Also, this was posted in January — a nice little (YouTube) look at some of the locations in Black Mesa, the Source recreation mod of the original Half-Life. Looks amazing.
March 20, 2007
Also on YouTube, a little Half-Life movie teaser trailer. Not a real trailer, mind you, (well, it’s a real trailer but it’s not a real movie, I guess) but still… sort of gets you pumped for a real Half-Life movie, doesn’t it?
February 8, 2007
January 3, 2007
So, I cleverly wrangled myself an advance evaluation copy of the second Sam & Max episode (okay, I didn’t wrangle anything, cleverly or otherwise — someone at Telltale Games just offered it to me out of the blue), and now I shall attempt a completely impartial review.
I say “attempt” because I’m a huge slobbering Sam & Max fan and I won’t pretend I’m not. The original LucasArts Sam & Max adventure game is one of my favorite games of all time, and I love the S&M comics as well. I once met the creator of the characters, Steve Purcell, while I was working at a Barnes and Noble ages ago — I was actually wearing a LucasArts Sam & Max pin at the time, and he asked about it and introduced himself.
I even have a tattoo on my right shoulder of Max’s head engulfed in flames, an image from the cover of the hardbound collection of Sam & Max comics (my copy is autographed, natch).
So! You see where I’m coming from. I’m a Sam & Max geek and I’m just happy they are once again clomping around on my computer screen in any form whatsoever. Still, I’ll try to write a fair and balanced review for those of you on the fence about whether or not to buy the new games.
In the first episode, the Freelance Police were on the trail of a former child star turned crook, and the television theme continues in episode two, Situation Comedy, with Sam & Max investigating a talk show host named Myra who has taken her studio audience hostage.
While it’s an all-new case, you’ve got some familiar locations from the first episode, like Sam & Max’s office, Bosco’s store, and the tattoo parlor turned therapists office (and now turned newspaper tabloid office). There’s also a new car chase segment, plus a television studio to visit. In fact, if you play your cards right you’ll get Sam and Max on a number of shows — a game show, an American Idol ripoff, a cooking show, and even a sitcom. Figuring out what to do on each of these shows make up the bulk of the puzzles and the fun in this episode, and some characters from the first episode pop up as well.
I enjoyed this episode a bit more than the first. Again, the humor isn’t quite as biting as it was in the original game, but the writing is solid and Max has a witty retort to nearly everything Sam says. I also enjoy that you can talk to Max in different locations to get different topics. While there still aren’t as many props or locations as I’d like, it feels like there’s a bit more to do in this episode, more stuff to click on and more things to look at. Most of the puzzles are fairly easy to figure out, though there were two that stopped me in my tracks for a bit. Overall, it’s a few hours of fun and definitely worth a buy in my book.
I’m still trying to figure out if episodic adventure gaming is such a great idea, though. The idea of a new short adventure every month is definitely appealing, but there are some pretty big limitations. Since each episode needs to stand on its own merits (in case someone decides to just buy episode three and six, or something), you can’t really have a single big long storyline running through the entire adventure. Most props, as well, won’t be carried around between adventures, and it appears many locations won’t be available between episodes, either. So, the usual format of an expansive map with more and more locations becoming available as you play isn’t feasible, nor is the standard adventure game inventory of dozens of items that you’ll eventually use at some point.
At any rate, it’s great to see some adventure games coming back to the PC (Telltale is also doing an episodic Bone series), and if you’re even a casual fan of Sam & Max, I think you’ll enjoy the new episode. Situation Comedy is due out January 5th.
November 8, 2006
On November 21, Bethesda will be releasing new Oblivion content (both via download and retail). It’s called Knights of the Nine, and while it’s not a full-blown expansion pack, it’s apparently got about 10 hours of new gaming, a new quest, and a bunch of new content. It will also include some previously available content like the Wizard’s Tower and Theives Den, which is cool since I was probably going to buy that at some point too.
Amazon shows it for $19.99. There’s an interview about the new content here.
