22 March 2008

I finally got a chance to play this modern classic of a game (it's about three years old now, I think?) when I bought Orange Box for the Xbox 360. I finished it in only four sittings, absolutely hooked every time I would sit down and delve into it.

I particularly like the atmosphere. There's a real sense of urgency in events, you never sit still and there's never a moment where you can relax. As soon as you enter a safe zone, something will happen to make you want to leave, real fast. Furthermore, it's so weird that all this alien/scientist gone bad/Black Mesa stuff is happening in a totally ordinary suburban setting, at broad daylight. It makes it unreal and creepy, and pretty unique. The first hour of the game was particularly well-structured. I had to run from the Combine agents and despite my having no knowledge of the level or where to go, I seemingly always took the correct route when jumping across trains or crashing into people's living rooms. The game probably set up dozens of little hints and pointers at where to go, but never too explicit, so I felt really smart all the time. The experience was seamless and exhilarating.

And hell, even the subsequent vehicle race across sewers and canals was fun, because they deftly kept it not too difficult and pretty linear. Even so, there were two parts where I became extremely frustrated, which happens ever so swiftly when you're operating a pregnant tank. At one point I got stuck between two logs, and the second time I couldn't find my way fast enough and it turned out I needed to find an obscure hole in a container and blow the lid off. The helicopter face-off at its end was cool, but not really epic. For some reason it didn't work very well; I never felt like I was really doing anything but randomly shooting in the air hoping the automatic targeting reticule would lock onto the enemy. It just goes to show, even with a vehicle segment as polished as this, you'd better be damned careful what you do and give players enormous amounts of slack and benefit-of-doubt.

On the whole I was always confused while going through the game, in that I never really had a good handle on the events that were transpiring. I know HL2 is hardly the game for huge plot exposition through talking characters or -god forbid- cinematics, but it did leave me puzzled about what was going on. Never having finished HL1 I was only roughly aware of what happened at the end with the G-man, but even so I couldn't quite extrapolate what had happened to the world. Why is City 17 important? Why are the Vortigaunts suddenly allies? Were the Combine introduced in the first game already? All things that weren't very hard to fill in myself, but they did remain somewhat obscure.

I also love how the easy mode is exactly that -very easy. There were a few nice slightly challenging things, but on the overall I never had to worry about dying. And so, I had all the room to play leisurely and pay attention to the details and the atmosphere. I'm looking forward to playing Episode 1. I'm sure it'll be superb. I'll get you yet, G-man!