Thursday, September 21, 2006

Half Life 2: 11 hours and Game Over

After now 11 hours, maybe a bit more due to frequent die&reload cycles, Half Life 2 is now finally over. The good news, it had some more nice in-game cutscenes. Running around with Alyx through Nova Prospekt was somewhat fun, so was controlling the Antlions, who obviously where heavily insprited by Starship Troopers.

One thing that Half Life 2 really got right where those in-game cutscene, the lack of speech from Gordon was much less problematic then I had imagined, due to the fact that most of the actual interaction happens between different NPCs and not NPCs and Gordon. Most of the time he simply stands there to observe and doesn't have anything todo. One nice aspect of those cutscenes, and basically the whole game, is that they feel pretty realistic, its not some spectacular special effects fest, but for most part simply NPC interacting with each other in a normal manner.

However Half Life 2 also had a ton of negative sides. First of all there simply were far to few of those in-game cutscenes, most of the time one simply was alone had to see how to find the way, since there only is one way, that however wasn't that difficult. The lack of cutscenes was especially problematic since the game is virtually purposeless, sure, tons of characters run around and talk every now and then, but almost never in the whole game does one get a clear mission to accomplished, its just run around and shoot stuff for most of the time, without even knowing why or how or anything. So Gordon did blow up the Cytadel, but why? Why did it came from? Who are the Combine, those other Aliens that the Combine fight every now and who are the Vortigaunt, who seem to be friendly? None of that is ever answered in the game to a satisfying amount.

Now to something more technical, while the AI presented by the game was enough to make Antlions believable, it totally failed with the human squad members. Keeping those together required far more effort then it was worth it. If you don't keep constantly track of them they will die very quickly and they will do whatever they can to run into every obvious danger. Every now and then they actually tried to dodge an attack, but more most part with little success. While having characters completly invulnurable like Alyx and Barney might not be such a good idea either, NPCs should at least be able to dogde very simple predictable attacks (ie. sniper, that beam in front of the Cytadel), the way it is those NPCs really caused a heck of a lot frustration and annoyancy.

Now to the controls, while this might be specific to the XBox version, it annoyed alot. Most of the weapons don't make use of secondary fire, which means that the button is for most part wasted. Instead of mapping a button to the crowbar or to granate throw or let the user decide it, its wasted for a function thats hardly ever used. This is problematic since there are tons of situation where that forces one to either try to change weapons extremly fast or simply ignore some of the available weapons, granates for example are simply useless, since one can't access them quickly enough.

So now to the conclusion, for most part Half Life 2 did hold up to my expectations, which however weren't very high to begin with. The start of the game is certainly great and athmospheric and every few hours into the game there will come another short sequences that looks great. Alyx is very well done and an interesting character to interact with, but most of the game is really more annoying then enjoyable, since the gameplay is just way to outdated to suprise these days. It feels like been there done that, sure, this time it might look a little prettier then usual, but shooting everything that moves really doesn't get any more interesting over the years. Squad control was also rather catastrophic, which did its job to ruin some of the remaining fun. The linearity of the game is also rather awefull, since it ensures that one never gets a feel for the environment, one never knows what one is doing, but simply followes the preset path. Especially in the squad section this annoys, since instead of thinking how to best attack a Strider and doing some tacticts, its just run&gun, your squad will be dead in a few seconds anyway, so you can simply forget about them right from the start. Games with a more free environment (DeusEx, Operation Flashpoint) can produce much more interesting and exciting fights then those experinced in Half Life 2. When it comes to gameplay Half Life 2 was really far more flash then substance. One of the biggest downpoints of the game is however the ending, instead of presenting anything close to an ending cutscene, the game simply ends once the Cytadel is destroyed, it ends right on that spot, literally, you don't even get to see the destruction take place, time freezes, G-Man comes says some meaningless words which have pretty much nothing todo with the rest of the game, then credits roll. This is really one of the worst endings I have seen in a long while in video gaming, especially in such an otherwise polished game.

