine is the audio experience. You can tell that they've spent a lot of time on that portion of the game.

The other part of what makes these games amazing are the characters. Valve has spent a considerable amount of time on the AI and character animations for the people who accompany you through the Half-Life 2 saga. They also have amazing voice actors to give life to these characters. The original Half-Life had pretty good enemy AI for the time, but nobody accompanied you throughout the game. Through all of the Half-Life 2 games, there are recurring characters that you grow to care about. In Episode 1 especially, the character of Alyx is the best AI companion I've ever had in a game. She's written very well, and is genuinely helpful when battle hordes of zombies and soldiers. After a rather horrifying experience, she stops and almost breaks down. It made want to give her a hug and tell her everything will be fine. No other game has made me emotionally invested in my AI companions. The other characters are also interesting, and while not all of them are likable, they're all memorable. Episode 2 has at least two gut wrenching scenes involving these characters.

Anybody who calls themselves a gamer needs to play these games.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Teh Haloz 3

Well that was an incredibly short lived streak. Oh well.

I finished Halo 3 today, a little over a week after getting it. This time I played on Heroic difficulty, and it was challenging but overall a fun experience. It was definitely more of the same, but that didn't bother me. There were new weapons that took some getting used to but nothing that really surprising. Story spoilers now commencing...

Storywise, the trilogy was wrapped up pretty well. There were many nice nods to the first game that made me glad to have played it instead of just jumping in to this first one. The first two games had you stopping Halo rings from firing, which would have wiped out all sentient life in the galaxy. This game finally let a ring fire, though it had a much more localized effect. You're finally able to kill a robotic being from the first and second game who alternately helps and hinders you throughout all the games. The grizzled sergeant finally meets his end. The Flood is stopped, and the Covenant defeated. Pretty much every story thread was dealt with in some fashion.

Some of the problems still remain. Backtracking still makes a few appearances, and once again there are few audio options, so it's easy to miss dialog while playing. There are subtitles during cutscenes, at least. The difficulty level fluctuated pretty wildly at times. Some areas were a breeze, even on Heroic, while some areas were incredibly tough. During these parts I got the sense that these had been designed to play through on Coop as opposed to single player. In the last third of the game there are two massive battle tanks called Scarabs that you have to take down. This took many tries and I was only able to beat it through a great stroke of luck. It would have been much easier if I had had even one person playing with me. Having a full team of four players would have been a breeze.

I'm not sure what else to say about it. It was fun, which is the most important thing. I hope that I can play through it on Coop one day, but I doubt that'll happen.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Teh Haloz 2

As of tonight I'm three for three in my contiguous days of writing goal.

My overall feeling toward Halo by the time I was finished playing was that it felt like work. It did have some good things about it, but I doubt I'll ever pick it up again. Once I was finished with that, it was time to move on to Halo 2.

My first reaction to Halo 2 was that the graphics were MUCH better than the original. I've always found it fascinating that when a new console comes out, the graphics on the first generation of games for that system often don't look much better than the latest offerings on the previous console. However, if you jump ahead a few years and see how the games are looking, you'll see that there is an enormous leap in quality and overall graphical shininess. Developers just need the time to figure out how to unlock all that power. Halo 2 proved this handily.

The biggest difference I noticed right away was the introduction of dual wielding. One handed weapons could now be held in both hands, instantly doubling your firepower. The trade off is that you're unable to use grenades. I had trouble adjusting to using both triggers on the controller to fire, so after a short time i gave up using it and switch to the tried and true weapon and grenade formula from the first game. I was forced to switch back to dual wielding at the first boss battle. An enemy on a jetpack flits around a large room while two holographic copies do the same. The problem with the copies is that they do just as much damage as the real one. After several tries I realized that I simply wasn't doing enough damage in the time I had. Plus, the enemies were also dual wielding and were doing too much damage to me in a short time. After deciding to dual wield myself, it took a few more tries before I was successful. Once a new race of enemies called the Brutes were introduced I found myself using dual wielding again much more often. The Brutes soaked up bullets like a sponge and there weren't enough grenades to go around for everyone, so dual plasma rifles became my preferred method of exterminating them once i ran out of explosives.

