Gravity Gun Anyone?
David Jaffe, the creative mastermind behind the PS2 blockbuster God of War, recently criticized Ubisoft's King Kong movie tie-in game; while many critics praised the decision to drop the HUD display, Jaffe claimed this was a step towards Hollywood-izing video games. He argued that interaction should come via the player's actions as opposed to the director's cutscenes, and that cutscenes actually ruin the immersiveness.
These thoughts in today's market fly in the opposing direction of the industry's current obsession with celebrity endorsement and the cursed movie tie-in. Half-Life 2, however, shows that a game can have the best of both worlds: Hollywood style production values (lending, as oppose to dominating, gameplay) and a game world in which the player is free to manipulate everything in the virtual playground. This is immersion at its finest.
Very few games thus far have successfully blended both mediums together so convincingly; cinematic cutscenes can be found in any game, but a game where the cinematic feel carries over into the player's hands is not so easy to accomplish. Examples of this rare amalgamation would be Jaffe's own God of War, Resident Evil 4, and, of course, the game which started the whole craze all those years ago Half-Life.
Half-Life 2 doesn't use any fancy tricks or MGS-length cutscenes to immerse its players; everything from the lush world to the often-chatty characters is viewed via Gordon Freeman's eyes, and all you have to do is walk away if you don't want to participate in the interactive cutscenes.
Despite its pretty (or is that gritty?) sheen, there have been compromises with this build. The Xbox version isn't as pretty as its year-old PC counterpart; the details and draw distance are noticeably downgraded; the framerate, at times, can be quite erratic; and there are a few minor collision detection glitches and bits of stiff animation. But that doesn't take away from the fact that this is still a visual delight. One that further proves the next generation consoles can wait.
Aside from the cinematic presentation, storytelling, voice acting, and intelligent (and often humorous) dialogue, HL2 has two things that sets it apart from every other FPS on the market: its level design and the physics engine.
For those new to the HL universe, what awaits you is quite simply some of the best game architecture ever conceived; in fact the level design is up there with the very best in the industry: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, and Resident Evil 4 to name a handful. At the start you arrive on a train in a derelict station in utter bewilderment of your surroundings, but within minutes you're running on the rooftops of apartments evading the bullets of your foes as Matrix-style droids pursing you at every corner. It's so cleverly put together that you will often find yourself in huge, open areas, but not once will you lose your sense of direction. Yes, it is fairly linear. However, the zombie-slash-alien infested towns and swarming-with-troops cities provide for much exploration. So the path set forth by the developers is never an overbearing issue. But one must remember that some of the best games of this generation have been more linear then this: namely, God of War and the four which were mentioned earlier in this very paragraph.
Valve's physics engine has been HL2's centerpiece for years now. Even before the release of the PC version in November of 2004 gamers were abuzz with hype and speculation. And then they finally got to play with the gravity gun.
If the games in the Grand Theft Auto series provide gamers with a sandbox in which to play, Half-Life 2 and Gordon's gravity gun allow gamers to destroy said world -- with itself. Every wooden crate, steel barrel, iron scrap, television set, and watermelon -- yes, watermelons -- can be used to clear a path through a hallway filled with troops or sandpit overflowing with man-eating creatures.
This isn't new to gaming; Midway got their first with Psi-Ops followed closely by Free Radical's Second Sight, but these two, as enjoyable as they are with their use of gravity gun-like telekinesis, fell short when compared to the gravitational shenanigans found in HL2. I found myself using the gravity gun for nearly all the gunplay. Not that Half-Life 2 is lacking when it comes to firepower, far from it; each gun handles and reacts differently, and by the end of the game you'll have accumulated an impressive arsenal at your disposal; it's just that it's more fun to grab one of your foes (with the modified gravity gun one acquires late in the game) and swing them around in midair like a rag doll before throwing them hundreds of feet to their death. Or into other foes. Again, clearing a pain-free (for you, that is) path.
Valve has so expertly and effortlessly combined many gameplay styles together -- a satisfying FPS combat system, vehicle sections, and squad tactics -- giving you total control in an open, cinematic world that's ripe for destruction the likes of Hollywood has never seen. You don't just control Gordon Freeman; you become the "free man."
6 March 2006