Here’s my followup to my previous post about how I am getting on with The Orange Box now.
I’ve finished all the ‘basic’ levels on Portal now. At first I absolutely hated it, as I do almost everything played from the irrevocably flawed FPS perspective. The fact that in an FPS every time I walk into a new area I have to manually move my tiny scope-like perspective viewpoint all around just to get an idea of my surroundings is a constant background irritation that will just not go away for me. But I’ve probably said enough about Dalek simulators and 10 degree views previously…
In any case after more play I did find it was fun in small doses for me, at least I wasn’t being shot at whilst looking around, but the game still did tend to quickly become frustrating, again, mainly due to having to play things from the FPS perspective. Most of the time I would work out how to do a puzzle without issue, only to have to do it over and over and over again purely due to the fact I either can’t tell exactly where I am standing, being reduced to a disembodied floating gun with nary a pair of feet, or because I miss a jump or can’t aim accurately or fast enough. At one point it got so bad that I was thinking there was no way I would want to play through the whole of the game. This kind of gameplay should never be done in an FPS to me, it’s simply the worst perspective ever to do anything akin to platforming. Thankfully though after only a few bad levels it moved away from ‘fps platform skills’ and more back to the focus being on the puzzles, which was much preferable.
There is definitely a huge feeling of laziness on the part of the developers when it comes to this game. Although I’ve not played it on PC, it just doesn’t seem to be a very good port to me, or rather, it’s just an incredibly straight port. Obviously Valve (with a nod to Blizzard) are probably the biggest proponents of the PC as a gaming platform, but I still don’t think it serves them especially well to do such lazy ports to the 360. There seemed to be too much in Portal that smacked of ‘fps mouse skills without a mouse’. Now the daft thing is, for me, a twin-stick gamepad is far more natural (and fun!) to control than keyboard & mouse (even though that was what I first played FPS’s with for years), but there’ll be no argument whatsoever for me that for the kind of swift rotation manoeuvres required at times in Portal, or for high level play in FPS’s in general, is far easier on keyboard & mouse. I’ve played Valve’s later Left 4 Dead conversion on the XBox 360 a little now, and that suffers from an identical problem, although at least they added a ‘quick 180 turn’ button for consoles.
The puzzles in Portal though all ended up being really simple compared to Braid. In fact I find Braid really is quite a comparable game to Portal, and one that is far superior I feel. Even though I am not a huge fan of puzzlers, Braid is simply so beautiful, being in gorgeous 2D with fantastic music, that Portal seems really ugly and simple by comparison. I also got stuck numerous times in Braid, and whilst I’ve been critical of Braid earlier about some of the reasons for that, I was actually fairly disappointed that I only got stuck to anything resembling the same degree once in Portal. And that was on the final level. And it eventually transpired the only reason I was stuck, was that I simply hadn’t seen something correctly, hamstrung as I was behind the blinkered view from my eyestork :(. One of the things that many people praise Portal for, it’s sense of humour, also pretty much fell flat on me. Not that it wasn’t amusing, it was, it’s just that I’d heard all these ‘hilarious’ jokes so many times over from my spoilering friends (despite my requests that they don’t do that!), and unconsciously over the internet, that they were already completely stale to me. Although I like it, there are far more appealing deserts than cake, especially stale cake. Even the Portal end song; as soon as it started playing, I realised I’d heard it before, or perhaps a mickey take of it, I can’t remember, other than the dry feeling of “seen/heard this before”. I’d predicted the ending almost from the start too, so it was all just rather yawn-inducing, sadly. It’s not really the game’s fault, but it is unfortunate that “the internet broke it” when it came to much of the vaunted humour for me. The funniest moment in the game for me, came from the differences in the subtitles compared to the actual speech of the automatic gun units – and I am not even sure if that was 100% intentional, although I’d like to think it was.
All in all though, Portal was certainly at least worth playing.
Half Life 2 however, seemed to be going from bad to worse for me. I have now discovered that you can save anywhere. Now, whilst I might be mocked for not realising this until a significant way into the game, the idea simply didn’t occur to me, especially given that the game tells you about the checkpointing system on entry. This removes some of my issues with the gameplay, but adds a whole raft of new ones. There is basically no challenge now other than getting stuck and not being able to figure out where to go next. And actually, despite Portal claiming to be the ‘puzzle game’ of The Box, I’ve gotten stuck far more in Half Life 2 than I ever did in Portal! Right where I am saved at the time of writing this in fact, I seem to be stuck at a ladder that simply won’t let me climb up it for no known reason – hopefully I’ll be able to figure this out later. Half Life 2 does seem to be simply awful though, even for an FPS. The lack of atmosphere & poor level design simply astounds me at times for a game with such a hyped reputation. You simply get an obvious hectic ‘action segment’, then the game practically pauses for an obvious story or puzzle segment. The method of saving anywhere is also an immense problem for the gameplay as it destroys almost any attempts at pacing or at inducing much in the way of a fiero emotional connection with the game. As much as I hated being re-spawned a couple of hits from death constantly, it’s far better than repeating this scenario: Save, walk into a room, get damaged a bit, then simply reload once you’ve learnt where the enemies are, re-play and kill them all easily. Compared to current FPS games it seems just so poorly designed. In my opinion to be considered a true classic a game ought to be able to stand the test of time, not merely rely on novelty or even innovation; this game is clearly no Street Fighter 2, even within it’s own genre. I am not sure the precise age of this game, but will people still be playing this 15 years later? I really doubt it.
