Montag, 15. Februar 2010

Ladies of Interest (11): Alyx Vance & Chell

Hmm. Cyber-Ladies again. Next one will be a "real" Lady again for a change, promise! (A certain neighbour of two certain Geeks in a certain show is certainly overdue).

Alyx Vance is the daughter of Dr. Eli Vance, one of the researchers of Black Mesa responsible for opening a portal to another dimension. Though Dr. Gordon Freeman could close the portal and defeat the alien invaders who poured through it single-handedly, earth came into the focus of yet another alien force: The Combine. So when some twenty years later Dr. Freeman returns, he has to rescue an enslaved earth. This time not single-handedly but with the firm hands of Alyx by his side.

Although Half-Life 2 is "only" a First-Person-Shooter, it was a revolution for the genre just as Half-Life was several years ago. Not only does it take the player beyond "normal" gameplay with some clever uses of the engine, but offers also a set of very believable characters and a thrilling story with an unique method of including the player.

Gordon Freeman (the player) doesn't speak (but is spoken to a lot). There are no scenes in which the player doesn't look out of his eyes and in most of them the player keeps moving control over him all the time. I really like that kind of "thrown-in-the-middle"-storytelling, where you have to puzzle everything together from several chunks of information throughout the game. And Valve did an excellent job of conveying the complex story and universe that way. I won't spoil anything, but Half-Life 2, HL2:Episode 1 and HL2:Episode 2 were an intense experience. So intense that I didn't mind to play Ep1 and 2 again after finishing with the build-in "audio-commentary" of the developers.

Valve does know how to develop and evolve a game. Take Alyx: She's a part-time supporting character in HL2, a very much needed ally in combat in Ep1 and a central story element in Ep 2. Valve did immense amounts of playtesting through all phases of the game(s), including behaviour routines for Alyx. According to the audio-commentaries at one point in development she went ahead of the player and asked him to hurry - resulting in a nagging character. Playtesters hated her. So now she's following the player and lets him move at his own pace.

Beyond that Gordon and Alyx develop a charming relationship (he's just a good listener I guess... ;) ). Hope that Episode 3 will be announced soonish.


Chell (surname unknown) is maybe the daughter ("... It says so right here in your personnel file; 'Unlikable. Liked by no one. A bitter unlikable loner whose passing shall not be mourned.' SHALL NOT BE MOURNED. That's exactly what it says. Very formal. Very official. It also says you were adopted. So that's funny too.") of an employee of Black Mesa rival Aperture Science who visited her father on the annual "bring your daughter to work day". She awakes in a sterile testchamber and is greeted by a annoying female computer-voice commanding her to partake in a series of tests ("Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an "unsatisfactory" mark on your official testing record, followed by death. Good luck!") involving Aperture Science's portable portal technology. Soon she gets the device and faces mind-bending challenges involving the loveliest Weighted Companion Cube ("The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Weighted Companion Cube cannot speak. In the event that the Weighted Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.") ever, neurotically sweet machine gun turrets and the ever-helpful ("The Enrichment Center promises to always provide safe testing environments. In dangerous testing environments, the Enrichment Center promises to always provide useful advice. For instance, the floor here will kill you. Try to avoid it.") voice of GLaDOS who got a morality core installed after she flooded the enrichment centre with a deadly neurotoxin to make her stop flooding the enrichment centre with a deadly neurotoxin. Also, there's cake. But the cake is a lie!

Portal is... undescribable. I played it again yesterday in one long run (3 hours with audio commentary) and I'm still shaking my head. GLaDOS is the most disturbed AI you can imagine (she's singing the now nerd-hymn "Still Alive" during the credits roll), the environment is a mixture between creepy, weird and hilarious and the gameplay is waaay cool. And challenging. ("Momentum; a function of mass and velocity; is conserved between portals. In layman's terms: speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.") Everything for the cake! ("There was even going to be a party for you. A big party that all your friends were invited to. I even invited your best friend the companion cube. Of course he couldn't come because you murdered him. All your other friends couldn't come either because you don't have any other friends because of how unlikable you are.")

Half-Life 2: The Orange Box containing HL2, Ep 1, Ep2, Portal and Team Fortress 2 is a very good deal. Own it and be rewarded with hours of great gameplay. And cake.

Sonntag, 7. Februar 2010

Rise of the Adamas

[This is a loose summary of the key-events of our first Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game session. I'll try to not use any game mechanics terms since it's much more fun this way ;). The setup: President Roslin (the flatmate - who would've guessed that?), Admiral Adama (the non-geekess), Tyrol (the doctor) and Apollo (me).]

