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Halfquake Sunrise
Review by theFlint, June 11th 2010, 18:45:50
First of all I want to apologize for my poor English. I hope you'll be able to decipher my thoughts :-) Please send me info about errors in my language and I'll edit the article.

The sun has risen. The new victim has been chosen. One of the most unique game universes has been given a new story. You will not see the sun anymore. Because this is Halfquake, and you are here to die.

Halfquake Sunrise is the third game in the Halfquake series and definitely the most anticipated one. It was in development for 8 years and if you kept your eye on the process of it’s creation you already know that it was a thorny path. Concept changed several times as muddasheep struggled in battle between creator’s ambitions and technical limitations, process experienced few serious delays, but despite that problems the game is here and you can dive once again into the gloomy, eerie and sadistic world of Halfquake institution.

Halfquake Amen, previous game, was magnificent and mind-blowing beyond any limits. I still remember that genuine culture shock which I experienced during the playthrough. I never thought that computer game could provide such emotions. I was deeply impressed and loved Amen after the first seconds of black-green-white madness. Obviously I wasn’t the only person who fell in love with that game. Halfquake Amen became an underground hit and formed small cult of followers around it and it’s creator muddasheep (yes, I belong to that group). Amen defined most concepts of Halfquake universe, set up mood and atmosphere, and combined that with unmatchable graphical style and music. Actually, Amen is the game which by default comes in mind when you say “Halfquake”. You say “Halfquake”, you mean “Halfquake Amen”. Will Sunrise push Amen from that place? I think no.

Why? In short, muddasheep wanted Sunrise to be different from HQA but in my opinion Sunrise drifted too far away in attempt to be different. And because of that many good things were thrown away without appropriate replacement for them.

Sunrise considerably changed it’s theme. It moved from conceptual, abstract and contrast black and white theme to more realistic geometries and textures of grey stone. Don’t get me wrong, I like the change, but more realistic environment requires more attention to details to be believable and atmospheric. Some AAA titles fail at that, and here we have single artist with outdated game engine and limited resources. If you have white line on black wall it doesn’t matter that texture is in low resolution, doesn’t have bump mapping or that you can count amount of polygons in the whole scene by just using fingers on your hands. Make a shift towards realism and ugly things will come up. That’s why the abstract, conceptual style of Amen was so great – it was simple and beautiful at the same time. Sunrise, frankly speaking, looks not so good, thereby somewhat hurting the atmosphere and feel of immersion. There are still some fantastic details, though. Like when you ride patience ferry, at one point image blinks and becomes completely black and white. It was so cool that I reloaded several times just to experience that moment again. This subtle short change is actually very impressive because it reminds you that this place is totally irrational and virtually anything can happen.

Sound design is what Sunrise is fantastic at. Game sound is scary and disturbing and has multilayer structure – the sound of what you see and the noise of what is hidden. The latter is what contributes greatly to game’s atmosphere of uncertainty, nervousness and fear. You hear some rustle, distant scratches and strokes, echo of screams, some hidden movement around and on top of that ceaseless deep rumble of invisible death machines. You never feel safe. Actually, at some points tension becomes so high that you are forced to pause the game and take a breath. Sometimes music blends in and it is very good, however I was somewhat disappointed by low amount of soundtrack pieces appearing directly in game. I wish it had more music during the gameplay.

The story. Well, there is nothing new there. Yes, you will hear some funny references to previous titles and to PHQ, but Sunrise doesn’t really expand the Halfquake universe. You are the same nameless victim. You don’t know your past. You don’t know anything about the place you are in. There are voices of people who are entertained by your suffering (now they are pure voices, no bodies at all). There is somos at the end. Then you will die. O-o-kay. Definitely, some things shouldn’t be changed, and probably many players would be satisfied with the story, but for me it’s kind of step back. Remember the diaries from HQA? I didn’t want to kill the marine and was very sad about doing that. Remember talking skeleton? Remember NPCs? In Sunrise, the only plot driving stuff (except from voices in your head) is victim message inboxes. They provide some funny quotes and cheers you up but don’t have any real impact on Halfquake world or how you apprehend it. Only deteriorating institute was interesting plot twist, as well as visiting levels from previous games. I am not telling that game lost it’s charm, no, it still has those little witty details which make Halfquake so loved by the people with unstable minds. Cookie machine, morality choice, loading screen, advertisements, some funny deathcams – thank you for that, ms. Those details are what make each game notable and memorable.

