Noob's-Eye View: Half-Life 2 and the First-Person Shooter - quasiconundrum Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Noob's-Eye View: Half-Life 2 and the First-Person Shooter

I have a confession to make: I am not a fan of first-person shooters.

I don't hate them, by any means, but I don't endeavor to play them either. In fact, my experience with first-person shooters can be summed up quite nicely in four words: Metroid Prime, BioShock, Borderlands.

That's it. Really. No Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake, or Duke Nukem. No Far Cry or Crysis. No GoldenEye, no Halo, no Call of Duty, no Battlefield. Go ahead, feel free to gasp.

But I'll go further still: even the three examples of my very limited experience are rather contentious as representatives of the "pure" first-person shooter. Metroid Prime is rife with adventure and collecting elements; Borderlands is an RPG hybrid, with its quest-based structure and character leveling system. Based on my admittedly narrow experience, BioShock seems to be the "purest" representative of the three (if there is such a thing, or if such a thing even matters). I enjoyed all of these games, but to me they were each unique enough—different enough—not to be saddled with the label of "first-person shooter" in my mind. So, despite this limited experience, I remain, to this day, devoid of any notion that I actually like first-person shooters.

I'm here now to challenge that notion. To test my preconceptions, to deliberately step outside of my comfortable little RPG box. This is my noob's-eye view into the first-person shooter genre, and I can think of no better way to break the ice than to play one of the most iconic first-person shooters ever made: Half-Life 2.

At my core, I am a story person. Furthermore, I have never particularly enjoyed combat for the sake of combat. Combat, for me, is a means to an end. Usually, that end is the advancement of the game's storyline, and in the case of RPGs—my genre of choice—the advancement of my character's capabilities. Then again, one of my favorite series is Uncharted, which features no character advancement whatsoever. But combat is also my least favorite aspect of an Uncharted game, as I play for the story, setting, and platforming/puzzles. Generally speaking, combat in video games merely gets me from point A to point B, no more and no less.

Taking this into consideration, it should come as little surprise that first-person shooters do not naturally appeal to me: the focus is, primarily, on combat. I'm not saying that they never have strong stories, as I'm sure some of them do. But in an FPS, story—along with virtually all other game elements—remains secondary to the combat, which by and large defines the genre. Then again, given my very limited experience with first-person shooters, this too may simply be another misguided notion of mine. But that's what I'm here to find out.

My previous experience with the Half-Life franchise was entirely secondhand. I remember friends talking about the first game, but I never saw it—not, in fact, until GI's Super Replay of the game earlier this year. As for Half-Life 2, I had a friend who was completely obsessed with it when it came out, and showed me some of the game on his nice, shiny, souped-up PC. Thing was, even if I had wanted to play it (which wasn't the case, as I, of course, wasn't a fan of first-person shooters), my PC at the time didn't have the chops to handle it. I distinctly remember two things from this brief encounter with Half-Life 2: first, the graphics were phenomenal; and second, there was a crazy gravity gun that let you pick up almost anything and chuck it at enemies.

A while back, I got Valve's Orange Box on Xbox 360, because I wanted to check out Portal. I played it, thoroughly enjoyed it, and then I shelved it. Nothing else about it much appealed to me at the time, and that was that. Now, I return to the Orange Box, to step into the shoes of gaming's most renowned physicist-slash-alien-murderer, Gordon Freeman.

The game starts off at a slow pace, but as I began wading into actual combat situations, I noticed something. My hands had started to sweat. A lot. And then I noticed something else: my heart was pounding.

You see, this never happens to me. This is basically my "final-boss" reaction in pretty much any other game. And here, I'd reached that level of intensity within the game's first few encounters. This brings me to another point: I generally don't like intense experiences. I'm a pretty mild-mannered person. I don't like scary movies, or haunted houses. It's not so much that I don't like being "scared" (though I don't really care for that either); it's more that I don't like the intense, perpetual anxiety I feel in any situation that maintains a high level of suspense.

In my experience, first-person games in general exhibit a much higher level of intensity than other games. You're drawn closer to the action, closer to the environments; there's an almost tactile level of interaction when you're in a first-person perspective. But my love for the Elder Scrolls, for example—as well as Borderlands—shows that I don't have an issue with a first-person perspective in and of itself.

The problem for me comes when a first-person perspective is joined with linear gameplay. To put it simply, I need a break. One thing I love about the typical RPG is the ability to change the game's pace, to do something different every once in a while. So I tend to really dislike being forced onto a linear path.

