Bad, vile and meaningless: Half Life 2 from Alan's clob

Pheer the memory requirements! Pheer the loading times! Pheer teh Steam!

Half-life 2 is here!

While it's quite a bit of pure fun, what with slicing zombies with gravity gun or beating them senseless with flying barrels, cupboards, or crushing them with cars or burning them alive with gas: yes, it's pure enjoyment.

However, it has obnoxious loading times. Big minus for not using detail textures. Without details, you have to use the highest texture resolutions to have a passable experience (and even then it looks ugly up close), and then you need to have about 1 GB of system RAM, I think. This game swaps my poor w2k with 512 MB like no other.

The installation experience was the worst. It took one hour from popping the dvd to drive to actually get to see the damn thing. First it copies some 3-4 GB of stuff off the DVD, then it spends at least as much time in "decrypting" that data. I got 7200 rpm 120 GB drive and a few years old DVD drive and XP 3000+. I don't think this process should take an hour. I know my PC is not made of the very best components in the world but fuck you, after this much of waiting it better work without a hiccup.

I hate the Steam app as well. It starts slowly, consumes 10 % of RAM (some 45 MB), spends its sweet time contacting some master server, looks crappy, invades my taskbar, and in general is surprisingly hard to use. Now, I understand that it's someone's grand concept for selling dynamic game advertising and have copy control, and as a byproduct it can also do the few other things you actually need as user:

I think the first functionality could be rolled into the game itself. Say, once a week contact the main site and check to see if there's updates. Or whatever. Just do it like everyone else. I don't want to have a thousand steam apps, rolled by every distinct game company, this time next year.

Sometimes you can't play Half Life because Steam app can't contact master server. Now, I'm a patient man but sometimes I kinda wish I could squeeze someone's windpipe real hard, and eat their lungs for breakfast.

The actual game had terrifying visual glitches until I turned down the resolution. I think I got 1280x1024 at startup and while that's superbly great because it's the native of the TFT, well, it converted all the in-game characters into some kind of polygon blobs. I cut it down to 800x600 and it seemed to start working. I guess the fault lies at nvidia drivers.

Switching graphics modes is horrible. The game will show you a blank screen, nothing's happening, until it has done enough loading/swapping/whatever and then the display resumes. So, adding to my initial impression was the 30-second long starings of blank screen, hoping that the game would kinda recover.

Whether Windows' or Half Life's fault, Windows bluescreens every now and then. It doesn't happen in Linux, so I guess it's the fault of the system software.

Game on!

But then I am in the game. I immediately note that while it has a pretty good world, the reflection maps are sometimes oddly disjunct and it appears as sharp line on the floor which appears to have no physical cause.

I turned on subtitles for the deaf. It was actually pretty amusing to have full subtitling for effects. Not that the subtitles usually managed to handle more than 1 dialog going on concurrently, though. But it worked well most of the time.

I was well into Ravenholm before I realized this game uses bump mapping. I kinda thought it didn't, because in many cases the walls just look like they were built of textures of that kind, rather than a generic texture and then livened up with a bump map that reacts to that particular set of lighting conditions. I should have realized that much earlier.

I am happy to note that this game doesn't go overboard with bump mapping. It isn't like Halo or Doom 3 where kinda everything has to have some kind of weird bump map. This looks kinda normal.

The water simulation is great. A few scenes look simply adoringly realistic. I loved them. Most of the time, it's okay. The worst offender is the radioactive sludge or whatever, which seems to shimmer on its own and often shows a reflection of a very low resolution texture.

The physical puzzles are fun. Manipulating objects is a bit hard, for instance there's no way to turn an object you hold in your hands, so you have to pick it from the floor in the correct angle to begin with. Trying to place boxes on top of each other is very hard, they are so shaky. We have now reached some toddler's level of physics simulation.

