Cyberia: Aerial Combat

So, my latest session was all about the Rebel Assault-style FMV swoop-and-shoot. For a lengthy portion of the game, that’s all you get, just one air-combat mission after another. It makes me think of how the vehicle sections of Half-Life 2 were broken up with obstacles that you could only clear by getting out the the vehicle and pressing a switch or something in a guarded building nearby, a fragment of ordinary FPS gameplay inserted to make the whole thing less monotonous. Nothing of that kind happens here.

I have a couple more big complaints about the way air combat is handled here. One is that the underlying movie clip sometimes cuts away to show a third-person shot of a particularly dramatic explosion or your plane noninteractively executing a sweet maneuver, and that’s pretty much always a mistake in the middle of an action scene, particularly if there are still targets on the screen that the mini-cutscene is keeping the player from blowing up. Even worse, because some of these cutscenes show things that you can shoot at blowing up, there is no way to destroy those things before the video playback reaches the cutscene. You’ll be shooting at a plane over and over for a couple of seconds with no effect, and that’s frustrating.

Also, I can’t help but feel that this sort of fast-paced first-person air combat really needs a resolution higher than 320×200. Enemies often spend most of their time onscreen as one or two pixels, too small to identify even on the level of “is it a plane or a tank”, and thus too small for the player to anticipate their behavior or prioritize their destruction. Instead, we’re given the opportunity to learn what’s going to happen and how to react to it by means of exact repetition.

To be honest, there is a pleasure to be found in this: the pleasure of finally overcoming a challenge that you’ve failed many times, a mix of triumph and relief. But I’m impatient with this game, and want it off my Stack, and some of the levels just seem insanely difficult. And so I’ve dropped the difficulty down to Easy for action sequences (the game has separate difficulty settings for action and puzzles), despite the implication in the docs that this setting is for babies and grandmothers. Even on Easy, I had some difficulty with the later shooty levels, but the overall experience was an improvement, replacing the pleasure of overcoming a challenge failed repeatedly with that of getting it right on the first try. 

There was just one problem: the game doesn’t support switching difficulty settings on the fly. To drop down to Easy, you have to create a new profile and start over from the beginning. But I didn’t have a whole lot of ground to re-cover, and it goes a lot faster when you know what you’re doing. Also, I decided to take advantage of this discontinuity by switching to a different machine, and found that on the other one I could play full-screen without problems. I’m finding this much nicer, even if it does expose the pixelation more. Well, it’s not like the graphics were all that good anyway, right?

Anyway, I seem to be done with this stuff, at least for now. Last night, after something resembling a boss fight (involving a large aircraft with three weapons that had to be destroyed individually), I reached my destination, the compound housing the Cyberia project (which is something to do with nanotechnology), and that seemed like a good stopping-point for the session. It remains to be seen if I’ll need to do more dogfighting as I make my escape.

Faerie Solitaire: Final Thoughts

This has been a very busy time for me, as you might have guessed from my lack of posts. It isn’t really the case that I haven’t had time to play games, but I haven’t had time to play games and blog about them. And so I’ve got about a third of the new achievements in Half-Life 2, which I got off the Stack three years ago when it didn’t have achievements yet, and I’ve gotten maybe a quarter of the way into the latest Gemcraft sequel, Gemcraft Labyrinth, which isn’t on the Stack because I haven’t paid for it. Gemcraft Labyrinth is a game you can play it for free on the web, but certain optional features are locked until you pony up some dough, and the UI pointedly reminds you of this every time you begin or end a level, so it’s likely that I’ll break down and pay at some point.

Still, I can’t ignore the Stack completely, can I? And so I spent a little time this weekend polishing off the game I was closest to completing, Faerie Solitaire. There are still two Challenge levels that I’d like to complete at some point, and I’m missing enough of the fairy pets that I doubt I’ll ever bother to catch ’em all. 1Update: See the icon for the “collect each pet’s adult form” achievement (it’s at the very bottom). That does not describe me right now. (It’s still not clear to me if the eggs that the pets hatch from are granted at random, or if they’re under specific spots in specific levels. The latter would make hunting the last ones down more appealing.)

