November 29, 2005

It's Like They Didn't Even Play the Same Game

by psu

I wasn't going say anything more about Half-life 2 on the Xbox. Lower resolution graphics aside, I think the game brings all of what is good about Half-Life 2 to the console. You can enjoy the game without spending stupid amounts of money on a PC. This is good. But then I spied a review of the game in this month's Game Informer. As is often the case, when I read the text of the review I could only conclude that they must have played a different game.

Both reviews of the game in this month's issue spend column feet of text complaining about load times. The claim, I guess, is that the Xbox is such a crippled piece of crap that the glorious continuous maps of the PC original had to be broken up into bite sized chunks that take literally minutes to load as you move from one area to another. On the face of it, this claim is plausible. The Xbox has much less main memory than the PC, and much of the loading has to read data off of the DVD player, which is a slower device. But, here is the problem: I played the game on a PC in my office. A decent PC with a 2Ghz processor and 1GB of RAM. Here is why the Game Informer people are either dirty liars or stupid: the load times on the PC sucked.

In fact, Half-Life 2 on the PC came up with an extremely creative set of devices with which to waste my time and keep me from playing the game.

Here is what you do to install Half-Life 2 on a PC:

1. Put in CD 1.

2. Wait 10 minutes while the PC copies data to your hard disk.

3. Repeat for all 5 (or whatever) CDs

4. Now fire up the Steam application and spend half an hour talking to the server and making a new account.

5. Now wait as your computer reads every single file that it just copied all over again to decrypt it or some bullshit.

6. Finally, fire up the Steam application again and wait an hour while it looks for patches and downloads them.

At this point, you click on Half-life 2 from the Steam user interface, and your PC starts doing something. What, you cannot tell. In a minute or two, you get a loading screen for the game. A few minutes later, you get the splash screen for the game.

Total time between opening the first CD and playing the game: maybe an hour or two, depending on how slow your CD drive is.

Total time between launching the game and getting to play the game: 3 or 4 minutes.

Imagine if Excel took minutes to launch every time you fired it up. Behold the glorious future of online game delivery.

Compare this experience with loading Half-Life 2 on the Xbox:

1. Put disk in.

2. Game fires up, writes some stuff to the Xbox hard disk.

3. Start playing.

Total time: 5 minutes.

In addition, when you turn the game off and restart, the total time to get back to the main screen is about 30 seconds. Somehow, on this crippled Xbox, starting the game is easily four to five times faster than on the PC.

Now, it's true that there are a lot of mid-level loads. But they happen at exactly the same places that they did on the PC. In addition, the loading was no faster on the PC. Although loading from disk is faster, most of the resources were larger to support the "higher resolution" rendering that didn't really quite work right on the graphics card. But let's suppose that each load on the Xbox took 10 seconds longer than on my PC. There are about 15 chapters in the game, broken up into 6 or 7 areas per chapter, for a total of (say) 100 loads. Add in another 100 loads for where I go back to a saved game because i died. This makes for a total of about 200 loads in the 15 hours or so that I spent playing the game. Maybe I am being conservative, so let's call it 300 loads. In this case, the Xbox wasted about an extra hour of my time because of its "horrendous" load times.

Meanwhile, I burned two hours of non-play time just installing the PC version of the game. In addition, if I had played the game all the way through, I'd have to charge the PC game an extra few minutes of startup time every time I restarted the game, which I easily did 15 times with the Xbox. So, even with its "horrendously awful" load times, the Xbox version is easily two hours ahead.

Finally, I feel the need to point out that plenty of other games have had load times similar to the Xbox Half-Life 2, and I heard no complaining from Game Informer about them. Off the top of my head I can list: Riddick, which they called one of the best Xbox titles of all time, KOTOR, KOTOR 2, Jade Empire, and Deus Ex: Invisible War.

All in all, this makes me wonder what game the Game Informer people actually played. The game I played was a fabulous port of arguably the best shooter in recent memory. Everything that I remember from the PC game was there: the level design, the face animation, the gravity gun, the crappy vehicles, the seamless narrative, the voice acting and the beautiful spaces full of light and texture. As a bonus, it removed the stupidest feature of the PC version: Steam. It is almost as if Game Informer felt the need to write a review like this just to stoke the false flamewar that allegedly divides PC and console gaming. The last paragraph of the main review even alludes to this, suggesting that console gamers should "find their own" defining games. I guess you can't expect more from the people who thought Far Cry: Instincts had decent A.I.

Posted by psu at November 29, 2005 08:25 PM | Bookmark This

I tried the Half-Life 2 demo for the PC awhile back, and I don't think you're really being fair here.

You left out steps such as:
* Restart the game four times as it completely fails to recognize my desktop resolution of 1280x720; each time it throws up a slightly different alert box and crashes, but with just enough changes that on the fifth time it will actually display the menu. (How can a major game not recognize a standard resolution in this day and age, let alone have such an unfriendly method of dealing with it???)
* Start playing to realize I have no sound and need to download new SOUND CARD drivers. Seriously, WTF? Why on earth would I even need new sound card drivers on a piece of hardware less than a year old?
* Discover the new sound card drivers, direct from Creative, let me play the game with sound but that it stutters constantly. And it somehow screwed up winamp the next time I run that, too.

