Saturday, November 20, 2004

Half-Life 2: My Take

Immersion. If some one put a gun to my head and demanded to know why I thought Half-Life 2 was the greatest game ever, in one word, that would be my answer. The feeling of total immersion is what set the original Half-Life apart from every other shooter. Every little thing in the game contributed to this sense. From the first-person only, to the fact that there were no cutscenes to break up the action, to the completely continuous level design, where each level is just a continuation of the previous. These all helped Half-Life acheive the feeling that it was you in the room with the monsters jumping at you, and not some person whom you were watching and controlling from the other side of a screen. Now Half-Life 2 takes the immersion ball and runs with it.

If I had to point to one factor in Half-Life 2 that added more to that immersion feeling created in the original Half-Life than anything else, it would have to be the physics system. Games have been experimenting with physics for a while now. Ragdoll physics for dead bodies became the "in thing" a couple years ago. Max Payne 2 took physics a step further and had debris littered through the levels. If you shot some one and he fell backwards into a shelf, he would knock it over and all the boxes on the shelf would go flying. This all helped towards the immersion feeling, making it seem that you were running around in a real place, rather than in a defined box of immovable and un-interactable polygons. But Half-Life 2 goes a step further. It makes the physics an inseperable part of the game play. In Max Payne, it didn't really matter if the chair was knocked over when you bumped into it, but it added to the experience. In Half-Life 2, there are parts you could not pass, were it not for the physics system. A puzzle early on in the game has a large board balanced on a circular tube, in see-saw fashion. In order to reach a ledge, you need to raise the side that is down, in essence, changing the direction of the ramp. You do this by picking up the bricks that are scattered around the room and placing them on the side that is up. When you get enough bricks, the see-saw tips the opposite way. Just a short ways later, you repeat this, only opposite. A ramp is floating in the water, but is not high enough for you to make a jump on your vehicle. It has a cage submerged underneath it, and there are floating barrels around. You need to place the barrels in the cage to cause the ramp to float a little higher. It's things like this that make the world feel real. In too many other games, I tend to think "well, if this were real life I would just..." when faced with a problem situation. In Half-Life 2, it practically is real life, and guaranteed, you can use whatever solution you think of.

Another of the ways Half-Life 2 feels real is in the other characters. In most other games, the characters are stiff set pieces, there to provide some dialog to move the plot forward. This isn't always a problem since, in the immortal words of John Carmack, "story in a video game is like plot in a porno. You expect it to be there, but it really isn't necessary." In Half-Life 2, the characters feel like real people, and can act better than many Hollywood stars (insert Keanu Reeves joke here). The facial expressions are quite literally the most convincing to date, and the argument could be made that they even rival WETA's work on Gollum. From the look of disgust Alyx gives Dr. Mossman when Mossman insinuates that Alyx made a computational error, to the look of seething hatred, when Alyx discovers a resitance member is in fact working for the Combine, to the look of embarassment she gives when her father, Eli Vance, insinuates that there might be something between Gordon and Alyx, right down to the wink that Eli gives Gordon when Alyx turns her back (not a fake wink in which the "eye" texture is just replaced with an "eyelid" texture, mind you; this is a real wink; the eyebrow shifts, the cheek compresses, the corner of his mouth stretches to the side...) all contribute to the overwhelming sense that these are real people, and when you're fighting along side them, your not just trying to fulfill the games mission goals, but you actually want to genuinely help them.

Half-Life 2 is probably one of the first games where the characters move their eyes, rather than just turning their head. Alyx sometimes shoots you a sideways glance when talking to Dr. Kleiner. And this is definitely the first to game to calculate specular highlighting, based on the light sources in the rooms, off the eyeball. When I first heard in the E3 demo that this was one of the features of the Source engine, I thought "why would Valve waste processor cycles computing such an insignificant and un-noticable detail?" But it's because it's so small that it works so well. Your brain picks it up on a sub-conscious level, but it goes a long ways towards making the eye look real, like there's a thin layer of moisture on top of it, and that in turn makes the character feel like he's looking through the screen at you, the player.

