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Science Fiction Round 25: Rogue Physicist

2013/08/30 Leave a comment

First lesson from Half Life:  Don’t argue with a rogue physicist.  It’s not worth the effort.

Second lesson:  Seriously, don’t mess with Gordon Freeman.  Let’s discuss Half-Life 2, shall we?

Awesome fan art.  From left to right, Alyx, Gordon, and a Vortigaunt.  (I've linked to the source as a courtesy.)

Awesome fan art. From left to right, Alyx, Gordon, and a Vortigaunt. (The image links to the maker.)

Where’s Batman when you need him?

Grappling hook.  Would be nifty.

Why does Gordon’s Hazard Suit, which protects against bullets and radiation and acid, and also does such things as automatically resort partially used magazines of ammo, not include a grappling hook?  This would be very useful, given how often you have to jump across broken catwalks or cliffs or gigantic turbines… this is a failing of Portal as well.  A lot of parts would be made a lot easier with a bit of rope.

[Edit: I am informed that the Opposing Force expansion for the original Half Life had a grappling gun.  Made out of a barnacle, one of the aliens that is usually trying to eat you while it sits on the ceiling with its long tongue waiting for someone to bump into it.  Intriguing.]

The Vorigaunts

I have to say it — these aliens are awesome.  They certainly have fun with the mysterious, rather-alien perspective on things, now that they’ve learned English for the sequel and aren’t enemies.

They do have a couple of caveats, though.  They’re… still bipedal humanoids with two arms.  They’re not really different enough… okay, fine, they actually have a third arm.  But how does that third arm fit in?  It doesn’t really make much sense to me.

Also… it’s apparently the case that the vortigaunts are telepathic.  It’s explicitly nifty for espionage.

How does that work?  I really, really hope that it boils down to a deeply-encrypted built-in biological radio.  We’ve seen enough of their biotech in the first game that it’s not unreasonable.  But if that’s the case… why haven’t the Combine, the evil invaders of this game, figured out how to hack it?  I mean, they’re already using headcrabs as bioweapons (which is awesome… er, I mean, terrible).

Where did they all go?

We still have the vortigaunts and the headcrabs from the first game.  But what happened to the controllers — the annoying flying things that look kind of like the final boss?  Well, maybe they went down, or away, when it died.  The lack of grunts, the heavily armed-and-armored guys apparently being manufactured by the vortigaunts, could be explained by their factories having been destroyed in the fighting in the interim.

But what about the other invasive species?  The bullsquid (an annoying monster that spits something nasty at you), or the houndeyes, which would be kind of cool if they skipped the painfully loud barks?  Maybe you could argue that those didn’t escape the initial incursion at Black Mesa, but the little swimming leech-fish things?  They screamed annoying, invasive critter than could escape through the drains.

In short, I am a bit perturbed that none of these guys showed up in the sequel.  In the words of TVTropes — what happened to the mouse?

Breen

Breen is this game’s head of the equivalent of the Vichy regime in France during WWII.  Earth fought a war.  For seven hours.  And then surrendered.  Breen is the human “administrator.”

He monologues.

A lot.

On loudspeakers to the whole darn city.

Come on, man, if you didn’t monologue, you might have gotten away with it.

Alyx and Company

One major (and partly technological) improvement in this game is that the other characters didn’t come out of cookie cutters.  Eli Vance, a major scientist, is a cheerful black guy with a prosthetic leg.  (Who knows how that happened?)  He’s supposedly one of the scientists who helped you in the first game, now with more personality.  The resistance members you meet have a reasonable mix of gender and ethnicity and appearance, keeping everyone from looking too much like carbon-copies.

Meanwhile, Alyx Vance (Eli’s daughter) is a bit of a counter to the usual let’s-go-rescue-the-princess thing.  She shoots bad guys with you, hacks computer systems for you, explains how the world works… and that kind of thing.  She helps you try to rescue Eli when he gets kidnapped, and she spends a relatively small fraction of the game as a prisoner herself.  Judith Mossman is a delightful double/triple agent, and she’s the one who gets you all out of the penultimate mess.  And Barney the former Black Mesa security guy is hilarious in general.