The fleet is in turmoil. Humanity's last bits survived the fall of the Twelve Colonies just to find itself on the brink of extinction by the hands - or claws and missiles - of an all-open cylon attack group! A basestar and three raiders are attacking Galactica - panic rises. The Admiral declines to call Martial Law though that would've been a much more funny exposition. ("The cylons attack! FRAK! I don't know this female president yet, but I'm pretty sure she's not helping much. Better get full command of the whole fleet..."). Tyrol mounts a cannon and damages the basestar. The first cheers are silenced when Galactica gets hit and the Command Center is blown to smithereens - no way to tell those Vipers where to go! Thank the gods that no civilian ship is in range and Apollo is out there in a viper ("Hm. The Raiders are attacking Galactica instead of me... Look how they miss again and again... I think I'll stay right here, not endangering myself and my precious viper. I'm much too pretty.")

[stuff happens, that I don't remember]

6 undefined distance units (UDU) from Kobol - the fleet has jumped two times yet with travelling only one unit per jump... is the Admiral sabotaging the journey and choosing the wrong jump destinations? - the situation is much graver. Two basestars have popped up and are sending wave after wave of raiders and heavy raiders to galactica - this time threatening civilian ships! Though brave Apollo is able to shoot lots of them down due to his superior piloting skills, flight is the only chance of surviving. Since Roslin's chickens out of risking a fourth of the population with a preemptive jump, Apollo has to shoot down even more raiders, buying more time for jumping preparations. Of course he then has to crash land his viper into the launching bay and rush into the FTL-room to start the (still kinda preemptive-ish) jump into safety. Phew. Had to leave some of the fleet behind, but that's just the tip of the frak-berg...

4 UDU before Kobol, Admiral Adama comes to an epiphany: He kinda likes the Cylons. Hell, he probably even is one. He tells the whole fleet at once, is executed immediately and wakes up in a resurrection chamber. Smooth! Thank gods he's still cozy with the humans and sorta phones it in, not using the full arsenal of cylon-bad-assery. To brighten the day, he leaves a message for the humans: There's a real bad ass sleeper cylon agent in the fleet who just got activated. And it's either Roslin, Tyrol or Apollo. Dun-dun-dun-dunnnnnnnnnn.

Everyone sleeps with one eye open since that optimistic new premise. Newly promoted Admiral Lee Adama and President Roslin are pretty sure that Tyrol is the Cylon because the last ditched rescue mission [I can't remember what crisis-card it was, so I'm going for a rescue mission] reeks of engineering sabotage. But since it could have been the agents of the Old Man as well or even destiny itself, no one dares to put him into prison. No Cylon-attack at the fleet between two jumps lure humanity into a false sense of security.

About 2 UDU before Kobol the frak hits the fan. Due to one Zarek's intervenion Roslin has to give away presidency and after a short struggle chooses Admiral Apollo, who now holds all the military and political power in the fleet. Guess who's a cylon? Since Apollo's former framing and sabotaging attempts didn't seem to come to fruition, he decides that this would be the perfect time to reveal himself as the Cylon agent and blows himself up. Thus damaging Galactica's defensive capabilities and leaving the fleet defenseless without their finest pilot in the middle of a massive Cylon attack and the knowledge that they trusted the titles of both Admiral and President to their sworn enemy. VERY smooth.

The reunited Adamas try to beat Galactica and the fleet to a pulp by sending more and more ships into the fray but underestimate the power of the gods: 12 (TWELVE!!!) Cylon raiders are just able to damage (!!! NOT EVEN DESTROY!!!) ONE lousy viper. In an act of desperation Tyrol is able to somehow activate the FTL-Engines and brings the fleet into safety - leaving half of it behind to the mercy of the pissed Cylons.

With two Cylon agents working against them, food, fuel, morale and population low and key defense-systems of the Galactica still on the fritz, the fleet finds itself just one jump before the praised old homeworld of Kobol, holding the map to Earth. Alas, the last glimpse of hope shatters to tiny bits when Roslin has a very reliable vision of an inescapable attack of another massive Cylon armada.

And so humanity comes to a cold and silent end when the last civilians are shot down by a single Cylon raider.....

[Very great work of game balancing, by the way. Until the very end no side seemed to have a clear advantage. Although the Cylons had lots of firepower, the humans found ways to stall for jump preparations and escaping time and again.]