Gamer Tuesday with Computer America

On the second Tuesday of each month, the Computer America Radio Show hosts “Gamer Tuesday” in which Craig and Ben devote the entire show to news and reviews about video games and the video game industry. Invited on as a guest host, I debate the latest topics with them and how they might affect the future of the industry.

This month, Craig, Charles and I discuss Valve’s announcement of Steam OS, Steam Machine and their new controller, and we talk all about Grand Theft Auto 5. Click here for hour 1, and here for hour 2

See you in the next level,

Gray

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On Black Mesa…

In the hands of bold men, a reinvention can either be very effective, or very dangerous. Is redesigning a classic worth the risk of falling short, or tarnishing the original? And what of the legions of fans who hold such games so near and dear? While many welcome HD updates of their favorite titles, others argue a form of sacrilege by meddling with something perfect to begin with. After nearly 14 years, Valve’s debut game Half-Life has remained a pinnacle of video game achievement. What began as a polished FPS game soon became a benchmark by which all future shooters should be measured by. When it was announced in 2005 that a team of volunteers and community developers would utilize Valve’s Source engine and completely redesign the iconic PC game, cries of joy were tempered with lingering concerns that such a team might not pay proper respect to the original, or create a maligned experience that resonates Half-Life in name only.

Seven years since then, such fears have been put firmly to rest as Black Mesa is a masterful culmination of tribute, precision and design that pays proper homage to Half-Life while adding a dash of game play ingenuity that strengthens the pacing. Marred only by frequent game-crashing glitches and technically still incomplete (the final chapters will be released sometime in the future), This reimagining of Gordon Freeman’s original tale of survival against all odds is bested only by the superb job done by the dedicated community team behind it.

 

From a graphical standpoint, Black Mesa is far and beyond the original game as every character model, environment and level design was reworked from the ground up utilizing the Source engine used in Half-Life 2 and the Portal games. While the difference is vast, the graphics are still noticeably dated when compared to current PC titles out there. This is to be expected, however, as the Source engine is approaching its eighth year. Quite the contrary, Black Mesa looks and feels surprisingly good considering Source’s age, and the attention to such minute details around every corridor and office room is staggering. From the most banal office corners to the HEV and first-aid power nodes, nearly every detail was retooled, tweaked and updated to exist comfortably in our HD, 1080 progressive world. Memorable set pieces like the catastrophic resonance cascade that opens the alien portal or battling an attack helicopter are all perfectly recreated and feel more visceral than ever. As the Black Mesa complex crumbles into chaos, you feel more than ever the sense of dread and impending doom as Gordon Freeman becomes the primary target of both the aliens and the government seeking to contain the invasion.

In the gaming industry music and audio effects are often overlooked by stunning visuals and high-octane firefights, but Black Mesa expertly expanded upon both elements to their greatest potential. Many of the trademark monsters from the Half-Life games retain their familiar grunts and gurgles from before, while others were tweaked just enough to bring forth that little extra impact. Shuffling zombies snarl with more gusto and torture than ever before, and the enslaved vortugants now sound identical to their peaceful counterparts in Half-Life 2. More impressive is the voice-acting and soundbites added to various scientists and the government forces. As the game progresses, soldiers grow more and more violent with their voiced opposition to Freeman, reinforcing the overall threat they represent. Small conversations can be heard between them revealing that even they aren’t sure what makes Gordon Freeman so important, yet such moments fuel the tantalizing immersion into the many mysteries that surrounding the famous protagonist.

Perhaps most impressive among the updates is the soundtrack accompanying the game. Whether it is the haunting piano strokes as you traverse a warehouse wired with dozens of laser-tripped mines, or the adrenaline pumping guitar riffs and electronic squeals as you face off against another squadron of soldiers, Joel Nielsen has performed a dazzling feat of marrying ambient and melodic tempos with the context of each chapter Black Mesa takes you into. No matter the situation, each track succeeds at building on the emotional tone set by the corresponding actions taking place in the game and at times are simply chilling. Feeling the hair stand on my arms as the track “Questionable Ethics” kicks off an ambush from repelling soldiers was an absolute thrill to feel, and many other tracks induce similar feelings throughout the rest of the game.

While so much of Black Mesa was produced with such precision and expertise, it is frustrating to see just how frequently the game will crash due to the numerous bugs throughout the chapters. Problems of this nature highlight the importance of game testers and quality assurance as you will undoubtedly find your game glitching out frequently. The majority of them crop up during scripted events and have rather odd solutions, but some players will come across missing panels or locked doors that fail to open after a certain even takes place, forcing a reset of the event or, in severe cases, reinstalling the entire game. Though an occasional bug here and there can be forgiven in major releases, the sheer quantity of them in the 10-hour experience is Black Mesa’s biggest flaw, and future updates should make debugging a huge priority.

Lastly, Black Mesa is still incomplete as the final chapter and the climactic ending have yet to be completed by the community team. Unfortunate as it may be, the ten to twelve hours of game play you do get are still highly polished and incredibly satisfying to Half-Life veterans and shooter fans alike. If nothing else, the lack of an ending will give players plenty to be excited about as they wait for the team to finish the incredible final minutes of Gordon Freeman’s first tale of survival.

When it comes to passion projects and labors of love, it is often too easy to lose yourself to a vision without properly realizing it. What starts as a jubilant excitement to see the finished product debut to millions of eager fans can easily change into a hastily-designed appeasement that doesn’t deliver on its potential. But with great patience, steadfast design and an iron-clad commitment to paying Half-Life its greatest compliments, Black Mesa is a near-perfect remodeling of a near-perfect game. The adventure might be the same, but the experience is still one of the purist forms of video game entertainment ever achieved. Much like any product that comes from Valve these days, the wait was long but worthy every minute.

 

See you in the next level,

Gray

Valve: No Rules, Just Games

 

It’s no secret that Valve is one of the most acclaimed video game companies in the world. Since their initial iconic game Half-Life, founder Gabe Newell has become a major innovator in the gaming industry by establishing the Steam online network, forever changing how gamers and developers published their products. And everyone took notice.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that other major companies have tried to copy what Valve has done, but what you might not know is how far some companies were willing to go to make Valve one of their own. In this article by the New York Times, EA was aggressively pursuing Valve in hopes of acquiring them for a supposed sum of $1 billion dollars at the time. Now estimated at nearly $2.5 billion, Gabe has made it quite clear that Valve likes where they are at, and has no intention of becoming part of a corporate entity.

 

Check out the full NYT article here

 

See you in the next level,

Gray

On Portal 2…

(***NOTE: This post was originally written on my other blog on the SA Current website on April 22nd, 2011. It is under the name “The People’s Gamer”. I am reposting here on my own blog to maintain all of my personal work. In any case, hope you like it.)

Let’s Face it: Valve knows video games. They were born to do it, just as much as Samuel L. Jackson was born to drop F Bombs. Since the time of the original Half-Life that garnered critical success, Valve has maintained a stellar track record that symbolizes proper narrative development and unparalleled game play innovation. But not only do they boast awesome video game development talent, they can also spot it in others. The origins of the Portal franchise started as the work of a few graduate students back in 2006. When Valve saw the original game, they hired the team to foster the idea into becoming the Game of The Year in 2008, known as the original Portal. While only lasting 4 hours, millions of gamers flocked to it’s beautiful mixture of calculated horror with dry humor set amongst three-dimensional puzzles that can only be solved by using a “Portal” gun. Sequel-itis can be a very tricky thing to do right, but Valve is no stranger to making genre-busting franchises (Sorry Halo fans, Half-Life 2 is the greatest FPS ever, and that is final), As Portal 2 is a beautiful, clever, hilarious masterpiece that will keep you entertained for months after you solved its final puzzle.

Since going into any part of the story will undoubtedly spoil the fantastic arc of the sequel’s plot, I will avoid specific details and keep to general statements. You take up the Portal Gun again as the original protagonist Chell as you are forced to run through a gamut of new “tests” awaiting to be solved. Portal 2 expands upon this background, however, by delving into the origins of GlaDOS, Aperture science, and the true purpose behind all of the insidious experiments. From the beginning to end, Portal 2 is chock full of the precise and comedic writing the original game is known for, and yet so much more. Introduced in this game is Wheatley, an observation bot voiced by Stephen Merchant, from the Ricky Gervais show. A comedian in his own right, Merchant performs beautifully by delivering line after line of dry wit coupled with a bizarre type of levity that could only come from a wierd robot. The disparity between Wheatley’s animated voice and the cold and calculated GlaDOS allows for some of the funniest moments in the game as the two AI try their best to persuade you.

While you aren’t explicitly told how much times has passed since the first game, the environment of Portal 2 provides an easy answer. Much of the white surface of Aperture science has been replaced with dense foliage and jungle vines. Mother nature appears to be trying to take back the space, which provides for an excellent dichotomy between germ-free enclosure and the unkempt wild. Much of the facility is in some form of disarray, and it plays into the solving of many of the games later puzzles. While there are still countless places to throw up a portal, the new jungle will sometimes force you to take an extra step in your creative thinking to continue moving forward. In a sense, some of the games hardest puzzles aren’t designed by GlaDOS at all; they are ordinary environments not designed for portals at all, yet it is your only way of moving forward. Portal 2 also pushes the puzzle boundary with new mechanics such as different colored gels with various properties. Blue gel will bounce you off any surface, while red gel acts as a speed booster to help you leap across huge distances. While these are just a few new gimmicks, they alone lead to a new level of puzzle-solving that will stretch even the most clever person’s imagination.

But it doesn’t stop there. If the single-player campaign still leaves you unimpressed (it won’t), the Co-Op campaign raises the bar even higher. While controlling 2 portals is fun enough, Co-Op allows you and a friend to link up for puzzles designed for teams of two. with the ability to manipulate 4 portals, Valve has masterfully created some of the most complex and mind-bending puzzles ever conceived. The difficulty is honed to increase just enough to keep you challenged at each turn; never too difficult to be discouraged by, yet never easy enough for either you or your friend to say “I see what you did there…”

The difficulty in reviewing puzzle games is that I can’t go in depth about very much as I risk ruining the surprise and joy of discovering everything for yourself. Having said that, general statements are nowhere near the proper detail or praise this title is worth. Backed by a story that keeps you challenged, entranced, and laughing until the very end, Portal 2 will always be some of Valve’s finest work. As someone who tends to avoid puzzle and fighting games, I can safely guarantee that as you are read this, I am currently playing Portal 2 again with my friends across town. In the midst of dozens of games that pack on mediocre content and online bonuses to maximize every dollar you throw down, Portal 2 is a solid reminder that with the right quality—and a few jokes—even the simplest game can be worth every single penny.

See you in the next level,

Gray

On GDC Part Deux…

Valve doesn’t talk much outside the realm of their glass interiors, but no one argues the fact that even when they’re silent, something sinfully amazing is brewing.  While it takes some odd years before they emerge from their secret-service vault with another acclaimed title to put under their belts, each venture is like some fine-aged brandy with wafts of spectacle creeping into my senses. So when a few of their esteemed employees decide to stop by and say a few words, they have the floor.

With the exception of the well-informed, I believe Mr. Laidlaw and Wolpaw (fantastic last names by the way) dropped a bit of a bombshell on the gaming masses and broke our presumptions that Valve has a strict science to everything they do. I mean, when looking back at their road to success, how can they not? It’s almost akin to an auditory dose of ecstasy when they reveal their misshapen creative road to the memorable train sequence at the beginning of Half-Life. Rather than maintain the traditional approach, Gabe Newell sees the development process of any game as more of a spiritual journey for each employee in which they literally do what they want to do. Then, with a balanced chi and shockers aligned, they reunite and make another fucking awesome game. After the panel concluded, the only question I was left with was how I can get to whatever parallel universe they came from.

Although each 3rd party developer comes from a different walk of life, Valve stands alone from its American brethren in that there is no limit to what they will do “for the greater good of the game”. While there are a handful of tales in which the oddest turn of events lands the unassuming nerd in the corner the biggest job of his life, I’ve never heard of a company openly willing to pay an employee to take time off in the face of possibly crippling medical dilemmas. And what’s more, Wolpaw admitted even he didn’t know what he would do when he returned six months later. If leaps of faith like these are something Valve does on a casual basis, I would like to renounce my doubts on God and baptize myself a follower of Gabe Newell.

Corporate structure is paramount to success for many people, but after Laidlaw and Wolpaw adjourned to a roaring applause, I breathed easier and smiled bigger knowing that one of the most-renowned video game developers in the world is not only lacking said structure, but is happy doing so. They’ve done just fine without it so far, so why bother fixing something that isn’t broken? I agree, I commend, and I salute you Valve.