Saturday, June 03, 2006

My Half-Life 2 Episode 1 review: buy it right fucking now.

(Written June 2nd, 2006)

Basically take whatever you thought of HL2 and apply it to Episode 1; that's the rating for the game. Unless you never played HL2, in which case you should avoid this until you have, since you should be familiar with the weapons and enemies and such. (There are no new weapons and only 2 or 3 new enemies, so overall it's just an extension of the original game.)

However... Immediately after playing you should play again with developer's commentary on... HOLY SHIT. This kicks so much ass I can hardly believe it.

It provides a detailed look at the challenges faced and you come away with a lot of info. I just finished the first setting (4-6 maps, wasn't counting), and already this is some of the most fun I've ever had with a game.

Included are problems/benefits/solutions/stories about: graphics, level design, NPC interaction, character development, timing dialogue so as to give a sense of urgency elsewhere when Gordon might be most likely to respond (if he actually ever spoke), potentially gameplay-invasive exposition, cinematic sequences, getting the player to notice events at critical times while retaining freedom of movement and camera, working with playtesters, the balance between dynamic and scripted AI and events, and making scripted events seem less-so.

Of particular interest is how problems arose in play-testing which either ended up being a benefit (DOG's head movements), or led to different level design (3rd Ball-socket bridge). The ball-socket discussion is especially fascinating to me because, except for Journeyman Project (a short and - today - rather uninspiring game), I have never finished a single commercial puzzle-adventure game in my entire life (ok 2 or 3, but with LOTS of cheating), because no matter how much I look around the same areas and manipulate the same objects over and over, I never think of the one critical solution. The commentary about ball-socket puzzles shows both a unique approach to puzzle-building (building up complexity slowly with unique emphasis), as well as the massive importance of play-testing. Many changed aspects I found myself thinking, "Yeah, if I were a play-tester, I'd have assumed the same thing!", or, regarding both ball-socket and ball-tube sequences, "LOL That's the approach *I* thought of, I didn't know about the other ones!" Play-testing yielded all likely approaches by the player, and Valve then made all likely approaches either possible, or explicitly impossible (to which the player was immediately aware). Impossible solutions were never allowed to be ambiguous (i.e. "Well, maybe it's possible how that I have access to this new X..."), which I think puzzle games severely lack.

Another interesting thing to me was Alyx's behavior. In most games, your partner constantly urges you forward when a sense of urgency is called for. As might be expected, playtesting revealed that players found Alyx's urging absolutely f***ing annoying. Eventually they changed her attitude to one of trust in Gordon to set the pace, which makes far less sense from a traditional story-telling perspective and far more sense from a player-operated-story perspective. I'm sure you can think of examples (Like the faerie Navi in Orcarina of Time) of the nagging NPC, and I'm glad Valve decided that, no matter how awkward the behavior seems, it's better than saying something about what to do every 20 seconds for 10 minutes. On the other hand, when a specific event is expected of the player rather than linearly progressing through the level, Alyx is quick to remind you ("Go back and get the next group!"), which is hardly annoying when you know what you're doing and saves loads of aggrivation when you don't.

For people who are likely to read this, who are interested in game development, this thing is a must-buy. Valve is a company of uber 1337 pr0s (they don't even read resum├ęs - that clan is invite only lolololol), and if their products didn't already shine brilliantly with the quality of their work, the description of their perspectives and processes certainly does.

Long live Valve. Someday, most all major games will have developer's commentary, jsut as sure as they have difficulty settings and save files. The abundance of DVD Director's Commentary audio tracks is a predictor of things to come in games.


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