Half-Life 2: Episode 1 - The Elevator of Doom

After delving back into the world of Half-Life with Episode 1 recently, I got stuck in the first chapter on possibly the most frustrating gaming section of recent memory. There aren't even any enemies involved, just deadly, falling objects.

Near the end of the first chapter, as you try to make your way to the core of the Combine Citadel, you come across a powerless elevator that looks like it descends to the core. So I casually turned the power on for the elevator, and as it started moving, waited patiently for an expected Combine assault. After all, on a similar elevator ride in Half-Life 2, Combine soldiers fired on me the entire time. Unfortunately, I was dead wrong.

The Citadel core was unstable, and threatening to blow up the entire place. Thus, the walls had been constantly shaking. On the elevator, Alyx Vance, your indefatigable AI partner, warns you to "Look up" and "Watch out!" The danger in this section of the game was not soldiers or bullets, but huge falling chunks of debris from the unstable building. What made this section so annoying was that it only partially depends on the player's skill; there's also a significant luck factor involved. Combine this with 15-20 seconds of loading each time you fail and die, and you have a tedious exercise in figuring out how best to approach the situation.

Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that your elevator, in this high-tech, futuristic fortress, is made of frickin' glass!? Are you telling me glass is the most stable, strong building material the Combine had available? What this means in practical terms is that if a single large piece of debris hits your elevator: Boom, Crash! - instant death, load, wait, retry.

Granted, during this section, although you have no traditional weapons, you do have the super-charged gravity gun. One option is to use it to simply repel the 4 or 5 pieces of debris away from you. Apparently my timing isn't good enough, because that method just didn't work for me. The other option is to grab energy balls lining the walls and fire them at the debris to knock them off course. After dozens of hours of playing Half-Life 2, I'm pretty decent at aiming my guns, especially at large objects. But where the luck comes into play is that even if you hit the piece of debris with an energy ball, that's no guarantee it won't still crash into the elevator. The physics and gravity modeled in the game may still pull the debris right into you, or it might bounce off the wall and ricochet into you. Since this is a one hit death that is only partially within your power to prevent, it was incredibly frustrating. I must have played this short segment for nearly an hour before finally getting past it. I even had to make a quicksave halfway down the elevator shaft to give me a decent shot of making it through.

I suppose it wouldn't have been so bad if the loading time wasn't so long between retries. Usually the loading between sections isn't a big deal, because it loads a large area of the game and I don't die all that often. This is the closest I've been to hurling a controller across the room since the original Super Mario Kart. Thankfully, I made it past, and am now in the core battling the more forgiving Combine soldiers. Phew!!!

Did anyone else have a similar experience during this section of Episode 1? Was it just me? What other games have you become frustrated at in unexpectedly difficult/unfair situations?


Turn-Based or Real Time RPGs?

After having played so many turn-based RPGs over the past year or so, I've noticed quite a few differences with Final Fantasy IX. Most recently on the DS, I played Dragon Quest IV, but I also played Persona 3 and Final Fantasy III relatively recently. I must have a strategic mind because I greatly prefer a turn-based system of battle, versus an active system such as in any Final Fantasy after number 4. I just don't like the idea that if I don't act quickly enough, the enemy will get to go before me or even sneak in an extra attack. This might be why I liked the strategic battles of Final Fantasy X so much: every enemy had a weakness I could exploit, and I always knew the exact turn order of all characters and enemies.

Back to Final Fantasy IX, it continues the FF tradition of employing a real-time battle system. Each character (and enemy) has a timer that fills up at varying speeds. When the gauge is full, that character can take an action. However, in practice, this system still largely replicates a turn-based system. At the most active setting, if you can input your commands without thinking too long, the characters and enemies will pretty much stay in the exact same turn order. So, for example, if the battle order is Character 1, Character 2, Enemy 1, Character 3, Enemy 2, and you don't waste any time picking your actions, that order will remain the same.

Of course, I'm still only partway through disc 2 (of 4). I would expect the real-time battles to get more complicated as the game goes on and you have more skills and abilities to choose from. But maybe not, if the fighter attacks, the thief steals, the mage casts his strongest spell, and the healer waits to heal. In typical usage, FFIX's active battle system is no different than a turn-based system. This may also change later as fast characters get faster, and may start to gain extra turns.

Plus, due to my turn-based preference, I set the battle speed to "Wait," so that the battles effectively pause as I think about which spell to cast. I'm not trying to make the game easier, I just like to have plenty of time to choose the best action.

Otherwise, Final Fantasy IX is going great. The first disc and a half have been largely story-based, with my party moving quickly from location to location, at the mercy of the plot. But I think the game world opens up a bit more on disc 3, and I have more freedom to roam around and go where I will.

