Very Vague Impressions From My Trip to Valve

Saturday, July 26, 2008 at 12:29 AM
I had the unique pleasure of spending sometime after work today in Bellevue, Washington with Valve Software. It had been quite a while since the last time I was up, to playtest Half-Life 2: Episode 2, so I was excited to come back, this time to play the upcoming co-op shooter Left4Dead. This marked my seventh trip to Valve and unfortunately my first without my good friend Steve, who was out of town.

Without going into really any detail at all, I think Left4Dead is shaping up into a good game. I've never played an online co-op game in the past that has felt very engaging to me, so Valve is taking on a big challenge in creating a game that is going to live or die by the success of the online co-op experience. As always, Valve is putting a lot of time and effort into the details to make sure it is an experience worthy of the label. The game is certainly gorgeous (of course I was playing it on, like, the beefiest computer on the planet!) but Valve has never relied on its graphics to sell a game and this is no exception. They have so far crafted an experience that will keep you on the edge of your seat, ready to shoot anything that movies, while forcing you to rely on the help of your teammates to traverse through each map.

Aside from playing the game, the highlight of my trip was finally getting to meet Jess Cliffe, co-creator of the best multiplayer game in the history of gaming. I've had the chance to meet a lot of people at Valve who have been there since the early days, but I had never met Jess before. The fact that Jess is now working on Left4Dead shows that Valve is really pouring a lot of their top resources into making sure the game is as good as it can be. Thanks again to Valve for the opportunity to visit, I always enjoy it.


Man, I didn't know you went to Valve. That's awesome, I love CS.
Posted by Aleksi on Tuesday, September 9, 2008 at 9:48 AM.

Half-Life 2, How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.

Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 10:22 PM
Given the nearing arrival of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, I thought I had better get to finishing up the remaining portion of The Orange Box. While it did come out last November, I hadn't quite gotten to Half-Life 2: Episode Two- not because I don't like Half-Life, mostly because I played Episode 2 at Valve's office over a year ago. Still, playing a game a year before it comes out always means you're not playing nearly a finished product so I needed to go back and play it for real. And after finishing it a few days ago, I'd like to take some time to identify why I think this is the best Half-Life 2 iteration yet.

The first thing that struck me was the graphics. Certainly my new toys have given me a renewed appreciation for the graphics on a technical level, but the awesomeness of Episode Two's graphics were more than just that. It was the object design, character interaction with objects, characters interacting with each other, landscapes (clearly drawing some significant amount of inspiration from their local surroundings in the Pacific Northwest), special effects, and the lighting! The whole package comes together with the physics system to be what is the most immersive video game experience on Earth.

The second thing that impressed me about Episode Two was the balance between gameplay experiences. It successfully intertwined extremely intense firefights with mind bending puzzles. This is something that Valve does extremely well and I think they've never done it better than in Episode Two. In particular, it had what I consider to be the best Half-Life puzzle in the entire series (shown at right, so those of you who have played it can remember). It was simple, it was clever, it was original, and when I figured it out it brought a smile to my face. To go along with the great puzzles, there were several intense fire fights but none better than the final battle, which is one of my favorite battle sequences of the whole series.

The most impressive thing to me out of all aspects of the game was the way the writers at Valve told the story. There has been a lot of criticism that Half-Life 2 did not do as good of a job telling the story as the original did. And in fact, after playtesting Episode Two at the Valve office, I told them the story was still pretty hazy in my mind. But since then, the game has come a long way in terms of how the story moves along. In fact, I have to think based on the version of the game I played back in September of 2006, that most of the remaining months of development was spent figuring out how to communicate the story to the player. They did this by adding a lot of cutscenes (although they're all told from the first person and you often maintain control of Gordon throughout, so I don't think they're technically cutscenes), but spaced them out in a way that didn't make the game feel like it was dragging along. And because the Source Engine allows the designers to give the characters a level of emotion not found in any other game, the scenes are all really enjoyable to watch.

Ultimately, I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed Episode Two. It's almost easy to overlook it tucked in with the rest of the tremendous content in the Orange Box, but now it stands out amongst the rest as one of the best parts. It was obvious after Episode One that the people at Valve had gotten really good at making Half-Life content- the puzzles and action were great. After Episode Two, it's obvious that they haven't gotten complacent; they're still striving to make better games. Once just before the first Half-Life 2 came out I was visiting the Valve office to playtest that and there was a note on a cork board in the kitchen area. It said "Budget: none. Release date: none. Just make the best game ever made." The whole series is the collaboration of a lot of people who are brilliant and passionate about what they do, and it shows. There is not a better example of this than Episode Two.


Sweet dude, I can't wait!
Posted by Anonymous on Friday, March 7, 2008 at 1:34 PM.

