Monday, September 22, 2008

Number 2: Half Life 2 - "Point Insertion" (Valve, 2004)

Returning back now with my list for best first levels in videogames, the number 2 spot belongs to the opening of Valve's sequel to its astounding masterpiece "Half Life". The opening level of Half Life 2 is called "Point Insertion". It begins with you, as our hero Gordon Freeman, being awoken by the mysterious "G-Man", who we'll come back to later. The original Half Life opened with the level "Anamalous Materials", with Gordon going to work on his first day of his new job at Black Mesa, a sort of secret government testing facility.

What makes the Half Life games unique is that the entire story is seen from your point of view. There are no cinematic sequences, no cuts, nothing at all to remind you that you are playing a game. The games play in a sort-of real time, with everything being directly experienced by you as the player. This was best witnessed during the opening of the original Half Life, with Gordon entering the Black Mesa facility as if he were just going to work, with the characters around you greeting you, giving you your nametag and ID and showing you your office. There was a never a game as immersive, and the game laid the groundwork for many games to come, such as Bioshock, which was also featured on this countdown.

So why did I choose Point Insertion over Anamalous Materials? Well, Anamalous Materials was absolutely amazing for its time and Point Insertion definitely couldn't have happened without it. But I'm of the opinion that the opening of Half Life 2 provides for a greater gameplay experience, subtly teaching you the mechanics of the game while effectively showing the world and conveying the atmosphere better than its predecessor. Anamalous Materials could be faulted for its lack of gameplay. While the opening tram-ride scene has been lauded, it doesn't provide for much gameplay besides looking around and taking in the environment. Because of this, I find Point Insertion a better opening level, if only by a hair.

What is the story of Half Life you may ask? Well, Gordon Freeman, fresh out of M.I.T., arrives for his first day of work. He's invited to take part in some sort of experiment which utilizes his knowledge of nuclear physics when something goes wrong during said experiment, opening a dimensional rift, allowing trans-dimensional aliens to invade and overrun the facility. After a lengthy battle working his way through the facility battling not only the aliens, but also the military who've been sent in to "contain the outbreak", Gordon succeeds in stopping the invasion and is subsequently placed in some sort of stasis by the mysterous "G-Man", an unknown figure who pops up throughout both games who appears to be observing Gordon and his progress (think of the cigarrette smoking man from The X-Files).

As I stated in the beginning, Half Life 2 opens with you, as Gordon Freeman being awoken from your stasis by the G-Man who ends his opening monologue with the lines "The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world. So wake up Mr. Freeman, wake up and smell the ashes."

You awake to find yourself on a train. There's just a small handful of people with you there. They're all wearing the same jumpsuits, with numbers sewn onto the chest, like something you'd see in a prison or concentration camp. One of them remarks that he didn't see you get on. The train pulls into the station and as you walk out the door you are presented with the grim nightmare world of Half Life 2. Apparently not everything went well after your success at Black Mesa. As you learn over the course of the game, an alien force known as "The Combine" has taken over the world. Having been attracted to Earth after you accidentally opened the dimensional rift in the first game, the Combine quickly took over in what became known as "The Seven Hour War", after which Earth surrendered. Apparently the Combine have decimated most of Earth's population, leaving only a handful of humans left to live in highly controlled city centers known only by their number.

You are greeted on the overhead TV screens by a welcoming voice. "Welcome, welcome to City 17. You have chosen, or been chosen to relocate to one of our finest remaining urban centers. I thought so much of City 17 that I elected to establish my administration here in the citadel, so thoughtfully provided by our benefactors. I am proud to call City 17 my home. And so, whether you are here to stay, or passing through to parts unknown, welcome, to City 17. It's safer here. " This is the voice of Dr. Breen, who will become the antagonist of the game, and you can detect just a slight hint of uneasiness, or maybe it's weariness, in his voice. This is definitely not the Earth you left behind.

As you make your way through the train station you are treated to an amazingly life-like world. From the dilapidated buildings, to the way the "Civil Protection", in their gasmasks and creepy vocoder voices push you around, to the little scenes that take place (like where you can see the poor guy being interrogated through the slit in the door), the game effectively builds the atmosphere of a nightmarishly dystopian world, that perhaps recalls the horror of WWII ghettos.

You run into an old friend disguised as a member of Civil Protection (CP) who briefly catches you up on what's been going on. He's part of an underground resistance movement against the Combine and directs you to make it to a nearby safehouse. Soon you make your way outside to the main plaza, where you first catch a glimpse of the enormous Citadel, a towering alien structure many miles tall. You make your way through a few alleyways where you stumble across the CP in action, terrorizing and beating a few citizens inside an apartment building, apparently for no reason. This scene reminds me vaguely of the part in THX-1138 with the robot officer beating the person being broadcast on TV (also used as a sound sample on the opening track of Nine Inch Nails' 'The Downward Spiral'). This is definitely a grim world.

Eventually the Combine picks up that you aren't supposed to be in the city. Over a loudspeaker you hear a calm British female voice saying there's been a miscount of people in the sector. Soon the CP are onto you. They chase you across the rooftops, with alien-like helicopters on your tail. You make your way to another building only to find yourself surrounded by CPs. That's when you are saved by Alyx Vance, the comely daughter of one of your old work buddies, who becomes your companion for the remainder of the game.

This level does a lot of things right. It sets up the atmosphere for the rest of the game and it teaches you the basic mechanics of the game with nice subtle touches, like how it teaches you to pick up objects by having a CP officer order you to pick up a piece of trash and throw it away. It's also interesting how there's no HUD during this first level. With no life bars or ammo gauges to clutter up the screen it allows for a more immersive experience. For all these reasons this is why I've chosen Point Insertion as my number two pick.

Watch the level here, and if you're interested watch Anamalous Materials here.

(As a side note, I really enjoyed the ending of this game too. Though it could be said that it's exteremely abrupt, I thought it fit perfectly. Also, I haven't played through Episodes 1 and 2, so please no spoilers!)


Herr Zrbo said...

line spacing fixed? ZOMG!

yoggoth said...

I loved this game. I was amazed that it didn't disappoint after Half-life, which was one of my favorites. I also have not played episode 1 or 2, but I'm looking forward to them when I get a chance.

I've heard some complain about the ending to Half-life 2 but I also thought it was great and perfectly matched the overall Half-life atmosphere.

Valve is one of those companies that renews your faith in capitalism, at least a little.

Herr Zrbo said...

I knew you'd like this pick yoggoth. I've got the Orange Box but after finishing the main game I need a bit of a break. Currently trying to work through a few older games (like Beyond Good & Evil) before the onslaught of games coming this fall.

ninquelote said...

I love this game. I spent quite a few dorm days watching yoggoth play through HL1, and I always thought it was a cool game. I bought HL2 part 1 about a year ago and loved playing that one too. Yoggoth got me the Orange Box for my birthday so I have been playing part 2, but haven't finished it yet, so I won't be spoiling anything for anybody.

It's been so long since I played the first part, that I almost forgot how it began. I can't wait to finish it now so that I can maybe complain about the ending (but probably not).