This was the point where I uninstalled it and decided it's not even worth bothering with mass-market PC games any more, no matter how much I want to play them. Sorry, Civ 4. Sorry, F.E.A.R. Come out with a 360 version and I'll be interested, but until then I have better time wasters.

Posted by Adam Rixey at November 29, 2005 09:02 PM

Let's just say I've played Half Life 2 all the way through, but the CDs have never left their case, they're still sitting in my draw.

That's right; I bought the game, then I downloaded a cracked version. Playing online isn't important to me, and steam BLEW SO HARD especially on a modem.

I'm serious; I *did* actually pay money for it before I pirated it!

Posted by Will at November 29, 2005 09:57 PM

I've still never played Half Life 2 on the PC. I bought it and spent DAYS trying to get it to run correctly without it crashing at the first level. Even after the first patch I never got it working.

Any comment or question I posted on the Steam forums resulted in getting flamed as if it was somehow my fault the game was buggy as anything.

The whole experience was completely and utterly fucked.

Posted by Toby Hede at November 29, 2005 10:02 PM

I have Things To Say about Civ IV. but they are embargoed for now.

But soon I shall speak. Oh yes, soon.

Posted by peterb at November 29, 2005 10:36 PM

Speak, Peterb! Speak *before* I spend my precious money and blood pressure on Civ 4.


Posted by Christina at November 29, 2005 11:00 PM

If I were to break my silence
Things would not go well.

Since Christina asks, though,
Under duress, I shall
Consider what I can say. But without details, would you not
Kill me? That would be awful.
Somehow I bet you can puzzle out what I think about the game.

Posted by peterb at November 29, 2005 11:10 PM

How very Fool's Errand of you!

Posted by Christina at November 30, 2005 01:27 AM

Game reviewers in English speaking countries seem incapable of providing fair reviews of games they have already played on another format for some reason. (Non-English speaking reviewers seem - to me at least - to have a fairer eye).

Fascinating to hear so many people say bad things about Steam.

All this talk makes me consider buying the Xbox version of Half Life 2 when I finally buy an Xbox, which will probbly be after the 360 launches and game stores are giving away Xboxes as door stops. :)

Posted by Chris at November 30, 2005 02:30 AM

Steam is evil. Steam is the single worst piece of software ever created in the history of computing. Steam meant that I spent almost as long installing Half Life 2 (five hours, spread over two evenings) as I did playing it. Steam meant that sometimes, it wouldn't let me play (even in single player) because the Steam servers were down.

Steam demanded to know personal information such as how many children I had before even letting me play, but when I tried to get technical support (after downloading new drivers for my graphics card, soundcard, motherboard, and every other device on my system and it STILL wasn't working), it took more than three months before they even responded, and another six weeks after that before they responded a second time.

I can only conclude that Steam is purpose-built to piss people off, and their after-sales support is zero.

I never finished HL2 on PC due to problems with running it, I got about halfway through. I might just have to buy it on Xbox if it's really that close to the PC version as it's by far the greatest game I've ever played. But PC gaming in general, and Steam in particular, is pure evil. And it's only getting worse.

Posted by Andy P at November 30, 2005 08:08 AM

Everything about the HL2 experience on the PC sucks.

Except for the game itself. That rocked.

I finally stared at close-range at a 360 kiosk in Fry's, and realized that, yeah, dammit, I'm still a hi-def bigot, and even the 360 doesn't really cut it. If an XBox copy of HL2 got thrown back in time to the day HL2/PC came out, would I have played it on the XBox instead? In retrospect -- no way. But HL2 was so beautiful on a high-end system, it gets an out -- for most games, I prefer the load it&go experience of the console.

Posted by Eric Tilton at November 30, 2005 03:57 PM

Clearly there is a business in renting pre-configured high end PCs for single games.

Posted by psu at November 30, 2005 04:04 PM

I've only played a little bit of the PC version of HL2, and I immediately noticed the startling load times at seemingly random points in the game. Give me a game that loads in predictable spots, I say. And yes, I'm surprised so little was made of it by the reviewers.

As for steam, all I can say is that it's always worked fine for me (knock on wood). Copy protection schemes for games are nearly as bad as the SONY rootkit fiasco. It is just plain awful.

Posted by Hieronymus at December 1, 2005 02:30 PM

Count me a contrarian. No appreciable problems with Steam or loadtimes on my PC, and my experience with HL2 is one of the most visually pleasing ever(with some solid gameplay to boot). Having been a visual artist all my life, I am convinced that this is the direction that "art" is headed, and I for one am ecstatic.

I haven't seen it on console play, so I can't compare. If it has the level of visual immersion on xbox that it does on the pc, then everyone wins.

Posted by Gayle at December 1, 2005 10:51 PM

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