The list of characters extends beyond just humans. You run into the occasional Vortigon, which were enemies in the first Half-Life, but now help out the resistance. But in battle, you come to rely on the "Ant-Lions". When you first meet them, they are terrifying. They live in the sand, and come swarming when you walk on it (Tremors anyone?). This forces you to find things to jump to, or when there isn't anything, pick up an object to place on the sand to jump to (yet another way in which the physics system is used to solve problems; were it not for Source's physics system, I'd still be back on Highway 17, trying to figure out how to fight off 20 Ant-Lions with only 15 rounds of shotgun ammo). I couldn't help but think of the game "sand monster" I played when I was a kid. Eventually, a Vortigon gives you a pheromone that let's you control the Ant-Lions, and then they are terrifying, but as an ally. Still, it was always a little unnerving to turn around and see 4 big, ugly alien creatures following you closely, reacting to your every move. They are essentially cannon-fodder, but an unlimited supply of very deadly cannon fodder. It makes me think of the Achievement Demotivator from Despair.com; "You can do anything you set your mind to when you have vision, determination, and an endless supply of expendable labor."

Perhaps one of my favorite non-human "characters" is Dr. Kleiner's pet "Lamar", a de-fanged head crab. It can be quite cute when it's not trying to gum your head. In its cutest moment in the game, Dr. Kleiner peeks around the doorway to find you and Alyx. At his feet is the head crab, peeking as well. It is then startled and runs off, just like a puppy-dog.

To say that Half-Life 2 is a pretty game is like saying Vladimir Horowitz could play the piano. Half-Life 2 was hit with the Pretty stick. Repeatedly. It is probably the most gorgeous game I have ever played. It doesn't accomplish this by overloading on polygons or calculating every ray of light from each of the dozen light sources in the room, the way Doom 3 does. Instead, the biggest contribution to Half-Life 2's high ogle-factor is the textures. It has some of the most detail ever. And then once the bump maps and shaders and all the pretty-fiers are applied, what you have is as close to photo-realism as has been achieved in a game. I noticed this early on when I was looking down a hallway in an apartment building in City 17. The floor was wooden. Parts of it were polished enough to be reflective. But others were scuffed, creating breaks and distortions in the reflections. When you looked at it at a shallow angle, the specular reflection wasn't quite straight. Instead it was dull and distorted, creating the illusion that the floor wasn't quite flat. Of course, the floor was one flat polygon, but you wouldn't know just from looking at it. It all made it seem like it was a real floor in a real slum apartment building, further adding to the immersion. I would also like to add that Half-Life 2 has the best-looking water effects of any game to date.

When it comes down to it, Half-Life 2 is a shooter, and in order to really be a great game, it has to be fun. Half-Life 2 delivers here with white-hot lead. It has some of the most diverse game play in a shooter ever. One level, you're navigating a zombie-infested apandoned ghost town. Another, you're driving an "air-boat" at break-neck speeds through Combine traps, and in yet another, you're ordering your squad through war-torn streets, trying to find some rocket ammo to take down the massive Striders. The last levels in the game make for some of the most intense FPS action ever, arguably on par with WW2 shooters like Call of Duty.

The game starts out in a paced manner. It's approximately 1 hour into the game before you finally get a weapon. That's not to say it's "slow" and it's definitely not saying it's "calm". One tense moment early on features Gordon fleeing from the Overwatch soldiers. He must navigate his way through an apartment building, up to the roof, and from there, a roof-top chase, dodging the bad guys all the way. This is a particularly effective action scene because 1) it's early in the game and you're not sure what's going on yet, and 2) you have no weapons.

Half-Life 2 has some seriously scary levels, too. Not "Doom 3" scary, but still getting there. Definitely more than I was expecting from Half-Life.

Probably one of my favorite sequences was the "air-boat". Over the course of several levels, you navigate what is essentially a hovercraft through canals, trying to get from City 17 to Black Mesa East, where Dr. Vance is located. The vehicle physics make for a fun ride, and some of the action sequences along the way are the best.

