Saturday, April 28, 2007


One of the things that's been bothering me in playing Half-Life 2 is this: it's a great game - so why is it always so hard to get motivated to sit down for another session?

And I think the answer is this: that it's never downhill.

It's a matter of game pacing. Sure, it's great knowing that there's a massive challenge ahead of you. It's fantastic walking into a big, empty arena with lots of RPG ammo on the ground and then hearing the whining of approaching enemy helicopters. The moment of, "Oh shit, now things will be hard," is one of the best parts of gaming.

But you know what's also good? The moment when you know from here on in it gets easier. The downhill moment.

Anyone who's ever played a real time strategy knows what I'm talking about. Building up your base is good, repelling the enemy forces is just fine, but what you're really hanging out for is the bit at the end of each level where you steamroll anything standing in your way.

Or if you've played an RPG - the uphill grind through each level pays off when you get that level up and suddenly everything that used to be hard is now comparitively easy.

It's doesn't always have to be challenging. Sometimes it's fun when things are ridiculously easy.

In Half-Life 2, and for that matter Episode One, it's all uphill. It never gets easy. Even at the end of Half-Life 2, when you're wreaking havoc with the upgraded gravity gun, you're still in very real danger of falling to your death or being the victim of a stray explosion. It's never about what you've just accomplished - it's always about what's next.

It's just it would be nice if sometimes the path went downhill.

Ken Kutaragi Retires

Via Gamespot:

Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Ken Kutaragi is retiring June 19. He'll be fondly remembered as the intelligence behind the incredibly successful Playstation and Playstation 2, and not so fondly remembered as the man who shepherded the PSP and Playstation 3 towards their troubled and lackluster careers. He is to be replaced as CEO by Kazuo Hirai.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Women Persuaded By Direct Gaze

While I'm whipping up a little something-something for this month's Blogs of the Round Table, check out this hidden gem I found in Corvus' bloglines.

Cognitive Daily: If you want to persuade a woman, look straight at her

Some very interesting research in computer augmented negotiation environments, suggesting that women are more likely than men to be persuaded to a point of view by the use of direct gaze, even when the "gaze behaviour was often socially inappropriate". There's some corrollary findings about gender bias in substantive argument assimilation too but I'm not sure that really proves anything and there's probably more focused studies on that elsewhere.

I am, of course, playing the Half-Life 2 milieu at the moment, and direct gaze is something that's used very effectively there to add life to the NPC characters. It's also something that could be particularly powerful as we move further into virtual worlds. Stuff like this and Nick Yee's findings about avatar interrelationships really fascinate me. Anyone who comes across more of it should throw linkage my way. I'm clearly going to have to delve through Cognitive Daily's back catalogue, too.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Further to my earlier post, I'm now somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of the way through Half-Life 2: Episode 1, and it seems that most of what I wanted has been granted to me. The first two chapters give you no weapons but the gravity gun, which is a good move. By taking away your ability to shoot enemies, it removes the traditional run-and-gun mentality and leaves you really free to be immersed in the world the game presents. Friend and ally Alyx Vance is with you pretty much the whole way, and she's got new items of body language to round her out for the extra screen time.

But the thing that's really just blown me away is a sequence that the game entitles "Lowlife". After a train crash, the player and Alyx must travel through a series of underground traffic tunnels in an attempt to reach their destination.

The original Half-Life 2 executed this idea numerous times, including a section riffing heavily on the tunnel breakdown from 28 Days Later. What makes this set-piece genius, though, is its execution.

The player begins the sequence with only the gravity gun (which makes for an unwieldy and ineffective weapon) and the ubiquitous flashlight. Alyx, by contrast, has some variety of semi-automatic pistol. The tunnel is so dark that you can see absolutely nothing except what the flashlight illuminates. In order to progress, you have to light the way ahead through an obstacle course of broken down cars and collapsed girders. The area is crawling with zombies and headcrabs, which Alyx can shoot - but only if she can see them. What's more, the flashlight battery runs down, and can only be recharged by leaving the flashlight off for a period. Some of the more crafty zombies will only begin moving when the lights go out - but luckily you can listen out for their trademark moans and groans. Alyx keeps up running chatter throughout the entire sequence, without becoming repetitive, and also takes the opportunity to reveal in a roundabout manner that she's tired, nervous, and a little scared of the dark. (She tells bad jokes, by the way.)

