Half-Life vs Half-Life 2: No comparison?

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Half-Life vs Half-Life 2: No comparison?

Comparing old games to new ones is a tricky business. On the one hand if you compare Doom to Doom III nowadays, well, there is no comparison. Doom is fairly 2D to the modern gamer in many more ways than just the graphics. However if you compare the two in the far more existential realms of impact on the industry and on individual gamers, Doom the First would probably come up trumps.

I’m normally not into all this nostalgia, “Remember the good old days of…” These days Doom isn’t really all that fun, we’ve moved on from the Commodore 64 and just about the only “old” games worth playing are the timeless likes of Civilization II. Even then you have to be graphically patient.

There also isn’t much point in trying to do a straight comparison in gameplay terms. This is why I always cringe when the obligatory mention of Doom comes up in Every FPS Review Under the Goddamn Sun. It’s ever so slightly overdone at this stage.

I am, however, a fan of taking some carefully distilled lessons from these games. To this end, allow me to compare Half-Life to Half-Life 2 (Valve forgot a subtitle… or was that a story?) I went back and played Half-Life recently, as I habitually do sometimes. It’ll run on anything these days and the mods are still being played online, so it’s worth a refreshing look every now and again.

It doesn’t twig me as much as it used to, to be honest. If I had to do a depreciation assessment on the score of Half-Life I would say that it has gone from a spectacular 95% to around about an average 70% That score bears in mind the nod that I give towards all the good times I’ve had with the game, and in reality I’d say if we handed it to a young teenage gamer for the first time today they’d rate it high 50’s to early 60’s.

Hand them Half-Life 2 of course and we’re talking early to mid-90’s. Not quite what the original achieved back in the day, but it’s still the best of what we’ve got at the moment. It has an epic story, though we don’t quite know what that is, it has the gravity gun, futuristic soldiers, breath taking scenery and ‘splosions ‘n stuff. However after the initial fun-shock of playing it for the first time, when I’d agree with the 90 percentile scores, I’ve gone back to play it again and found the score depreciation to be much higher than expected.

Frankly, HL2 just doesn’t do it for me over the long-term the way the original did. I’d now rate it in the low to mid 80’s, or a full five to ten percent drop in a fraction of the time that the original has been around. Why is this? HL2 provided me with far more “Ohh” and “Ahh” moments than the original, if only by virtue of technological advancement. Well, that’s actually part of the problem you see…

The original was based off of a modified Quake I engine. Not the most advanced in the world by today’s standards, the game really does look its age nowadays; and even back in 1998 the scenery surrounding Black Mesa in levels like Surface Tension was less than spectacularly breathtaking and believable. It was however, still far more epic than what’s in the sequel.

Even with all the technological advancements that have you racing down massive highways and through a great monolithic citadel I never really feel like I’m part of something truly big in HL2; never really felt that there was far more going on than I could see or interact with, despite any subtle or not-so-subtle hints dropped in the game itself.

The reason for this I actually chalk down to being quite a simple lack of inclusion of random guards, who featured in the original, who say things like “Wow, I never knew this place was so big.” Along with all the areas one traverses and all that is talked about in the original, one really gains a sense of wonderment and scale not present in the sequel.

This probably explains why the original has so many mods by creative types who let their imagination run wild about the place. People wanted desperately to be able to explore more of this massive story, to fill in the intentionally unexplained blanks. There are even single player mods which allow you to play a janitor trying to escape the doomed New Mexico base. People stretched it out with whatever they could find.

For Half-Life 2, Valve created what they told us was a massive city with some truly giant spectacles, and a vague back-story probably designed to compel us to develop our own throes as to what is going on; but they took it for granted that we’d all put our sense of disbelief to bed while all this eye-candy was on offer.

Not so in my experience, and it really goes to show what a bit of simple tweaking can do in that department: The original, with its less than convincing outdoor horizons, could still persuade us we were in something massive by virtue of simple characterisation. The sequel had convincing eye-candy but nobody mentioned it, so we lack the same sense of immersion.

Similarly the scientists and security guards in the original, called “Barney” in the most affectionate way possible, were almost all generic types who repeated the same lines and even had the same voices. In Half-Life 2 we have a returning cast on top of a whole ensemble of extra characters, voices and lines to repeat. Yet I never really cared that much about them. I have to say that in the original I actually hold deep regret as to the fact that in the beginning of my time in the Black Mesa universe I gunned down and creatively murdered almost everyone I came across.

“Barney” is so highly regarded that they made a game about him in Blue Shift and in HL2 he’s one of the leading characters. All that for having more clones in Black Mesa than Dolly the Sheep. In the sequel, no such luck, I’m afraid. I could care less about the characters, even though their circumstances are far less comically dire than some of those in the original, and they’re probably better acted out. What I would have given for a few more comically scientific shrieks in the sequel, so I could have saved the day and felt pretty good about myself for it.

This doesn’t simply apply to Half-Life, of course. It’s just my most shining example, the original having lasted so long as a truly playable game while the original doesn’t compel me to come back to it at all after only a short time.

The long and the short of it is that developers these days have huge amounts of graphical eye-candy on offer. They can do things people could only dream about in 1998. Similarly they could do things in 1998 that they could only have dreamed about doing in 1993. However today it has got so good, or so bad if you will, that developers are sticking in huge vistas, massive set-pieces and forgetting about the little stuff. They’re forgetting that just because you present me with an epic backdrop to my gaming doesn’t mean that I’m going to take it for granted that there’s a lot more in Quake 4 that I could be seeing, wink-wink, nudge-nudge. Some simple characterisation is required.

So, we have our reflective water and our gravity guns. But let’s not forget the shrieking scientists, the cynical Barney’s and the fact that the bastard still owes me that beer.