Sunday 12 September 2010

Review: Half Life 2: San Andreas

At a time like this when you've got a game with such massive expectations heaped upon it, it's almost futile trying to offer anything but the most positive comments you can possibly come up with. With Half Life 2: San Andreas, where we've been fed more pre-release information and preview opportunities than just about any game in history, it seemed impossible that the game couldn't be anything other than absolute mind blowing genius. Everything we'd seen, read and heard spelt out that this was a title so far ahead of the sorry pretenders that there simply could be no other game out there worth playing. The game of the generation. The game to end all games. Technically advanced, bigger, better, even more controversial. But you all know how it works. They would say that wouldn't they? The first commandment in the law of games is 'Thou shalt hype'.

At this point the Internet is quite possibly melting as hundreds of thousands of devotees all around the world simultaneously stress Valve's servers to breaking point. We haven't seen the likes of it. It's truly a momentous, agonising wait as we cross fingers and toes that Valve hasn't screwed up and underestimated demand; we were fearful, but like something approaching the Space Shuttle launches of our youth over two decades past, we have lift off.

But it was not always like this. Half-Life slipped out to zero fanfare, and worried PR types pleaded with journalists to not mention the violent aspects of the game, lest the British tabloids pick up on it and demand to have this 'sick filth' banned (only three years late, eh?). Even Opposing Forces emerged a healthy shade of pink, with a mere handful of screenshots to tease us with in the run up to release. The same deal with Blue Shift. And then suddenly Valve decided to go from one extreme to the other, literally bombarding our mail box with new shots, exhaustive documents going into meticulous detail about the various new features that have been shoehorned into the game. Then followed three preview events, but yet not one opportunity to wrestle the joypad off them; and no opportunity to review the game until the finished boxed copy was finally delivered just three days ago. It was akin to a starving man being forced to watch a culinary dish being prepared, cooked, tasted and savoured in front of him. "Look, smell, but don't taste. We'll give it to you when we're good and ready." Oh the agony.

But not everyone has such a smooth, seamless ride. As we rocket into the stratosphere we can just about make out the crimson faces of those left behind, venting furious, jealous, indignant anger at Valve for managing to mess up their dream journey, furious that even retail boxed copies fail to authenticate. It's a moot point, and a discussion that's still raging.

Somehow we preferred the enigmatic media blackout of old. Leave the surprises to be discovered. Let the word of mouth spread the game's gospel. That's how the last two worked; did Valve really need to go to such lengths to effectively spoil a lot of the game's surprises? The game could have hit the shelves today with zero advertising and no reviews and still sold out. It's that type of game. The less we know about it, the more we want to find out what's in there. The pre-release media splurge was a novelty; we thirsted for every morsel to begin with. Of course we did. Everyone did. Towards the end of the campaign, though, we actually couldn't believe quite how much Valve was prepared to spill and we politely declined to attend the final preview event for fear of spoiling it for ourselves, never mind everyone else. The very charm of the Half-Life games was the element of surprise; the exploration factor. Ringing your mates up excitedly reporting on your progress and all the craziness you've come across. Comparing notes. Playing through San Andreas did reveal a few surprises, nevertheless. It's that sort of game. You could write an entire book on the game and still only find yourself skimming over certain elements of it.

But after the roar of take off, a serene silence gives way. The G-Man looms large and loud and it takes somewhere in the region of two seconds to realise what all the fuss is about. Another stylish intro. A quickening of pulse, a shallowing of breath. A downtrodden yet magisterial air as another commuter journey begins. An atmosphere to savour. An oppressive beginning that gives a small taster of what we're about to experience; a world we have been trying hard to imagine for months, years. Blocking it out of our minds, trying not to spoil it for ourselves, yet filling time and column inches with games barely even worthy of the name, rushed out into the market only to let us down and chip away at our eternally optimistic resolve. Valve's approach was different. Valve's purpose was to take things forward whatever it took, however much it cost, and seemingly no matter how many people it pissed off along the way. And now the future is here.