All in all Half Life 2 was an ok game, thanks to its linerity its a game that you can easily pick up and run through without ever having to think for a second, as long as you keep your health up there is really nothing you can do wrong. For most part Half Life 2 is however a pretty unoriginal game, well polished for sure, but the core is as unoriginal as it can get. If you have played Half Life 1 you pretty much know what to expect, since beside some prettier in-game cutscenes, nothing has changed much. If you are looking for a game that pushes some fresh wind into the FPS genre go and look elsewhere, Operation Flashpoint or Riddick would be some for example, Half Life 2 is really just a pretty looking standard FPS, nothing more, nothing less.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Half Life 2 at minute 320

No more pretty cutscenes this time, instead a horrible bridge-climbing section. There is of course nothing wrong with climing over small pieces of metal, in Prince of Persia climbing around was always great fun, in Half Life 2 however it just becomes far too obvious that first person control hasn't really evolved at all in the last ten years. As mentioned earlier, you don't have legs, so you can't see where you are going, instead you have to trust that magical collision cylinder to not fall off at random points. Have I mentioned that that fine collision cylinder gets constantly stuck on edges and especially on objects that react to physics? Anyway, instead of having little balancing mini-games, you just steer your little cylinder around the course, die every now and then, quick&save often and sooner or later that torture is finally over. I wish first person game designers would finally take a hint and start to look what the rest of the gaming world is doing and not just implementing the same obsolete control schemes over and over again. It of course would also help if the level designers wouldn't create such braindead jump'n climb section...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

280 Minutes into Half Life 2

Another two hours into Half Life 2, gaming experince is still pretty much the same, only the nice memories of the beginning slowly starting to fade and what I am left with is standard Half Life 2 gameplay. Bevor entering Ravenholm the game however presented another nice in-game cutscene and I could play some ball with Dog, which was fun. But after that hell break lose and I was again on the run. Ravenholm was again not really interesting, the develpers tried to do something scary but for most part those people with facehuggers on their head look more funny then scary. The level design itself was also not very good, to many blocked ways, to few freedom and a crazy priest that visits you every now and then, no feelings of being alone in a city with monsters ever evolved.

After through the darkness of Ravenholme it was finally time to drive the buggy, which however isn't exactly much fun, as that water scooter bevore the controls are so so, the gun makes annoying sounds and every now and then the thing goes belly up so one has to get it back on its wheels by some gravity gun shooting. Turning vehicle around in Halo felt a lot more convincing than this gravity gun shooting. Level design is pretty much the same as with the scooter so far, drive a bit, halt, shoot enemies, press switch, continue repeat.

So first almost 5 hours into the game, the not so positive overall impression still holds. Except the cutscenes, which sadly there are really few of, the game doesn't really have much to offer. On the plus side of course its a pretty linear game, so you can't get lost that easily and your brain isn't much required either, but with level design, that even with physics enigne and all the cool stuff still feels like anno 1996 it just isn't really fun. Just because you no longer have red keys for opening red doors, doesn't mean that pushing buttons to open doors is any more interesting.

Last not least some comment about the story: So far there simply isn't really one, a lot of running away from evil enemies, but thats mostly it. Gordon so far really didn't had anything meaningfull to do.

Monday, September 18, 2006

120min of Half Life 2

I finally managed to get a copy of Half Life 2, little late of course, anyway I have played the game now for around two hours so its time for a little review of what I have played so far. I am playing the XBox version of the game, which so far holds up reasonably well, the framerate is a bit low, but for most part one can accept it.

Ok, so lets talk about the game, first the good things, the beginning of the game, namely the first ~20mins are truely awesome, some of the most athmospheric and realistic moments I have seen in video game history. It really looks and feels like being in an oppressed city, feels a little bit like DeusEx. The behaviour of other characters is very believable and the dialog is good as well and even so Gorden doesn't say a word, as always, it this time fits the situations quite well, they even joke about it in the dialog. So all this is quite a bit of improvment over the Half Life 2 where playing a physicist in the first few minutes, while having absolutly no idea what the whole game was about really destroyed all athomsphere for me. That one doesn't have a energie bar those first few minutes only helps to immerse one into the athmosphere.

