Recent gaming: Half-Life, Half-Life 2 and Portal

I’ve been playing through a couple of Valve’s games over the past few months. They’ve taken longer than I expected due to, you know, Life, but I’ve enjoyed them enough to consider posting some thoughts about them.

The games have been played as part of my ongoing attempt to minimise my frankly terrifying to-play list. It spans generations of consoles and about the past two decades of PC gaming, so there’s more than enough to be going on with. The PC playing has ramped up in the past little while as I built my own computer and now can play modern games at at least the native resolution of my lounge TV, with all bells and whistles on.

So, I figured it was time to play through the Half-Life universe again. I began with the Source conversion of Half-Life, which offered a slight graphical upgrade beyond the original goldsrc version. Other than higher-res character models, everything is pretty much the same. There was a lot of blockiness in the game, but that added to the charm.

Chunktacular.

Half-Life was still enjoyable, even though it’s a 1998 game at heart. It features a lot of first-person shooter features – voiceless protagonist, enemies that spawn from bullshit locations just to ensure maximum player damage, aliens and gibs – but also seemed to have a lot more development put into the story aspect of the game. It’s also very difficult – sections of the game had me ragequitting a couple of times, which I’d forgotten, as these days, games (save for the Souls series) tend to be a little more hand-holding, unless they’re bullet-hell shmups.

I guess what I liked about the game, and what forgave its appearance, is the fact that there’s always a narrative reason for you to do what you do. It pinches the paranoia of The X-Files pretty well, and has one of the creepier characters I’ve encountered in games. There’s a lot of gameplay variation (and some unforgiving AI targeting) and it seemed a blast, at least as much as I remembered from the past playthroughs. The alien incursion seemed deserved, as did the government attempts to shut down the Area 51-alike area. It was stupid and fun, much like a high concept movie. I guess the sell for this would be “physicist kicks ass”, pretty much.

The add-ons – Opposing Force and Blue Shift – weren’t as successful, with the latter being one of the shortest things I’ve played in a while, with a pretty unsatisfying ending. These add-ons cast you in the role of Freeman’s enemies (Opposing Force) and of a security guard (Blue Shift) and while they’re interesting as they deepen the story experience by providing alternate views of points of the tale, they feel like cash-ins.

Hut hut hut!

Filing! Oh boy.

Despite this shoe-horned feeling and graphical dating, I felt the need to continue.

(Yes, I know there’s the Black Mesa remake – I do have that on my list to play, the same as the enhanced version of HL2 – I just need a bit of a break from the world at the moment.)

Half-Life 2 immediately took the graphical fidelity up a notch. I played through everything available for this series (excluding the deathmatch component) because it led so naturally. The engine used for the game looked gorgeous when run on full, and added improved physics and lighting effects. Coupled with some frankly gorgeous location design, it was a lot of fun to just stroll around and look at things, given the Eastern European dystopian setting.

Taking place two decades from the original, HL2 caught up with characters we already knew, casting Freeman in the role of a sort of liberator, albeit one with a neat gravity gun weapon. There seemed much more design consideration here, and the way the architecture of the ruling Combine aliens colonised and changed the existing buildings was inspired. Everything seemed more organic than in the original, gorily so, when you consider the Ravenholm section and the effects of gravity-gun-shot sawblades on shambling zombies.

There’s certainly some balance issues – some of the vehicle sections appear interminable – but overall it’s a tightened version of the mechanics at play in the first game. The story is simple enough – Freeman has to shut down the Combine’s monolithic base of operations, visible almost everywhere – but the path to it is circuitous.

The expansions continue along the simple story path – the first sees you returning to the tower, while the second has you attempting to meet up with other refugees in order to launch a rocket. They’re satisfying but short, and feel like content chopped out of the first game. Also, they’re frustratingly unfinished; the end of Episode Two sets up a new part of the story – a Philadelphia Experiment-style ship – but Episode Three has become the gold standard in vaporware, and probably will never eventuate. It’s disappointing, as the narrative is great at pointing you in a direction, and the realisation you won’t, in all likelihood, get there, is deeply frustrating.

Finally, I played through Portal, which takes place in the same universe as Half-Life. Aperture Science is an opposition organisation to Black Mesa, where Freeman works, though you can play the game without knowing this and not miss anything.

Portal is basically an extended tech demo. Its core mechanic is the then-novel development of portal technology, something Valve snapped up from outside developers, but the story they’ve chosen to use to frame this is more touching and interesting than anything in the preceding Half-Life games.

Er. Ok then.

Again, there’s a voiceless protagonist. This time, you’re Chell, a woman who wakes up in a pristine test chamber. Through the game, you complete test chambers armed with only the Portal Gun. There’s still a FPS feeling to the game, but it’s really a physics puzzler, and you’re taken through the steps necessary to get solutions solidly. It never feels too difficult, if you stop and have a look around, and the game can be completed quickly, if you’ve a mind to.

Hmmm.

Completing the game quickly would probably rob you of the experience of watching the guiding computer’s mind unravel. GLaDOS is one of the great characters in gaming, and her behaviour becomes understandable when you realise she’s essentially a woman in bondage. There’s a pleasing awfulness to how the sterility of the test chambers and the even nature of your guide’s voice turns to decrepitude and madness. The decline in the game is amazing, and we’re shown (not told) so much that cutscenes would only fuck up.

It’s remarkable how much I enjoyed Portal on this, my fourth playthrough. It still seems fresh and fun, and there’s a gotcha satisfaction to be found in its completion. The sadness you feel towards GLaDOS is real, and still surprising. For something designed to demonstrate tech, it punches well above its weight.

(This is the end-credits song, which has been unpicked in great detail here. It’s a pretty sweet song.)

I’m about to begin Portal 2, which I played only recently. It over-eggs the pudding slightly, and misses the lightness of touch that the original has, but it’s still an excellent game.

So there we have it. Valve are a lot of things, but when they’re on form they’re untouchable. I didn’t think I’d come through a playthrough of these titles and come down on the side of the short puzzler, but it makes sense: it proves the adage that sometimes less is more. If you’ve a computer and you’ve not played these, you really should, as they’re famed for a reason.

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