I really like how each character has a predefined role or class. I much prefer these types of RPGs to the ones where characters are blank slates and all end up being copies of each other. In FFIX each character is unique: Zidane is the nimble thief, Vivi is the powerful mage, Dagger is the healing white mage, and Steiner is the brute physical attacker. I find unique characters preferable to a game like Final Fantasy VI, where each character can learn every spell in the game, and by the end they mostly are all identical except for a few special abilities.

This is also the first PS1 game I've played on my PS3. I'm not certain, but I think it looks better and loads fast than when played on my PS2. I'm not going to time the load times or anything, but it certainly seems to be pretty speedy. I've also been able to play quite a bit remotely via the PSP, which has been really nice for when my girlfriend would rather watch The Bachelor than me play a classic PS1 RPG.

I'll press onward in my 4th attempt or so to actually finish FFIX, although I will be slowly delving into Half-Life 2: Episode 1 soon. This should provide a nice contrast of games and playing styles.


Half-Life 2: A Stressful But Satisfying Experience

As part of my effort to expand my gaming horizons, I've been trying to play games in genres I normally avoid. One of the biggest gaps in my gaming knowledge is First Person Shooters, which is why the first game I bought for the PS3 was The Orange Box. On Wednesday I finished my 2nd ever FPS, Half-Life 2 (the first was the original Halo.) I know that Half-Life 2 isn't the most difficult shooter, and that in the grand scheme of things this isn't the grandest of accomplishments, but for me it's pretty significant.

When I first started playing Half-Life 2 several months ago, I found it very stressful and a little unsettling. I wasn't used to the fast pace, enemies jumping out of corners and dark spaces, and constantly being shot at from myriad locations. But over the last few weeks, as I played the game more regularly and eagerly, the tense shout-outs became almost normal. While they were still a little stressful, they became more exciting and I actually looked forward to discovering what new scenario, set-piece, or battle lurked around the next corner or down the next tunnel. I don't think I'll ever become a hard-core shooter fan, trying to play all of them. My successful completion of Half-Life 2 shows that with a little dedication, I can delve into genres other than RPGs and strategy games and come out unscathed, probably all the better for it.

Just as with any type of media, it's important for consumers to be able to experience and appreciate different types within that form. I may not like very many romantic comedies, but I can understand what others see in a particularly well-made film. Similarly, I don't desire to play very many shooters, but I certainly see why they can be so appealing. There's a distinct thrilling from encountering a group of enemies and having full control over your character's capability to engage them and remove them as a threat. It's exciting and makes you feel very powerful, especially in a game as well-made and with such beautiful combat scenarios as Half-Life 2. My successful completion of this game gives me heart that other shooters are not beyond the realm of my capabilities. Bioshock will, I think, be even more intimidating as it subscribes to a freakier/creepier cast of enemies, but I know it will be well worth the journey.

In the meantime, before acquiring other PS3 games to expand my library beyond the single game I currently possess, I'm going to take a short break from Half-Life 2. Although I beat the game, The Orange Box also includes Episode 1 and Episode 2, each of which are about a third as long as Half-Life 2 and directly pick up the story. I believe these 2 episodes, along with the as-yet unannounced Episode 3, serve as a sort-of unofficial Half-Life 3. I'm going to take a break from shooting things for a little while, just to give my nerves a rest, and so my girlfriend will stop thinking she lives in the middle of a war zone.

Of the multiple console games I have yet to finish, the most likely games to work on before becoming a shooter aficionado again are the first disc of Final Fantasy IX, the first character of Odin Sphere, or figuring out where the heck I am in Jak II. I'm leaning towards FFIX as a way to continue using my PS3 and not have to switch around cables. Before my shooter hiatus, I should have one more post about Half-Life 2. For an inexperienced FPS gamer such as myself, it was pretty incredible and jaw-dropping. Except for the zombie infested Ravenholm section. That scared the pants off me.


A Newly Discovered Feature of the PS3

I'm still discovering new features of my PS3, after owning one for about 4 months. Some features I am aware of, but can't fully take advantage of. For example, I can't play any games in high-definition because I do not yet own an HD-TV. Likewise, while I have rented one Blu-Ray movie, I don't really see the point until I have a better TV. After all, without an HD-TV and an HDMI cable, the picture doesn't really look better.