In many cases. Gordon also appears to get stuck with the objects/walls/ceilings, following the fine tradition of Half Life 1. One of the most annoying things is Gordon's tendency to fail to swim in some of the tubes in City 17 where he appears to get stuck whilist underwater. He will move, but very slowly. Of course, if you can't fix the situation, you're a dead Freeman. This reminds me of Half Life 1, where you could have Gordon stuck to elevator floor if you didn't jump right before the elevator reached the bottom.

In Half Life 2, you'll have many interesting ways that Gordon can apparently die because he gets crushed by some wooden box or something such. I mean, I'm sure that no-one should die trying to (man)handle a wooden box, but Gordon will. He also sometimes dies when stepping on a dropbridge. Dynamic objects seem to have interesting damage features...

Flashlight eats incredible amount of power, judging by how short a while it can be turned on. Please, this flashlight issue is stupid and should be dead. In the next game, make a persistent flashlight that never runs out of any battery. The use of not having the flashlight turned on all the time is, of course, stealth.

And indeed, this game could do with more stealth. Combine soldiers are fun to kill with the variety of weapons reminiscent from Half Life 1. They are fun to crush under objects. While that's plenty of action, there's usually not enough different ways to complete a particular scene. Almost always you just have to walk somewhere and kill the enemies in some creative manner of your choosing, but there's no way to avoid the combat through stealth. In the situations where you would, in real life, just walk past the enemies, you actually have to kill them because their death signals progress of game scripting. While in Halo you would take a bystanders role and just let your enemies kill each other, here the forces that occasionally fight together are just small groups and almost always the other group is much stronger, and it makes virtually no difference whether you engage them head on or just sneak back and wait.

Gordon doesn't get a chance to wield a sniper gun. But to effectively handle snipers, you often benefit from some kind of distraction, lest they blow you in the oblivion. In those cases, having some friends/zombies walking around is a great benefit.

The characters (and their facial expressions)

Well, I would hesitate to say they have reached the unimprovable plateu of Real Life. The characters exaggerate their emotions. Characters discussing with each other take eye contact with each other. Characters idle usually look at Gordon. This makes eavesdropping discussions pretty weird, because each time two characters stop speaking, they both usually turn their eyes to take a look at Gordon, with the effect that it appears they're taking a meaningful look at me. I get an unsettling feeling that there's something unshared or implied by just what they said which Gordon is not privy to. What also spoils the realism is that people who are leading the way for Gordon usually walk to wherever they are going backwards (to look at Gordon). First you may be impressed with how well the characters must have memorized the locations of doors and hallways in wherever they are walking, but after a while you will simply shake your head. Ridiculous.

Most of these facial expressions try to communicate sarcasm. I dunno. Alyx or whatever her name was has a wide face, a jacket that doesn't quite seem to fit on her, and impossibly thin and long legs. It's a strange mixture. I actually do think that you should have done her a bit differently. Making her slightly more proportioned would probably have helped with the male regions to react more favourably to Alyx. Or perhaps they wanted to make a statement there. You know, Gordon is a physicist, instead of a testosterone-pumping killing machine, Alyx isn't a pretty woman, for the same reason. It's part of the world where you may do things differently.

The mechanical dog is fun creature. Totally absurd, inhumanly human, it's a brilliant idea. Sometimes for instance its metallic head acts as if it felt how Alyx was petting it, and the sight of that alone is sure to crack a full smile.

This game has friendly fire set to zero. No-one friendly dies no matter what you do. I tried everything I could think of, starting from hurling extremely heavy-looking barrels right at Alyx's head. No impact. I shot her. I tried to force the dog to crush her by placing the ball the dog was seeking behind Alyx. Nopes, she just doesn't die. I wish I would have to care not accidentally shooting my allies, because that's another useful notch towards realism that this game is lacking.

Final conclusions

I get a feeling that this game is, despite all the time spent on it, actually kinda rushed. I mean, you can't be serious about having your characters walk backwards half of the time, or having about the first scene you arrive to display disjunct reflection maps. Anyone who plays it for a while will think: "uh, bugs".

It's still one of the best, though. It's not so long to complete as HL1, but it is long enough. But I think that the game should be improved in many places. Here's a short list: