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

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.