In short, I liked the characters a lot better in the second game.

The G-man

What is with this guy?

First appearance?  Another train car in the very beginning of the first game.  He walks through dangerous areas with impunity in both games, teleporting at a whim, and always carrying a briefcase.  At the end of the first game, he’s apparently decided that Gordon is useful, and puts him on ice… and pulls him out for the second, ten years later.  At the end of the second game, he stops time while your final target is blowing up.  If the G-man is that awesome, why not go himself with his teleportation and time-stop of win?  Who is he working for?  Especially given that Breen says Gordon’s contract is “negotiable”?  Why does he have such a terribly obvious accent?  Why is he after Gordon from the beginning?  Why does he dump Gordon back into a nasty situation ten years later with no information, no hazard suit, and not even his trusty crowbar?  And what’s in the briefcase?

This also leads to a fascinating irony within the game — Freeman is a legend.  The Vortigaunts think he’s awesome because he freed them from the Nihilanth.  The humans think he’s awesome, too, and the legend keeps going as you play.  Freeman is the “one free man.”  The irony is that he is not free at all — at the end of the game, he is under the thumb of the G-man.

Final Comments

My first reaction upon finish this game was “ARGH!”  More questions raised than questions answered.  Fascinating but frustrating.  There are a couple of “episodes” for after this game, which are shorter sequel games that may answer some of them… but, based on trying to skim without getting too many spoilers, not nearly enough.

So, Valve, when’s Half-Life 3 coming out?

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Science Fiction Round 24: Half-Life

2013/08/21 4 comments

We made the silly decision to get a whole bunch of Valve games.  (There was a sale!)

Consequence:  We’ve spent rather a while over the last several weeks playing through the Half-Life and Half-Life 2 games.  Clearly, it’s time for a review, starting with Half-Life.

Also, these games are awesome.  Play them before reading if you don’t want spoilers.

***

Headcrabs

Its mouth is its bottom side.  And it wants to hug your face.

Its mouth is its bottom side. And it wants to hug your face.

I hated these.  They hide in all sorts of annoying places, behind crates, in ducts in the ceiling… and then they jump out and try to eat your face.

While they’re very effective for weak enemies, they do lead to a general problem.  Why are they successful at eating people’s faces?  These are alien critters — why are they so good at eating the brains of aliens, taking them over, and turning them into zombies?  Why don’t our brains make them sick?  There’s no good reason to assume that alien biology is sufficiently similar to our own to make us good eating.

I could theorize that they were engineered by the biotech-savvy natives of Xen.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t work either, since we later learn that Earth-side scientists were abducting alien samples (including headcrabs) long before the Vortigaunts (one kind of sentient locals) start doing things to Earth.  (Edit — based on reading the Half-Life Wiki, it’s theorized Vortigaunts and company were actually planning to invade Earth for reasons presented in Half-Life 2… and then Earth started poking them, so the bioweapon idea may work after all.)

On the plus side, the actual mechanism of I-eat-your-face-and-control-your-body-now isn’t entirely unprecedented.  There are some examples of parasites in the insect world that do something like this, hijacking the host to help the parasite propagate itself.  (Which has some lovely implications about headcrabs.  We also get to meet what we can describe as the “mother of all headcrabs.”  I assume that’s what happen if you don’t shoot them while they’re small.)  It’s still weird that it works, but hey… it’s suitably creepy.

Gordon Freeman, MIT PhD in Theoretical Physics (with a minor in Butt-Kicking)

Okay, so I’m getting a PhD in mostly-theoretical physics at Stanford.  And I don’t know anything about killing aliens or firing RPGs.  Or gauss guns.

Well, except for using them in a video game, that is.  Which doesn’t give you experience that translates into actual alien-extermination skills.

Freeman, on the other hand, has apparently picked up these skills somewhere.  Which is rather unusual.  (Perhaps he’s ex-military of some kind, prior to that PhD?)  Either that, or Black Mesa has a very thorough employee training program.

