Tag Archives: steam

Don’t Worry About Half-Life 3

original

Prepare for foreseen consequences.

Last week, digital distribution giant and IRL Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium Valve Software unveiled three announcements about their plans to hurtle PC gaming into the living room. These reveals included a brand new, Linux-based Steam OS; a variety of hackable “Steam Machine” gaming computers available at different price points; and finally (and perhaps most intriguingly), a state-of-the-art controller, supposedly compatible with any game on the Steam service. The controller especially looks like the sort of forward-thinking experiment in play we’ve come to expect from the billion-dollar, flatly organized tech behemoth; it uses sensitive trackpads instead of joysticks, and contains an unobtrusive touchscreen. Developers from across a variety of genres have playtested it, with mainly positive results. But one conspicuous thing stood out about the controller, the last of the highly secretive reveals: It wasn’t Half-Life 3. Continue reading

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Portal 2 (2011)

If you want the clearest summation of how Portal 2 differs from its predecessor, simply look at the cores. Portal 2‘s final battle – almost structurally identical to the original game’s – finds Chell attaching “personality cores” to bumbling companion-turned-adversary Wheatley, attempting to corrupt his programming and return Aperture Science to its rightful (if still slightly skewed) order. “Wacky” doesn’t even begin to sum up these eccentric, chatty spheres, each offering up so many lightning-fast quips that one is tempted to ignore the boss fight’s time limit and simply enjoy these characters’ ramblings until the facility explodes.

If nothing else, the cores are the purest expression of writer Erik Wolpaw’s gift for deadpan insanity since Psychonauts’ “Milkman Conspiracy” level. Yet for all the left-field absurdity of the rough-and-tumble Adventure Core (voiced by Nathan Drake himself) and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it foreshadowing of Portal 2‘s lunar resolution by the so-called Space Core, the conclusion lacks the thematic and emotional depth of the first game’s encounter with GLaDOS. That confrontation saw Chell disassembling her AI tormentor’s personality cores and stripping her of her most basic emotions. The result was a villain equally harrowing and hilarious, and a final battle that perfectly captured the dichotomous relationship between well-intentioned scientific objectivity and the petty, cold-hearted hubris often lurking behind it that defines the Portal universe. The fight with Wheatley offers no such metaphor, sacrificing it for one-liners and distracting action. I still enjoyed every second of it, but that’s Portal 2 in a nutshell: Bigger and more crammed with (usually wonderful) ideas, more audaciously willing to follow its bliss for laughs and entertainment, but less interested in the thoughtful, dark-edged cohesiveness that rendered the original one of gaming’s most indelible narratives. Continue reading

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Half-Life 2: Episode Two (2007)

For all its grimness and despair, for all the death and malice that finally creep past City 17’s anonymous citizenry and zero in on Gordon Freeman’s closest friends, Half-Life 2: Episode Two is attempting a celebration. It’s an insiders-only affair, a product created by and for those with such boundless affinity for the franchise that it is comfortable risking moments more brazenly comic and outright tragic than any found in the rest of the series. It’s “fan service” to its core, not just trotting out easy references and beloved characters expecting us to cheer in mere recognition, but also using its established toolkit and bond with the audience to strengthen and stretch its universe’s connective tissue. Simply, this is Half-Life at its most comfortable with just being Half-Life, and for every lateral step that entails, it also allows for some leaps forward and maybe even a little self-reflection. Even the original Half-Life‘s nuked microwave casserole returns as the crux of an antagonistic relationship.

Valve’s employment of this insular fan club shorthand is, for better and for worse, a result of its full embrace of the serialized storytelling required by the episode format. Continue reading

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Half-Life 2: Episode One (2006)

Looking back, why did people not approach the prospect of yearly Half-Life installments with the same suspicion as a Thomas Pynchon book signing or a Jeff Mangum world tour? (Okay, so every once in awhile these things work out.) Valve’s monolithic, twice decade-defining flagship franchise condescending to become serialized, expansion pack entertainments instead of rare magnum opuses is like your most brilliant, successful longtime friend suddenly frequenting your hometown bar: sure, his presence is appreciated, but wouldn’t you sacrifice constantly seeing him to know he was still on the move toward grander goals? Valve’s desire to create these episodes is understandable, perhaps even noble; both full-length Half-Life titles’ development cycles sound like living hells that would turn any programmer’s hair grey, if he didn’t tear it all out in the process. Plus, a desire to give the world Half-Life at a more frequent and inexpensive rate places them somewhere between Santa Claus and the dudes who invented Napster on my list of generous individuals.

The problem, however, is this is not the Valve way. The company is an ever-buzzing brain trust that isn’t happy unless its members are blasting down the walls fencing in game physics and storytelling, or redefining the distribution paradigm with Steam, or wondering what reality would look like through a stupid-looking pair of goggles. Valve the ideal is so much grander than Valve the developer that when it actually gets around to making a game anymore, that title must stand for the same ambition and playful futurism as the rest of the corporation’s endeavors. The Half-Life episodes were fated to choke on their creator’s chutzpah from the start, dwarfed by the never-ending possibilities and ceaseless perfectionism to which they were once thought an antidote. Continue reading

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Half-Life 2 (2004)

There was a moment well into playing Half-Life 2 where I fell in deep, transcendent love. It was the only moment thus far in my video game excursions where I wasn’t playing a game so much as inhabiting it, invested in the world and experience so viscerally that for one too-brief heartbeat, all hints of artifice and the fourth wall dissipated from my mind. It was after returning to City 17, when Gordon Freeman and his makeshift gang of rebels commandeer a crumbling cement building in a desperate attempt to take down the last few Striders, vicious daddy long legs-like aliens that seem unstoppable on first glance. As the last Strider exploded and toppled, I turned to see the rebels’ expressions change from grim resolve to hope; I stopped in my tracks, absorbed the scene, then ushered Gordon on to the next set of teeth-gritting horrors.

Don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed Half-Life 2 up until this moment, but it was enjoyment born more of appreciation than passion, and I sorely missed the first game’s dark humor and trickier artificial intelligence. The Strider battle was something else entirely, though; not only was it the most challenging section of the game for me, but when seeing my squad cautiously start to celebrate as the music (so sparingly used in Half-Life 2 that its entrance is an instant jolt to attention) swelled victoriously, I felt like an actual soot-and-sweat-covered hero. Continue reading

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