In the case of horror films, it may seem obvious to note that the viewer needs to feel immersed in the reality on the screen before they can get scared. The threats of the situations presented have to be enveloping if your spine is going to start crawling. The same is true of any game, however, the interesting part here is that a game has the ability to take it that much further. While horror films wrestle fear out of making us associate with a character or situation presented on the screen, videogames literally plant our feet into the shoes of the intended victims.
While Half Life 2 reviews have been lighting up the internet with their glowing praise of late, none I’ve seen have touched upon what was, for me, the biggest strength of the first game. It may have only lasted through the first third of the game, but Half Life was scary. Alone, low on ammo, trapped hundreds of feet below ground, crawling through an air vent pursued by an unseen threat, and with only a crowbar to fall back on, those early hours of the game ensured that the ones beyond the blast chamber would be nothing but a disappointment to me.
As effective combatants as the soldiers were, they just weren’t scary. So it’s from this viewpoint that I approached Half Life 2. Valve had been promising something scary and I felt it was about time that someone took a look at one of the biggest releases of the year to see if that promise has been met, after all you haven’t come here to see a carbon copy of what all the game sites are saying about the game.
Are the physics great? Well yes they are. Absolutely. Very impressive and a lot of fun no doubt…but they don’t make the game scarier, so don’t expect me to mention them much again.
What does help any game in being scary of course are better graphics. It’s often said that better graphics don’t make a game better, but when we’re talking about the fear factor, they absolutely do. The more believable the world is up on that screen, the more I’m going to be scared when some thing comes tearing around the corner lusting for my blood. The more human-like characters look, especially when the humans are predominantly on your side, the more likely you are to feel for them if and when they die.
More polygons don’t achieve this by themselves, the art design has to be up there as well or it’s all for nothing. Doom 3 was scary, but it felt cheap. Unrealistic pools of blackness mere feet away from a light is as likely to make your skin crawl at what might be waiting in the darkness as it is to get you annoyed at the designers of the game.
Half Life 2 presents as convincing a reality as I’ve seen in a game. From top to bottom very little is going to make you remember you’re sat in the safety of your own house, instead of fighting through the bizarre future Valve have concocted here. Only the long load times are likely to drop you out of the game.
The early moments of the game introduce you to City 17…a dark, repressed place where European architecture is strongly contrasted against the giant metallic structure, the headquarters of the sinister Combine, and their moving wall munching away at more and more of the city. Citizens look like convicts, and looping propaganda calls to mind the big reveal in They Live. In City 17, though, there are no pretences. The invaders are not hiding behind any facades here. The police are dehumanized behind full face gas masks, the round black lenses giving them a blank, emotionless gaze, adding a layer of threat to the human enemies that Half Life could have done with.
Most of Half Life 2 takes place during the day and in the kind of big open spaces that don’t normally lend themselves well to fear or tension. Even here though, Half Life 2 generates more atmosphere than most games do in these kind of areas. They’re desolate, derelict, empty…like all the life has been sucked out of the landscape.
The original Half Life featured some good monsters. The alien head crabs, obviously inspired by face huggers were especially effective, and wherever they were their victims, zombiefied innocents were never far behind. These in-your-face shocks and reanimated walking pieces of grue were behind a lot of the fear found in the first game, and the same is true here. In Half Life 2 though, there are more types of headcrabs, and the newer, improved headcrabs not only are much scarier, but give birth to more intimidating victims.
While you can go long stretches without seeing the little devils, they’re never far away, lurking in the shadows, and this pervasiveness helps keep you at the very least tense.
You’ll have feelings of claustrophobia, disorientation, vertigo and agoraphobia, and at times you’ll plunge down into the underbelly of City 17. It’s these moments where the fear sets in…slowly picking your way through the levy (which is pretty dry) at the beginning of the game, a rather inspired section midway through seems heavily influenced by Tremors…any time you find yourself alone in the darkness Half Life 2 can and will raise that tension to genuine fear.
The centerpiece, as far as we’re concerned, is Ravenholme. Ravenholme is a town beyond the reach of Combine but not beyond the reach of the zombies. Ravenholme: a burning ghost town stacked high with wall to wall frights. Ammo is relatively scarce meaning that you’ll be falling back on the gravity gun a lot, and as far as fall back weapons go there’s none finer.
Imagine a tool shed stacked up with circular saw blades, spanners, and steel vices. Imagine such a tool shed infested with the undead. Then imagine you had a weapon that could pick things up and hurl them around with great force; Ash could have done well with one of these babies out in the woods.
I’ll be honest, there are only sections of Half Life 2 that feel like outright horror but there’s a lot for the horror fan to enjoy: the vibe of They Live runs throughout the game, at times the environments feel like something straight out of Escape from New York, while at other times it feels like War of the Worlds. And if Steven Spielberg can’t do three legged Martian landing units believably, I’ll be pretty annoyed since a game like Half Life 2 has similar enemies that work flawlessly in an interactive environment.
