Review: Half-Life

Reviewed on PC.

You know those days where nothing goes right? When you’re late to work, then you accidentally release a bunch of homicidal aliens, then the military turns up to execute everyone? No?

Half-Life is a 1998 first person shooter that had a massive influence on games that came after it. It pushed away from the waves of Doom-clones with the goal of delivering a more realistic and cinematic experience. You play as Gordon Freeman, a scientist who works at the Black Mesa facility, and tries to repel the alien threat unleashed after an experiment goes wrong. The story isn’t groundbreakingly original, but what was notable at the time was the fact the narrative is delivered by listening to NPCs and observing events in-game, rather than through cutscenes. This makes the game feel like an unbroken experience, instead of game levels divided up by plot dumps.

The game features a good variety of environments, including a labs with little puzzles to solve, areas swamped by hazardous chemicals, a rail system with a cart you can ride and the desert outside the facility. The areas don’t usually feel like believable spaces, but you feel a sense of momentum and regularly see something new to keep things interesting.

Half-Life is a shooter, so unsurprisingly, it has shooting. The game gives you the expected melee weapon, pistol, shotgun and so on, along with more unusual arms like a gauss cannon and a crossbow, and Freeman is allowed to carry all his arsenal at once, since realistic weapon limits weren’t a thing yet. As for the things receiving the bullets, the aliens are fun to fight and there are plenty of different types to keep things fresh. Fighting the aliens feels satisfying, as the weapons feel suited to combating them; sadly, the same can’t be said of the military enemies. The soldiers don’t react to incoming fire until they drop dead, and they have pretty much perfect aim, meaning some confrontations boil down to the player and the soldier pummelling each other until one drops. Add to this the fact they take a few billion rounds before feeling mildly uncomfortable and the encounters before you find the punchy weapons are pretty punishing. On the flip side, if you are the one with the drop on them, they are completely oblivious to their adjacent squadmate’s head exploding. The AI is usually quite smart, but if the soldiers can’t see you, they are easy to exploit.

As with many games of the late 90s and early 2000s, Half-Life includes platforming as a way to shake things up. This platforming is abysmal. The main problem is the way you move; Freeman runs at a superhuman speed and decelerates, rather than halts, when you stop pressing a movement key. The enemies posed a minimal threat in comparison with Freeman’s hyperactive sliding. During my playthrough, I skidded off a thousand ledges to my death; skidded into missiles; skidded into live grenades and skidded onto mines. First person platforming is awkward at the best of times, and adding unpredictable movement into the mix sometimes make the frustration hard to handle. I later discovered there is a button to fully stop you moving, but it’s pretty unintuitive, and I had usually overshot my target and been injured/killed before I could react. On a similar note, the ladders that do not have a platform opposite them are deathtraps, as heading down them is next to impossible, so you end up with more injuries.

The final few chapters are a let-down. The pace has been ratcheted up and you assume things are about to dramatically conclude, but instead you are greeted by the most unpleasant platforming in the game, with different gravity to the level you spent the last ten hours compensating for, topped off by a liberal helping of projectiles flying at you. One of these levels features throwing your now limited ammo at a giant spider with a huge scrotum, and most of your healing will be done by sitting in pools that give you enough time to do all your chores. While there are some visually interesting aspects to the environments (no I’m not talking about the scrotum spider), the general experience is pretty negative, and Gabe Newell himself stated he regrets the final section.

On the technical side, I didn’t have many problems. I wrote this review in July 2017, and during that month valve released an update fixing a number of bugs. It is extremely rare for a game to receive support nineteen years on, so kudos for that. One issue I did run into was NPCs’ dialogue being too quiet, which meant I missed a lot of exposition and objective updates.

