Thursday, 21 October 2021

Halo and Half-Life 2

Since I played both Half-Life 2:Update and Halo: Anniversary Edition back-to-back, I felt it might be fun to reflect on both of these two early-2000s games.

Whereas Half-Life 2 works natively on Linux, I used Steam/Proton to run Halo: Anniversary Edition, which is an updated version of the original Halo:Combat Evolved. I'm pleased to say at least the single player campaign worked rather well and there's nothing a 1060 GPU couldn't handle.

Start me up (Halo)

I did once play Halo on Xbox for a while, but I probably gave up around the map with snow, tanks and floating gimmicky craft. Or when the new alien faction appeared.

The original Halo 20th anniversary is close by, and the Anniversary Edition will be 10 years old, so it's a fitting moment tor play it through.

Half-Life 2 (and the update) has become a replaying favourite, I think I've now played it and the two episodes through more than 5 times over the years.

The beginning (Half-Life 2)

It's worth noting the Xbox original Halo was played with a console game controller, but I feel it's now much better to play using the accepted mouse and WASD combination, just like HL2. I nudged the mouse sensitivity to make the turning speed closer to what it is in Half-Life.

Combat and game play

I'll say this straight away: Halo at its best has more dynamic combat situations than in HL2, which is largely scripted. I also like how Halo fights can have a tactical angle, as positioning the Warthog and flanking the enemy yourself can have a nice crossfire effect from your team.

The battlefield does on occasions feel like a living thing, with the player as Master Chief doing his scalpel movements. The co-working marines actually do something, unlike the NPCs and the "squad" in Half-Life 2.

Send in the space marines! (Halo)

I remember when playing Halo on Xbox I was struck by the appropriateness of the marines' banter and the aliens' reactions: the little monsters running away from you screaming in terror was a novelty.

Now, to my more experienced eyes it all doesn't seem quite as seamless, and the AI reactions appear far more mechanistic. Those critters do little else except run aimlessly and scream!

It can look surprisingly nice... (Halo)

However, the above praise mostly applies to the beginning half of the game. After that Halo tends to be more repetitive in its surroundings and reverts to solo fighting towards the end. The interiors tend to be more monotonous, relying surprisingly lot on 90-degree angled corridors. Some levels like the "library" are just sadistic repeat. 

At points, the game can generate infinite amounts of monsters, unless the player has the wits to move past them. So, situations I was stuck in for a while could be played quite quickly with this in mind. After completing I had 15 hours of gametime on my Steam.

...but you'll be spending more time looking at this. (Halo)

Looking this from more positive angle, Halo has a more "arcade" feel, the player blasts away against hordes of alien creatures, picking up bonuses and extra ammunition on the go.

Half-Life 2 environments are mostly unique, and the player rarely gets disoriented. The spaces are also more subtly three-dimensional than in Halo, which often has enormous diagonal platforms for transporting the player and enemies between floors. This seems a little "1990s".

One of the micro-puzzles peppered around the game. (HL2)

The physics engine in HL2 also helps make combat richer. After the objects can be manipulated with the gravity gun it's possible to fight with explosive barrels, gas containers, blades and plain bricks. Bashing crates with the crowbar to get supplies can sound primitive, but it adds a little "something" to the game.

There are situations where the scripted Half-Life approach fails. The "squad" element later in the game is largely an illusion. It supports the narrative turn where Freeman, previously on the run, now storms the Combine stronghold alongside the rebels. The sections with the NPC Alyx, again mostly scripted, works better.

Meet the cannon fodder. (HL2)

But although the squad can be commanded, this has little use as the battlefield doesn't really work that way. The jumping mines are another rather useless addition in this context. Sure, you can position your squad and position the mines, but unless enemies are triggered to appear, there's little use trying to fortify a situation that's not meant to be fortified.

Instead of the direct hit points of Half-Life and the like, Halo has the famous "halo shield", wait for a moment and your shield will replenish. I guess this helped level design as the distribution of health packs doesn't need to be so balanced. After surviving a desperate skirmish you are as good to go after the shields revive.

The beginnings of a "cover" system. (Halo)

In Halo's favour, limiting weapons to two at a time modulates the combat experience in a fun way. Marine and alien guns are suitably different and you need to think of the combinations, or have to make do with a bad weapon for a while. The Half-Life 2 "carry all" policy is in turn a little old fashioned here. Master Chief can also hit the enemies with the weapons, whereas Gordon has to switch to the crowbar in order to melee.

Grenades are more important in Halo and can be thrown using a single key. (They are carried alongside the two weapons) Again, HL2 insists you select the weapon first and then throw them. The gravity gun does mean that grenades, including enemy grenades, can be manipulated in more ways.