You’ll never get the feeling of being more than a thorn in the Combine’s side. You’ll never feel like you can walk through a battlefield laying waste to everything. What you are going to do is run, hide, drive at breakneck speeds; do anything you can to get out of a situation.
Audio deserves a special mention here; the music fits perfectly with the situation and while not having any strong themes that will get stuck in your head, it almost subliminally ratchets up the atmosphere. The screams and screeches of the aliens and monsters are perfect, and the modulated voices of the Combine guards add to their sinister air. If you have a surround setup for your PC, it’s even better; separation is excellent and the amount of bass is perfect . If Half Life 2 has a weak point, it isn’t sound.
I leave Half Life 2 impressed. It’s unquestionably one of the greatest PC games, but if fear is what you’re after you might come away a little disappointed that the terror you’ll feel in Ravenholme isn’t spread throughout the whole game. What sells me on Half Life 2 is that at no point does it feel like any other game. There’s always something unexpected just around the corner. The world is more believable than any I’ve seen before, and it’s not a nice place. Even when you’re fighting human enemies wielding machine guns in what should be a familiar environment, Half Life 2 manages to eke more tension than you would expect. Are those parts scary? No, but they’re scarier than they’ve been in other games.
Half Life 2 is all about variety, and part of that variety is fear. If you consider War of the Worlds and They Live horror, then you’ll find a lot to like in Half Life 2. Doom 3 may be consistently scarier, but it has all the life of a haunted house attraction; it never feels real whereas Half Life 2 does. It has its missed opportunities (it’s far too kind to its human characters) and one ugly difficulty spike mid way through, but all in all, the story and world it presents are far easier to buy into.
4 1/2 out of 5
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Totem Review – It’s Not Always A Bad Thing To Look Up From The Bottom Level, If You Like That View
Starring Kerris Dorsey, James Tupper, Ahna O’Reilly
Directed by Marcel Sarmiento
Following the untimely death of a family’s matriarchal figure, a young woman finds out that managing to hold all of the pieces in place becomes increasingly more difficult when otherworldly infiltrators make their presence felt. We’re going to have to work our way up this Totem, as
17 year old Kellie is the leading lady of the home following the passing of her mother Lexy, and with a needy father and tiny tot of a baby sister, she still keeps things in working order, regardless of the rather large hole that’s been left in the dynamic due to the death. Kellie’s dad after a while decides to ask his lady-friend to move in with the family, so that everyone can move onto a more peaceful existence…yeah, because those types of instances always seem to work seamlessly. As fate would have it, Kellie’s sense of pride is now taking a beating with the new woman in the mix, and her little sister’s new “visitor” is even more disturbed by this intruder – only question is, exactly who is this supernatural pal of sorts? Is it the spirit of their dead mother standing by to keep watch over the family, or is it something that’s found its way to this group, and has much more evil intentions at hand?
What works here is the context of something innately malicious that has found its way into the home – there are only a couple moments that come off as unsettling, but the notion of having to weave through more than half the film acting as a sullen-teen drama is rather painful. The presentation of the “broken family” is one that’s been done to death, and with better results overall, and that’s not to say that the movie is a complete loss, it just takes far too much weeding through at times stale performances and even more stagnant pacing to get to a moderately decent late-stage conclusion to the film. Under the direction of Marcel Sarmiento (Deadgirl), I’d truly hoped for something a bit more along the lines of a disturbing project such as that one, but the only thing disturbing was the time I’d invested in checking this one out. My best advice is to tune into the Lifetime channel if you want a sulky teen-melodrama with a tinge of horror, or you could simply jump into this one and work your way up…but it’s a LONG way to the top.
Sulky, moody, and ridden with teen-angst buried in the middle of a supernatural mystery – SOUNDS like a decent premise, doesn’t it?
IAMX’s Alive in New Light Review – A Dark, Hypnotic, and Stunning Musical Endeavor
Recording eight albums is an achievement no matter the artist, group, or band. This is especially true for Chris Corner’s IAMX, his solo project after the trip hop group Sneaker Pimps, which has enchanted listeners since 2004’s Kiss + Swallow with its dark electronic aesthetic. There’s something fascinating about the music Corner puts out as IAMX. Perhaps it’s the underlying melancholy that seems to pervade the music, almost certainly a result of the musician’s battle with depression and chronic insomnia [Source]. Perhaps it’s the unexpected melodies that reveal themselves with each new measure. Whatever it is, IAMX’s music is a constant delight.
