Content tagged videogames

The Half-Life 2 Cinematic Mod

posted on 2014-07-06

Half Life… There is so much to say about these games that I'll almost don't know where to begin. I love Half-Life. I discovered this game years ago, sometime during my (pre)-adolescence and I was astonished: it was awesome! Still, there are people considering it the best FPS ever made, even, the best game ever made. I, personally, wouldn't be able to say whether it or Duke Nukem 3D should be granted the title of best FPS ever: that's how good it is.

Half-Life 2 was a worthy sequel. A game like Half-Life having a worthy sequel is so rare that it could be considered a miracle, but after all, has Gaben ever disappointed any of us? After that, Valve released two standalone expansions continuing the series: Half-Life2: Episode One and Two. They were once again worthy sequels and for years, we have been waiting for the final conclusion of these magnificent games.

This article isn't dedicated to those masterpieces. Instead it focuses on the Half-Life 2 Cinematic Mod. A mod that supposedly "Raises the outdated graphical appearance of the Half-Life 2 trilogy to a state-of-the-art level, while giving it a more stressed, darker and minatory look.".

Does it? To answer this question, we'll have to deconstruct it piece by piece.

Audio

The soundtrack of the Cinamatic Mod is probably the most insidious part of the mod as I didn't notice its effect until after I removed it. The mod uses various tracks from movie sountracks in order to create an epic feeling to your gameplay and I must say it's mostly working. I only was able to find this forum post about where it came from.

Normally, one would think giving an epic soundtrack to an awesome game like Half-Life 2 would be perfect. Except it does not really work that way. Half-Life 2's soundtrack was very close to the action, sometimes environmental, sometime electrically awesome when it needs to be. That use of music was really fitting to the action, in a way that Alfred Hitchcock would have certainly appreciated.

I only noticed that when I finished my re-run, with Episode 2, after I removed the Cinematic Mod. But the original soundtrack in Episode 2, felt way more powerful than the epic-oriented replacement soundtrack of the Cinematic Mod, when I played Half-Life 2 and Episode 1.

Graphics

As far as HD mods go, graphics is usually their strong point. This one makes no exception in the way that's how it is advertised and that it is indeed overall pretty. Unfortunately it is not perfect and ultimately, it just ruins the experience too in several ways.

Byb the way, there might be a few light spoilers in the next sections, nothing heavy but still, be careful if you've never played the games.

Effects

The Cinematic Mod adds a lot of graphical effects to the games, mostly lighting ones. The result is pretty yet unbalanced: in the dark sections of the game, you need to use your flashlight a lot more which makes you pause a lot more to recharge it, whereas outdoor, you are often blinded by the sun. It becomes especially dramatic near the end of Half-Life 2 when you need to deal with flying as well as on feet ennemies on rooftops. I had to tweak the graphical options a lot in order to be able to complete this sequence.

Textures

Most of the textures are nice, although not alway the close to the originals but I've seen HD mods doing worse things. Unfortunately some of them are rather strange, very strange. Please not that these screenshots have been found on the Internet as a matter of illustration, but these problems still are here in the last version of the mod. they might also have been compressed and do not necessarily reflect the graphical fidelity of the mod.

Characters Models

The mod, comes with the ability to replace character models. I didn't even try to play with them. When I say these models, I automatically decided to replace the original ones. It's like the author of the mod didn't even try to respect Half-Life. Alyx, which received the highest amount of work, and therefore, the highest number of models, lost all of her personality, to just become a sexual object. Here a few screenshots.

Alyx 1, Alyx 2, Alyx 3, Alyx 4, Alyx 5.

Alyx is one of the best female characters in video gaming: she is strong and independent, not a weak a feeble woman that you have to save over and over again. During the games, Alyx shows a range of credible emotions that makes her compelling. She also isn't here just to make Gordon look good. No, she is a complex and interesting character with strengths and weaknesses which makes here really likeable as a character. Now, look back at those screenshots and then look at this picture of the original character. I think there is nothing more to add.

Just in case someone ask me later about it: the Cinematic Mod's Alyx is modeled after the Brazilian model Adriana Lima, mostly known for her work with Victoria's Secret and Maybelline.

Bonus: Dr Breen.

Gameplay

The Cinematic Mod comes with a few gameplay options, some of them disabled, other enabled by default. A few of those enabled ones are weapon model replacement, ironsights and aiming features, and reticle removal. Those options are unfortunately gamplay-breaking. They affect the diffuculty on such ways that it is now harder to aim correctly, the game being balanced for the use of reticles, it now is totally unbalanced. That is unfortunate.

I'll skip on how graphical modifications affect the gameplay as I've already said this in the graphics section.

I have one last problem: bugs. There were a few bugs that totally stopped my progression in Half-Life 2: Episode One. One invisible wall and a texture bug that keeps you to see where you're going, making it impossible to progress at at least two places in the game. This is when I decided to uninstall this mod.

tl;dr

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU TRY THIS MOD IF YOU HAVE NOT PLAYED ALL THE HALF-LIFE 2 GAMES. If you've already played them and want to to a re-reun of those glorious games, it would be a mistake too. This mod totally pervert the game, ruining every possible aspect other than the story, although I would say, give it time and it surely could do that too.

