Posts Tagged ‘2000s games’

Ravenholm or bust!

25 April, 2013

This scene would be more exciting if I hadn’t shot all the bad guys first. Soz.

It won’t come as any surprise to readers here that I tend to play most games at a distance of several years from everyone else. Having an out of date PC until last year “helped” in that regard and replacing it has opened me up to the joys (and problems) of modern gaming. So, keeping to a theme, this article is going to be about Half Life 2, originally released in 2004.

I have my issues with the Half Life series. The original game, whilst undoubtably great fun, is largely the reason FPS titles moved away from the exploration and level-based gameplay that Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake had used and towards a more linear, continuous and (*sigh*) narrative-based structure. In short, Half Life is responsible for the modern phenomenon of the game as interactive movie, where the player’s role becomes travelling along what is basically a well-disguised rail in order to see more and more of a usually poorly-written B-Movie class narrative.

At first, Half Life 2 depressingly conforms to this structure. We open in an atmospheric, apparently open environment where it quickly becomes clear there is little game to play, for now at least, nor real exploring to be done in the matter of open-world games. There is a lot of tiresome moving around and setting-up of the narrative. What is striking, though, is how good everything looks. For a game that’s nearly ten years old, HL2 still looks absolutely stunning, helped no doubt by a variable set of graphic settings that were clearly supposed to help its longevity by taking advantage of pretty-much everything that graphics cards could do back then.

Eventually the game starts and our mute hero, Gordon Freeman, gets his famous crowbar and we can actually start playing rather than merely interacting.

And things get better pretty quickly. Yes, it’s linear, and sometimes comically so with planks and ramps showing the route the player is supposed to take in a manner that undermines the realist atmosphere the game clearly wants to create. And yet it still manages to have secret areas, hidden weapons caches and even, later on, whole buildings which can be optionally explored to grab more ammo, health or charge for Gordon’s suit.

Which key lets me choose the giant fucking fly swatter?

It also manages to mix genres nicely. A shooting gallery for much of the time, HL2 also occasionally presents the player with simple puzzles, often physics-based to take advantage of the then-new Havoc engine the game runs in. What really stuck me about these is the fact the game doesn’t offer hints as to what the player needs to do in most instances, preferring to let the player work things out for themselves. For this reason, although none of the puzzles I’ve encountered are especially brain-twisting, there’s a sense of achievement felt when they’re solved which many newer games, with their hand-holding approach to pacify a market of spoiled gamers who don’t want to try against their games, completely lack.

Credit also ought to go to the game’s art. The visuals, as I’ve said, are stunning on a technical level but the atmosphere created is exceptional. HL2 invokes a world in decay, specifically the feel of the moribund Leninist regimes in Eastern Europe circa 1989. Everywhere buildings are crumbling, paint is peeling, cars are rusting or burnt-out; the only signs of efficiency and proper maintenance are the tools of the ruling Combine dictatorship with its gunship helicopters, sleek black armoured cars and masked combat troops; it’s Stalker combined with THX 1138. Music is used particularly well, being occasional and therefore effective and memorable rather than pure background. A perfect example of the atmosphere the game is capable of creating is the infamous stage ‘We Don’t Go To Ravenholm’ which is still, for many gamers, a benchmark in terms of the sense of fear a videogame can create. The story, as far as I’ve seen anyway, is pretty basic: human resistance fights alien overlords guff. But the art that accompanies Half Life 2 is not about the story so much as the environment and the feel.

There’s also a real sense of danger in HL2. Although this game was published three years after Halo gave the world the recharging energy bar, it sticks to the old school system of health that stays down until you replenish it (although there are some nasty headcrabs which poison Gordon meaning his health drops to 1 and then grows slowly back up to its pre-attack level as the suit administers antidote). Although health packs are a regular find in HL2, it’s still possible for the player to find themselves in a dangerous environment with a small amount of health remaining and no idea where the next health pack will be. This is something videogames have abandoned in favour of the “hide and recharge” mechanic, an obvious sop again to spoiled gamers who don’t want to have to try too hard.

Throw in varied levels, different vehicles, lots of different enemies requiring different tactics and the fucking brilliant gravity gun and it won’t be a surprise to learn that I really like Half Life 2. It has its faults – the linearity of much of the game, the semi-regular interruptions of the gameplay so that characters can chatter the game’s B-movie plot at you. This might be a game that shows how the industry was moving towards interactive movies where plot and atmosphere takes presendence over gameplay and moaning kids don’t have to worry about having to work to beat a stage or think to beat a puzzle but at the end of the day it is still, at heart, a videogame. For that we should be thankful.