The second, and biggest, change from the first game is that the story switch perspectives between the Master Chief and a character known as the Arbiter. The Arbiter is a member of one of the Covenant races that you spent the first game slaughtering. The story of Halo 2 is more complex than in the first game, and much of this is accomplished by the fact that you now see the enemy Covenant from their own point of view. The Arbiter and his race are eventually betrayed by the Covenant's leaders and end up joining human forces. While this made the story of Halo 2 more interesting to me than Halo's, the story broke down near the end. The perspective switched suddenly back and forth between the characters and I had trouble knowing where exactly I was. The Arbiter levels were actually easier to follow than the Master Chief's. In the last third of the game I thought that the Master Chief and the Arbiter were on different parts of the Halo ring world. Later, through Wikipedia, I found that the Master Chief was actually on a Covenant city-ship. The levels at the end finished abruptly and felt like there was more to do than I got to play. Then there was the sudden end to the game itself. This didn't bother me much because Halo 3 was of course coming out the next week, but I can see why people playing it when it came out would be upset. The game didn't end, so much as just stop.

Playing the Arbiter was fun at first, but I soon came to dread the levels played as him because they usually involved fighting the Flood. It was obvious that they weren't as hard as the first game, but they were still a downright annoying enemy to have to deal with. It wasn't until late in the game that Master Chief had the (dis)pleasure of dealing with the Flood. The one good thing about these levels is that the Arbiter had a kick ass energy sword that dispatched swift death to the Flood, and all other enemies as well. It almost made up for the frustration of dealing with them in the first game.

The first level of the game was surprisingly tough, but overall the game felt easier than the first. I was playing on Normal difficulty, and it brought back the satisfaction that I had been missing while playing Halo on Easy. The challenge was there, and there were parts where I got stuck, but it once again felt fair. There WAS a way to get through the tough battles as long as you had the skill and didn't mess up. It wasn't just luck that was propelling you through the tough parts. There were new weapons to master and each had their tradeoffs. I often found myself returning to old favorites from the first game, but I found uses for just about all of them.

There was much less copy/paste level design in this game than in the first one, though it was still there in spots. It had few open areas for the kind of open ended "arena" type battles that the first game had. Hallways leading to rooms leading to hallways seemed to be the more prevalent level design choice in this game. There was more variety to the levels though, and for the most part I didn't find myself getting bored with each level like in the first game.

Overall I had more fun in Halo 2 than Halo. I'm apparently in the minority, but the improved graphics, variety in levels, switch in perspectives, new weapons, and tweaked difficulty level all combined to make Halo 2 an overall better experience for me. Except for the storytelling, just about every aspect of the game was an improvement on its predecessor.

I think I've decided to hold off on talking about Halo 3 until I actually finish it. So.. until next time.....

Monday, October 1, 2007

Teh Haloz

I'm going to try to write something here every day if I can, even if I'm not feeling particularly inspired to do so. I figured I'd start with my limited experience with the Halo craze that has been rekindled with the release of the third installment.

I bought my Xbox 360 in December 2005, about a month after it launched. It was my first console since the Sega Genesis. In the couple of years before buying it, I had begun to get more interested in computer games and had built a high end gaming PC. I had also started reading various gaming websites like Joystiq and Shacknews. Information about the new Xbox was starting to come out and I closely followed all of it. This was more because of the constant flow news about it rather than any great interest on my part. The Wii and Playstation 3 were still a year away from release.

Between my time with the Genesis and 360, my time with game consoles was mostly limited to kiosks in stores and occasional encounters with friends' consoles. I missed out on the Dreamcast, Saturn, N64, Playstation 1 and 2, Gamecube, and the original Xbox. When Super Mario 64 came out with its newfangled three dimensional graphics, I had a very hard time figuring out the controls when I tried the game in stores. My first "real" experience with a console since the Genesis was when my boss let me borrow his Xbox, along with the game Halo.