The cake is a lie

Thursday, October 11, 2007 at 10:18 PM
I've been pretty busy since October 10th. Valve released The Orange Box yesterday and it's pretty much all I've done since I got it (...aside from watching The Office of course!). In fact, I just finished Portal and I have to say I am blown away. This is flat out the most jaw-droppingly impressed I've been by a game since the Source Engine made its first appearance. I don't want to give anything away and everyone should absolutely finish the whole game on their own so I'm not going to say much about it, except that it's 90 minutes of innovative and exhilarating gameplay. It's going to spawn a subculture- people will be making Portal levels 10 years from now.

Also from the 'Box, Team Fortress 2 has totally won me over. It's a lot faster paced than CS but I like that it lets people choose how they want to play. I've always loved shooting rockets, so I mostly play soldier. If it's exciting for someone to have a high score and play sidekick, they can be a medic. If someone likes being sneaky and getting cheap kills, you can be a spy. What I like most is the group effort when you're all defending or attacking a capture point- but you have to have a good team. Your team makes or breaks your experience, so hopefully that will encourage people to get good or stop playing. Right now my favorite levels are Gravel Pit, Dust Bowl, and Hydro. I believe the pictured map is Hydro but I could be wrong. Oh yeah and as you look at the screenshot, notice the massive carnage in the upper right hand corner of the screen, dealt by yours truly (my first quad kill).

Rounding out the Orange Box is Episode 2, which I already played during a playtest a year ago so I'm not rushing to get into it. I'll definitely play it, I found while playing Episode 1 that a lot can change since a playtest. It's good to see that all the games are getting really good reviews and I recommend everyone to try them out...even if it has to be on XBox :-)

Team Fortess 2 Impressions

Tuesday, October 2, 2007 at 9:54 PM
I finally took the plunge on The Orange Box and preordered it in order to start in on the Team Fortress 2 beta right away. $45 (with $5 preorder discount) is a pretty good deal if you want the whole pack, but given that I already have Half Life 2 and Episode One, it's not really a great deal. I would have preferred for them to be cheaper individually ($30 for Episode Two and TF2 each seems a little steep). At least they give vouchers for the games you already have- which means they're probably never going to sell a copy of Half Life 2 again.

Anyway, I'm about 3 hours into Team Fortress 2 now and so far I am...not disappointed, but not blown away. I really haven't gotten into it enough to tell if I will end up being blown away. The thing that Valve definitely nailed is that this game has character. It probably has the best personality of any game I've ever played. The animations are fantastic. I talk to a couple artists on the Team Fortress 2 team (and previously Half Life 2 team) whenever I go up to Valve (I like to sneak that in whenever I can. ...seriously.) and they have knocked it out of the park in the environment and character design department. When I saw previews for the game initially, I remember thinking that the cut scenes they showed could not translate into a game. I am happy to say that I am wrong.

A cool thing about the game is that all the in-game sounds really give the game a feeling of camaraderie. The narrator's voice (the voice that keeps you informed about how much time is left, etc) speaks as though she is on your team, which makes it more personal. Also, the characters in the game all have comments they make from time to time, which are appropriate for the situation such that they add to the atmosphere rather than take away from it. So even if there's not a lot of microphone chatter (which is probably a good thing), it still feels like the people you're playing with are alive. I especially like the ruckus that is heard when the game goes into "Sudden Death" and the whole team starts shouting like they're about to run through the human tunnel after halftime.

I have a hard time telling whether I'm ultimately going to stick with the game because I don't know enough about it. I've gotten to know the levels and the play modes well enough, but I still feel like I'm just going out and killing as many people on the other team as I can, without directly helping the team fulfill the objectives. The roles that you can choose from seem balanced for the most part, although I notice I mostly only dominate with the heavy machine gun guy. It seems a little unbalanced there; I think the weapon power vs. speed trade off is not quite as important as some people at Valve think it is (this is also judging by the AWP in Counterstrike, which is slow but powerful, and horribly unbalanced). I need to spend some more time with it before I really make up my mind about it. One thing is for sure, I hope Valve goes back to Counterstrike Source and kicks the kind of life into it that Team Fortress 2 has. It's polished- not necessarily in the number of bugs (it is in beta, afterall), but definitely in style and it makes it a lot more fun to play.

There have been a lot of exciting games lately. Metroid Prime 3 is good so far and I just picked up Zelda for the DS today. I only had time to watch the intro but I just love the graphics! I usually downplay graphics, but this is the kind of visual achievement I really like: obviously the DS is underpowered but Nintendo puts that in the back of your mind with incredible art style. Then again, I've yet to see a Zelda game that didn't look incredible so I should have expected that. I'll add some impressions here once I've played it more.