Black & White: find out who Peter Molyneux really is?

10 January, 2012

Black & White's gorgeous graphics are certainly its highlight, with incredible attention to detail and a real feeling of manipulating a living, functioning, world.

So we’ve had a look at Populous II from the “mind” of Peter Molyneux and which I decided is a god-game which actually, in some ways, subverts its deep strategic intentions to be an entertaining and quite fast-moving clickabout which is fun even though it’s largely about flattening land. So what of the other game?

Well, Black & White came out in 2001 and is also from the “mind” of Peter Molyneux. It’s quite obvious when you start playing the game and have a flick through the fairly-hefty manual that B&W (as I’m going to insist on calling it from now on because it’s quicker) is the spiritual successor to Populous and its sequels even if it isn’t officially part of the same series. This is, once again, a god-game and, yet again, the player is up against rival gods using both followers and godly-powers to claim victory in a succession of landscapes.

There are, however, striking differences in gameplay. The main one of these is the addition of the creature, a hugh animal which becomes, in a way, your representative on the earth and wanders around under simple artificial intelligence “experimenting” with eating stuff and chucking followers around or whatever. The player, who is represented in-game by a floating hand, can slap or stroke the creature to “re-inforce” good or bad behaviour; what this means is entirely up to the player. This means the creature can, theoretically, be trained into doing tasks for the player like running about gathering-up food from farms for the granary or, if you’re a meanie, kicking the poor followers about and keeping them in line.

Indeed, the possibility of being a “good” or “bad” god was the driving force and selling-point with B&W, “find out who you really are” as the game’s tagline has it. Godly powers include everything from being able to grab fish from the sea and chuck them into the village food-store, to throwing followers around, to hurling fireballs and lightening. All of these things understandably make an impression on the mere mortals wandering around on the ground and increase belief in the player’s god. At a temple, worshippers dance around creating mana which is needed for the godly powers. The player can determine how many of his or her followers are worshiping at any time and is responsible for making sure they’re well fed and rested. The followers themselves build villages with buildings although the player-god can micro manage by creating scaffolds and dictating what should be constructed. Each village has a radius of influence which the player-god can act within meaning that, say, if a player village grows enough that its influence reaches an enemy village the player can start hurling fireballs or people around in it; this increases belief in the player god in the village: get enough and the village is yours.

Unlike Populous II, B&W has the very modern feature of some kind of narrative  – largely explained by a “good” and “bad” character who accompany the player throughout the game and who are actually quite good fun – involving evil gods being horrible and kidnapping the creature and the like. This is the first thing that I feel goes against the game: I like the way Populous II is just a series of challenges getting slowly but surely more difficult whereas B&W has relatively few stages that take a long, long time to complete. The second thing that goes against the game for me is how this is achieved: impressing rival villages is actually rather dull and building up your own, interesting at first, becomes tedious and more like work than fun. I actually spent about an hour playing this where I was doing nothing more than picking up rocks and fences and stuff and throwing them at an enemy village to build-up belief.

None of this actually means that B&W is a bad game. There’s plenty to do and, unlike Populous II, there really is wide strategic depth in there but unlike the older game, after early enthusiasm it starts to feel more like a way to spend a few hours rather than something that’s actively a lot of fun. Reviewers at the time felt the same way: early excitement and praise for the visuals (which are, by the way, superb even 10 years later) and high scores gave way to disappointment as the much-vaunted creatures (which is, incidentally, one of the game’s most interesting features) were revealed to be difficult to keep tabs on and were actually captured or crippled in some way for several of the game’s levels, and the interaction with the villagers which seemed to promise so much variety was revealed to be mostly picking them up and throwing them or assigning them various tasks. Molyneux has, with B&W, created a very nice, very interesting idea for a game that isn’t quite as fun or as intriguing as it sounds on paper.

If you liked the Populous series then B&W (which you can doubtless pick-up for peanuts these days) is worth a look, although I found it became more work than play after a while, even if it does look stunning. There’s a sequel, Black & White 2, which came out a few years later and which I haven’t played but which may well fix some of the gameplay problems in the original. Maybe I’ll find out and let you know some day.