Half-Life 2 has tremendous level design. The levels are, for the most part, entirely linear (as in the first Half-Life), but remarkably, they don't feel that way. The designers did a very good job of herding you along a certain path without making it feel like you were even being guided. This is one area where a lot of shooter lose the sense of real life and an area where, as usual, Half-Life 2 excels.

Overall, Half-Life 2 doesn't feel so much like a game as it feels that for 20 hours or so, you become Gordon Freeman. You are dropped in City 17 with no explanation and in order to survive, you must battle your way through some of the most realistic environments ever assembled, against some of the most life-like enemies ever encountered, and make friends with some of the most human characters ever created on a computer. At times you almost forget they are just on a computer.

I can't wait to play through it again.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Ask A Sleep-Deprived Technical Consultant Who Was Up All Night Playing Half-Life 2 And Is Now Hallucinating He Is In City 17.

Dear S-DTCWWUANPH-L2AINHHIIC17,

I have question regarding modeling a fault-tolerant equipment configuration with a switching delay. A 6 of 7 configuration is shown below. When one of the blocks fails, the 7th block (the bottom block) requires 3 hours manual reconfiguration before it is ready to function as the replacement. (Each failure has a spare part associated with it that takes 24 hours to obtain, so this 3 hour reconfiguration is better than repairing the failed block). They way I’ve modeled this is:
-Assigned a switching delay of 3 hours for each of the 7 blocks.
-Set the “Local Standby” attribute to “checked” in the Node at the right of the blocks.
Is this the correct way to model this situation?

Thanks, Ted

----------------
Dear Dr. Kleiner,

Could you repeat that again? To me it sounded like you said you modeled it by:
-Assigned a switching delay of 3 hours for each of the 7 teleportation units.
-Set the “Head crab” attribute to “checked” in the Lambda Bunker at the right of the blocks.
Is this the correct way to model this gravity gun?

Regards, S-DTCWWUANPH-L2AINHHIIC17.

---------------
Dear S-DTCWWUANPH-L2AINHHIIC17,

Following are the issues I did notice during the software testing:
- If copy/paste function is used for blocks within the model the result is not correct. Pasted block is not taken in to calculation as expected
- MTTR calculation is not always as expected - I will give you one example. If I have two blocks in parallel (each with MTTR=4) the calculated MTTR for the system is 2 hrs!

Regards, Max

---------------
Dear G-Man

Yes, the crowbar function can be used to smash boxes within the level to find hidden power-ups. The smashed box will not always break apart as expected.
I will note your issues about the ammo clips not having as much ammo as you would expect. In the case you describe, the two boxes don't contain as much ammo because there are two in parallel next to each other, so they each only contain two clips instead of 4.

Regards, S-DTCWWUANPH-L2AINHHIIC17.

--------------
Dear S-DTCWWUANPH-L2AINHHIIC17,

I have attached for you an example i have produced by converting the current commercial parts Mil-217 file to the new format. Note that the failure rate, unavailability and failure data type fields are Null - they will not be used for the electronic parts. PI factors are not used - you can see the keyword format field as an example.

Regards, Stan

--------------
Dear Combine Soldier,

Die! Die! Die! Scum! Eat hot lead! Ha! I shall dangle you by your foot with my gravity gun! What's this? Oh no, you've summoned a Strider! Die, Strider scum! You've got a bright red dot on your face that looks like a pimple. Well, let me remove it with this rocket!

Regards, S-DTCWWUANPH-L2AINHHIIC17.

Sleep-Deprived Technical Consultant Who Was Up All Night Playing Half-Life 2 And Is Now Hallucinating He Is In City 17 is a syndicated advice columnist whose weekly column appears in 1700 newspapers worldwide.

Monday, November 15, 2004

F.U. News in History
Antony van Leeuwenhoek Discovers Bacteria, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

September 17, 1683 - Dutch Tradesman and Lenscrafter Antony van Leeuwenhoek has announced two major discoveries. His first is the discovery of bacteria, tiny life-forms that are so small as to be invisible to the unaided eye. His second is Obsessive-Compulsive disorder, a psychological condition marked by irrational fear of bacteria.