Team Fortress 2 however has moved from a F Grade to something around a C+ for me. Thanks to the kind efforts of a friend (Grymbok) teaming up over XBox Live I actually got some useful tutoring and some of the gameplay started to emerge. We played through a bunch of different maps, constantly chattering about the game and how to do things. We attempted to talk with our teammates, yet again, there was relatively little communication compared to when I play other games of this ilk, and annoying pointless flaws like voice comms cutting out when you are respawning meant we were soon back to a private chat room. As per Valve’s aforementioned laziness, it’s a real shame the controls and motion wasn’t rejigged even slightly for a console once again though, as it’s feels too fast and ‘spazzy’ in its combat system at times, especially the Scout & Assassin who seem to have the potential to be simply ridiculous. At least you know it’s a level playing field though. But it still feels at these moments as though you really are playing a PC game really intended for mouse control, filtered through your gamepad. One other factor I find bemusing about TF2 is that, like all these games, being nothing more than a disembodied gun means that you have almost no feeling of ‘presence’ in the game. You do get used to it, but being able to walk cleanly through my teammates is incredibly odd to me, it also is a huge reason why melee attacks feel so ‘wrong’ in this game; and any other FPS with this problem, when compared to a game where they feel so ‘right’ and solid, like the Halo series.
Yet I could see real potential in the fun of this if only I could get in a good team of friends that tried to talk & work together properly, even at low-level play; basically, I’m talking about Team Shitty Shotty 😉 Although to get good at TF2 would still involve a lot of my greatest bugbear with high-level FPS play: map learning. This is simply one of the least interesting game tasks imaginable to me (I’d rather grind on an MMO!), its one reason I generally can’t stand driving games, ‘music’ games, and also generally prefer fighting games with much smaller movesets. At least TF2 comes with a small selection of maps though, so at some point if I play it enough I won’t be hopelessly lost running about aimlessly, as I am much of the time currently. Even so, this kind of rote-learning against static data is rarely much fun for me in itself. I’ve said many times that the first online multiplayer FPS that I’ll potentially truly enjoy will be one with some kind of random map generation, so no-one can ‘learn’ the map or weapon drops etc. Everyone would have to work together and think on their feet, which would get directly to the actual fun elements of gameplay for me. I wish game design technology would catch up on this kind of gameplay feature, rather than just ever increasing graphical standards. I guess that Left For Dead’s AI Director is a step in the right direction, and likewise the different-each-time encounter AI for Gears of War and Halo; even they are only for the ‘story play’. It’s notable though that I did get interested enough in Team Fortress 2 to reset all my corrupted ‘personal best’ scores on it, by fiddling with my 360’s save data. This also reset all of my “partial” achievements on The Orange Box though 🙁 But I doubt I’d ever get the ‘lambda locator’ one in Half Life 2, nor the camera-destroying one in Portal anyway. Also, I suspect these “personal bests” interest me more than the Achievements do anyway.
I’m still intending to play more of all the games on The Orange Box though. One of reasons is a particularly odd one though – it’s thanks to Gears of War (1 and 2). I intend to write in future about why I find these games far superior to any FPS, and because of this I enjoy them enough to play them enough, that I get an odd side-effect of becoming far more proficient with FPS-style control, so that FPS’s themselves become more fun and playable for me. I even started to barely be irritated playing Half Life 2 the other day, which was shocking for me. I also found that I’ve had to change my mindset to play the game. I now see it not like a normal skill or mental orientated gaming challenge, but more like a ‘grinding’ game (‘c-RPG’ game in the tradtional genre misnomer) where progression is guaranteed, and it’s more about power-gaming the logistical side of things and simply seeing the game through; even if it’s just for the story. In fact, HL2 keeps adding more wrinkles to the story that appear interesting to me, if only I had any clue what was going on! This one of the reasons, that, wonder of wonders, I’ve actually been inspired to download Half Life for my PC & I intend to play it. Partly as I now want to compare how I feel on a keyboard and mouse after playing all these twin-stick FPS games, but admittedly the main factor was that it was reduced to less than a dollar for a while on Steam 😀 – which was all the excuse I needed as I’ve wanted to check out Steam more for some time. I’ve even found I’ve started to actually quite like the ‘style’ in these Valve games, particularly in Team Fortress 2, even though it really had little initial appeal to me. I do suspect a lot of my positive feelings I’ve had has been due to the gamut of simply incredible gaming experiences I’ve had lately, spearheaded by HD Remix obviously (with honourable mentions to Gears of War 2 and multiplayer Bomberman Live), that actually seems to cause me to appreciate all my other games more too.
I also discovered I had to finish Portal again to get it to re-unlock the “advanced” levels after my Team Fortress 2 inspired save game reset, but luckily I had a point save seconds from the end of the game. I’ve found that most of my friends who played Portal didn’t bother with these Advanced levels, which I feel is telling about the actual gameplay. That said, I know lordnaff did do most of them, the FPS & puzzle-game loving fool 😉 . However once I started to attempt one of these Advanced levels myself, I found it had been changed from an interesting thought puzzle, to yet more of the dull ‘mouse-on-a-gamepad’ platform skills type of challenge. 🙁 I figured out what to do, yet I kept missing a jump and dying. So I saved and jumped, reloaded, tried again, reloaded, tried again… I know “Try Again” is one of my favourite songs of all time, but it really wasn’t meant to apply here… I somewhat doubt I’ll be getting into these extra levels.