Monday, March 8, 2010

Do Two Half-Life's Make A Whole?

Well, Portal 2 has been officially announced for the holidays--this time Valve told us using a straight-forward news release rather than their recent viral malarky (but don't worry, the press release contained a hidden login for the BBS site that revealed a co-op mode). Details will be unveiled over the coming month, but for right now we know a few things: GLaDOS is back, Chell is probably back, there's a co-op mode, and the game will be a full-size release (Portal is relatively small, taking only a few hours to get through on the first go, and only costing $10-$20 depending on where you buy it).

All this Portal news has made me curious about the Half-Life series, since the two take place in the same universe. For the uninitiated, Half-Life takes place in the Black Mesa research facility, Portal takes place in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, and according to the mythology of the games the two corporations are rivals. Supposedly Half-Life 2: Episode 2 finishes up on the Borealis, a ship owned by Aperture Science. So there is further speculation that Portal 2 will tie in to the as-yet-unreleased Half-Life 2: Episode 3 somehow.

This would be much more exciting if I had played the Half-Life games, which I haven't. I have them all--I picked up the original on a whim and got the sequels with The Orange Box. But they tend to make me a bit sea-sick--especially the first one. But, again, with all this Portal news, I decided to give it another go--I futzed with the settings to find something that would be less grating on my sense of equilibrium (and was successful: 2-1 mouse movement and a 4:3 screen ratio did the trick). So now I've gotten about a third of the way through the original.

And holy shit...

Valve's fingerprints are pretty easy to recognize. Their games are all first-person shooters with a highly-developed story that is told interactively (read as: no cut-scenes). There's usually a pretty dark sense of humor at play, and the games are designed with an eye towards subverting expectations and making sure that the damned thing is--if nothing else--fun. You come to expect this from them--but I really wasn't expecting so much from their debut release. Hell, Half-Life came out in 1998; the pinnacles of PC shooters at that time were Duke Nukem and Doom. The zenith of PC puzzlers at that time was Riven.

But it's all there in Half-Life--the jokes, the surprises (floors surprisingly dropping out from under you as you enter a room), the creepy bad-guys, the background action, all those things that really immerse in you a universe are there. And even if you aren't following the story, it's pretty easy to play the game--kill anything that attacks you, do what it takes to advance. Characters are easily identifiable, even at a distance. And for a "shooter", there's a surprisingly large emphasis on puzzling. Not hard to see why it was considered such a break-through when it came out. And while visually, it's a bit dated, I'm having tremendous fun playing it.

You know, now that it doesn't make me want to throw up.

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