Time to play?

(October 29, 2007)

After a few rather uneventful years, this autumn is a very hot season for PC gamers, with some very long awaited (and hyped!) first-person shooters coming out or having come out. The multiplayer folks will get their share with Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Unreal Tournament 3 and Team Fortress 2, but I don’t care about them. I play singleplayer games only, so BioShock, Crysis and the rest of Valve’s Orange Box (namely Portal and the complete Half-Life 2 saga, including Episode One and Episode Two) are much more interesting to me. I purchased The Orange Box and played the demo versions of BioShock and Crysis, and unfortunately, I have to say that I’m not as happy as I expected to be.

Portal

After buying The Orange Box and going through the three hour(!) installation procedure, the first thing I did is playing Portal. I bought the box mainly because of Half-Life 2 Episode Two (HL2E2), but reviews and blogs said that Portal is interesting, short and fun, so I gave it a try first. Indeed the game is very short: It took me one evening to finish it (with a little help from by brothers, I must admit), but these few hours were pure fun. The puzzles are demanding, but not unsolvable. The progression is also very cleverly made up and contains some surprises: After 10 minutes, I thought that the game can’t possibly be longer than one hour; after two hours, I thought I was at the end, only to find out that I barely passed the first half of the game. However, what makes the game really special is the strange humour that lasts all the way through, including the probably most original credits sequence ever to be seen in a video game. I don’t want to go into details here, because every additional detail could either be read in reviews, would be a spoiler, or both. Just let me conclude that this game is clearly a must-have.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

After that, I played Half-Life 2 once again (I didn’t play it for two years, which is a shame :) before I came to the part that was most awaited, at least by me: HL2E2. Unfortunately, the game didn’t fully match my expectations. It seems that the HL2 episodes get worse with every installment. I’m not going to say that they’re bad, though: The episodes are still excellent games, and I’d always prefer them to almost any other FPS, but they increasingly move away from the original HL2’s level of perfection. In particular, I have three gripes with HL2E2.

The first and least important one is the constant presence of escort/protect/guard-type missions. I admit that these quests increase the level of immersion and atmosphere – but on the other hand, in a FPS game, it’s hard enough to take care of myself, so I’m not happy about watching out for a bunch of NPCs, too. For comparison, Half-Life 1 had exactly one such mission, and that involved an escord through an area that has been previously cleared of any resistance. In HL2, most NPCs were expendable, and there’s only one hard protect-Alyx-type mission. In HL2E1, Alyx already was a nearly permanent companion, and in HL2E2, it’s either Alyx, a vortigaunt, or both. Fortunately, the important NPCs are nearly invulnerable, so they don’t die constantly (in fact, this never happened to me), but having them around nevertheless keeps me permanently worried.

The second grief is that there are parts in the game where the player is in a constant hurry. Chase sequences are an important element in games like these, but it’s important to have some balance: There need to be places to rest, and the player should not get the impression that he/she misses something by rushing through an area. These rules are violated in a minutes-long helicopter-chases-car sequence midway in the game, for example. There’s no cover and during the chase, several kilometers of landscape are cruised through, leaving most of the area unexplored. This didn’t happen in HL2 and Episode One.

The greatest problem, however, is that the games are becoming more and more unfair. In HL2E1, the notorious elevator sequence made a lot of players surrender – or use god mode. In HL2E2, however, the (seemingly) never-ending base protect mission is so hard and unfair that not even cheats will help. It takes place in a large and complex area where Gordon Freeman has to defeat around 20 hunters and 10 striders (I didn’t count them … I guess nobody outside of Valve ever did: while playing this sequence, you got better things to do than count your foes). A new kind of weapon allows for easy (i.e. single-shot) destruction of the striders, but these weapons are increasingly hard to get, because the striders destroy almost all the supply stations. (Which, by the way, looks absolutely gorgeous – but only in trailers. In real gameplay, you probably won’t see that because you’re usually busy with other stuff then.) To put it short, Valve messed up. Up to and including HL2, one of their hallmarks was perfectly balanced gameplay, but they totally jeopardized it with this incident. I admit that I’m a very bad gamer (I don’t play anything without god mode!), but failing after 10 minutes of ultra-hectic best-effort action – I’ve already been warned that it’s not going to be a walk in the park, so I didn’t even dare to play it slowly – with three striders still left, that’s too much. Halfway through the battle, there’s a point when it looks like everything is over. It better had been so.
Let’s hope that Valve fixes it with an update, as they did with the elevator battle incident in HL2E1.

BioShock

Another game that has recently been released with a great amount of hype is BioShock. I was reluctant to buy it or even try the demo because of the unreasonable copy protection, but then I decided that the Vista installation on my notebook is unimportant enough to allow for such DRM contamination. As it turned out, it was the right decision not to buy the game, because its qualities are much more hype than reality. Slightly better graphics than the usual game (though at a massively lower framerate), a few minor gameplay innovations, but other than that, it’s rather bland. Most people like the weird mix of 1960s style and science-fiction that the game it set in, but sorry, it just doesn’t work for me. It’s just too farfetched – one of my all-time favourite FPS, No One Lives Forever 2, does basically the same thing, but in a completely satirical and funny way. BioShock, however, is dead serious. So serious indeed, that even the ridiculousness of the setting doesn’t come to effect. Sorry, but that’s just not my cup of tea. Moreover, the complete game seems to play in the same underwater city, which cries for an utter lack of diversity – and diversity is very important for me.

Crysis

Maybe the most eagerly awaited game this year, Crysis seems to be for the 2000s what Quake has been for the 1990s: A graphical breakthrough, wrapped in a mediocre game. Running at roughly the same framerates as BioShock (read: 10-20 fps at 1280×800 on a GeForce 8600M GT), it really delivers next-gen graphics. Even though I only witnessed the medium detail level, it’s already so good that in some cutscenes, I thought for a split second that they’re in fact playing a video :)

If only the same could be said for the game itself. But instead, it seems to be your average off-the-shelf military-centric shooter, except that it has excessively complex controls and an extremely exaggerated difficulty level. They’re using about half of the alphanumeric keyboard in the default configuration, not to mention the countless in-game HUD menus and settings. Even though (or because of?) all that high-tech stuff, playability is close to zero. The demo mission is said to be the first mission of the final game, and I didn’t stand 2 minutes before dying the first time, and 10 minutes until the point I just can’t get past because I get killed every time. And that’s on “easy” difficulty. In the first level! I mean, “Far Cry” (Crytek’s previous game) was hard, but this one is certainly over the top.

Conclusion

The sad conclusion is: Of all the games and demos I played in the last two weeks, good old Half-Life 2 is still the one that was most fun. This is closely followed by Portal, whose only flaw is its shortness – but on the other hand, I doubt that a longer version would actually have been more fun. Half-Life 2: Episode Two suffers from a few minor problems (and a major one), but overall, it’s still a great game.

BioShock and Crysis are hard to conclude on. My personal taste is quite to the disadvantage of BioShock, but I could imagine playing it, as long as I don’t have to pay for it. Crysis is likely to be boring, but if a working invulnerability cheat is out, I will perhaps have a look at it just because of the graphics.

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