Said van Leeuwenhoek, "For me, this was among all the marvels that I discovered in nature the most marvelous of all, and I must say, that for my part, no more pleasant sight has met my eye than this of so many thousand living creatures in one small drop of water. Then I realized how disgusting it is to have hundreds of trillions of tiny things living on and in oneself and began to dry-heave."

Van Leeuwenhoek makes "microscopes" by trade. These are special glass lenses that are used to magnify light and allow the user to see things much smaller than would otherwise be possible. It is while using this and improving upon the design that van Leeuwenhoek made his discoveries.

Writing to the Royal Society of London, van Leeuwenhoek describes plaque, "a little white matter, which is as thick as if 'twere batter," that he found between his teeth. He also took samples from two women and two old men. The men have never cleaned their teeth in their lives. Describing what he saw using his microscope in the plaque of the two older men, van Leeuwenhoek says he found "an unbelievably great company of living animalcules, a-swimming more nimbly than any I had ever seen up to this time. The biggest sort. . . bent their body into curves in going forwards. . . Moreover, the other animalcules were in such enormous numbers, that all the water. . . seemed to be alive. It is of utter disgust that this was found in a person's mouth of all places. The mere idea of such a finding makes one want to wretch."

According to van Leeuwenhoek, when he showed his findings to the older men, they both immediately went to vomit, then spent many hours cleaning out their mouths with whatever cleaning substance they could find. One scrubbed so hard that "his gums became red and began to bleed profusely, yet he could not seem to bring himself to stop cleaning, despite the pain he was bringing upon himself."

Van Leeuwenhoek has received numerous grants for his discovery and intends to use the money developing a substance that will kill these bacteria. Said van Leeuwenhoek, "I intend to spray or wipe this substance on any surface that I may come into contact with. I shall keep a ready supply on my person, to spray on my handkerchief and use to dis-infect my hands, should I be called upon to shake hands or greet another person."

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Joe's 2004 Birthday/Christmas List.
As Seen On fu-news.com!

Games:
Lord of the Rings: Battle For Middle Earth
Sid Meier's Pirates!
Rome: Total War

Call of Duty: United Offensive
Nintendo Gameboy DS and

  • Super Mario 64 DS


DVDs:
Lord of the Rings - Return of the King: Extended Edition
Matrix Trilogy
Passion of the Christ
Futurama
Family Guy

Anything from the Pixar collection

    • Toy Story 1&2
    • Bug's Life
    • Monsters, Inc.
    • Finding Nemo

    Anything from my Greatest War Movies collection (i.e. Movies Every 18-year-old Young Man Should See)

    • Gladiator
    • The Patriot
    • Master and Commander
    • Saving Private Ryan
    • Band of Brothers
    • We Were Soldiers
    • Black Hawk Down

    Anything from the M. Night Shyamalan Collection

    • Sixth Sense
    • Unbreakable
    • Signs

    Music:
    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Soundtrack
    O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack
    Any of that cool Renaissance Advent/Christmas music that mom has


    Any Cool Stuff From:

    HomestarRunner.com, particularly

    ThinkGeek.com, particularly

    Shirts

    Other stuff

    Despair.com, particularly

    Custom Bumper Sticker Slogans (Google "Custom Bumper Stickers" to find places that make them)

    • War is not the answer; it's the question. "Yes" is the answer.
    • Half-Life is my Anti-Drug
    • < /Car >
    • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? (Or Oscar Mike Foxtrot Golf?)

    Wednesday, November 10, 2004

    Computer Programmer Fails to "Get It"
    Forced to sleep on couch until he "gets it"



    On Wednesday November 10th, 2004 Wife Ileana Adams brought brilliant computer programmer Tom Adams a picture of their nephew, Sean and asked him "What do you think?" To which he appropriately replied, "Hmmm... I wonder how they get so many particles into one shot. And all the shadowing... That can't be real-time, per particle." Wife Ileana appeared unexplainably upset by the observations and exclaimed, "You just don't get it! Don't expect to sleep in the bedroom tonight!"