The inevitable "exploding barrels" (HL2)

As for saving, Half-life 2 has the Doom/Quake style exact game state, so a difficult situation can be negotiated by saving often. Which is sort of silly, but less frustrating and nice for someone who just wants to revisit the game. Halo saves "checkpoints", so be prepared not only for similar situations but to play a difficult spot multiple times.

As a rough summary Halo does outdoor combat better, whereas HL2 has more clever and varied interior situations. Add to that every occasion in HL2 tends to be unique in some way, and the physics-based objects add greatly to the feel of being there.

Milieu and Story

Much has been said how Half-Life 2 manages to tell a story through simply showing details about the world. The protagonist, Gordon Freeman, "wakes up" in a train car headed for a derelict city, apparently somewhere in Russia. It's not initially clear how everything relates to the Black Mesa incident in HL1, but soon it dawns on the player years must have passed. This city has become a kind of concentration camp in some kind of police state, oppressed by a Civil Protection with futuristic equipment.

In many places you can see touches of brutalist alien technology, culminating at the enormous Citadel. As the player character says nothing, the explicit parts of the story are advanced through NPC exposition at key moments in the game. Yet there's no-one to fill in with the full history of the Combine invasion and how Earth was oppressed.

Dr. Breen supplies some of the backstory (HL2)

Halo utilizes third person and cinematic cut-scenes to show the interaction between the Master Chief, Cortana AI and other characters. The Master Chief himself is apparently a cryogenically stored super-soldier which is woken up in the time of dire need.

Now, the humans are losing a space-operatic space-battle against something called Covenant, and the only course left is to salvage the precious ship AI and crash land on the inner surface of a massive ring-shaped structure floating in space, the titular Halo. The Covenant lands there too though, and a race towards securing the assets of Halo begins.

The story is a mix-and-match of science fiction ideas, ranging from Ringworld to Starship Troopers/Aliens, with a touch of Ender's Game and perhaps even Dune.

Now where I've heard that one before... (Halo)

I'd say the Half-Life 2 story and world-building aspects always felt more original than Halo, which relies more on the typical science-fiction grandeur and the gung-ho space marine antics. Then again Halo was hugely influential on game visuals, and the creators of HL2 had ample time to create a clear response to what had became a cliché.

Instead of grand space operatic sci-fi fare, Half-Life 2 world uses ordinary, mundane looking cityscapes to a great effect. There are dilapitated rusty structures peppered with garbage, graffiti and everyday objects.

There's a lot of what I'd call a micro-narrative in HL2. Not only are the NPCs orchestrated to comment and move around as the player enters their sphere, but many spaces seem to "say" something by itself. Also, various mini-puzzles and different opportunities arise here and there, both optional and mandatory.

One of the atmospheric interiors (HL2)

Still, the Halo approach is done rather well too and the musical score helps tie it all together.

But I'll again point out how artificially stretched out Halo felt. This is also reflected in the narrative. The player is dragged in by sophistication and complexity and yet the second half of the game is mostly blasting away. The AI-driven situations are soon replaced with mindless, repetitive zombi-alien bashing. Well, there's some cleverness in identifying which faction needs to be supported as the creatures and other actors battle it out. 

There's also less of that micro-narrative. On occasions the AI comments on something but that's about it. Additionally, the idea of advancing the ring structure is soon forgotten and even made trivial. Certainly it has little geographical meaning. The setting could just as well be some strange planet or moon.

Give me my Warthog! (Halo)

Half-Life 2 throws constantly new elements to the mix and just about as an environment starts to get boring there's a change of scenery. The meticulous geographical advancement parallels the narrative, and although it may be a strained as a story device ("The teleporter didn't work! You'll have to come by land!") it is satisfying. Although the Citadel at the end is not a high point of the game it is fortunately not very long and at least offers one more gameplay twist.

Both games have vehicles. Half-Life 2 has an airboat and a car. These are features of a particular part of the story, and once those acts are finished the vehicles are not seen again. It is also possible to play the areas without using the vehicles, but this isn't exactly normal play.

Driving the airboat (HL2)

Already near the beginning, Halo has the Warthog, an extension of the soldiers' military capacity. Later, some more alien crafts are used but in my opinion they are mostly boring and move in uninspired ways. There is also one forced Warthog sequence near the end which is rather painful to perform considering the clumsy car controls and the checkpoint save system.


My experience with the repetitiviness of Halo makes it unlikely I would play it again in the near future.  But I have the sequels and a prequel if I want to go on exploring the Halo-versum. For those just wanting to see the game through I'd recommend playing it on easy difficulty.

I believe Half-Life 2 is ultimately the better game, but then again it was published a few years later.