It’s also a bit odd that a theoretical physicist is the person doing the experimental research… although it’s implied that this is punishment for Freeman always being late to work.

Meet Gordon Freeman, PhD physicist.  He's also really good with a crowbar.

Meet Gordon Freeman, PhD physicist. He’s also really good with a crowbar.

 

Kill All The Scientists

You are in charge of the military.  Contrary to the usual rules about the army not operating domestically, you’re sent in to deal with an extra-dimensional alien incursion.  (This is okay if you count it as an invasion straight-up.)  So… what’s the strategy?  You could find the people who were there, figure out what’s going on before you start bombing things, find the engineers who constructed the various equipment… or you could just kill all the scientists because they know too much, or something.

This is a bad plan.  You’re going out of your way to kill valuable, highly-educated people who are well-motivated to work with you (before you start shooting them) and are likely to know exactly what’s going on and how to fix it.

I really hope that the actual military is not this self-defeating (Freeman stops the alien invasion for the military in the game, but also personally kills several hundred marines and black-ops types who did not need to die).

Radiation Hazard

Although not so bad as Aperture Science, Black Mesa has some problems with OSHA compliance.

One of the worst offenses is probably all the various radioactive spills.  It’s so bad that it glows green in the dark.  Which is rather odd, actually.  Most radioactive waste isn’t going to glow, because the fraction of waste that is radioactive material (as opposed to acidic, caustic, or otherwise toxic) is often pretty small.  And if it does glow, because it’s a slowly decaying slug, it’ll glow red from blackbody radiation due to the fact that the radioactivity is heating the material.  In the former case, it’s not the radiation that kills you.  In the latter case, the radiation really is quite nasty.

But glowing green?  There has to be some other chemical in there that’s doing the glowing.  Maybe they mixed some glowing chemicals with their radioactive sludge to make sure they could keep track of it.  There’s a lot of it running through the sewers… and that’s not really something that you just want to dump into the nearest body of water.  I certainly hope that’s not what they were doing with it.

And speaking of compliance with rules…

“Equal Opportunity Employer”

The comment about Black Mesa following employment rules is made during the voice-over at the beginning of the game.

The catch?  I think the only women we see in the whole game are a couple of the black ops agents.  Oops.

And that’s it.  For bonus points, about a third of all the scientists we see look way too much like Einstein.  What the heck?  At least they do a better job of this in the second game, but seriously… the fraction of modern real-life scientists who look like Einstein is very, very small.

Xen

This place is strange.  It’s certainly cool that there islands floating in the air and variable gravity and cute living lamps and critters everywhere that you have to shoot…

… but that variable gravity thing is bizarre.  As is the convenience that you can breathe the air without noticeable difficulty.  (Much as the Xen locals can tolerate Earth just fine.)

But… well, gravity just doesn’t do that.  And it doesn’t look like we’re even on a planet… I’m not sure what to say about this place, aside from “somebody broke physics.”

Okay, there’s teleportation, so, yeah, somebody broke physics.  Oops.

A Comment On Mechanics

At least on the Mac port for the game, the controls are very, very touchy.  An errant twitch is enough to send Gordon Freeman careening to his doom down whichever elevator shaft or deep crevice is nearby.  Or falling off of a ladder.  This was… really annoying.  And also a bit unrealistic.  The same is true for a couple of tasks in Half-Life 2, where something that would be really easy in-person was quite difficult to manage with the given interface.

Also, doors.  I hated doors.  In order to go through an automatic door, you basically have to smash your face into it.  There were a couple of times when I thought a door was locked because I didn’t walk close enough to it for it to open.  (That’s also fixed in Half-Life 2, thankfully.)

Then again, given that Freeman survives a disgustingly large number of gunshot wounds and dips into radioactive acid, I probably shouldn’t complain too much.

Who is the G-Man?

Heck if I know.  At the end of Half-Life, based on his appearance, mysteriousness, and accent, I was torn between the competing hypotheses of “alien robot” and “vampire.”  After Half-Life 2, well… I think both options are still open.  More in the next post…