On Alive in New Light, Corner reveals that his eighth album was a product he created as a way of “…breaking free from demons that have long plagued him,” per an official press release. Strangely enough, this uplifting attitude may easily be overlooked but repeat listens unveil a sense of hope and wonder that are simply breathtaking. The title track echoes with almost angelic choir pads that positively shine as Corner exultingly cries in a shimmering falsetto, “I’m alive in new light!” This comes after the Depeche Mode-esque “Stardust”, which offers the first collaboration with Kat Von D, whose pure voice is a beautiful addition to the pulsating track.
The third track, “Break The Chains”, has an opening that immediately called to mind Birds of Tokyo’s “Discoloured”, which is meant as a compliment. It’s followed by the Nine Inch Nails influenced “Body Politics”, which meshes Corner’s crooning vocals with a 90’s industrial backdrop. “Exit” has an almost sinister progression lurking in the background that builds to an aggressive, in-your-face third act. The cinematic Middle Eastern flairs of “Stalker” mutate effortlessly into a heartbeat pulse that features back-and-forth vocals between Corner and Von D. The haunted circus vibe that permeates through “Big Man” is mirrored by its playful gothic aura, ghostly “oohs” and “aahs” sprinkled carefully here and there.
While the album has been a delight up to this point, it’s the final two tracks that took my breath away and left me stunned. “Mile Deep Hollow” builds layer after layer while Corner passionately cries out, “So thank you/you need to know/that you dragged me out/of a mile deep hollow/and I love you/you brought me home/because you dragged me out/of a mile deep hollow.” The way the song’s melodies back these wonderfully uplifting lyrics feels grand and epic, as though a journey is coming to an end, which is where “The Power and the Glory” comes in. Far more subdued, it’s a beautiful song that feels almost like a religious experience, a hymn of a soul that is desperate to claw its way to salvation and escape a life of pain and darkness.
What makes Alive in New Light so wonderful is how much there is to experience. I got the album and listened to it no less than five times in a row without pause. I simply couldn’t turn it off because each return revealed something new in the music. Corner also makes fantastic use of Von D’s vocals, carefully placing them so as to make them a treat and not a commonplace certainty.
While some may be disappointed that there are only nine tracks, each of the songs is carefully and meticulously crafted to be as powerful and meaningful as possible. It really is a stunning accomplishment and I’m nothing short of blown away by how masterfully Alive in New Light plays out.
IAMX’s Alive in New Light is a triumph of music. Full of beauty and confidence, it doesn’t forget the foundation that fans have come to know and love for over a decade but instead embraces that comfortable darkness with open arms. Corner states that this album was a way to break free from his demons. It certainly feels like he’s made peace with them.
The Hatred Review – A History Lesson Dug Up From The Depths Of Hell
Starring Zelda Adams, Lulu Adams, John Law
Directed by John Law
I don’t know about the scholastic interests the masses had (or have) that read all of the killer nuggets that get cranked out on this site, but when I was an academic turd, one of my true passions was history, and it was one of the only subjects that managed to hold my interest, and when the opportunity arose to check out John Law’s ultra-nightmarish feature, The Hatred – I was ready to crack the books once again.
The setting is the Blackfoot Territory in the late 1800s, and the pains of a lengthy conflict have taken their toll on the remaining soldiers as food has become scarce, and the film picks up with soldiers on the march in the brutal cold and snow covered mountainside. In tow is a P.O.W. (Law), and the decision is made by the soldiers to execute him in earnest instead of having to shorten their rations by feeding him, so he is then hung (pretty harshly done), and left to rot as the uniformed men trudge along. A short time later the group encounters a small family on the fringes of the territory, and when the demands for food are rebuked, the slaughter is on and the only survivor is a young girl (Adams) who prays to an oblivious god that she can one day reap the seeds of revenge upon those who’ve murdered her family. We all know that there are usually two sides to any story, and when the good ear isn’t listening, the evil one turns its direction towards those who need it most, and that’s when the Devil obliges.
The answer to the young girl’s prayers comes in the resurrection of the prisoner that was hung a short time ago, and he has been dubbed “Vengeance” – together their goal will be achieved by harshly dishing out some retribution, and the way it’s presented is drawn-out, almost like you’re strapped into the front-row pew of a hellfire-cathedral and force-fed the sermon of an evil voice from the South side of the tracks. It’s vicious and beautiful all at once, Law’s direction gives this visually-striking presentation all the bells and whistles to please even the harshest of critics (hell, you’re reading the words of one right now). The performances, while a bit stoic in nature, still convey that overall perception of a wrong that demands to be righted, no matter how morally mishandled it might be. Overall, I can absolutely recommend The Hatred for not only those wanting a period-piece with ferocious-artistry, but for others who continue to pray with no response, and are curious to see what the other side can offer.
The Hatred is a visually-appealing look into the eyes of animus, and all of the beauty of returning the harm to those who have awarded it to others.
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