I don’t really have a lot to say about the game that I haven’t already said. The final levels didn’t reveal anything new or transform gameplay in any unexpected ways, especially considering that I had already purchased all the power-ups. When you finish the last level, you get to passively listen to the hero describe confronting an evil wizard, and then there’s a sequel hook. Which has got me speculating: what would I put in a sequel if it were up to me?

I’d want to elaborate on the game mechanics, obviously. I felt that the gameplay didn’t even really support a game of this length, so definitely I wouldn’t want to keep things the same in a sequel. Probably I’d try to figure out some way to make the layouts more relevant, less prone to devolving into a bunch of independent columns.

I’d want to do more with the pets. At the very least, I’d give them spot animations to make it seem more like you’re collecting creatures rather than portraits of creatures. Also, they’d be more interesting if your choice of current pet had some kind of effect on the game beyond bringing it closer to its adult form. Certain pets could give you bonus gold, for example, or turn additional cards face-up. Even if it’s undesirable for pets to affect the main game this way, they could at least affect the pet system: pets could make it more likely to find specific resources. There’s all sorts of unused potential here.

Finally, I’d want to give the fairies more of a voice in the story. Now, the story of Faerie Solitaire isn’t the most relevant part of the game. It’s pretty much just tacked on. But it’s tacked on poorly. We have all these fairy pets, we have constructions in Fairyland, we have cards with pictures on them, we have fairies as an ostensible unifying theme. I’d want to see this stuff become relevant in the story. In what we have, the story is instead about a journey to defeat an evil wizard, with fairies as a mere MacGuffin, not as characters. Fairies have the potential to guide the hero or trick him, to set quests, give hints, keep secrets, misunderstand your intentions, cast spells that help or hinder the player. Zanzarah, still the best fairy-themed videogame I’ve played, felt a lot more like a story about fairies, even though it didn’t do much more with them than Faerie Solitaire does — the fairies there are mainly treated as tools, not characters, and never really have agendas of their own. But at least it has wild fairies that attack you spontaneously, which makes them seem self-willed.

1 Update: See the icon for the “collect each pet’s adult form” achievement (it’s at the very bottom). That does not describe me right now.

Super Meat Boy: Following Trails

I played a little more SMB. I’m still stuck in Hell, but I managed to unlock another character: Ogmo, from the Jumper series. I recall trying one of the Jumper sequels a while back, probably Jumper 3 when it was featured on Play This Thing. It seemed a decent platformer, but I wasn’t in the mood for it at the time. But hey, if there’s one thing I can use SMB for, it’s as a framework for recommendations. Seems to me I should at least try out the games that McMillen liked enough to invite to the party.

So, I looked at the unlockable character roster. So far, I’ve got Ogmo, the Headcrab, Commander Video, and Jill. Ogmo I’ve mentioned; I’ve downloaded the original Jumper and played it a bit, but it gets very difficult very quickly. The Headcrab is from Half-Life. Half-Life isn’t a platformer, and the headcrab isn’t its player character, but I suppose someone wanted a Steam-exclusive unlockable, and this is the only thing in Valve’s library that’s known for jumping. At any rate, I’ve played the heck out of Half-Life (although I need to go through Half-Life 2 again at some point, now that they’ve added Achievements). Commander Video is from Bit.Trip Runner, which is a Wii game, not available on any system I own. One of its predecessors, Bit.Trip Beat, is out for PC, but it looks like a fundamentally different game; if further Bit.Trips are ported, I may get them as a package, but for now, I’ll give it a miss.

Looking at unlockable characters I don’t have yet, I noticed one from a game that had garnered praise but which I hadn’t tried: Runman: Race Around the World, which can be described as Sonic the Hedgehog with everything that isn’t directly related to running fast taken out, including death. Downloading that, I see it’s done in a crudely-doodled style. No surprise there — I could tell that much from the screenshots and demo video. But somehow, seeing it in-game made me look at it better, and it looked very familiar — the drawing style reminded me a lot of An Untitled Story, a Metroidvania-style platformer I had played but not finished a few months ago, concerning an egg that falls from a nest and, after fighting a few bosses, hatches into a bird that fights more bosses. It had art that was clearly drawn with magic marker.