The role reversal, with the player as guide and the NPC as the muscle, is effective in and of itself, but the sequence also cleverly shows off some of the tech improvements in Episode One, include HDR lighting, which emulates the way the human eye reacts to extremes of darkness and bright light. The darkness-and-light gimmick creates some nice opportunities for clever level design, too. In one instance, your torch beam picks out a long fibrous ligament dangling across the path. Experience with the game will lead the player to visually follow the ligament to the roof to see the barnacle-alien that uses the long sticky tongue to bait prey - and this motion also reveals the nearby headcrab clinging to the ceiling, about topounce! It's a nice horror-style tease and reveal, and the designers obviously thought it was clever too, because they (unwisely) use it again five minutes later.

"Lowlife" is such a fantastic sequence because normally games divide their goals up into different sections - first suspense, then action, then a pause for plot and characterisation. Here the designers fire all chambers simultaneously, combining action, mood, puzzling, and characterisation, and this is exactly the sort of direction that gaming should be going. The icing on the cake is a plethora of small details designed specifically for this sequence, starting with Alyx's bad jokes and irritated comments on the flashlight's battery life, and going through to the way she'll shield her eyes if you shine the light directly at her. She comments on pretty much anything out of the ordinary you lay your eyes on, too.

It's some of the best cinematic gaming I've had in recent memory. Now I just hope the rest of Episode One keeps up the standard!

Half-Life 2

So I've finally joined the rest of the world in actually finishing Half-Life 2. I started it a year and a bit back but I got frustrated by a combination of the severe demand it placed on my system, the excessively lengthy vehicle sequences, and of course Steam.

When it's good, it's very good. The sequences that feature the other named characters are fantastic, notably the opening level and the set-piece towards the end of the game featuring Dog. It's really unfortunate though how often it fails to play to its strength. Half-Life 2 is notable for being genre-leading in plotting, scripted sequences, artificial intelligence, character development and its excellent physics engine. So how come I spend so much time crawling around sewers and ruined urban environments shooting at mindless zombies and headcrabs?

The Ravenholm level, for example, would be a wonderfully moody horror level in any other game, but in Half-Life 2 it feels like a chore you have to progress through in order to get back to the real plot.

Similarly, considering the amazing level of expressiveness in the major characters, and the top notch voice and motion capture used throughout, it seems a shame that the game pulls its punches when it comes to really exploring their relationship with the player. It's pretty clear all the way through that no-one's ever going to be in any actual danger of death, and even if someone were to fall by the wayside it's not something that the player would actually have to cope with or live with.

I've started Episode One, which promises a more intense look at, in particular, the character of Alyx Vance. I'm hoping that it gets it right in adding the elements which would turn a fantastic gaming achievement into a masterpiece of gaming history.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Gaming In 60 Seconds

Since the last time I've been blogging, I've finished an awful lot of games. For those who care, here are some quick summaries.

Final Fantasy XII (PS2): A fantastically addictive experience that will consume 100+ hours of your life - but if you like depth of gameplay, compelling plot, or interesting characterisation you're better off playing an earlier installment of the series. The later dungeon designs are downright idiotic, becoming repetetive, tedious slogs wherein you'll be forced to search for invisible paths and illusionary walls on a scale not seen since the original Might and Magic. Sadly better than most traditional computer RPGs but still not up to scratch for Square-Enix's mascot franchise.

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS): Fun open-ended 2D platforming in the tradition of the Castlevania titles for the Gameboy Advance. This one acts as a direct sequel to the GBA Aria of Sorrow, and sees you once again leading white-haired pretty boy Soma Cruz in a quest against vague and unspecified evil. If anything, Dawn of Sorrow is even easier than its already undemanding predecessor, and you'll breeze through in a couple of days of gameplay. It's a decent ride though, and this time around Soma's ability to capture the souls of defeated enemies and gain their powers is put to better use in crafting puzzles to block your progress. Worth your purchase for the DS if game longevity isn't a major concern to you.