    We asked Hans Gruber, a noted computer expert and marriage counselor, for his analysis of the event. "These kind of marital disputes are perfectly normal. Its nothing that two people talking about it can not resolve." Adding "Is that real-time reflection or refraction?"

    "I just can't take Tom's constant obsession with computers anymore." Wife Ileana told us. "He doesn't give a flyin’ F about family or anything important. Its constant, constant, constant. Megahertz this, floppy disk that. I mean, who cares!! Tom, this is something real! Don't you understand that

    Father of the Sean, Henry, was asked to comment. "This whole argument is so bizarre. It is just the stupid kind of thing I would expect Tom to say. Besides the whole picture looks ray-traced to me."

    Monday, November 08, 2004

    Worlds of Incredible Wonder Await Those Looking for Adventure, Provided They Can Turn on the Power.
    By Atrus

    D'NI - I knew the moment the book fell into the starry fissure that it would not be destroyed as I had planned. Instead, it would land somewhere, in some time, and lay in wait. Perhaps an unwary traveller would stumble upon it and, not knowing what lay within the book, open it. Should he do so, he would be brought to worlds of unimaginable beauty and intrigue, that he could explore and enjoy freely, provided he could figure out how to turn on the power.

    My father taught me a rare talent. A talent all but forgotten, except by a few who still practice the art. With much care and creativity, we can write books to describe entirely new worlds. These books can then be used to "link" to these worlds. We don't create the worlds; we merely provide a method for travelling to these unexplored places; places beyond both time and imagination.

    With the linking book lost to the void, I suspected that some person previously unfamiliar with the idea of linking between Ages, as they are called, may be brought to our home. Their, his senses would be dazzled, his mind amazed by the sights and sounds that greeted him. The things there may not be thought of by any mortal mind. An elevator into the trees, powered by the water from a windmill; a ship merged with a rocky spire, whose lights are powered by a generator in a lighthouse. The eager traveller could spend days, months, years, exploring the fascinations these worlds have to offer. That is, assuming he is clever enough to restore power to the worlds.

    Through the art of writing, we can link to ages that exist beyond time and space. The powers of Father Time may seem to have no effect on the features of the ages. A metal panel can last a hundred years with no signs of rust. Rain can fall on a cliff face for millenia with no errosion. But for some reason, which neither my father nor I could ever deduce after years of research, is why the power would go out if left unattended for any serious length of time. And heaven help he who has to restore the power. A keen mind is just the beginning to figuring out what is needed.

    For instance, once of the more magnificent Ages that I have ever linked to, Riven it was called, had some of the most amazing wonders. Hanging carts that speed through the air enabling quick transit from one island to the next. Microscopic bacteria that would repel water, and could thus be used to create tunnels underwater. The curious could spend a lifetime and not uncover all the secrets Riven had to offer. This is assuming that said curious could figure out how to restart the power generator. First, he would have to travel to each island and locate a small dome. But getting to each island is among one of the many challenges he will face. Assuming he is capable of not only getting to each island but also finding the dome, he would then have to note the particular color referred to on the dome. But even then, the color isn't shown. Instead, a symbol is shown that indicates a color. But these symbols aren't used anywhere other than on Riven, so the traveller would have to be fortunate enough to find a piece of paper that translates what each symbol means. But he still isn't done. On one particular island of the Age, he would have to find a special room with a holographic projector that tells him where, on a grid, each dome is located on each island. He better be writing this down, too, because there's no way he could remember this. Once he's found this out, he'd have to get to the power control room, which isn't easy to get to, and place the correctly colored marbles on the correct squares of a board consisting of hundreds of spaces. Even then, he will still have to guess about the color of the last marble. Only then could our traveller-friend restore power to Riven.

    I sit here in D'ni, unable to leave. My sons have trapped me here. My father, turned evil, has imprisoned my wife. My only hope is for a traveller to discover the lost linking book and come to my aid. The traveller would have to be incredibly clever just to find me, though.

    I'm not holding my breath.

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