Googling, I discover that, indeed, one of the co-authors of Runman is Matt Thorson, author of An Untitled Story. Furthermore, he wrote the Jumper series, as well as a couple of other platformers I know: Give Up Robot and Moneysieze. I had played Moneysieze quite a lot last year, and meant to write it up here, but never got around to it. It struck me as fairly ingenious in its unconventional use of famliar platformer mechanics. For example, the double-jump. In many platformers, you can hit the jump button a second time at the top of your arc to gain additional height. In Moneysieze, you could perform the second jump at any point in your trajectory — which means you can use it to pass under obstacles that extend below your starting point. I thought this was clever, but now I see that the same author had already pulled tricks like this in Jumper. SMB treats the double-jump as Ogmo’s defining trait, and the warp zone where you acquire Ogmo for general use requires executing trick jumps of exactly this sort.

I’m a little shocked to discover how much of Thorson’s work I’ve experienced without being aware of him. I notice now that the Play This Thing writeup of Jumper 3 actually mentions that Thorson is half of the Runman team, but apparently that fact made no impression on me at the time. Well, if part of SMB‘s mission is increased awareness of indie platformers, mission accomplished. I considered myself pretty aware already, but it looks like I wasn’t aware of my lack of awareness. I’ll be watching for Thorson’s name in the future.

Also, for what it’s worth, Runman‘s level-selection screen plays a recording of Helen Humes singing Song of the Wanderer, the same background music as the level-selection screen for Immortal Defense. I suppose there are only so many public-domain jazz recordings out there, and Runman uses many of them, but unless this is a deliberate reference, it’s a strange coincidence. Or maybe there’s just something about that song that suggests “level select screen” to indie developers? I’m definitely going to use it for that purpose if I ever write a game with a level-select screen. It’s too good an in-joke not to share.

HL2E2: Final Fight

The scene I abandoned at the end of my last session is in fact the final combat sequence of the game, and quite a scene it is — by far the most satisfying fight in the episode, full of fiero and adrenalin. Let me describe it in detail.

First of all, as I said in my last post, Striders are marching on your base, which is located on a lushly-wooded mountainside dotted with rustic cabins. The cabins hold supplies, including dispensers for a kind of sticky bomb that you can lob at the Striders with your Gravity Gun, then shoot with a pistol while they’re stuck to destroy the Strider instantly. The bomb dispensers are important because you can only carry one bomb at a time. The Striders more or less ignore you, but they’re escorted by their smaller cousins the Hunters, which don’t. So right away there’s a tradeoff in where you devote your attention: you can’t ignore the Hunters, but it’s bad to let the Striders stay alive too long too, especially since they can blast apart the cabins where you get your bombs. In addition, Hunters have weapons that can disintegrate the bombs you’ve tossed (without detonating them), so if you’re going to try to kill a Strider before demolishing its escort, you have to at least make sure the Hunters are distracted or too far away to do anything about it — which is actually pretty easy to accomplish, because the Hunters will break off to chase you while the Strider just keeps on walking.

Except if you wind up in a running battle like that, you’re probably going to wind up too far away from the bomb dispensers to attack the Strider. The battlefield here is large, and what’s more, too heavily forested to see more than a small part of it at a time. You have a car: it lets you get around faster than you could on foot, it’s equipped with Strider-detecting radar, and if you have room to accelerate, it makes a pretty good anti-Hunter weapon. But it’s not as maneuverable as you might like on those rough mountain roads, and you can’t launch bombs from it, so you have to get out sometimes, and it’s all too easy to get separated from it when you’re dodging Hunters.

So there’s a whole mess of conflicting motivations that you have to sort out on the fly as the situation evolves: attacking the Striders vs defending yourself, staying maneuverable vs getting places fast, going where the enemy is at the moment vs staying where you can get more bombs. It’s all a mad scramble. There are friendly soldiers stationed here and there to help you through it, but, since they don’t have any anti-Strider weapons, their main role in combat is distracting the Hunters. Their real purpose in the game, though, isn’t tactical at all, but emotional: they’re there to give a sense that you’re not fighting this battle singlehandedly (even though you pretty much are), but that you’re all in this together. Whenever a Strider is downed, they let out hearty yells of triumph and congratulation. The whole level would feel very different without that detail. Where most of the combat scenes in the series are designed to give a sense of calamity or panic, this is the “Oh my god we’re actually winning” level.