What I've recently discovered about the PS3, though, is an interesting little feature: the Remote Play ability to control your PS3 via a PSP. I don't know how many people actually own both of these devices, but their connectivity is pretty simple and, well, powerful. First you connect them via the USB cable, which basically registers your PSP with that particular PS3 system and lets them recognize each other. Then there are a couple of ways to get into controlling the PS3 with the PSP. The slightly more convoluted way is to power on the PS3, go to Network icon on the XMB, and set it manually to Remote Play. Then, do the exact same thing on the PSP and you're all set. What I think is the cooler way is to change the PS3 settings so Remote Play also enables a remote start. This way, if your PS3 is in standby mode and the TV is in use, you can turn it on and use it with the PSP without messing with the TV.

Ok, so you can turn on the PS3 with the PSP. What else can you do? Perhaps one of the best uses of this feature is watching video clips stored on the PS3 remotely. This is pretty good for me too, since I'm not really losing much quality because I only have a standard-definition TV. Less significantly, you can use the PSP's mobility to watch videos away from the living room (or wherever the TV is). I'm also not certain, but I believe a handful of PS3 games allow for Remote Play. I'll have to check on that.

I also love that PS1 games, as well as at least one PlayStation Network title, can be played remotely. I tested PixelJunk Eden, since it's the only PSN title I own, on the PSP. While it doesn't work nearly as smoothly or look as good as on a TV, it's still more than possible to play it. Remote Play is also particularly well-suited to playing old PS1-era RPGs. I've had an itch recently to play through Final Fantasy IX, which is one of the few Final Fantasy games I've neglected. The slower pace and lack of intense action makes games of this type easier to play remotely than more fast-paced games.

Which brings me to my biggest complaint about Remote Play: there is a noticeable lag when accessing the PS3 through the PSP. Since you're not using the PS3 directly, but instead over a wireless network, it's inevitable that a little of the finesse, of the near-instantaneous response time will be lost. This is why games like FFIX work so well remotely, while a 2D fighter might be a little more difficult. A second minor problem is that the PSP battery life was short enough on its own. By using the wireless connectivity constantly during Remote Play, it just runs down that much faster. So you can't expect to use this feature for an exceptionally long stretch of time.

This is a nice little addition to the PS3's feature set. It feels more useful than other handheld-console connections (such as GBA-GameCube), perhaps because the feature is not tied to a specific game. Instead, you have full access to the PS3, and can do pretty much anything you would normally. It's also very advantageous if you live in a household where the television is shared. If someone is watching a TV show, but you really want to play through the next dungeon in FFIX or start downloading a new demo, you can still do it peacefully. Just set the PS3 to standby, boot up the PSP, and go to town. Remote Play may not be perfect, but in certain situations it feels just right.


PS3 Trophies: What Are They Good For?

As a kid, I collected many things: baseball cards, action figures, anything with 'Star Wars' written on it. Most of these items didn't have much value, but they meant something to me at the time. Especially regarding my binders full of baseball cards, most were not worth any money. Yet I cherished them because they represented larger than life personalities. And stumbling across a popular player in a fresh pack, an uncommon event, was pure joy. In some ways, Microsoft and Sony's inclusion of Achievements and Trophies (respectively) in this hardware generation reminds me of my earlier childhood hoarding tendencies.

I'm conflicted, though, in that I think trophies (I'll speak of them since I don't have a 360, although my thoughts should largely apply to Achievements as well) are both a welcome evolution to video games and an unnecessary burden. Much like with my baseball cards, I feel strongly compelled to collect as many trophies as I can, just because they exist. Similarly, I try to complete games I own as much as possible. This why Fire Emblem (GBA) still sits in my unfinished pile, because I still need to re-finish the game with another main character, Hector. So with the two games I have played that feature trophies (Pixeljunk Eden and LittleBigPlanet), I try to gather as many as I can.

Trophies work best for me when either the game itself is not excessively challenging, or when the unlocking of the trophy can be found through a mostly normal play through. For example, Pixeljunk Eden has a trophy for collecting all 5 Spectra in each garden, a reasonable and worthwhile request. Similarly, LittleBigPlanet has trophies for completing each main level or gathering all the stickers in each level. These trophies make sense within what the games set out to accomplish. Pixeljunk Eden is about repopulating and rejuvenating a large garden, thus capturing all the Spectra both furthers that goal and your sense of purpose within that world. LittleBigPlanet, while it includes numerous developer-created levels, is really about sharing and interacting with other users. Thus, the trophy for collecting all the stickers can only be earned by playing with others, either online or off, since some stickers require 2-4 players.