Half-Life is one of the milestones in gaming, and it’s influence can be felt in most shooters that succeeded it. As a person who played it for the first time in 2017, it’s easy to zone in on the aspects that make it’s age apparent, but it still has plenty to offer the modern player. I particularly like the tone of the early game, which feels like horror as much as sci-fi. I enjoy the shooting, which is in a sweet spot between arcade-like and believable. Aside from the last few chapters, it also keeps a good pace, periodically introducing new weapons, enemies and environmental problems to keep things moving. Half-Life is still worth a play, even if you ‘weren’t there’, but be prepared for some frustration.

Recommended? Yes

Review: Mass Effect 2

Reviewed on PC.

Mass Effect 2 is another one of those ‘greatest ever’ games. It is unique amongst it’s acclaimed peers by having alien snogging as a feature, in addition to strong writing and excellent characters.

Mass Effect 2 starts with the legendary Commander Shepard being killed. Protagonists had a habit of being killed in the first few minutes in the early 2010s: Adam Jensen, Subject Delta, The Courier from New Vegas. Thankfully, a shadowy corporation reconstructs them to spend the other nineteen hours and fifty minutes combating a nightmarish alien race known as The Collectors. In the lead up to the assault, you put together a crack team of specialists, and are responsible for acquiring better equipment so you go into battle with more than a few sharpened rocks. The story is a good fit for an RPG, giving you a clear goal and a reason to take on the side missions; your ending is dependent on a combination of effort you put in, your decision making and a little bit of chance.

The characters of Mass Effect 2 are probably it’s biggest strength. They range from generic military humans to introspective assassin space frogs, all with high quality voice acting, and you are certain to find at least a few interesting. The specialists are recruited by completing main missions, but beyond the initial recruitment you will need to regularly check up on them and complete their dedicated sidequests to improve their effectiveness, and more importantly, schmooze them. These quests involve you solving a personal issue with them, but weirdly the majority include a problem with a character’s parent, so they can feel like they are retreading the same ground.

The game takes you through a number of hub worlds. When not on a mission, you can walk around your ship and interact with your crew. There are then civilian areas you can visit, with shops and optional jobs, but more importantly they are full of interesting people to talk to. These environments are often beautiful to look and do a good job of demonstrating the technology, societies and politics of universe you are in. The world building is let down a bit by the fact combat areas are quite obviously designed to facilitate cover shooting, rather than simulating a believable space.

The whole game is visually memorable, which furthers the blockbuster cinematic feel the game is going for. Along with effects like lens flare, film grain and heavy use of the colour orange, there is an excellent use of light and contrast, which leads to some fantastic looking scenes; the discussions with your boss in darkness with a sun behind him are permanently burned into my brain.

The Mass Effect series is known for it’s emphasis on player choice, and you pick most of your responses in conversations. Many conversations let you ask for a person’s thoughts on a particular topic, but a lot are morality based responses to another character, where you can pick a ‘good’, ‘bad’ or neutral response. The problem is that not committing to either all good or all bad responses means you will not have enough ‘paragon’ or ‘renegade’ points to pull off the special morality dependent actions that are regularly available. Picking the responses that seem right to you is also a problem, since the choice you click might not be anything like what the character actually says. Despite it’s numerous issues, the dialogue is often engrossing and worth paying attention to.

Mass Effect 2’s narrative is broken up by third person shooting sections. The combat is indicative of the year of release, since it is made up of taking cover and regenerating health. The cover mechanics are pretty rudimentary, since you can’t turn a corner or switch to a nearby piece of cover, but you are allowed to shoot at enemies behind or to the side of you without stepping away from your wall (which is a problem with most cover shooters outside of generally being dull). A more minor quibble is the fact the pacing of combat on PC can be stunted, since scrolling through weapons means you have to watch every gun drawing animation before you get the one you want. The formula of shootout, corridor, shootout, boss fight that most missions use can get tiresome as well, but the game sometimes shakes things up with twists like direct sunlight causing damage. Ultimately, combat is perfectly adequate, but not the main draw.

