Fast Forward 2020

Fast Forward 2020
The Contrarian: Fight the Future

John Scott Tynes | 9 Aug 2005 08:06
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If years of effort by some of the best developers in the business can result in a beautifully normal-mapped shrug, it's time to rethink this future business. Because now that we've seen it, maybe we were better off in 2002 - once upon a time, when we were profitable.

Last year also brought us a game that you probably didn't play. I don't blame you. It had a terrible title, little hype, and unremarkable sales. Yet in a year that brought us Doom 3, Half-Life 2, and Halo 2, I had the most straight-up fun with Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy.

No, really.

Psi-Ops had its own Exciting Technology in the form of the Havok physics engine. If you don't know what Havok is, cast your mind back to the summer of 2002, when videogame characters who died on stairs would project outward from the particular step on which they fell, hovering in midair, because their death animations ended with them flat on the (virtual) ground. Thanks to Havok, those same characters now sprawl on the stairs in a heap because Havok's physics code can let them actually fall, strike the ground, and lose momentum.

Havok is one of those Next Big Things that actually does get a lot of use. Valve couldn't shut up about it, trumpeting their physics-based gameplay in Half-Life 2, which actually consisted of operating cargo cranes and falling repeatedly off of wooden palettes into toxic sludge. Max Payne 2 was all about the Havok, insofar as when you ran through a level, constantly sliding along the furniture (like you do in every game), all the chairs, bottles, dishes, and cigarette packs hopped like Mexican jumping beans. Poor Max Payne, Drunken Sailor for Hire, couldn't get through a single room without knocking the furniture over. If this happened in Splinter Cell, Sam Fisher would be the noisiest spy in the business.

By the time Half-Life 2 finally made it to stores, its Havok thunder had been stolen by a kick-line of physics-ridden games. We'd seen it on display in Far Cry and Max, and even in two consecutive psychic-power games where you could pull a Yoda and make your luggage levitate. One was the so-so Second Sight, and the other was that obscure title from Midway called Psi-Ops.

Psi-Ops is where Havok found its home. Havok gave Psi-Ops the muscle it needed to become the most entertaining game I played in 2004.

That's qualified praise. Not even I, the best friend Psi-Ops ever had in the media, am willing to say it's the best game of 2004. Setting aside the cheesy title, there's a pointless storyline, a confusing game-save UI, and some lackluster level design. If you rented it for a weekend and gave it a couple hours, you'd probably be justified in handing it back to the clerk at Blockbuster without a second thought. But give it a few more hours, unlocking more psychic powers, and Psi-Ops hits its stride. And then you'll have more fun than you did in Doom 3, Half-Life 2, or Halo 2.

Let me paint you a picture. You jump on a crate - yes, there are crates - and you look down. (It's a third-person game.) You target the crate you're standing on and levitate it. Now you're flying, driving the crate you're standing on, shooting at people as you do so. With practice, you can levitate a crate directly in front of you as you charge into a room, protecting you from incoming fire. But why stop there? You can set a guy on fire with your mind, then levitate the burning, screaming man and hurl him off a catwalk and into a combustible barrel - yes, there are combustible barrels - where his burning body detonates it, catching three more guys on fire. Then while they're burning and screaming, you pick them up and throw them off a cliff. Two left? Just possess one and use his body to shoot the other. One left? Sneak up behind him and suck his soul until his brain pops out of his head and gives you a power boost. Closed door? Astral-walk through it and see who's waiting in ambush, then turn the tables on them with one of their burning, screaming friends flying around the corner.

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