Afterwards, all that’s left is some staged scenes where plot events occur around you as you walk to the final room, where there’s a dramatic reversal and a cliffhanger. And now, for the first time since I began HL2, I have to wait along with everyone else for the next episode.

Half-Life 2 Episode 2

Time to get the numbers down. Time to try a game that I can reasonably expect to finish in a weekend.

After my first multi-hour session of HL2E2, I’m well into the sixth of its seven chapters, facing what amounts to the Half-Life version of the Battle of Hoth, trying to repel a dozen Striders marching on the rebel base. Striders are the immensely tall things that I’ve referred to before as “tripod robots”, but by now I’ve had enough opportunity to see them close up and realize that they’re not robots at all. They’re three-legged alien cyborg crustaceans. Most of the Combine war machines are at least partly organic. One of the new monsters for this episode, the loping tripodal Hunter, doesn’t have any visible organic components, but its behavior is animal-like enough to suggest that it at least has an organic brain.

The other new monsters this time around are the luminescent acid-spitting variants of the Antlion. Much of the midgame is spent in their warren of glass-smooth tunnels, helping the Vortigaunts on an errand that would have been a lot easier if they still knew how to use pheropods. I found the new antlion grubs particularly disquieting. They’re about the size of your forearm and completely non-aggressive. There’s some evidence that they’re fed on human meat, but they basically just sit there glowing and occasionally wiggling, waiting for you to squish them. If you don’t want to squish them, tough. You’re going to squish some whether you want to or not, because they’re often on the floor in places where you want to walk. The worst part is that when they’re squished, they emit a little glowing crumb that, when picked up, restores a little bit of health. Is Gordon eating something that came out of a dead alien bug? Intellectually, I know that I’ve eaten worse things in Nethack, where consuming monster corpses in order to gain their powers is a pretty important part of the game, but it’s all very abstract there, without the visceral revulsion you get from graphics. Still, you get used to it, just like you get used to the violence and gore.

Half-Life 2: Ending

hl2-factoryThe original Half-Life memorably begins as a literal “game on rails”, with the player confined 1Actually, you can get out while the car is in motion if you really want to. You just die immediately. to a train car as it passes by various scenes you’ll encounter later in the game. It’s essentially a cross between a theme park ride and machinima.

The equivalent scene in Half-Life 2 comes toward the end, when Gordon rides around the invaders’ cavernous citadel in a coffin-like restraint hanging from a network of rails, a device seen earlier hauling prisoners around. Where the Half-Life train was a vehicle of foreshadowing, this is one of recapitulation and recontextualization, as you’re shown the things you’ve been fighting against — the gunships and tripod robots and cyborgs (for that’s what the Combine soldiers are, as the player certainly suspects by this point) — as mass-produced components of a vast, inhuman war machine that Hitler could only dream of.

It would be daunting to stand alone against all this if it weren’t for the fact that you know the game is ending soon and all you really have to stand against is a final puzzle-boss. The game powers you up for the last few battles, doubling your maximum “energy” (armor) and granting you a last-minute Ulitmate Weapon, after destroying all your other weapons to make sure you use only the Ultimate one.

The crazy thing is that the Ultimate Weapon is a powered-up Gravity Gun. The Gravity Gun is one of three special-purpose weapons in the game, the other two being the Pheropod that controls the bugs, and the rocket launcher. (A rocket launcher may not sound like a special weapon — it’s part of the Doom-standard arsenal, after all — but Half-Life 2 turns it into a special weapon by (a) only letting you carry three rockets at a time and (b) providing enemies that can only be killed by hitting them with more than three rockets. Thus, it’s not so much a weapon as a device the designers use to make you run around looking for ammo while getting shot at.) The Gravity Gun’s merits are basically that it can thump headcrabs at a slightly greater range than the crowbar, and that you can throw it into reverse to attract objects. The latter function is much more useful than the former: throughout the game, one can use it to pick up supply boxes lodged in unsafe or inaccessible spots, and there are specific scenes where you can use it to do things like pull the plug out of a force field generator while on the wrong side of the force field. In short, it’s more tool than weapon, and appropriately goes under the same hotkey as the crowbar. It’s a clear precursor of the Portal Gun in both its non-combat utility and its three-flanged design. But after receiving a shot of alien mojo, it becomes capable of hurling enemy soldiers about like rag dolls.