I did start playing the Halo: Reach prequel and it looks like a much more modern, story-driven game with twists and variety all around. Linux had perhaps slightly more hiccups with this one, I had to explicitly set pulse audio, and also encountered some fullscreen glitches, but once it runs it plays good. 

Although the Master Chief collection order suggests playing this prequel first, I think it was still a good choice to start with the original Halo.

What with Quake, Black Mesa, Half-Life 2 and Halo, this has become a season of fps for me. To end on this note, here's a semi-random timeline of fps games from the golden age:

  • Quake: Jun 1996
  • Goldeneye 007: Aug 1997
  • Unreal: May 1998
  • Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Aug 1998
  • Half-Life: Nov 1998
  • Medal of Honor: Dec 1999
  • Perfect Dark: May 2000
  • Counter-Strike: Nov 2000
  • Halo: Nov 2001
  • Call of Duty: 2003
  • XIII: Nov 2003
  • Half-Life 2: Nov 2004

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Samsonite Vectura Evo 15.6"

Why talk of a bag? Have I gone fashion blogging? Well, it has a USB extension.

Ok, it's a Samsonite bag for computer gear. There's small rubbery door that has an appearance of watertightness. Underneath I can find a USB connector.

There's also a passage between one compartment and another, for the very same USB cable or some other. It's also good to stick the cable there when not in use.

I used to prefer shoulder bags, but increased e-scooter use and the need to carry remote working gear nearly all the time drove me into this ecosystemic change.

But is there any other use for the USB than the suggested power pack? (Something I don't have.)

Possibly I could hold a hard disk or a memory stick semi-permanently in the bag, but for that I'd also need a female-female USB converter cable. And yet another cable for actually accessing the drive, and presumably I would take that extra cable from the bag so it starts to look a little pointless.

Anything about the bag itself? Well, it stays in shape, and upright on its own. It has zillion compartments for different sizes and depth, and I'm still learning what is the best place for what.

There's the handy flat compartment for the laptop itself, then the rest of the junk (PSU and huge headset) can be put into the main space. On top of that a book or two and snacks fit in easily. 

There are inside and outside "top" and "side" slots so that phones and wallets need not become lost into the depths.

Monday, 4 October 2021

Another science fiction roundup

Time for some more science fiction visitations and re-visitations.

Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas (1870)

(A World Tour Underwater)

A huge monster of a whale terrorises the seas. As our adventurers are tasked to hunt it, they are instead taken captive by what is revealed to be a highly advanced submarine.

The story is placed roughly at the time period of the American Civil War, and ironclads such as the Monitor are even name-dropped.

The book is notable for introducing the character of Captain Nemo, a sort of prototypical romantic super-hero (or villain) who travels under the sea in this Nautilus, having vowed never to set foot on land again. 

From L'Île mystérieuse TV-miniseries

Verne describes various then-science-fictional ideas about electricity and how it might power the submarine, weapons and the equipment needed by the crew. There's also a lot of thought put into how the Nautilus could be self-sufficient at sea.

As a kind of zenith to the story arc the ruins of Atlantis are visited, and Verne even presents numerous references that support the idea of there having been such a thing. (No there wasn't)

Verne also discusses how the geological evidence and slow accumulation of limestone points to a world much, much older than the few thousand years suggested by a superficial intepretation of the bible. Verne opines that the "days" of creation in the bible might have been somewhat longer, an idea often repeated in these discussions even now. (A compromise not accepted by hardline bible fundamentalists.)

From L'Île mystérieuse TV-miniseries

It's also neat to read about Nautilus visiting South Pole, which didn't happen in reality until decades later. The very contemporary Suez canal project gets mentioned, this was not yet completed at the time the story takes place.

The story is encumbered by numerous long descriptive lists of various fishes and organisms the adventurers come across, and this just goes on and on throughout the story, regardless of what other more exciting things might be happening. I get that Verne is showing how rich and varied the underwater world is, but give me space stories anytime, man.

But it's not a stretch to think this as a transition between a sea-adventure story and a science fiction space discovery story. It could work as a blueprint for various space stories to come; a vessel launched in otherwise unaccessible and hostile environment, where new alien lifeforms (deep sea fish) are discovered, and bug-eyed monsters (squids) are fought with special weapons and environmental suits.

Jules Verne: The Mysterious Island (1875)

Five prisoners espace a confederate Civil War prison on an observation balloon, and a storm takes them over a huge distance and they barely manage to reach an island on the Pacific.

To me this book read far better than "20000 leagues" but arguably it is less of a science fiction novel and more of a throwback to the adventure/Robinson Crusoe story. Still, space colonization stories might follow this formula too.