In order to buy upgrades, you need mining resources. To get these, you play a minigame where you scan a planet and fire probes when you get a signal. Even the strongest signals only yield small amounts of resources, so if you actually want the better equipment, you will spend excruciating amounts of time in this mode. Thankfully, subsequent playthroughs start you with huge amounts of all resources, so at least the tedium is cut out of replays.

My copy of Mass Effect 2 had it’s fair share of bugs. Most problems seemed to be caused by cover, for example characters rapidly stuttering in and out of it, and Shepherd’s adventure reached a premature end when he permanently got stuck on a desk. The most spectacular of the cover bugs occurred during the final mission, when Shepard was suddenly launched high into the air and died from the resulting fall. Elsewhere, characters would occasionally become terrifying pitch black shapes with nothing but their eyes remaining, some cutscenes would have the person speaking out of frame before sliding in, and the ship on the galaxy map would sometimes refuse to move after a boring mining session.

While I’ve pointed out a lot of issues, Mass Effect 2 gives you a real feeling of being faced with an enormous threat. It’s combat may not be the most groundbreaking, but the writing and atmosphere are exemplary, and it holds up very well. The suicide mission is likely to be one of the tensest gaming moments you ever experience, so if you value story in your games, give Mass Effect 2 a play.

Recommended? Highly

Review: Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Reviewed on PC. Mild spoilers.

What mechanics do you think you’ll find in stealth game Splinter Cell: Blacklist? Metal Gear Solid style infiltrations using state of the art gadgets? Being conscious of movement speed and light levels, similar to the Thief series? How about Uncharted climbing?

Splinter Cell: Blacklist follows super spy Sam Fisher and his band of boring teammates, as they fly around the world in their mobile air base responding to attacks by a terrorist group called ‘The Engineers’. The Engineers have released a ‘blacklist’, which hints at an attack that will be carried out by the group every seven days. Fisher’s group comprises of Grim, Briggs and Charlie. Fisher himself has been stripped of both the sense of humour he had in previous appearances, and his original voice actor, in the hopes of insulting all long time fans. Grim is a long time partner of Sam, who damaged their trust in the last game, meaning a lot of this game has the two bickering while the player feels uncomfortable. Briggs is a younger field operative and seems determined to be more boring than Fisher, there’s not much more I can say about him. Charlie rounds out the crew by filling the annoying young hacker who makes bad jokes position. Most exchanges between the group feature them either walking urgently or standing around a briefing table, spitting out long lists of acronyms and looking angry. As for the villain, he is unmemorable and spouts such original lines as: ‘I’m just like you’, and ‘I’ve already won’.

The gameplay starts with a third person cover-based stealth foundation. From there, the game emphasises the fact that all missions can be tackled in three ‘distinct’ styles: ghost, which relies on completely avoiding enemies and using non-lethal takedowns when cornered; panther, which is killing enemies while undetected; and assault, which is killing enemies while detected. You are scored on which approach you take to deal with each individual enemies, with the stealthier methods predictably yielding considerably larger scores. The scores are turned into money to be spent on upgrading Fisher’s gear, but he also gets large cash bonuses for most actions. Kill a few people with the same weapon and Sam gets a chunky payment. Maybe he is supplementing his government wage with sponsorships from arms manufacturers, but this doesn’t explain him being awarded $10 000 for destroying some lightbulbs. Some of the levels are quite open, with multiple paths to compliment your choice of playstyle, but there are several sections that force either perfect stealth or direct combat. I leaned towards stealth, so when I found myself on a train in mandatory close range combat, my sneaking suit and sniper with an extended scope suddenly seemed like a waste of money. The train section wraps up with you diving through the window of a train car and instantly being shot at. On higher difficulties, it becomes apparent this part was not tested, since you can be killed before the animation is over and have to rely on luck to even have a chance to fight back.