November 3, 2006
Finished up Episode 1 of the new Sam & Max series last night. Total playing time… I’d put that somewhere around maybe two hours. So, not really a huge hunk of game.
The puzzles are really very easy — probably too easy. Still, they’re mostly enjoyable, and there’s a really fun multi-part puzzle involving Sam trying to convince a shrink he’s insane. There’s a mini-game and plenty of little distractions along the way, and I’ll probably play through the episode again to see what I might have missed.
All in all, I don’t think real Sam & Max fans will be disappointed (people just discovering them might be), and I’m looking forward to the next installment.
November 2, 2006
The first episode of the new Sam & Max game is available! You can find it at the Telltale Games site.
I played for maybe twenty minutes last night, and enjoyed it a great deal. Telltale definitely did a better job with S&M than they did with Bone, and it’s highly reminiscent of the original Sam & Max game — some wonderful detail in the art, lots and lots of stuff to click on and play with, and some great humor. The voice work isn’t as good as it was in the original, and the wit isn’t quite as sharp, but just exploring for a few minutes gave me several laughs (out loud!) and dammit, it’s just so good to see those two animated on the screen again. I’ve only done one or two puzzles and while they weren’t especially difficult, they were still fun.
You can pay for the entire six episodes now, or buy them one at a time. The next is due out in January, and then once a month from then until the finish in May. (Paying for them all at once seems a little at odds with the concept of episodic gaming, but it is a little cheaper that way.)
June 23, 2006
VGCats has a great comic this week, highlighting Spore’s ‘create your own creature’ feature and the seemingly endless evolution debate.
And, those fun-loving scamps working on the highly anticipated game apparently sent him a version of the same comic with actual creatures they built in-game. Very cool thing for them to do. It’s always neat when the people making a game take notice of stuff like this.
June 19, 2006
A couple things to keep in mind if you read what I have to say about the first episode of SIN Episodes I downloaded: I’ve never played the original, so I have no idea what the storyline is or what everyone in the game is talking about. It might not matter: I still know who to shoot (everybody) and what to do (shoot everybody), but there are a number of characters who appear from time to time, and I don’t know who they are or what they’re going on about.
The game starts by immediately shoving enormous breasts in your face. I’m not exaggerating — there are huge boobs and they’re totally flopped into your line of sight, filling about half the screen as you lie on a table for about two minutes. The mouth of the head of the person attached to these gigantic Sourceified boobs says some stuff, and then some Eurotrash dude threatens you and injects you with something. Then, you see the ass of the woman with the big boobs, for some reason. Actually, for no reason. But, that’s okay.
Then, you’re rescued by some lady with smaller boobs, and the game is underway, as you flee some facility and get into a car, which the smaller-boobed lady drives while she tells you stuff that I don’t understand. There’s a fair amount of driving, during which you can choose which seat you’d like to sit in, and which window you’d like to lean out of. Later, you’ll get to lean out and shoot at people, but for right now, you can just roleplay a restless poodle.
Some other guy, the “cool techie”, appears on a computer screen, admonishing you about something, since that’s what cool techies do remotely. You know, the whole “What are you doing? Are you crazy? It’s too dangerous! I’m a cool techie in a lab and I’m admonishing you!”
Eventually, you get out of the car, and wander around, then talk to someone else. Then, you finally get to start shooting people.
SIN Episodes features a lot of shooting, and not much else, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that there’s not a lot of variation to the shooting you do. You get a total of three guns, straight from the standard rogue adventurer catalog: pistol, shottie, machine gun. I found myself sticking with the pistol for the most part, since it’s very easy to pop the head off distant enemies with it. Speaking of enemies, there are soldier types, sometimes with jetpacks, and then mutants, and then badass armored chaingun-weilding soldiers, and that’s about it except for a couple boss fights.