I of course knew about Halo. It was Microsoft's flagship title for the Xbox. I suffered through the massive hype train that steamrolled through everything for the launch of Halo 2. The first day sales statistics for Halo 2 ($125 million!!) were burned into my brain simply because I read it everywhere. It was largely irrelevant to me though because I didn't own an Xbox and had no particular desire to.

One day, for reasons I don't remember, my boss brought in his Xbox that he had bought for his grandson. During lunch a group of us hooked it up to a projector and took turns playing. My boss told me he had never gotten comfortable with the controls, and as I attempted to play I could understand why. I had spent the past few years playing first person shooters on the PC with a keyboard and mouse. Playing with two analog sticks on a handheld controller was like trying to learn a foreign language. Despite that, I managed to have fun, and asked to borrow the Xbox for the night. That night saw several hours of me struggling to get comfortable with the controls and fighting for my life against hordes of aliens bent on my destruction. It wasn't anything life changing for me, but it was fun. Fun is the important thing, after all.

In December 2005 I found that the hype about the Xbox 360 had won me over. The games looked fun and the features of the console itself were cool, so I found myself at the local Best Buy three hours before it opened so I could secure myself a place in line. They had 15 available that morning, and I was number 8 in line. I believe I walked out with Call of Duty 2 and Kameo: Elements of Power as my first steps into the next-gen video game world. A few months later I had finished with those games and was smack in the middle of the post-launch release draught. There being nothing else I was interested in at the moment, I decided I may as well pick up Halo. It felt like one of those games that you have to have if you own an Xbox. Halo's Master Chief is to Microsoft what Mario is to Nintendo, for better or worse.

I began playing from the beginning again. It was still fun, but as I got farther in the game I found myself not being pulled in as much as I had hoped. Everything about the game felt solid and the battles were satisfying, but I didn't spend moments at work or in the shower thinking about the game. Around this time I believe Oblivion came out and promptly grabbed hold of all of my gaming time. Around a year later I picked Halo up again from where I left off and got far enough to run into the infamous repetitive copy/paste level design. I didn't get too worked up about it but it was painfully obvious. The build-up to the Flood was well done. Seeing the bodies of alien enemies piled up in a hallway with their bright blue blood smeared all over the walls, then watching the recording of the human marines vainly try to fight this new enemy was a highlight of the game. Eventually, though, I began to reach a painful conclusion: fighting the Flood was not fun. The tiny small forms that swarmed you were annoying, the exploding form that spewed the aformentioned tiny forms were aggravating because the explosions killed me instantly, and the melee fighters were frustrating because they moved fast and did an incredible amount of damage.

Before the Flood showed up I had been fighting the alien Covenant forces. The comical Grunts, quick Elites, and shielded Jackals complemented each other with their different fighting styles. Battles were intense but immensely satisfying in victory. Tossing plasma grenades and using the Covenant's own plasma rifles in open ended battles was a visceral experience, and while I tended to die often I never got frustrated or felt like the game was being unfair. Battles never played out the same way twice in replays because the enemy AI was generally very good. The Flood, however, felt like dumb pixels whose only advantage was sheer numbers. They swarmed in vast numbers and the game got to the point where it lost the Fun. I set it down.

Fast forward to about a month ago. The Halo 3 hype was (and still is) at full steam. Having just finished BioShock and having no other games to occupy my attention, I decided to once again see what the fuss was about. I started from the beginning again but blew through it on the easiest difficulty. I noticed that the battles were far less satisfying. They were too easy. The Flood were more manageable but were still aggravating. As I got further in the game the cookie cutter level design became even more prevalant. Overall the game just felt like work on this playthrough. I did finish though. I made a more conscious effort to follow the story, but the game didn't do a very good job of telling it. I got the gist though.

This is taking far longer to write than I thought, so I will continue tomorrow. Halo 2 and 3 will be discussed!
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