[Quinns, the Indiana Jones of videogames journalism, takes a break from wrestling apes and discovering hidden temples to deliver another one of his examinations of old Flames. This time it's Half-life mod, Action-Half-life...]
Quinns: Anybody out there?
My eyes hovered over the chat ticker for a response. It was a stupid way for me to phrase the question. Of course someone was out there. That's why the match hadn't ended yet. I noticed I was bleeding, and pressed myself up behind a humming vending machine for cover while I applied a tourniquet.
Right. So I was up against Boff. No sweat. I mean the guy was a fine player and all, but I'd lucked into the assault rifle / bullet proof vest combo. Boff could be hiding behind twin pistols, grenades, the handcannon, anything at all, and I'd probably still have the advantage. That's if it came to a proper fight, anyway. And I had no intention of letting it.
Quinns: Kung-Fu in the courtyard?
This was a time-honoured part of our game etiquette. The last men standing in a Last Man Standing game were to fight efficiently, both for the sake of themselves and the half dozen dead spectators. No one wants to run around an empty map for minutes on end before getting shot in the back, and no one wants to watch it. So we organised duels. Swapping from our guns to Kung-Fu attacks just made sure that no one could get the drop on someone else in a rendezvous.
Boff, my acting bad guy for this round, was waiting for me when I reached the courtyard, the fists on his blocky Mr. T character model raised in the comic way that indicates an unarmed character.
Like I said, I wasn't going to let it come to a proper fight. By the time Boff saw I hadn't put my gun away it was way too late. Poor Boff. To his credit he did manage a desperate dive to one side, but the poor lamb was just too exposed. One shot, two shots, three shots, four, oh, the guts, the spine, the delicate head. If he was my bad guy, I was the worst guy. The very worst. Purely for effect after the deed was done I turned slowly away from Boff's body, then held shift to walk (not run) back towards the door I came out of. A cheat, a slime, a fox, but a winner. The worst guy. That's me.
It was with a kind of blissful detachment that I noticed the match hadn't actually ended. That meant Boff couldn't have been the last player, and that someone else was hiding. It was a thought that popped into my head at the exact same time as a sniper rifle round, sending me crumpling to the ground right there next to Boff.
Boff: YOU MOTHERFUCKERS
Quinns: YOU MOTHERFUCKER
This game was, and still is, Action Half-Life, an exquisitely balanced multiplayer mod for the original Half-Life that riffed on action movies. This was of course back in 1998, when at least certain brands of action movies were still a genuine cult thing and not just a genre flooded with comic book licenses, X-million dollars worth of CGI and a tongue that by 2008 has torn straight through the cheek and is now waggling grotesquely on the other side. Action Half-Life's mission statement was by no means unique in trying to bring the bullet ballet of early John Woo to Half-Life multiplayer, but unlike The Specialists or The Opera it did a classy job of it.
Now this bit's worth paying attention to, because the features that differentiate AHL from your salt and pepper first person shooter are not only consistently interesting, they're also stuff that we really should be seeing more of today. There's stuff to learn from this game.
First of all, the weapons. They're balanced. No, wait - that's going to mean something different to you than it should. I mean the throwing knives, the twin pistols, the sniper rifles, the sawnoff shotgun and the assault rifle are all as powerful as one another, and everyone spawns with (and can only carry) one. Let me clarify this a bit by explaining that the throwing knives are one-hit kill weapons, and while everything's short on ammo, the assault rifle owner has to be especially careful.
Same goes for the equipment everyone gets, whether it's night vision goggles, a bandoleer, a grenade, sneaking slippers, whatever. It's all meant to be of equal use, and you only ever hold one thing. Again, let me clarify by explaining that certain sections of AHL levels are pitch dark, and the flashlight has the advantage of blinding anyone with night vision. Oh, and what you really want to do is have everyone randomise their gear each round. Trust me on this. Think of it as Battle Royale style. 'This one's super lucky!' etc. Except there's no axe because - seriously - who would want a fucking axe when there's guns available? I mean, come on.
What this varying gear means is that throughout a game of AHL you're always playing a load of headgames where everyone's trying to play to their strengths while goading others into unfavorable situations, something that's made easier by the (pleasingly vertical) maps which are always loaded with cover, dividing walls, walkways, sniping points, stairwells, pools, explosives, functioning doors, walk-in fridges and ladders. One map boasts an entire highly flammable gas station, another is set on two parallel speeding trains. These are maps built to change how combat plays out from room to room, and smart players can always use them to (sometimes literally) get the drop on their opponent.
It should be noted that clinging to your specialty rarely descends into camping- the game's too fast paced, and standing still is going to get you shot. But it's fast paced in a really cute way. The default avatar movement is actually slightly slowed, but by hitting the 'stunt' button while moving you dive in that direction. Dives forward or backward leave you prone and dives to the side end in a roll, so you get a second of speedy protection followed by a second of rigid movement. Incidentally, The Opera featured a whole lot of rolling and diving that tilted or span your view accordingly. It should take precisely two seconds of imagining this to understand that it is the worst idea in the world. The reason why AHL's diving is a great game mechanic is just as simple. It means fights can be extended in a game that can still have the tension of bullets being cold and lethal. Duels in AHL can be over in half a second, or cautious players can drag fights across thirty seconds and several rooms.