The enemy AI is pretty questionable. At first, I thought it was sort of nice that soldiers didn’t immediately spot you. It’s not fair, in games, that as soon as you enter your enemy’s line of sight, he sees you immediately, no matter how far away he is, especially given that I’m constantly getting shot and having no idea where the bullets are coming from. So, it was refreshing to have a soldier walk into a room and not see you immediately. I think, however, this may not have been an intentional design, as some soldiers would continue not to see me even while I was pumping bullets into them from a distance of a few feet. On a stairwell, I encountered a soldier who was apparently searching for me inside a brick wall, as he stood facing the corner, looking back and forth, his face pressed right up against the bricks.
They would also call things out to each other, such as “Attack pattern delta!” or “Flank him!”, which sounds like they know what they’re doing. In reality, they would then just keep doing whatever they were already doing, usually shooting at me from fixed positions.
The chaingun soldiers were more challenging, only because they do, and take, more damage, before exploding to bits, thus denying you the chance to pick up their cool guns, which is lame. The chaingun looked like it’d be fun to use.
The first few levels of the game are fairly uninspired in both level design and gameplay, though they do get better as you progress. You’re called upon to inflitrate the lab of the Eurotrash Guy, who is doing some sort of questionable experiments. (Sound familiar?) Things go horribly wrong and monsters are unleashed as the lab self-destructs. (Sound familiar?) You’re forced to flee the exploding lab, as the monsters attack you as well as the rest of the lab’s personnel. (Sound familiar?). Then the Eurotrash Guy talks to you from behind a bulletproof window, and the lady with the huge rack appears as a hologram and says things. (Sound fam– well, maybe not).
Once you’ve dealt with the lab, you pursue Eurotrash Guy to his high-rise, which is where the game gets a little more fun. There are some intense gunfights inside the building, and then outside on the ledges, and the lady with huge boobs shows up a couple times, in holographic form, to mock you again. The only problem with the high rise levels are that there a million doors, and 99% of them are locked. Since the locked doors look exactly the same as the unlocked doors, you’ll have to try each one, which gets incredibly tiresome.
Eventually, there’s a showdown on the rooftop, which is at the same time challenging and boring. In fact, that could sum up a great deal of the game. There’s tons of action, in fact, there’s very little but action — the entire game is run-and-gun, again, not always a bad thing. But it’s just not exciting non-stop action. It’s one of those games you push yourself through as fast as you can just to see if it’s going to get better at some point. It’s not curiosity or intrigue that compels you, it’s just that you paid for the game and you’re gonna finish it before bedtime.
If you haven’t guessed, I’m not recommending it. I wouldn’t say I’m sorry I downloaded it, really, just that I’ll never play it again. There’s nothing really memorable about it, except maybe the gigantic tits, and there were no super-cool moments of gameplay that made me say “Wow, I’ve got to play that part again.” If you don’t mind paying for a couple hours of mindless shooting, I guess it’s fine, but I like a little more from my games at this point. My advice: skip it.
June 14, 2006
First: If you haven’t played Episode 1 but definitely plan to, please don’t read this. I’m not going to be detailing the game step by step or anything like that, but I’ll talking about a few specific elements that are far more fun to discover on your own. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to buy the game, then at least proceed with caution as there will be some mild spoilers and descriptions of certain elements of the game. I can sum it up right here, however: if you enjoyed Half-Life 2, you’ll definitely enjoy Episode 1.
The game begins a few hours after the end of Half-Life 2, and quickly shows you how Alyx survived and how you managed to emerge from stasis against the G-Man’s apparent desires. It’s a short yet intriguing intro, and about the closest thing to a cutscene that’s ever appeared in Half-Life.
The Citadel has been heavily damaged by your orb-flingin’ ass at the end of HL2, and is both falling apart and preparing to go supernova. To give the citizens time to escape City 17, you have to go back inside the Citadel (you wake up outside) and deal with the unstable reactor core, then travel through the ruined city, both above and below ground, battling zombies, soldiers, and antlions, to reach a train station the citizens are using to flee the crumbling metropolis.