Alan Wake: a case study about game saves

posted on 2013-11-19

A few days ago, I started replaying Alan Wake. Why ? Because it's a really good game; I enjoyed it and I wanted to replay it, but mostly because I hadn't played it in Nightmare mode, which is the real way to play this game. Of course, this point is subject to debate but I consider that if you do not have access to the whole content of the game, then you're playing a limited mode. I will not spoil the game in this article, I will merely describe gameplay mechanics and its saving system. For those who have never played the game, its main character Alan Wake is a writer and you will find some of his manuscript pages in the game. In Nightmare Mode, the game is harder and you can find more pages. I played the normal mode during my first play-through and I was disappointed when I noticed what I missed. Since enough time passed, I decided to replay the game in Nightmare mode.

I had forgotten about how horrendous the saving system was: there is none! The game is only composed of checkpoints! It's also divided in narrative arcs called Episodes that you can replay at-will but even if this is a nice idea, it is not relevant to this article. Don't get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed this game. Sam Lake is an amazing writer and Alan Wake's story is a prime example of a perfect structure and captivating narrative. The gameplay and its rhythm are well balanced and renewed enough that it doesn't become boring. Alan Wake is a great game that deserves to be played. You should probably go buy it. Anyway, it's good but its checkpoint system is terrible.

Checkpoints

A brief summary

If you've not yet read my previous article about game saves you probably don't know how much I hate checkpoints. They are an insult to decency, beauty, art, and anything good that humanity has ever achieved; they are atrocious.

Checkpoints deprive you from any choice regarding your saves. You cannot stop your game unless a developer authorized you to do so. You cannot explore possibilities without being afraid of the consequences. Isn't that cheating? Well let's take RPGs for example: what if you're hesitating between two stat upgrades. No, you cannot experiment. What if dialogue choices are ambiguous? Too bad, Bobby's dead now.

Ok, let's admit that my examples were abusing the saving system, which, by the way, isn't a bad thing. What if your little brother wants to play your game? I guess he should buy his own copy...and his own computer...

Alan Wake's case

So what is wrong with Alan Wake's checkpoints? Isn't it just a choiceless corridor game? Well, a lot of them are terribly placed. Why? I guess Video Game studios have budgets and therefore, don't necessarily have the time to test every checkpoint. The reason doesn't really matter. The "why" isn't important: it's just annoying, and it's actually the game's main defect.

What's wrong then? First ammo; near almost every checkpoint you have a small container that has some ammo or consumables. You need to reach the checkpoint, then open the container, then take its contents. At some checkpoints, if you move very slowly, you can open it from a special angle and take its contents before entering

Cinematics, scripted sequences, and dialogues : all of those happen often after checkpoints and before hard fights. And sometimes, a bad camera angle during a fraction of a second is enough to get you killed, even in normal mode.

But guess what? I was playing in Nightmare Mode, which, as I said before, is mandatory if you want access the whole content. Some enemies move fast, some can kill you in two hits while needing more than a magazine to die. So you just need to follow the npc (or just run alone) for 30 seconds, listen, then take the ammunition, then come back to the npc waiting in front of its door, wait for a minute for the scripted dialogue, then start the fight, die, and retry.

All of this could have been avoided with a decent saving system.

tl;dr

Remedy, I love you, but please, stop using checkpoints. It makes dying painful, it makes your game less fun, it prevents my little brother from making his friends want to buy your game, and it kills kittens.

PS : Shadowun Returns

By the way, one of my favorite games of this year also had checkpoints as its main defect. Well, will have had checkpoints as its main defect, to be more precise, because Shadowrun Returns, which was my main reason for writing my previous article about game saves, is going to have a proper saving system with its first DLC so right now, I don't really think there's anything that could stop you from buying it, except maybe insanity.

On game saves

posted on 2013-08-14

The option to save in video games is an important feature to gamers everywhere. Without it, your progression in a game is limited within your gaming session. When you play Super Mario Bros or Prince of Persia, you have to beat the game in one sitting. There's nothing else you can do ! You have to finish this game or to fail. But nowadays, games are longer. Unless you're playing Call of Duty Ghostly Modern Ops 27, you can't beat a modern game in one sitting.

But before I begin to explain the implications of every saving method that I can think of and which one is the best, I shall warn you that I am a PC gamer and that my opinion will be focused on that aspect even though, I'll try to think about good console implementations.

Different types of saves

Level-focused saving

I'll first talk about a saving method which is very limited in application but perfect if appropriate: Level-focused saving. What I mean is that in this case, the game is divided into levels and you have to beat a level in order to be able to save. Sometimes, if the level is linear and long, you can have a few checkpoints in order not to have to restart the level from scratch when you die. However, the checkpoint will not be saved if you turn off your game because you cannot save unless you beat the level. Some games give you a saving ability but it's often meaningless considering that most of the time, you can replay levels and the stucture of the game itself is composed of blocks: you must do everything in a predefined order and you have no choice in the game. In this example, forced auto-saving might be a good thing. It works magnificently well in Super Meat Boy or even in the New Super Mario Bros series. But there's a problem ! It's limited in range. Most of the time, you can't arbitrarily cut a game into levels. If you do, you can't show it to the player or you would break his suspension of disbelief and destroy all your efforts to immerse the player into the game. This is why I think that this kind of saving is limited to a few genres like platformers and brawlers.