The equipment on sale often seems redundant. To unlock the better items, you have to buy all the preceding ones in it’s category, wasting the money saved for the actual item you want. I found the pistol missed many vital shots, so in order to improve my accuracy, I bought several pistols I never used, then added as many precision attachments as the game allows. To further improve accuracy, you have to buy several upgrades to your gloves, which I suppose makes sense, but buying a bunch of gloves that look pretty much the same is never as appealing as purchasing a crossbow. With my special gloves and fully modified pistol, I centred my laser sight on a guard’s head and…still missed. Everyone turned around and Sam was promptly shot from four different directions. Later, I bought ‘armour piercing rounds’ for both my pistol and rifle, but if the shot hit an enemy’s helmet, the helmet would just be knocked off (as usual) and the guy would be free to tell all his friends where I was. This is a modern Ubisoft game, so of course some items are only accessible via DLC, logging into Uplay or by playing the tie-in mobile game (which apparently is no longer supported). Thankfully, the items aren’t even that good.

The strange design choices don’t end there. I’ve already touched on Fisher’s parkour, but it gets really hard to take this game seriously when a man in his mid 50s is diving off buildings to stab people. The Uncharted vibes are even stronger when you sprint down a linear path to dodge a missile strike, true to the sense of realism Tom Clancy games tend to go for. Elsewhere, the game has you play as Briggs for a while, and shows this change by briefly becoming a generic military first person shooter. The game throws in a few more modern warfare sections, which have you click on red target squares to simulate shooting enemies from a ridiculous height.

One of the most egregious elements of the game is the fact it is based on a checkpoint only save system. Even worse is the fact these checkpoints are sometimes quite far apart, which makes ghost styles tedious when one mistake can send you a long way back.

The controls on PC often have several functions mapped to one button. Pressing ‘E’ can kill/knock out a nearby enemy, pick up a body, knock on a door or pick up a gun. Pressing ‘Q’ once makes you snap to cover, but if you panic and press it twice, you slide instead. As you can imagine, things can go wrong when the game interprets your button press differently, and perfectionists will no doubt be annoyed by the unpredictability.

Blacklist contributes an entry to the ‘enemies that can go fuck themselves’ list – the dogs. I love dogs in real life, but here they have an almost supernatural ability to sniff you out and alert everyone to your presence. Instead of all the guns, why can’t Fisher buy a bag of treats and a few tennis balls to distract the pooches?

On the technical side, I encountered a host of issues. Environments would flicker in and out of existence, enemies would float down stairs and dead guards would sometimes ragdoll into the air. I also encountered some huge frame rate drops despite being on the lowest settings, with one area pulling my frame rate down to one per second. ONE.

Also, you to have Uplay.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy any of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist; the open levels and choice of combat style appealed to me, but the onslaught of design flaws in service of a cringeworthy narrative means it has no chance of a recommendation.

Recommended? No

Review: Max Payne

Reviewed on PC

I sat down, gazing at the evidence in front of me. Was I a crack PI, following the last few breadcrumbs from the trail? Maybe an ex-cop revisiting the case I never solved? No. I was a twenty-something loser, hoping to escape the dullness of the world by playing early 2000s bullet time shooter Max Payne. Sinatra’s baritone danced in the background as I clicked play.

In Max Payne, you take on endless waves of mobsters to avenge the murder of Payne’s wife. A pretty straightforward revenge plot, but it’s delivered in a unique way. The story is mostly advanced via graphic novel panels with voice-overs. These panels feature many of the developers and their friends as the characters, since this was a project with budget and resource limitations, and the result of this is they often look goofy no matter how dark the dialogue is. Payne himself is played by the game’s writer, Sam Lake, who pulls some of the weirdest faces I’ve ever seen. The contrast in writing and visuals can be a little jarring, but there is an obvious element of self-awareness and a meta narrative running through the game, so the sometimes inconsistent tone is eased with humour. As for the writing itself, it establishes a strong noir atmosphere, drawing heavily from staples of the genre. I am also reminded of Die Hard, with Payne’s squinting expression, final level reminiscent of Nakatomi Plaza and knife-edge shootouts. Max is voiced by James McCaffrey, who has a fitting monotone and his long metaphor-heavy monologues are always a pleasure to listen to. The other actors are more on the cheesy side, as was common around this era, but the main villain also turns in quite a good performance.