But we're not here to exhaustively run through the myriad of things you can do in the game, but more whether they're actually fun and whether the game's really what it's cracked up to be. The first thing that cannot be overstated is that Valve really weren't making it up when they said it was a big game. It positively redefines the concept of what constitutes an epic game. There is absolutely no question that San Andreas is in the region of twice as big as previous Half-Lifes. Maybe even three times, depending on what lengths you'll go to. To even work your way through half of the missions alone would take more time than it would normally take to finish two average sized action-adventures. In value for money terms it's hard to imagine another game like it.

If Half-Life 2: San Andreas achieves one single thing, it's to put into sharp focus how far gaming has come, and more specifically how far behind some of its competitors in the FPS genre really are. Some doubted that the Source engine could match the technical brilliance elsewhere, but it has not only surpassed anyone else's achievements, it has done so without forcing people to invest in ludicrously expensive hardware. Reports persist from amazed gamers with mid-range set ups that have been blown away by how well the game runs on their systems. That Half Life 2: San Andreas looks more convincing, more understated, more realistic, more interactive and definitely more stylish than its peers yet manages it with far lower overheads is not only an impressive feat, but commercially a masterstroke. Not letting a fair chunk of your loyal customer base play the game because your content delivery system can't cope, however, isn't - although some would argue that the fact that a hacked version of the game didn't appear until day of release meant that the ends were worth the means. To an extent we'd have to agree; how much more money was earned as a result of slowing down the hackers we'll never know; but a hunch says it's a lot.

Pile on the extras and it's almost too much to comprehend. Pimping missions, Trucking, Driving school, Ammu-Nation challenges, Dating, Territory occupations, and more join the usual distractions on offer such as Taxi driving, Vigilante, Ambulance, Fire fighting and the ongoing quest to find hidden items; in San Andreas' case they're not as prevalent as you'd expect, but seek and you shall find.

But we don't want to get bogged down in the relative merits of Steam, the shoddy packaging of the boxed version or any of the periphery issues that have clouded this momentous launch (the forum's choked with enough vitriolic bile to melt Gabe Newell's face as it is). We're here to talk about the game. And what a game. 14 chapters, 18 or more hours (skill/approach dependent) of almost relentless, fat free entertainment that's the gaming equivalent of watching several blockbuster action movies back to back. If this game isn't worth the asking price, we don't know what is.

As veterans of previous campaigns it's easy to come to hasty conclusions about San Andreas. Your expectations really don't help. What we perhaps expected was more of the same. Much more of the same, with tweaks, technical improvements and the benefit of an entirely contrasting set of scenarios, characters and, naturally for a game set in 1992, the soundtrack. What you don't expect or even particularly acknowledge at the time is how the game lurches dramatically in different directions, often throwing you completely off balance into the bargain, and not always in a positive sense.

Sometimes we like to utter a few sentences on the back story to give you a flavour of what to expect, but Valve being Valve has elected to keep things as enigmatic as possible. It's not possible to know this by just playing the game (and there's no manual anyway), but apparently the game takes place 15 years after the Black Mesa incident. No one knows (or even hints) what has happened in the intervening years, or why you're on your way to City 17, or what role you're supposed to perform once you get there. Suffice to say it's a grand city under an oppressive police state rule, with scary looking Tazer wielding-grunts (known as the Combine) armed to the teeth should anyone step out of line. It's part Big Brother, part Matrix with Eastern European architecture lending the setting an impossibly beautiful backdrop almost totally at odds with the climate of fear that perpetually pervades the environment.

You start out, of course, in Los Santos as Carl Johnson - a twentysomething former Grove Street gang member returning to a less than enthusiastic welcome after five years in Liberty City exile. Soon it becomes apparent the game's much less of a clich├ęd Half-Life; it's about a low-down bum working his way up the crime tree, and far more focused on the ins and outs of gang culture, the relationships between the 'family' and restoring the gang pride of old. Soon, of course, stamping your authority on the immediate vicinity and taking out frustrations on the rival Ballas gang becomes the priority.

Although this is 'the future' we're dealing with, it's a more realistic vision of the future, blending the more pleasing elements of the architecture of past with the cold sky scraping steel monoliths of the future. This isn't A.N.Other Blade Runner rip off, with neon skylines and hover vehicles. It's something distinctly fresh, and believable, all rendered with craft, life, logic and intelligence. If the devil is in the detail, then Half-Life 2 is Satan in a party hat, kicking back with a beer and engaging his fiendish accomplices in a toast to the future. Cheers.