Passwords

NEVER USE THAT! NEVER! DO YOU HEAR ME? NEVER!

Except if it's for saving the seed of a procedurally generated map, maybe… If you're nice…

Manual Saving

Now let's talk about elegance. You are given either a limited or unlimited number of saves and save slots, and the ability to save via a menu. Also, sometimes, you give the option to the player to name the save. That's all. Well not exactly… I've just talked about limiting the amount of game slots and the number of saves. This is something serious that should not be done arbitrarily. You need a reason to limit those. As far as good reasons to limit slots, I can't really think of any except memory space. In the 21st century, this should not be a problem. However, limiting the number of saves in an area, level, or even in the game (that last one is pretty dangerous though) is possible. Let's take Hitman for example: this game was pretty clever about limited manual saving. The number of available saves per mission was dependent on the chosen difficulty. You couldn't save at all during a mission in the hardest difficulty! The game was automatically saved at the end of a mission and you could replay them any time you wanted after that to get a better score. By the way, you can combine save systems. You are indeed responsible for saving your game regularly which can be terribly frustrating if you forget. Thankfully a solution to this problem has already been thought of: Autosave

Autosave !

What is this concept of autosave? An OPTIONAL, but enabled by default, save that happens either regularly or at certain places. Why should it be optional? Because there are people out there that prefer to manage their saves manually and autosave would drive them crazy and immensely reduce their gaming experience.

So I'm going to spoil the end of the article right here, right now. To me, manual saving with the possibility to name your saves with optional autosave is the best saving system ever.

Checkpoints

It was a dark and rainy night. The apocalyptically diluvian rain was only covered by the sinister roar of thunder. Sitting on old couches, their leather worn and torn in places, the team was waiting for the power to come back on. Two men on the left were smoking old, humid cigarettes. Mixed to the smell of wet ashes was old but cheap brandy. One man was periodically rising and pacing every five minutes. He was becoming more and more agitated. He had never been one who dealt with stress well. Given enough time, he probably could have butchered the whole room. Not today, because suddenly, he stopped and started to laugh nervously. Everyone else turned in his direction, as lightening struck. "I've got an idea", he said. "We're going to make something grander than anyone has ever done. Ha ha ha ha ha." Lightning struck again, harder, and so, checkpoints were created…

Or at least they probably were created in similar circumstances. Checkpoints were created by an ill mind that decided that saves were either too good or too bad for players and that they needed all freedom and decision taken from them: that they need to be taken by the hand in order to do anything and everything.

Checkpoints are worse than bad: they are an atrocity, an aberration. No matter how hard you try, you can never place them correctly. People will always have to replay a boring part or will not be far enough ahead of the hardest parts to be able to prepare themselves properly. Also, it's impossible to imagine how every player will react. Developers can't put the checkpoints in places that are convenient to each individual player. What is easy as pie for some, is hard as hell for others.

So why? Because players can cheat with saves? Then why not deny them saving under certain conditions like in combat or story-driven sequences? Because it's too hard/complicated/long to save on console ? Children played Final Fantasy VII when it was released: your argument is invalid. No, there is no good reason to use checkpoints.

tl;dr

If you're a game developer and you decide to use checkpoint as a save system in your game, then you're an asshole. Unless you're making a game of a certain genre, like a platformer, nameable manual saves + optional save is the only way.

Edits

Rogue-likes and Permadeath-based games

There is one exception to my arguments about saves that I forgot. Roguelikes, and more generally, Permadeath-based games.

Yes, these games are fun. No, you don't need to be masochist to enjoy them. I might write an article about them later. These games are based on the principle that by trying over and over again, you get a better understanding of the game and therefore, you get better. They are based on multiple playthroughs. They have ways to cancel the monotomy of repetition, usually via randomness.

So, when and why would you save in a permadeath-based game ? That's very simple. You will save your game because game sessions can be long : multiple hours long. Basically, saving can take two forms that complement each other :

  • Pause-like save : you stop your game, and you will continue it later.

  • Replays : because every playthrough is a valuable adventure that you might want to remember or tell.

Then, when do you save ? Whenever you want ! There is absolutely no possible gameplay exploitation since the saves are deleted upon loading. And even if you could, it would spoil all the fun of the game.

What about replays ? Well, they are most likely saved upon death so you can replay them. There's also a cool thing that can be derived from that : ghosts. Some games save your dead characters in the form of ghosts that you can meet or that you must fight. I can only think of one : Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, which by the way is free (both as in free speech and as in free beer).

tl;dr

The only saving concerns you should have about Permadeath-based games, like Roguelikes are saving the game so you can resume later, a thing that you should be able to do at any time, and saving replay, for fun. Oh and try Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup if you like roguelikes.


Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Reihar