HL2E1: Ending

Spoilers strut about boldly in the daylight ahead.

It turned out that I had only one major set-piece battle to go before the end of the episode, against a tripod in an enclosed area full of boxcars and other obstacles. The tripod is too large to follow you as you wend your way through the maze-like environs, but its weapons are strong enough to physically alter the environment in ways that must have taken a good deal of careful planning on the part of the designers.

After that, Gordon and Alyx set a train in motion, hop into the caboose, and watch the city explode noiselessly in the distance. At least, it’s in the distance at first, as you see the ships flying out of the towering citadel just in time to escape and speeding off in all directions. Then the fireball (plasmaball? otherworldly-dimensional-energyball?) engulfs the places your train has just sped through — it’s sort of a “Yee-haw!” moment, staying just ahead of the wall of white in your wake, until you have the dismaying realization that you’re not going to make it.

I’ve had nightmares like this. Dreams of near-escape, followed the realization that you’re doomed and powerless to do anything about it. The sense of doom can be surprisingly peaceful at these moments, because if there’s nothing you can do, there’s no need to react in any way. Being on a train isn’t completely necessary to the feeling, but it adds a lot to the sense that your course is beyond your control. And that’s Gordon’s life in a nutshell, isn’t it? Trains have been a major part of Half-Life all along, bringing Gordon to places he doesn’t want to be, literally railroading him.

HL2E1: Escort Mission

Speaking of hardware modification, it turns out that I was right: all that I needed to pass the Point of Certain Crash in Half-Life 2 Episode 1 was a second gigabyte of RAM, which seems to cost about two cents per meg these days. So the stated “minimum requirements” of the game, which would have it running on a fraction of the RAM I had beforehand, are a lie. This is probably pretty common. There’s little motivation for game producers to tell people in advance that they shouldn’t bother buying their games.

I’ve mentioned before how the structure of Half-Life 2 makes me end most sessions in the middle of a difficult battle. The latest quit-for-the-night scene for me is one of those scenes where people start following Gordon around and get massacred for their trust in my ability to defend them. This time around, though, it’s not just a regrettable happenstance. Defending them is in fact my explicit goal: Barney has dragooned me into shuttling people from a safehouse to a waiting train, four at a time. (This seems to be a magic number for the game engine. Whenever NPCs are spawned dynamically, there are always four of them. New folks show up only as fast as you let the old ones die. If it were a movie, I’d suspect that they only had enough money to hire four extras.)

So, it’s an escort mission, that traditional bane of shooters. I don’t know yet if getting my charges killed actually makes any difference in the game here, and on the basis of precedent, I suspect it doesn’t. But for various reasons, I’m unwilling to let them die, and this makes the scene harder than it would be otherwise. The fact that it is my explicit goal is of course part of it. There’s also the fact that it’s my fault that they need to get on the train in the first place — the reason they’re fleeing the city is that it’s about to blow up, due to my own actions in the endgame of Half-Life 2.

But also, it just seems like discharging a karmic debt. The whole episode so far has essentially been one long escort mission — one viewed from the opposite side. Gordon frequently has to concentrate on things other than shooting, like operating machinery or pushing cars onto antlion burrows to block them. And whenever the player is occupied in this manner, Alyx covers him. There have been battles where I’ve hardly fired a shot. In one of the scenes shortly before where I am now, Alyx climbed up onto a high vantage point with a sniper rifle to pick off enemies while I ran ahead. I’ve played that exact scenario in several other games, but always as the sniper. So after being the beneficiary of so much uncomplaining protection, it would be ungracious to refuse the same to others.

Half-Life 2, Episode 1

hl2e1-alyxAfter playing episodic adventure games, it seems only fair that I follow up with the noble failure of the episodic FPS. The confusingly-titled Half-Life 2, Episode 1 has of course been on the Stack since I purchased the Orange Box, and for stack purposes I’m counting it as a separate title.

The episode begins with an intro sequence that essentially says “never mind” to Half-Life 2‘s epilogue and puts you right back into the situation you were in at the end of the final boss battle. Alyx Vance, sidekick and presumed love interest, seems to be a more or less constant companion this time around, and the designers put some effort into coming up with gameplay that takes advantage of her. In one segment, you’re attacked by alien bugs, which can be killed most efficiently by flipping them over on their backs with the gravity gun and letting Alyx shoot them while they’re helpless. Before that are a few scenes in darkness with lots of zombies. You have a flashlight built into your hazard suit, but limited ammo. Alyx has a different gun than you and loads of ammo for it, but no flashlight. So you spend most of that part just shining your light on things for Alyx to shoot. (In restrospect, it would have been simpler to trade guns, but I can’t blame Alyx and Gordon for not thinking of that, seeing how I didn’t.)

These things remind me of using the pheropod to send antlions after enemies in Half-Life 2. Although this is a shooter, you’re not always doing the shooting yourself. Sometimes you’re just directing it.

Another thing that reminds me of the pheropods: If you catch a rollermine with the gravity gun, Alyx can hack it to attack the enemy. This is the sort of thing she’s been doing all along, really — there were scenes in Half-Life 2 where she pulls similar tricks on automated gun turrets — but rollermines are mobile, and seek out things to attack, which makes them seem more like monsters than weapons. So this seems like an extension of a theme I noted before, the enemies switching sides 1One example of this I failed to note in my previous post: Dr. Kleiner has a defanged headcrab that he keeps as a pet., except this time applied to something purely mechanical.

At any rate, it looks like I’ve gotten as far as I can get in this episode for the moment. From near the beginning, it has sometimes crashed to the desktop when it loads a new area, and now I’ve reached a point where this happens consistently. The worst part is that it crashes slowly. It’ll spend a minute or so with the word “Loading” on the screen, and I won’t know whether it’s actually loading or crashed. Then the screen will go black for a minute, and then, even when the desktop comes up, it’ll be another minute before it actually displays a dialog box with an error message in it. Upgrading my display drivers has not helped, so it’s time to hit the support forums. The slowness is the sort of thing I associate with running out of memory, so maybe slapping another gigabyte into the machine would fix it, but I’d like some confirmation of this before I pony up the dough.

1 One example of this I failed to note in my previous post: Dr. Kleiner has a defanged headcrab that he keeps as a pet.