However, trophies are at their worst when they require you to go far outside the realms of normal activity within a game world. Sure, these types of achievements might be cherished by regular gamers seeking an extreme challenge from their tired old games. But I'm more of a Tourist/Completist, so events that force me outside the normal arc of a game don't interest me much. For example, one trophy in Pixeljunk Eden is rewarded for finishing a garden without missing any pollen. For those unfamiliar with the game, when your avatar swings into an enemy, they release a certain amount of pollen, which appears as a burst of numerous, extremely tiny drifting dots on the screen which disappear after a short time. Fail to grab even one of these, and you might as well start over. With so many games to play, I have no time for such tedium.

At the same time, the value of some difficult trophies is purely dependent on the characteristics of the player, and of the game itself. In LittleBigPlanet, I was immensely proud when I finally earned the Play trophy, for beating all the main story levels without dying. This was quite hard, because some of the later levels are long and reasonably nasty. But I didn't mind retrying levels until I earned this trophy, because the mechanics were relatively simple and restarting a level was quick and seamless. I didn't need an extraordinary amount of skill to earn this trophy. I mainly needed patience, and the ability to remember where I made mistakes and correct them the next time.

So my general attitude toward trophies is that the best ones are acquired through the normal course of play, or when the game is so compelling and fun in its own right that you don't mind replaying part of it repeatedly to earn one digital award. For me, they are also at their worst when they are excessively and purposefully beyond the realm of normal difficulty or expectations. I have so many games I want to get through, that trophies that are too tricky to earn aren't worth my time.

Nonetheless, these types of achievements are by and large an addicting addition to PS3 and 360 games when implemented with thought and care. But they are also easy to abuse, and developers can simply add them haphazardly because they are required to by Sony and Microsoft. But the good outweighs the bad. And it's now even easier to show off my collection than when I was a child. No more lugging around heavy binders of baseball cards. Now, all we need to do is exchange our user names.


A Final Mystery: The End of Persona 3

What a week! Here in Kentucky we had a major ice storm last week. Several hundred thousand people were/are without power. Some won't even get power for a few more weeks. I was lucky, in that I only lost cable and Internet for a few days. Not such a big deal, when you consider that some people were unable to stay in their homes. But I'm back online now, and the city's slowly getting back to normal.

In gaming news, after returning LittleBigPlanet (bloody brilliant game!) I switched gears full forward into finishing off Persona 3. The lack of cable and Internet really helped quicken this goal. With no television, Internet, or ability to look for jobs, I had lots of free time to delve deeper into Tartarus. Mission accomplished! I beat Persona 3.

Ah, but I forgot to mention that I actually own Persona 3: FES, which is the special edition of the game, released several months after the original. What this means is that while the original, main storyline is the same (except for some added items and social links) there is an entirely new addition to the game. This mode is called The Answer (as contrasted with The Journey). It's supposed to expand upon the plot of the main game and explain what happened afterwards.

I have a couple of problems with this. First is that I just finished playing an 80 hour RPG. The last thing I want to do is now wade into a 25-30 hour extension of the game, which is largely a humongous dungeon crawl. Granted, the hearsay on the Internet seems to indicate that the story in The Answer is amazing and well worth the time. But I ask you this, Internet: is it amazing by universal narrative standards, or just amazing by the generally dull video game standards?

Second, what is the point of this extra chapter? I didn't feel like there were any loose ends left over at the conclusion of Persona 3. Maybe I missed something, but I now understand why Tartarus existed, where it and the Shadows came from, and why it had to be destroyed. I even think I have a tenuous grasp on the general theme of the game: Death. What is there left to add? One of my biggest pet peeves is when DVDs are released as unrated or with extra scenes added in. Except in very rare cases, I want to see the movie as it was originally released and intended to be seen. These additions rarely add anything, and usually detract from the overall worth of the film.

Does a similar concept hold true with video games? Admittedly, most video games are only released in one version. Very few receive updated releases. One notable example was Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, which added better, more fluid controls and an online component to the original game. But releasing an addition to the story is quite different to improving the controls or fixing some bugs. The new Prince of Persia is similar to Persona 3 in this regard in that they are planning to release some DLC that tweaks the difficulty and adds on some more story segments at the end of the main game. In general, I think these kinds of additions are completely unnecessary. If the story is understandable and 'complete', it doesn't need further explanation. It's redundant.

Specifically with Persona 3, I think the game is fine the way it stands. It doesn't need an extra story to plod through just for some added insights. There are no loose ends, and everything fits together pretty well. That being said, I would like to play through The Answer and see if it really is as interesting as everyone says it is. Just not right away, because I am extremely burned out on Persona 3 and long RPGs in general. Since my PS3 has been neglected for the past few months, other than LittleBigPlanet, I'm going to return to Half-Life 2. A fast-paced shooter will be a nice change of pace. I can't wait to get back to tossing things around with the good old gravity gun!