I talk about “aliens”, but the game is oddly non-specific about what the “benefactors” are. You see lots of clearly alien technology, but you never see what’s behind it. There are aliens, sure, but the only ones you see are mere animals (like the headcrabs and antlions) or on your side (like the Vortigaunts). The ultimate enemy in the game is not one of the invaders, but just their quisling, Dr. Breen. Breen is a transhumanist apologist for alien atrocities who seems to have bartered control of Earth for protection against the creatures unleashed back in the first game. Breen is also a personal acquantance of Gordon from Black Mesa. Towards the end, it’s mentioned that Breen was an administrator there. This makes so much sense.

Breen is also the only other character who hints that he knows about the enigmatic G-man, the Agent Smith-esque prime mover behind all the events of the series (it’s implied that he supplied the “anomalous materials” that Black Mesa was conducting research on, which would explain how he met Breen). Occasionally throughout the games, the G-man can be seen watching you from inaccessible locations, as if checking up on your progress, and in the ending of Half-Life, he offers you employment, although if you refuse his offer, you simply die alone in an alien world. Half-Life 2 apparently begins with the G-man waking up Gordon and re-inserting him into normal time, and ends with him freezing time to remove Gordon until he’s useful again. Even within his role in the game, he almost seems meta, which makes Breen’s knowledge of him seem a little Metal Gear Solid-ish. I saw an article somewhere arguing that the G-man is the personification of Valve Software: he sets everything up, he’s omnipresent within the game, he takes you away from the Half-Life world for years at a time between scenarios, and he offers you a mere illusion of choice — something he acknowledges outright in the ending scene of Half-Life 2. The Vortigaunts call Gordon “The One Free Man”, which is supremely ironic, given both the gameplay and the story. On the other hand, he’s also the one character in the game who isn’t controlled by a computer.

1 Actually, you can get out while the car is in motion if you really want to. You just die immediately.

Half-Life 2: Level Transitions

If there’s one thing the Half-Life games do well, it’s keep the player playing. Partly they do this by keeping the gameplay varied, following up an intense firefight with a puzzle area, or a tunnel crawl where headcrabs leap at you from close up with a rooftop scene where you have to take down a flying gunship by means of steerable missiles.

More insidiously, though, they keep you playing by simply never giving you permission to stop. Most FPS games divide play into levels, and make it very clear when you go from one level to the next, usually in advance, making it easy to say “I’ll just finish this level and quit”. In Portal, for example, level transitions are signalled by arriving at an elevator. When you get in the elevator, the next level loads, as signalled by the word “Loading…” appearing in the middle of the screen. When you emerge from the elevator, the first thing you see is a sign indicating what level you’re on — the idea of levels is part of the story as well as part of the underlying technology. When you reach the point in the story where the levels stop, you no longer get the elevators, but you still occasionally get that “Loading…” message as you walk along.

And that’s mainly what happens in Half-Life. The transition is something you don’t see coming, and once it happens, you’re already in the next level, so you might as well keep playing. Beyond levels as unit-of-loading, the game is divided into Chapters, which are units of story and which are often themed around new gameplay elements (kind of like in DROD). But even the transitions between chapters are subtle, only signalled by a chapter title briefly overlaid on the screen while play continues as normal. The new weapon or monster or whatever that defines the chapter doesn’t necessarily show up right away, either.

The game is not without obvious stopping points — every once in a while there’s a Resistance base where you can replenish your ammo and listen to people talking plot. But I’ve been finding that I don’t stop at those places. I stop when I’m repeatedly failing to get through a fight. I figure that if I’m making no progress, it’s because I’m approaching it wrong, and should try it with a fresh mind later. This means that my typical session starts with a tough battle. This can’t be what the designers had in mind.