Gitaroo Man (PS2): Everyone who told me this game was good was full of filthy, filthy lies. A pox on their houses. Gitaroo Man comes from Koei, the makers of Dynasty Warriors, and features a similar hardcore guitar metal soundtrack, but that's where the similarities end. You're tasked with fighting the challenge, or challenging the fight, by using the analog stick to follow a rapidly moving line across the screen while simultaneously jamming out using the face buttons, in time to each level's music. In practice, this is eye-wateringly hard, deeply unsatisfying, and will likely just leave you wanting to go back to playing Guitar Hero. Avoid as though it had rabies.

Elite Beat Agents (DS): Every bit as good as Ossu! Tatake! Ouendan!, this extravagant tale of male cheerleading captures most of what made the Japanese original good, while at the same time turning down the difficulty to more realistic levels. Not all the new Western soundtrack will win gold medals, but the excellence of busting your moves to the likes of YMCA and Jumping Jack Flash more than compensates. Must-have for all DS owners.

Cooking Mama (DS): Real cooking, taught through the use of minigames. What's there is definitely strong, but it only took me about ten minutes to start asking, "But then what?" Certainly original; possibly a good buy for non-gamers and the very young. Hard to justify at full price for connoisseurs, though.

Another Code (DS): Aka Trace Memory in the US. Developer CING's first attempt at a DS point-and-click puzzler falls flat due to an uninspiring story and a largely sterile game world. While some obstacles make inspired use of the DS's unique features, on the whole this is likely to leave most consumers cold. Stay away unless you're a die-hard adventure fan and you see it on sale.

Hotel Dusk (DS): Where Another Code bit down hard on the suck pill, CING's second effort in the adventure genre is significantly more impressive. Hotel Dusk combines strong plotting, dialogue, and a unique art style to create a memorable and enjoyable romp through a 70s noir-esque mystery novel. The game sometimes moves on rails and makes you feel more audience than player, but this won't diminish your enjoyment of an all-round class act. Should be seen.

Excite Truck (Wii): Sweet Goat of Moses, this game is fun! Everything you liked best about the Burnout franchise, combined with motion sensitive controls and the sensibilities of the old-school PC classic Stunts. Never have monster trucks spent so much time flying through the air. For people I've shown this to, it seems to sell the Wii in both concept and execution better than anything except perhaps Wii Sports - and Excite Truck has a hell of a lot more staying power. Must-buy for Wii owners.

Well, that's all the things I'm done with since last we spoke. While I'm here, I'll mention that Wii owners who haven't yet obtained and played ActRaiser for their virtual console are uneducated philistines who deserve to be shot in the street. Right in the street, shot.

The Monstrosity

I got my new computer delivered today; the beast I call the Monstrosity. It's a new Dell XPS M1710 gaming thingy, with completely ludicrous "extreme red running lights". Most importantly, it's put me back online.

Now I need to go install things on the Monstrosity. Pretty, pretty things. I'll be back

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Brief Update

Home from Perth and Swancon (back in Canberra). Still no computer. I've ordered myself a new notebook with technical specs of such awesome magnitude as to rival those of Deep Thought. Unfortunately it'll be 2 to 3 weeks till the machine I dubb The Monstrosity arrives so in the mean time still no blogging.

Thanks to everyone who was awesome in Perth; this time I give particular note to Wuffie, Wendy, Mel, Gilligan, Rick, Kandace, John, Jo, Fru, Caris, David, Jocelyn, Kirsten, and pretty much all the Pauls. Plus anyone I've forgotten.

The plan is to be at Convergence over the Greg's Birthday Long Weekend in June. Y'all should come.

If I'm lucky I'll be getting the Wii back online tonight so that should alleviate the internet drought some until the antichrist of laptops is constructed.