Max Payne is notable for being the game that popularised bullet time. Press the right mouse button with a direction and Max will fling himself in a direction in slow motion, allowing for a cinematic streak of headshots as you dive into a wall. It never gets old, which is good because the majority of the game will be spent popping through doorways to surprise mobsters. I think tactical shooters would be a lot more amusing if you could breach a room by having a whole squad dive in with dual SMGs. The bullet time doesn’t feel overpowered, since bullets move like projectiles in this mode, meaning you have to lead your shots. The game is also very difficult and you can be killed easily, which ties in with the idea of Max going up against ridiculous odds. This is fine, since the game accommodates fuck-ups by snapping you instantaneously back to your last save with a button press. The running and gunning is great, but like many games of it’s time, it has awkward platforming elements. The worst examples are in the ‘dream sequence’ levels, which include running along and jumping between rails thinner than the character model. Another gameplay issue which tripped me up was the fact you have to click after selecting a weapon to equip it, which might not seem like much, but often meant I would get confused for a second before being blown away by a goon’s shotgun.

As expected, it’s not the most visually arresting game on the market. Max Payne’s character model in particular is slightly scary, featuring Sam Lake’s face screwed up and then reproduced with the technology of the day. Animations are clumsy, my favourite being the weapon drawing one, where a character will hold as little of a pistol as possible, like it’s covered in faeces. The game also includes clunky in-engine cutscenes, which stand out even more when they are contrasted with the elegant graphic novel scenes.

The soundtrack is generally good. The theme song is an appropriate slow jazz track and the graphic novel cutscenes feature a variation on it that mixes very well with the voice-overs. Elsewhere, the music seems to draw from a rather eclectic range of film score influences: ‘60s spy guitar riffs, late ‘70s horror ambience and the synthesisers and electric drums of ‘80s action films. In many settings such a variety might feel uneven, but these inspirations fit well with the content of the game. The soundtrack is let down a little in the combat encounters that feature high tempo metal tracks, which make the game smell of cheese a bit too much along with reminding you of the game’s release year.

On the bug front, the most serious issue I encountered was a point where a cutscene focused on the enemies ahead of me, but then returned to gameplay with the camera still fixed on them. This is potentially gamebreaking, and the only way I could get around it was memorising the path backwards and keep moving until the camera returned to me. When I initially launched the game, I found there was no sound other than an occasional bitcrushed fart when rapidly firing a weapon. This is apparently an issue with the Steam version of game running on newer operating systems, which can be fixed with a download from the Max Payne community guide page.

Max Payne is still a lot of fun sixteen years on. The bullet time mechanic thrown into a frenetic and relentless shooter makes for engaging gameplay, and wrapping the experience in a strong narrative and thematic focus makes it easy to overlook the issues caused by it’s age and budget limitations.

Recommended? Yes

Review: Far Cry 3

Reviewed on PC.

Following on from my last review, I’m going to do another Ubisoft game. This time I’ll be looking at Far Cry 3, which received rave reviews on release, but also hinted at the kind of copy and paste design that they would be mocked for in the following years.

In Far Cry 3, you play as Jason Brody, an obnoxious twenty-something who starts the game on holiday with his friends. Things turn nasty very quickly as the group is captured by pirates who intend to sell them into slavery. It’s a really great setup, that quickly introduces the group, the island and pirate leader Vaas. Brody soon escapes and tries to save his friends, allying himself with the island’s resistance fighters. The majority of the game has a sort of 80s ludicrous action film feel, where you run around the jungle swapping between an LMG and an rocket launcher, taking out pirates by diving on them with knife drawn. The problem is the tone will sometimes awkwardly shift into either trying to be moving, having Brody occasionally reflect on how much of a monster he is becoming, or getting dark and gritty to earn that 18 rating. In one level you are handed a flamethrower and told to burn down a weed farm while a Skrillex track plays, which is fantastic, but it’s jarring to also include post rock music, scenes of torture and psychological degradation. It also references Alice in Wonderland, which is a completely original thing to do in a story with themes of madness.