Ruling Los Santos proves to be an early highlight, and immediately sets the game apart from the other Half-Lifes by virtue of its focus on dialogue, narrative and constantly going that extra mile to set the scene - not just via the between-mission cut-scenes, but through regular colourful exchanges as you're driving, and all manner of banter during each mission. As a cinematic experience it goes to inordinate lengths to get things right, with a quite staggering attention to detail providing endless opportunities to truly immerse the player in a convincing environment where every character, every pedestrian feels as part of the day to day life as you are. Check out the huge roll call for the pedestrian voice actors to see the crazy lengths Valve has gone to make sure the ambience of the environment matches up to the quality on show elsewhere.

The moment you start wandering the game's first locations a feeling of arriving somewhere special kicks in and barely lets go until the credits roll 13 chapters later. As if to deliver a cheeky nod about being in a new playground, Valve even drops one in the game's opening location, almost entirely pointlessly, other than to remind us all that's what this is all about. It's not about re-inventing the wheel, but pimping up that wheel with spinning hubcaps, bass boxes, neon strips and gadgets that would humble even Bond himself.

Once again the voice acting and radio stations are simply incomparable to any other game out there. If anything, the musical variety is even greater than before, drawing on a greater diversity of genres, ramping up the DJ humour to almost genius levels of parody and providing an excellent template for the game that no other game has yet to come anywhere near close to matching. Even after 40, 50 hours, you're still hearing fragments of dialogue, spoof adverts and songs that you've somehow never heard. It's the sort of thing you'd be happy to pay money for on its own; that it's such a throwaway part of the game just goes to show how far Valve is willing to run with this excellent concept. Sure, the music won't always be to your taste, but somehow in the context of what you're doing it all fits, so you don't mind while the truly cringeworthy "All My Exes Live In Texas" or "Queen Of Hearts" play for the third time that evening, or, if you do, flicking to another of the ten stations is but a mere D-pad nudge away.

But Freeman is no double-O. If anything, he's the most personality-free zone in the history of gaming. Once again he never speaks, you never see him (not even so much as a reflection) yet everyone greets him like the ultimate living legend. Not bad for a "man of few words". If he ever uttered a thing our hearts would probably stop with the shock, but somehow the game gets away with pulling the same silent narrative trick of the original, engaging you this time with characters of far greater emotional depth than any FPS has dared to venture. All of this comes, as the original pioneered so successfully, from a combination of scripted set pieces that you watch silently unfold and various events that kick off with your arrival. By necessity and by design it's another story-lead on-rails shooter, and can only stray outside of those barriers to a minimal extent. To some this may come as a slight disappointment when it transpires that there is generally only one way to solve whatever your current dilemma is, but where Half-Life 2: San Andreas succeeds beyond any doubt is in its ability to consistently and repeatedly create richly diverse and believable environments that enrapture the play experience with a suspension of disbelief that makes the thrill ride just as enjoyable as we expected to be.

And as if the pedestrian voices and DJ scripts aren't enough, you get hit by the likes of Samuel L Jackson and Chris Penn making you realise just how good and how compelling gaming narrative can be when you're prepared to hire the right talent for the right price. The constant swearing might not be to everyone's taste, but when you've got a Valve game about hardcore gangsters, what does the audience really expect? In truth, some of it does veer a little into the realms of shock for the sake of it, and the way certain characters flit in and out of the storyline doesn't always make for a coherent, logical plotline, but for the most part they're enjoyable, amusing, and energetic, and a lesson to many publishers as to not only use as a plot device, but for pure entertainment and reward for the efforts you've put into playing some often intensely challenging missions.

Just like any game there are high points and low points, but when you bask in the warm glow of completion there are so many high points to recall it seems almost pointlessly pig-headed to find serious fault with what you've just experienced. If you can seriously come away from Half-Life 2: San Andreas disappointed, then ask yourself which first-person shooter is better, and why? For the vast majority of us, the overwhelming emotion will be the pure joy of having experienced something that sets new high marks in so many areas as to reaffirm your belief in the ability of game developers to push things forward.

Review written with edits under fair use provisions. Please refer to here and here for original material.

1 comment:

x said...

Opposing Force. No 's'. :P