Half-Life 2: Women

Apparently the folks at Valve decided that one of the flaws in the original Half-Life was the lack of sex appeal. Every human (or apparently human) character is either a wrinkled scientist, a security guard 1known as Barney — yes, there are multiple security guards, but they’re all known as Barney with an unflattering uniform and a hick accent, a faceless enemy soldier, or a creepy probably-alien G-man. And with the exception of some special-forces ninjas who you hardly ever see (because they’re ninjas), they’re all male.

Half-Life 2 corrects this by (a) handsoming up Barney and making him into a hero of the resistance, and (b) introducing the young, attractive, tough-as-nails Alyx, daughter of one of the scientists and occasional companion to the player on missions. Alyx provides essential technical support as well as essential dialogue, driving the plot whenever she’s present. She’s handy in a firefight, too, helping you to flank the enemy: there’s one bit where she suggests that you surprise some CP troops by coming through two different doors at once, and it works beautifully if you follow her advice. And when you part ways, she says “Gordon… Take care of yourself” in a tone of voice that makes it clear that she’s the action hero’s designated love interest.

But personally, my heart belongs to another: the nameless resistance sqaddie who, alone with me in a courtyard littered with dead soldiers, spontaneously shared with me an incredible insight into her character. “Sometimes,” she said, “I dream about cheese.”

I’m probably not doing justice to the profundity of that statement. The delivery probably has a lot to do with it. But this is a person who’s living in a battlefield, who has to fight for every moment of her existence. And still, sometimes, she dreams about cheese. It was just a strange and beautiful moment.

The tragic thing about nameless squaddies, in both Half-Life and Half-Life 2, is that they always die. They come to you with great faith: you’re the famous Gordon Freeman, hero of the Black Mesa incident! With you on their side, they stand a fighting chance! And then they start following you around, and they help you survive encounters that would have been very difficult otherwise, and then, one by one, they either get killed because you told them to go somewhere, or get killed because you didn’t tell them to go somewhere. But I took some personal interest in Cheese Girl, hoping that she, if no one else, would survive until we parted ways. No such luck. She was, in fact, the first to die. Later, though, thanks to the fairly small NPC pool, I met her again. And she joined my team again, and got killed again. It’s just like Silent Hill 2.

1 known as Barney — yes, there are multiple security guards, but they’re all known as Barney

Half-Life 2: Bugs

hl2-bugsThe Half-Life games have a reputation as the thinking person’s gorefest. They focus more on environmental puzzles than the typical FPS. They pander to the intellectual mystique by giving us a bearded, bespectacled action hero with a PhD in theoretical physics. But mainly, the original was one of the first games of its genre to try to tell a compelling story, and to do it entirely through the FPS medium rather than through cutscenes or journal entries.

The story told wasn’t just a simplistic good-vs-evil one, or even morally-questionable-vs-evil (as seems to be fashionable in the more violent games these days), but one of confusion, of terrible things happening without anyone wanting them. One of the more effective plot elements is the re-evaluation of the soldiers. At first, the PC’s colleagues believe that soldiers are coming to rescue them from the monsters they’ve inadvertently unleashed, but it turns out that their orders are to contain the incident by killing everything on the site, scientists included. The soldiers are initially depicted as brutes who enjoy murdering unarmed civilians — “I killed twelve dumb-ass scientists and not one of ’em fought back. This sucks.” — which justifies in the player’s mind anything you do to them in return. But later, you overhear other soldiers talking about Gordon Freeman, the player character, who’s been declared enemy #1 at that point. One of them says “All I know for sure is he’s been killing my buddies”, humanizing their side of the struggle. The climax of this part of the story is when you overhear a commander declaring in no uncertain terms that he disagrees with the orders. If that had happened earlier, there could have been reconciliation, but it’s too late. When he sees you, he will recognize you as the person who’s been killing his men. He’ll try to kill you to prevent you from killing him, which means you have to kill him to prevent him from killing you. You have to wonder how many real-world conflicts play out the same way, fear of violence making it a certainty.