The only character of note is Vaas, portrayed by Michael Mando, who gives a memorably unhinged performance. Unfortunately, he is massively underutilised and absent for large portions of the game. Apparently Vaas was only created after Mando’s audition and it’s kind of evident, since his appearances sometimes seem a bit forced. It’s weird that the villain featured in most of the promotional material could be removed and there wouldn’t be much impact on the narrative.

The gameplay is first person shooting with some stealth elements. The shooting leans towards a classic style, letting you carry up to four weapons and having you use healing items, as opposed to the two gun and regenerating health approach used in games like Call Of Duty. There is a good range of guns available, that all feel and sound phenomenal, many of which can be modified to your liking with attachments and paint jobs. Stealth is pretty straightforward, crouch and the enemy is unlikely to ever see or hear you. While undetected, you can silently eliminate enemies with a number of takedowns, such as dragging an enemy into the water before knifing them. Stealth is often the preferred approach, since going loud will usually prompt the game to throw swarms of hostiles at you. The story missions usually have you mow through a few waves of pirates to reach the next objective, with some turret sections and escort quests thrown in for originality. The real fun of the game is liberating outposts by clearing out the enemies in the area any way you like, free of the restrictions in story missions. There are plenty to get through, with a range of layouts and difficulties, and you can reset them at the end so you can go liberate them again as an overpowered deity.

Far Cry 3 boasts a huge open world, but it is mostly empty. There are some cool ruins to look around, but if you’re like me, an open world just means having to beeline towards the next objective for five minutes. The worst instance was having to journey half a kilometre to reach someone I had been talking to in person three seconds ago. It doesn’t help that driving is awful, and half my memory of both Far Cry 3 and 4 is tumbling down a hill because I missed a turn. The map is buried under a host of side quests that are mostly the same few missions repeated in a billion different locations. There are a few more ‘unique’ side missions, where someone will talk at you for a few minutes, then you run up a hill, do something mundane (for example fire your gun near someone to scare them), then return to the quest giver for your reward. Exciting. Also, if you really want to justify your AAA purchase, you can postpone your pirate fighting adventure to play poker in first person.

Visually, it’s a very good looking game. The islands are covered in the famous ‘Cry’ games foliage and the water effects are stunning. As well as the scenic jungles and beaches, the game contains some psychedelic hallucination sequences, full of bizarre effects that provide fitting eye candy. The character models are also great, with impressive animations that are complimented with facial and bodily motion capture.

In keeping with the jungle theme of the game, the PC version of Far Cry 3 is full of bugs. There was one cutscene early on that seemed like the game wanted to provide me with content for this paragraph; Brody’s friend Dennis pretended to hold a rifle, while to his side an AK47 waved about in mid-air, as a resistance soldier in the background flickered in and out of existence. This scene also featured an issue where weird grey rectangles would appear in characters’ hair textures that persisted throughout my playthrough. I also regularly experienced frame rate drops on the ‘optimal’ preset, despite surpassing the recommended specs, and even when I turned the settings down to medium there were minor hiccups.

Also you have to have Uplay to play it.

Overall, my experience with Far Cry 3 was mixed. I don’t see it as the masterpiece other people have called it, as has an inconsistent story, open world tedium, copy and paste quests and a bunch of technical issues. Despite these problems, the stealth and shooting are satisfying enough to earn a mild recommendation, since it’s really fun when it’s not trying to be profound.

Recommended? Yes