Along the way, some stunning information is revealed: namely, that you’ll have to play Episode 2 and Episode 3 to understand just what the Sam Hill is going on here. It seems that while the Citadel may be falling apart, a new danger is preparing to explode from its shuddering bowels like some sort of alien version of the runs, and it remains to be seen what that means to the planet. My guess: probably nothing good.
Keeping in mind that this is not a sequel to Half-Life 2, but instead a continuation, the game succeeds brilliantly. There are a few boss fights, plenty of puzzles to solve, and some new twists on the familiar Half-Life 2 gameplay. I played through the episode in one sitting, in what I estimate to be about four and a half hours, not quite the six hours we were promised, but considering that playing through a second time with the commentary track on is a lot of fascinating fun in and of itself, the game is more than worth the price of admission. The familiar enemies and style of gameplay make it a seamless transition from the end of HL2, but the new twists means you’re still learning to play while you play, and it never feels like Valve just threw some leftover levels at you to make a quick buck.
You’re challenged to find new ways to use your old weapons, particularly the gravity gun. Familiar enemies, such as antlions, remain unchanged, but there are new ways you are forced to deal with them, which adds some freshness to the situations you find yourself in. Inside the citadel, the Combine orbs have a new use and are the crux of many of the puzzles. Even rollermines have a fun new role to play at a few points in the game.
You’ll see and interact with many of the characters from HL2, such as Dog, Dr. Kleiner, Eli Vance, Barney, and of course Alyx, who accompanies you for nearly the entire episode. Like Half-Life 2, you walk away with some shadowy new information to process, and just flipping through the Steam forums or poking around Wikipedia will show you the new theories popping up on everything from the possible genetic background of the ministrider glimpsed in the game (it’s apparently called a “Hunter”, though I would have gone with “Sprinter”, myself), to speculation about the ultimate fate of Dr. Breen. Plus, the Vortigaunts! What the hell got into them?
A wonderful addition to the Half-Life 2 beastiary is the Combine zombie. Sometimes they shamble, sometimes they rush you, and they can take a fair amount of punishment before they go down. They have a great secondary attack as well, one that’ll have you backpedaling like mad to avoid. Particularly enjoyable is that they have that harrowing zombie moan, though it’s altered due to the Combine’s mechanized speech patterns, which is a fantastic and creative touch.
Stalkers (former citizens who have been brutally transformed into skeletal slaves) play a part inside the Citadel, too, though they aren’t so much an enemy as an obstacle. You don’t really fight the Stalkers as much as you solve them, and even still, their roles are fairly minimal, though they’re still wonderfully creepy, tragic, and have an weird and unexplained hatred of Combine orbs. I was sort of hoping for a bit more hot Stalker action, as the trailer for Episode 1 seemed to hint at, but they really just amount to barriers instead of baddies.
The Combine soldiers feel different, too: more mobile, more agile, and harder to take down at range. As in Lost Coast, they can repel down on you from above, plus they’ve learned to blow open doors and rush you in a haze of smoke and debris, and leap quickly down from overhead walkways to engage you.
This episode’s main focus, of course, is Alyx Vance. She’s by your side for the duration, and as any gamer knows, most NPCs generally begin to show their robotic guts after just a few minutes. Repeated dialogue, clunky AI, path-finding issues, and odd reactions (or lack of reactions) to things going on around them generally spoil any brief illusions of intelligence among computer-controlled characters. Valve puts Alyx by your side for hours — hours — and she comes through with flying colors.
Don’t get me wrong: she doesn’t mimic a real, human-player companion (which is good, because if she’d started jumping up and down for no reason and saying “OMGLOL” it would spoil the atmosphere), but for an NPC she’s remarkably compelling, capable, and endearing. She’s been upgraded from HL2, and has a lot of new moves and neat dynamic scripting tucked under her utility belt. Shine a flashlight in her face in a darkened room and she’ll shield her eyes and grimace. Try to engage her while she’s busy disabling a control panel and she’ll ask you to hang on a second. She can navigate her surroundings just as well as you can (better, really: she can climb). If you reach an impasse, she’ll make some suggestions on how to proceed, without ordering you around incessantly.