Unfortunately, there is no fauna. Yes, that means no dragons. Actually, that means no monsters at all, neither hilarious and cute nor annoying and dangerous. The only (half)living creature is eye cube, but impression from it is greatly overshadowed by Portal’s Companion cube. In my opinion removal of monsters was a bad idea because despite they can be frustrating it reduced the variety of gameplay.

So what does remain then? Puzzles. And traps. And more puzzles. And some more traps. And puzzles. And traps. And puzzles. And additional puzzles and then traps. And puzzles again with some traps. And trapped puzzles. And somos (but you knew that, right?). You will be solving puzzles and avoiding traps all the time while you are not dead. Thankfully, this is the best part of the game. Puzzles are diverse, inventive and beautifully crafted. Half-life engine is used to 110% of its potential and some traps are really impressive. Name any type of puzzle and you’ll probably find it here. Music puzzle? Check. Memory puzzle? Check. Tower defense? Check. Stealth? Check. Platformer? Check. Text-based adventure? Che… Wait, is that possible? Yes, that’s possible, but unfortunately there are limitations of game engine, and they are tight. Something will be uncomfortable, some puzzles will have weird controls, something will be buggy and frustrating. Sometimes you will feel like you are trying to hammer a nail using the microscope. In addition, some puzzles look like they were added just to complete the list so they feel unnecessary or underworked. For example, text adventure is extremely short and doesn’t possess any challenge at all.

Puzzles blend smoothly into each other and here we come to discussion of important question of game pace. Strangely, less technically perfect Amen provides better pace than polished Sunrise. Why? Because of variety. 95% of Sunrise is puzzles. They are linked into huge chain and there is no place to stop and rest. This builds up extreme tension. Actually, I had to turn off the game and take a break every hour or so, because I became too nervous and exciting. In Amen there are a lot of places which do not possess immediate danger to the player but are of great art value, so you can just walk around, look at the beautiful art and level design, and listen to the music. I enjoyed looking at silently moving cubes, staying in epileptic room, wandering around ambience, listening to the music at patience, staying outside in violence. There are far less such places in Sunrise, where you can take a breath, relax for a while and appreciate the beauty around. Game pushes you forward, no place look safe, chambers are tight and claustrophobic and hard to breathe because of grey stone. Monsters were also pace enhancers. For example when you receive sword of sadism, slaughter that follows is extremely exciting as you get revenge for all humiliation you suffered before. Also it is a great relief to feel yourself invincible (at least for some time).

However, in terms of pace there is a thing in Sunrise that outperforms even some big commercial titles. I’m talking about final boss fight with somos. It’s almost perfect. It is intense, fast, challenging, exciting and just purely epic. This is one of the best boss fights I’ve ever encountered in videogames. The very last part of this fight is nostalgic and beautifully crafted. I was really impressed.

All in all, Halfquake Sunrise is a very good game. It is high quality both in terms of game design and production value, it has purified and improved puzzle gameplay, it looks completely different from previous two titles, but it lacks some things that made Amen so striking and magnificent. During 8 years few different games involving some kind of evil mastermind and victim in isolated institution which he tries to escape came out: Portal, The Unfair Platformer, Exit Path, to name a few. So there are a lot of puzzle games in that setting. But there is only one Halfquake.

Thank you, Philipp.

>Download Halfquake Sunrise
How readers rate this Review: 9.37/10 (27 votes)
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