But I can say that Half-Life 2 does its part to break up the combat segments, at least somewhat. I loved the physics-based puzzles, even if they were scarce and brief. I enjoyed the vehicle segments rather less, mainly because the controls for both the airboat and the buggy were kind of wonky (at least on Xbox). But as a change of pace from the game's standard combat, I thought they worked well.

Still, the game maintained a high level of intensity that made it difficult for me to play for more than an hour or two at a time. As I'm used to sinking as many hours into a game as possible in any one sitting, this was an odd feeling for me, and it made for quite a draining experience overall.

Partway through Nova Prospekt, I came to a point where I was certain that I was going to quit. The tight, dark spaces in particular were really wearing on my nerves, and I simply wasn't enjoying myself anymore. In fact, if I hadn't been working on this blog, I'm sure I would have walked away from Half-Life 2 at that point, my assumptions about disliking first-person shooters thoroughly validated.

Instead, I set my feelings aside, and soldiered on. Of course, shortly after I decided to continue in spite of my dislike of the endless combat, I came to the second turret standoff in Nova Prospekt. Those of you familiar with the game will, I think, appreciate the irony. But to my surprise, I emerged victorious, if barely. I still wasn't sure if I would finish the game, but after surviving what was probably the most intense battle so far, I have to say my odds were looking just a little bit better.

It was not long after this, during one of the game's relatively few NPC dialogue scenes, that I came to a realization: throughout most of the game, I totally lost track of the story. I was almost always surprised when Alyx or someone showed up and reminded me that I actually had a specific goal, as opposed to simply mowing through hordes of enemies. And then I was struck by another thought: not only did I not feel like a scientist; I didn't even feel intelligent.

I felt more like...a soldier, maybe. On occasion, especially when Alyx was around, I felt like a bodyguard. Furthermore, despite everyone telling me how important I was, I really had no clue why. My importance was just assumed, by everyone—everyone, that is, except me. After all, I was only going wherever the odd NPC told me to go, and wherever the conveniently linear path would take me. Apparently, Gordon Freeman is a brilliant physicist—but I feel like I might as well have been a dog, the way I was perpetually led by the nose.

Probably the biggest criticism I have with the game is that I wish there were more story elements. I definitely got the sense that I was playing through a powerful, influential series of events, yet I only ever had the vaguest idea of what was actually going on. It almost felt like the developers wanted to give you more story, but they were terrified of keeping you waiting, and so they rushed along the scripted dialogue scenes so that you could get back to shooting things as soon as possible. Maybe I only perceived it this way because of my extensive RPG background. Maybe fans of the FPS genre are perfectly fine with this approach, and do only want to get back to shooting things, but I was left wanting more.

By the time I arrived at the Citadel, though, I was feeling rather glad that I stuck it out. The game's intensity level certainly seemed to escalate at this point, but with the addition of the supercharged Gravity Gun and doubly-robust suit, Half-Life 2 did a great job of making me feel empowered enough to handle it. There were some strong scripted scenes within the Citadel as well, especially as I neared the final confrontation and witnessed its aftermath.

But you know what's funny? I will admit that, throughout most of the game, I was looking forward to the end. There were times when I wasn't sure I'd even see the end. But I got there. And you know what I did?

I immediately started playing Episode One. Granted, this was mostly because I wanted to resolve that nasty cliffhanger at the end of the game. Still, it was largely resolved within the first couple of minutes of Episode One. But I just...kept going. In fact, I didn't realize how far I'd kept going until I was almost to the end of it.

And so I paused, wondering. I don't know if I just got used to the perpetual intensity of the game or what. Episode One doesn't pull any punches, and clearly assumes you're quite familiar with Half-Life 2. But I was enjoying it all the same, enough so that I had actually stopped constantly assessing my progress and just played. I think, when it comes right down to it, that's a big part of the essence and the appeal of the first-person shooter: it's about living in the moment. And by the end of Half-Life 2, I think I finally understood it.

I still don't know if the first-person shooter is really my cup of tea. But I'm glad I gave Half-Life 2 a shot—I ended up enjoying it far more than I thought I would, and it opened my eyes to a whole class of games I'd never paid much attention to before. I certainly wouldn't mind another foray into the FPS genre, and what's more, I now place myself squarely among those of you eagerly awaiting Half-Life 3.

Happy shooting!

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