That's assuming you don't bleed to death. Boy, do you bleed. What's that line from Max Payne? Players leak like broken bottles of Tabasco. Failing to take a couple of seconds to bandage yourself up after you get shot results in a tumbling health meter and a nice blood trail for everyone else to track you by. You could argue that the best bit about this is how it slows gunfights down even more, and makes you withdraw or hunker down when you score a hit. That's not true though: obviously the best bit about the bleeding is watching your enemy fall down face first from blood loss a few seconds after he kills you.
The reason I've got to chattering about AHL now (aside from to encourage you guys to put Team Fortress 2 aside for a spell and play the thing) is that I'm coming to terms with the fact that the mod community today is unlikely to produce anything like it. AHL was, like so many Half-Life and Unreal Tournament era mods, based on a cluster of simple ideas that were honed over years and multiple releases following community feedback. Maybe it's because so much potential money is floating around the mod scene these days, but it's hard to imagine that happening now. Everyone seems too scared of everyone else stealing their ideas, and of course, the simpler the idea the easier it is to quietly pilfer. Or maybe everyone's just working on total conversions because that's what'll get them a job on a dev team.
That's a shame, because we already have dev teams churning out games that need to be big and expansive to justify their price. But big, expansive games tend to have multiplayer that relies on practice and an understanding of their depth. And with the amount of great online games being churned out now, who needs that? Who wants to have to pick a game to commit to? Quake Wars or World in Conflict might seem fun, but are they fun enough to invest the 20 hours it'll take to learn all their nuances? After all, doing that's going to mean neglecting some other exciting new release.
Action Half-Life, on the other hand, can be understood completely in 15 minutes. It is a wonderful vagina of a game, being as it is astonishingly tight and just deep enough (Quinns! - Quinns' Mother). And in case you're still not entirely convinced, I've got another match I really, really need to tell you about.
I arrived at the gunfight too late, of course.
The factory floor was silent when I got there; the loser's corpse and the winner nowhere to be seen. All in keeping with the evening's tone so far, which had been fast and brutal. A little less chatting in our matches than normal, and they all seemed crammed full of scary marksmanship and rash judgements.
Then I saw Egg. The victor, he was standing all the way over at the other end of the cluttered hall, 9mm pistol in either hand. And he was looking right at me. My own mouse finger twitched compulsively, keen to send rounds from my own twin revolvers in his direction. But I didn't shoot for the same reason he didn't shoot, a reason I hadn't quite figured out yet.
By aiming down and then up quickly with his mouse, Egg made his avatar (Solid Snake, incidentally) perform a nodding motion, or maybe a small bow. I interpreted this as "You understand, of course, that this bloodshed was necessary. I respected my opponent, as I respect you. Surely there need be no more battle this day."
I vigorously shook my mouse from side to side in response, hoping that this would get across my message of "You are ignorant indeed of my history if you believe I intend to shy from my duty as a soldier, and as a man. For me, entering this factory has stopped the world from turning. It can only be set in motion again when one of us is together with Jesus in heaven."
I then took aim and fired a single bullet, a warning shot, into the wall just above his head. He continued standing perfectly still as I lowered my guns and reloaded that round. Click. Sure enough, he took the chance I was giving him and dived to one side, disappearing into the mess of machinery and crates that filled the room. It was on. And yet it still somehow wasn't. As we ducked and leapt and shot it became clear we were both only trying to give each other glancing blows and flesh wounds. We weren't fighting, we were choreographing something for the match's spectators. And it still makes me smile today to think that we came to this decision together silently. Eventually I retreated out of the hall to the neighboring garage under a hail of hilariously inaccurate gunfire, where I ducked behind a truck.
The garage was where the death would happen. It was just so obvious. Dark, dramatic, full of huge oily vehicles that could crush you if only they were awake. The room ached for fresh blood, and I had no intention of letting it taste mine.
Or was I? I mean, I'm the one running from this fight, hiding and biding my time. Egg was the noble fighter who didn't fire first. That makes him the good guy. Shouldn't I lose for the sake of this scene we're playing out? Or would deliberately losing taint things? Make it less authentic?
No time to think. The staccato tapping of Egg's footsteps at the garage door told me he'd followed my lead. Making my way to the edge of the truck I hit backspace to throw my guns away, out into the open where he'd see them. Then I took out my grenade and started priming it.
Quinns: Do we really need guns for this?
There was a second clatter as Egg dropped his own pistols. Here we go. I stepped out in front of him, then dashed the grenade at the floor between us. But it wasn't going to save me. Egg was already running straight for me, pistons up, sprinting straight over and then past the grenade.
One last chance. I slapped the stunt button while standing still, whipping myself into a fierce roundhouse kick. The timing was perfect. Egg caught the full force of my leg with his mouth and got sent soaring backwards, straight back into the blast of the grenade as it detonated. Boom. Game most definitely over.
Egg can't have been the good guy that day, because the good guy always wins. I was the good guy. I was the best guy. And AHL is just the best game.