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

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