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volume 1, issue 16

Today in loonygames:

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Off the Shelf:
The Top Shelf

By Rowan "Sumaleth" Crawford

This variety in Half-Life's gameplay as you progress through the episodes is very significant because you never really get a change to get bored of the gameplay, nor to get into a gameplay rhythm that sees you playing almost on autopilot. In Half-Life, there is always something new to keep you interested, more so than any game I have played before.

A possible drawback is that changes in gameplay of this nature can mean that some players may only enjoy particular sections of the game. This is particularly true in the case of the gameplay and environmental changes from episode 3 to episode 4 that are quite significant. If you're really enjoying the fire-fights with the human soldiers of episode 3, and have very little interest in puzzles and killing aliens, then episode 4 may well be a big disappointment. It's a tough prospect for game designers wanting to make something for everyone.

From my own point of view, I thoroughly enjoyed the game right from beginning to end. Well, perhaps I had a touch of reservation with episode 1, but it was still well designed and kept things moving along nicely. Some of the fire-fight set pieces of episodes 2 and 3 were, without a doubt, remarkable and as much fun as anything I've ever seen in a FPS game. I also found episode 4 to be thoroughly enjoyable, and the atmosphere it managed to get across was fantastic.

Technically speaking, Half-Life is right up there near the cutting edge. Where it lacks features seen in Unreal, it makes up for in other areas. With the Quake engine as a foundation, the only way was up, and the Valve Software coders have done fine work adding some impressive features to the id Software code base.

The main addition to the engine is the skeletal system used for model animation, whereby the models are deformed via animated bones (ie. a skeleton) rather than the technique used by most other games where each frame of movement is a different model. The upcoming Max Payne uses a similar system, but Half-Life is the first to the shelves using this animation approach. The question is; can this change in animation technique be seen in the game?

I have to say that if it can be seen then the effect is very subliminal. There isn't a lot that couldn't have been done using the old method, although thatís not to say that, under the hood, the use of skeletons hasn't had many hidden benefits such as faster load times. Many of the animations in the game lack the realism and 'weight' seen in, for example, the 'frame' based Quake 2 animations, and it's hard to know whether it was a limitation of the skeletal system or other things.

Another major addition to the Quake code is in the area of artificial intelligence, as mentioned earlier, an addition that is definitely noticeable. The soldiers in Half-Life make significant inroads into the world of game AI, proving to challenging and even realistic, while never being annoying, frustrating, or even out of place.

This AI is mostly noticeable in the soldiers of episodes 2 and 3 - the other baddies (particularly the alien ones), in general, follow more standard gameplay rules (at least this was the appearance). This combining of near bot-like AI with very well designed low-intelligence attack methods actually proves to be a perfect combination. Players love deathmatching, but they also love to lay waste to large collections of polygonal critters with a minimum of fuss, so having baddies that follow both schools of thought proves to be the perfect way to merge both varieties of gameplay. The other major feature of Half-Life is the heavy use of in-game cinematics. The term 'heavy use' doesn't really describe it; the cinematics almost are the game. The entire first episode, right from the initial introduction cinematic right up to the point you see grenades being lobbed at you, almost plays out more like a little interactive movie that what you

might traditionally call a FPS game.

In-game cinematics have been used in a number of other games, the first map of Unreal being a particularly good example of its use, but the guys at Valve have attempted to take the concept a step further by both the large number of them, and the addition of character interaction. Early on in the game you find yourself walking around the building with many of the other scientists talking to you, and even reacting to what you do.

These cinematics keep the game interesting, there's no doubt about that. There are just enough of them spread out through all 112 maps to perk your interest level up just as it may have seemed like time to go visit real life. As much as I'd love to talk about all the cinematics that I particularly liked, to say anything more would be to ruin the surprises, and it's definitely worth being surprised.

Half-Life's in-game cinematics are actually quite simple, it's just the sheer number of them and the very clever uses that lift Half-Life way above other games. These cinematics drive the main plot along, a plot which, when you look back at it after completing the game, is also very simple and doesn't really appear to resolve itself. This may be to allow room for a Half-Life 2, but it still seems to be a very limited attempt at a plot (even if you aren't really aware of the fact during the game).

There are problems with the cinematics; the conversations are all quite limited, are one sided, and are repetitive from time to time. I know it's hard on the game makers, but the first time you hear a phrase repeated tends to be the time the illusion is lost. The same can be said to an even higher degree, of the lack of different NPC models used in the game; there are only a few scientists and a single security officer (AKA Barney) model. Considering the large number of times you come across scientists and security guys in the game, this lack of variety seems to have been a large oversight and seriously ruins the overall effect.

When the NPC talk, their lips actually move in time with the spoken lines, and they will turn their heads to look at you as you walk around. Nice touches, and hopefully the sort of details we'll be seeing more and more of in the future.


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Credits: Bargain Bin logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. This edition of Top Shelf is © 1998 Rowan Crawford. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is a majorly hostile gesture.