A great deal of the audio commentary is devoted to her; all the thinking, testing, tweaking, and experimenting that went into Alyx to get her just right, and Valve did get her just right. You lead the way and she keeps up. You help her, and she helps you. You never really feel like you’re babysitting her, neither does it seem like she’s running the show. It’s a great balance.
I think perhaps the only problem with having Alyx around to talk to for hours at a time is that it really reminds you that you don’t talk, ever, something that only seems strange when someone else is around chatting you up. The refreshing nature of Gordon’s utter silence feels weird for the first time in the Half-Life world, simply because there’s someone with you at nearly all times. She cracks jokes, she gets deadly serious, she expresses concern and caring for you, and you don’t say a damn thing in return. I know women are drawn to the strong silent type, but I’m starting to feel like Freeman is kind of a dickweed.
The level design of Episode 1 is up to Valve’s high standards, particularly inside the Citadel. Things are going terribly wrong as you explore the innards of this dying behemoth, and it goes far beyond the flickering lights, showers of sparks, and exploding control panels that usually indicate a facility in distress (like Black Mesa in HL1). In its death throes, the Citadel seems to be lashing out (or in) at anything that moves, and it makes for an exciting and deadly obstacle course. Enjoy the sight of Combine soldiers perishing in one of the Citadel’s malfunctions, and then realize you’re about to cross through the same area where you just saw them get obliterated. Great stuff.
City 17 isn’t doing so well either, and you’ll traverse the ruined streets as antlions burrow up through the pavement, soldiers ambush you, and zombies pour out of buildings. There are parking garages, buildings, and a hospital to struggle through as well, sometimes in complete darkness. And, since Valve knows how much we enjoy seeing NPCs fight each other, a tradition dating back to their first game, there are a number of sequences where zombies and Combine and antlions duke it out with each other in a way that makes you feel like it would be happening even if you weren’t there. Hang back and wait to pick off the survivors, or wade right in and get your gloves dirty.
There’s a nice showcase of HDR as well, as in one sequence a gunship fires down upon a building you’re in. As sections of the roof explode into splinters, sunlight pours in, momentarily blinding you as you search for a clean shot, which makes the battle more challenging. The game sounds great, of course, and there’s some excellent new music that amps up the excitement and suspense. The audio commentary, as I said, is highly enjoyable. As you play through a second time, you’ll find a series of hovering, spinning commentary icons you can enable, allowing you to listen to a number of Valve team members talk about the specific areas you’re in, their design process, and a lot of neat game-building philosophy.
All that said, I’ve got a few minor issues with the game. There were times in Episode 1 where I felt more like I was playing the original Half-Life, which isn’t really a bad thing — I love the original game and I even still play it from time to time. Thing is, the original mainly confined you to interior areas and had you spend hours creeping along narrow hallways, peering through the darkness, and clearing out small rooms at a relatively slow pace. There is a lot of fun and tension in this style of gameplay, but I think Half-Life 2, with its expansive outdoor areas, really spoiled me for this kind of gaming. A lot of it is preference, I guess, but I really enjoy being outside with room to spare as opposed to being crammed into a corridor, hunting for an exit and having monsters pop out at me.
The game also feels a wee bit short on action. Some of the commentary explains the designers’ concerns about player battle fatigue — for instance, in HL2, the game alternates between extended, intense combat situations and relatively peaceful sequences. This allow you to take a breather by solving a puzzle or getting some dialogue from various NPCs between heart-pounding battles.
In HL2, I think this balance was absolutely perfect. The action sequences were long, sometimes very long, but never too long, and it was great to have cool-down points in between, chances to look around and explore in safety or get information from the game’s characters, or just admire the scenery.