Half-Life 2 also has masked soldiers, the “CP” (opposite of the PC?), first shown abusing the citizens of the dystopian city where the game starts. If the player is ever given reason to sympathize with them, I have yet to reach that point. OK, there is a scene at a recruitment office, where an applicant tells you that, although he doesn’t like the CP, he’s decided to join them because it beats starving to death on the street. But that’s been it so far. The game has, however, been rehabilitating the monsters. One of the most common monsters from Half-Life was the Vortigaunts, very-rougly-humanoid aliens that can shoot energy beams. In Half-Life 2, a number of them have learned English and joined the human resistance, and provide you with lots of assistance, making me feel guilty for having killed so many of them back in the first game. And one of the things that the Vortigaunts give you is the means to tame the bugs.

The game calls them “antlions”, even though that name is already taken. They’re roughly the size of large dogs, and they burrow under the sand, emerging to attack anything that walks on it, endlessly spawning more to replace those killed. One of the more interesting bits of gameplay is a sandy area with scattered rocks, where you can move safely as long as you stay on the rocks. If you slip, bugs come, and you have to get back on the rocks before you can kill them all, but their attacks tend to push you off.

Now, the bugs aren’t the sort of thing that can say “All I know for sure is he’s killing my buddies”. They’re dangerous animals, nothing more. Once you have a Pheropod, though, they’ll never hurt you: they’ll just follow you around, unless you throw the Pheropod at something, in which case they’ll rush over there and attack whatever they find. You can use this to fight battles without putting yourself at risk, crouching behind cover while your chitinous minions do all the work and get slaughtered in great numbers for your benefit. (This is another way that it’s a thinking person’s game: scenes that reward tactial thought more than quick reflexes. It’s the polar opposite of Serious Sam.)

There’s some uneasiness about this kind of fighting, though, because you’re basically using monsters to attack humans. In fact, you’re using them only against humans, as it’s established pretty early that the bugs are no good at all against monsters. Back in the first Half-Life, it was whispered among the soldiers that Freeman was responsible for the whole emergency — that he had deliberately summoned the monsters. While it’s true that he had a hand in the experiment that created the rifts between Earth and Xen, there was nothing deliberate about it. But now, in the sequel, you really are summoning alien monsters and setting them on your enemies. I really hope that the CP is making video recordings of these fights, because there’s some priceless anti-resistance propaganda to be made from this.

Half-Life 2: Ha-ha

hl2-pastoralIt turns out that Half-Life 2 does have a lot of open-air scenes after all. It’s also a very linear game, but the line varies in thickness: sometimes you’ll be out driving a vehicle (I’ve used a fanboat and a dune buggy so far, both of which look like they’re made of scrap metal), with a large area around you to do wide turns in, and suddenly your path will be blocked by a gate that can only be removed by throwing a switch inside a nearby building at the end of some small rooms and twisty hallways.

When you’re outside, the game does its best to give an impression that the environment is larger than it actually is, and that you have more options than you actually have. Obviously it isn’t just FPS games that try to do this: adventures have been creating the illusion of rooms just out of your reach since the intro to Planetfall. What it means in Half-Life 2 is that attempts at exploring the periphery loop back fairly quickly, and the game takes advantage of the beefiness of its graphics engine to render unreachable scenery objects in full detail out to a considerable distance. I haven’t encountered the “invisible wall” effect found in many other games, constraining you when you stray from the path by halting your forward movement for no obvious physical reason, but there are lots of places that look like they’re passable until you’re very close, at which point it’s clear that the slope is too steep or the gap is too wide or whatever.

It reminds me of a landscaping technique sometimes called a “ha-ha”. A ha-ha is essentially an inconspicuous ditch or drop-off with a retaining wall. The idea is that it gives you a seemingly-continuous view from your manor window of verdant pastures unmarred by fences, but still keeps the cattle off your croquet lawn.

But, although the player’s view in Half-Life 2 is the illusory continuity seen from the manor house, you’re not on the high ground. The ha-ha is there to limit you. Thus, the level designers of Half-Life 2 treat the players like cattle.

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