This is not to say that science is not present. With the ingeniuity of the engineer, the colonists manage to settle the island and make best of the elements, soon creating earthenware pots, metals, glass and even explosives and a telegraph line.

The TV adaptation of this novel was one of my earliest TV experiences, apart from strictly children shows, and boy was it exciting back then. The screenshots in this blog post are from the series.

I found the episodes on Youtube. I couldn't concentrate on it properly with the poor AI-subtitling, so it felt somewhat random and perhaps less "mysterious" than I had remembered.

With some interesting additions!

The characters and scenery still look fine and Omar Sharif is a good choice for the captain. 

Strangely, over the decades I have specifically remembered a few scenes, such as the building of a magnifying glass from glued-together clock crystals. The memory was not only that there is such a scene, but the visual impression of gluing together the two glasses with gunk was strong.

The process is presented in great detail and the shape is simple so perhaps this helped the memory stick in and renew itself. (Just to specify this further, no I did not remember those sticks.)

Science goes on sciencing

At least in the early 1980s local elementary school kids still read Verne books, possibly on the power of  re-runs of this show and the Willy Fog cartoon. Even I tried to read a few, but I likely skipped some chapters to make the task more manageable.

These two books reminded me how strictly boyish adventures these are, women are barely mentioned nor do they feature as characters.

Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966 novelization)

A backwards man is taken to an experimental treatment that increases his intelligence much beyond ordinary. Initially he can't even beat an experimental mouse in the maze game, but as his cleverness increases he's able to take in multiple languages and complex mathematics. Eventually he becomes the leading expert in the research field where he first was an object of study.

At the same time the qualities that made him likeable, tend to vanish and he has trouble having friends and human contact. However as his recall improves in hindsight he realises he has been used and been a butt of jokes for the people around him. The resentment grows.

The professors say "We are only interested in improving your intelligence, not your personality" or something similar. It's become a cliché, the more clever you are the less sociable you will be. This kind of story arc has pop-cultural longevity, for example Homer Simpson once got super-smart with the same predictable results.

This is also reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon's much earlier Sirius, where the protagonist was a super-intelligent dog.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

Another re-read. A future where firemen don't put out fires but set them in order to burn books and houses of book-hoarders.

451 is famous, perhaps not as famous as Nineteen-Eighty Four or Brave New World, but possibly more closer to our time and more prescient in showing how a fascist state might rise to power via media control and soft propaganda.

I've also seen it misrepresented on occasions. It is not so much a defense of how important and cool books as physical objects are but an attack against a culture of ever-present superficial "now/new" without history and memory, fluffy entertainment that will supposedly drive people away from thoughtful existence.

This places the story more closely alongside Orwell and Huxley. In 1984, the ever rewritten history, media and language had made critical thinking impossible or trivial, and in Huxley's vision people were kept at bay by light entertainment and drugs. A sort of mental decapitation enables the controlled and stunted society in all three.

What now seems current is the snapchat-esque telepresence room that extends to other homes. There people can partake in shallow plays or comment on other (trivial) media. The participants have nothing of consequence to say and nothing permanent is ever created.

A character offers a rationale for the book purge through a kind of extreme "cancel-culture" approach that deems books useless because in a world of billions of people, every book will have contradictory and offensive ideas for someone, so better get rid of them all.

The gender roles are clunky here but one could argue that when people have been stripped from their higher mental faculties this also encourages a conservative world view in these matters.

Suzanne Collins: Hunger Games (2008)

When people compare this to Twilight, it seems Hunger Games comes out as the winner. Possibly this is because of the ideology of having a "strong female character" compared to the clumsy Bella in Twilight. Ok, Hunger Games is a more interesting story, but neither is especially well written.

In the future, food is scarce (or kept scarce) and kids from different zones from US are sent as "tributes" to fight in the Hunger Games for the entertainment of people and to demonstrate order. The fight is to the death and there can be only one winner. Cleverly the world is built out of a sort of popular-cultural interpretation of ancient Rome, with gladiatorial games and the panem et circenses politics.

As a gameshow story, it has been pointed out that there are many precedents, for example Running Man.

The idea of the game show permits anything to happen. Items appear from nowhere, weather conditions are manipulated and even the principal rules may change. The tributes will try, together with their mentor, to create a plan that would secure them the attention of the sponsors and help them subvert the games and in the case of the protagonists to achieve something more than just an ordinary win.

I also read the sequels (Mockingjay and Catching Fire) but won't recap them here. If you thought the concept of the Games was cool, then the sequels will pull the rug from under you and instead deal with the realities of war and things like post-traumatic syndrome and being pawns in a larger "game". This is a bold and necessary move but also diverts from the charm of the original.