In Episode 1, however, the action sequences all felt a little too short. It seemed that no sooner were you joining a battle than the battle was over and you were called upon to solve a puzzle or find a way to unlock a door. As a result, the game felt a bit stop-and-go: like driving in heavy traffic, every time you get up to top speed you have to hit the brakes. While it’s good to have a change of pace in a game, I think it comes a bit too quickly overall in Episode 1.
Like I said, you don’t gain any new weapons during Episode One — again, not really a downside because the HL2 weapons are still fun, there’s plenty of chances to use your gravity gun, and there are emergency flares you can use to set zombies on fire, which is enjoyable and more or less constitutes a new attack. I’m fine without new weapons (with one possible exception – see below), but one thing I truly wish Valve would implement is the ability to look down the sights of your guns.
When I played the full HL2 conversion modification S-Mod a few months ago, this was its most enjoyable feature. It really gets you in the firefight if you can forget the on-screen crosshair and sight right down the barrel at your enemies. It adds immersion and excitement, lets you feel the guns really jumping in your hands, makes you feel like you’re really aiming, and is far more fun and visceral than shooting from the hip. I think it’d be a kickin’ option to add to the next episode. It just amps up the combat in a way a superimposed crosshair in the middle of the screen can’t manage.
Another thing: there’s a sequence that takes place probably midway through the game, which has Alyx taking up a position in a sniper nest, and using a sniper rifle to pick off Combine soldiers and zombies in your vicinity. The commentary on this level tells us this was originally designed to take place before the player had any weapons, which would have given it a bit more urgency. It’s still a neat part of the game, and it’s fun watching Alyx blow zombies away just before they reach you.
Frankly, though, it would be a hell of a lot more fun to do the sniping yourself. If Alyx were the one running around, helpless, while you picked off threatening enemies with the sniper rifle, wouldn’t that be a lot more enjoyable? Granted, Alyx is indestructible (as far as I can tell), but it could just as easily be a group of citizens you need to shepherd across an area by clearing a route for them with the rifle. (I even tried this out in Garry’s Mod, spawning a couple Judith Mossmans (Mossmen?) and Kleiners to run feebly around amid a swarm of zombies while I used the Counter-Strike Scout rifle to protect them, and it was fun). It seemed that, for this sequence, Valve was more concerned with giving Alyx cool things to do than they were with giving the player cool things to do, and that’s not really a cool thing. To do.
I’m the hero, right? That’s a big part of why I play games, after all. If I want someone else to do all the fun stuff while I stand around watching, I’ll just turn off the computer and live my normal life. And I’m not saying it’s not neat to see Alyx doing things like slamming the butt of her shotgun into a zombie’s face, but it would be much more neat if I could do them, too. Same with the sniper sequence. Let me do the shooting. I’m the player, and since it’s single-player I’m the only player, and I should be the catalyst, not the observer.
While we’re on the topic, I also think it might be about time we got our hands on that sniper rifle in general. They’ve appeared in both Half-Life 2 and in Episode 1, but they’ve remained maddeningly out of reach (Alyx doesn’t turn hers over to you when she’s done). Sure, we’ve got the crossbow, which is a great weapon. You can zoom with it, and it’s more challenging than a sniper rifle since you don’t get instant kills — the bolts (threads of rebar, in a nice ramshackle rebel touch) are physics-driven, so you have to allow for gravity and your target can evade the shot by moving. Plus, nailing soldiers to the wall will never get old.
But I kinda want that sniper rifle, man. I’ve been playing the HL2: Capture the Flag mod which has the Combine sniper rifle as one of its weapons, and it’s just plain fun to send someone pinwheeling from miles across the map. I know the rifle could make key moments of the game too easy, but it’s not hard to limit the amount of ammo lying around, as with the crossbow, to ensure it’s not overused.
Anyway. Despite those minor gripes, Episode 1 is a fun, exciting adventure. There’s enough variation to feel like this isn’t a retread, and yet it does feel like a genuine continuation of the story. It’s probably too early to declare episodic content an unqualified succes, but it definitely appears Valve has made yet another good move by exploring the possibilities.
Bring on Episode 2.