Those very athmospheric moments however don't hold on for to long, after some more dialog one hops into the HEV suit and the real game begins. Sadly it pretty much manages to destroy everything that was build up in the first few moments extremly quickly. Instead of continuing to providing an athmospheric environment, the game falls back to pretty standard 08/15 first-person-shooter gameplay, no big suprises, just standard run and shoot. The game continues with a ton of classic FPS faults, for one Gorden simply never uses his hands, wheels magically turn, barrels are lifted by magic, ledder climbing is done free handed and button pushing of course as well. It of course doesn't stop there, Gorden doesn't have legs either, just the standard flying gun and nothing else, feels like a direct throwback into 1996, a huge dissapointment. The controls also feel rather slugish, often one bounces into objects or gets stuck on edges, there were also some sections with slippery ground which controlled totally weird. The biggest downer however is the stupid level design, instead of presenting a believable world, the game provides a series of boring by-the-book gameplay situtions. If there is some Barnacle on the ceiling, there for sure is an exploding barrel near by. If there is a ramb to lift, there for sure are some conveniently placed barrels you can use to lift it near by. And so on, it feels totally fake and pointless, the whole game turns into run&shoot, then a short stop to solve a little stupid puzzle, then continue with run&shoot, repeat ad invinutum. Every now and then you run into a little hideout of some person that says a few meaningless words, but those hideouts are always placed just three meters away from the action, completly unbelievable and stupid. It of course doesn't help that the controls aren't that good either, this might be the fault of the console port, but having to manually switch weapons everytime one has to crack some piece of wood with the crowbar really ruins the immersion quite a bit, this is especially true since the secondary fire so far doesn't have any effect with any weapon. ResidentEvil4 and Halo did much better then that, since they made using the knife, kicking and granate throwing a single-button action, so you could simply use it when needed instead of being forced to wriggle around in the weapon menu.

The vehicle driving on water again, feels equally pointless, you drive, stop, do puzzle, continue to drive. The track itself doesn't even provide much challange and neither does the collision detection feel right, the Half Life 2 designers should have had a look at WaveRace on how to get water driving feel realistic and how to properly react to collisions. Oh, have I mention that Gordon again steers by the sole power of his mind? Really looks like he has a gravity gun build into his head...

Anyway, lets come to an end for this time. I only have played 120min so far, but except the excelent beginning, the game really disapointed for most part. The graphic is nice, the gameplay however is the very same that pretty much every other first person shooter in the last 10 years head, it might look a bit prettier then average, but graphics aside Half Life 2 doesn't really offer much.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Homebrew NintendoDS Development

I have spend the past week to get into homebrew NintendoDS development, went pretty well so far. The development environment in the form of devkitPro is solid and very easy to install, just untar, set two environment variables and you can start compiling NintendoDS software, some nice examples are provided as well.

Testing the NintendoDS software is a littel bit more tricky, so far I haven't found any NintendoDS emulator for GNU/Linux, some of the Windows ones however do work well under Wine. DeSmuME works the best for me closly followed by no$gba, the other in form of iDeas, ensata, Dualis and DSemu either failed to run under Wine or more likly simply failed to emulate the NintendoDS in a form that would make them usefull for testing (ie. either far to slow, completly screwed up display and such).

On development on the NintendoDS itself, its actually very easy, load a bit of graphics in some memory location here, set some bit flags there and more sooner then later you end up with something that looks already like half a game. One throuble however is the touchscreen, while easy to get basic coordinates, its extremly imprecise in the center, meaning your cursor will jump around like crazy unless you push quite hard on the touchscreen, some interpolation might help to remove those jitters, however havn't tested them yet.

Anyway, here two videos which show what I have done so far: