So, now that I got a bit into HL2, more precisely I’m at the second stop in the airboat levels, I’ve had the joy of confirming all my prejudices. Not that I hadn’t played the game before, but now it’s mine and I feel I have the right to make fun of it.
Half-Life 2 is probably the best example right now of an unrealistic game which is just hella fun. You are Gordon Freeman. Congrats. You have a degree from MIT, so you’re a little clever, but also geeky. You’ve never held a weapon in your hands before. But then you unknowingly open a portal to another planet full of aliens who want to invade Earth. Immediately, you pick up a crowbar and fend off a bunch of nasty little critters who’ve killed many of your colleagues. From this point on, your story is just one big escape through a hellishly big and intricate research facility where nearly everybody wants to kill you including the American military and special forces and tons of big scary aliens. But that’s okay, because every time you pick up a weapon you instantly become an expert in its use (even if it’s some sort of experimental arc welder) and you can run freakishly fast while shooting without actually losing your aim, no problem.
You are the goddamn hero. And even though you have no vocal cords, you can still kick ass.
Okay, so that was actually the first game. But don’t think the second game is different. You’ve now left this micro-universe that the Black Mesa facilities constituted and you’re in City 17. You’ve been in stasis for a long time, but now you’re back to save the world as well as your own ass. From the moment you’re teleported out of stasis and into a train car, about 5 minutes pass before you start running. Then you reach a safe haven and you get some nice gear, and then you enter a teleporter which is messed up by an accident just as you’re about to leave, and then you’re some weird place where people want to shoot you. The sensible thing? Run. I can’t begin to describe how much running is in this game! And I thought you ran a lot in the first one! Thankfully Gordon Freeman never gets tired though, and this time you can even use a couple of different vehicles along the way to go even FASTER than you could by foot. Clearly Valve just decided to ignore the cerebral functions of their players in favour of their abilities to move as fast as possible down a pre-determined path.
But it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun. And for me, it just survives on being loads of fun. Just shooting people is fun, sadistic as it may sound. Put a couple of bullets in a guy’s head, blood splatters the wall behind him and he collapses in a very realistic manner with a satisfying groan. Throw a couple of grenades at some enemies who have barricaded themselves, and their barricades will be blown into small bits and hurled away from the blast along with the lifeless bodies of your enemies. The weapons sound and feel satisfying to fire, and the puzzles are even kinda fun. The main positive thing I can say about the HL2 puzzles is that they don’t break the illusion – they’ve been designed almost exclusively using the physics engine (rather than pulling levers in the right order like in the first Half-Life) and it’s generally pretty obvious what you have to do. And when it’s not so obvious, it still seems realistic – like when you find the busted controls for a gate you must pass, and you shoot a couple of explosive barrels near where a large metal bar has been tied to a wall: The line breaks in the explosion and the metal bar swings forward and demolishes the gates in a VERY lovely way. It feels good to do that.
The main weakness of HL2 is the extreme linearity. You never really think about why you’re going where, you just go down the path the developers have so obviously laid out for you. And you always do what you’re told. Unlike my favourite first-person game, Deus Ex, where you really consider what you’re doing, and you sometimes just don’t do what you’re told. Like when I got so tired of my partner that I turned around and shot her in the face while she was trying to make me execute an unarmed prisoner: The game hadn’t told me I could kill her at that point, I just wanted to shut the bitch up, and the game adapted to it and continued from there without that character in the story but with several other characters remarking upon her death. THAT was cool. Half-Life 2 has lots of neat things happening, but they will always happen, you’re not choosing to do these things, it’s not YOUR amazingly creative idea to break that line so the metal bar destroys the gate, it’s the idea of the guy who made that level. And to me, that makes it a little less exciting. Not a lot, but enough that it matters.
Also, I fucking hate zombies.