Half-Life 2: Episode One

Evacuate City 17 at once, if not sooner! I cannot state this without enough undue emphasis.--Dr. Kleiner

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At well under six hours in length, Half-Life 2: Episode One is a much-abbreviated follow-up to the sprawling, twenty-hour opus that was Half-Life 2. But it's not just shorter. It's more focused, measured, and deliberate. Episode One doesn't always break new ground, but it certainly refines the Half-Life experience, and it steers the series' storyline in an intriguing new direction.

As you'd expect from a Half-Life title, Episode One is heavily scripted and completely linear, with all the action depicted from the first-person perspective of silent protagonist Gordon Freeman. At the beginning of the game, Freeman once again finds himself in the company of the plucky, admirable Alyx Vance, struggling to escape from City 17 beneath the shadow of the smoldering Combine Citadel. Their flight takes them through the embattled city, where they face squads of combine soldiers and extraterrestrial nasties, both above and below ground, indoors and out. Occasionally Freeman gets dispatched for a quick side-mission, but most of the time he's accompanied either by Alyx or their fellow revolutionaries.

While Half-Life 2 interspersed storytelling and puzzle-solving segments with lengthier stretches of solo run-and-gun gameplay, Episode One weaves these elements together into a more cohesive whole. There's plenty of shooting to be had, but owing to the constant exposition and character interaction, the game unfolds more like a story than a shooting gallery. And while the scope of the story is quite narrow, it's more densely packed with atmospheric events and character-driven experiences than any previous Half-Life game.

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There's little new in terms of the combat, but Freeman gets access to a wide selection of weaponry, which helps keep things interesting. Most of the weapons, enemies, and characters are recognizable from Half-Life 2, but there are a few new sights and experiences. Valve's HDR lighting technology is in full effect here, and the results, sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic, are almost always beautiful. There's also an extensive developer commentary option, similar to that of the Lost Coast demo, that allows the player to activate comments by the developers and explore the game's features without taking damage.

Episode One's settings tend toward the smaller scale, consisting mostly of urban ruins. With the exception of some scenes within the Citadel and a brief trip through a creepy hospital, most of the environments are pretty generic. Still, they provide ideal opportunities for a series of close-quarters, interpersonal situations and setpieces that have Freeman and Alyx working together, sometimes in surprising ways. Alyx is a capable, intelligent sidekick, so there's no need to shepherd her around or worry about keeping her out of harm's way. In fact, she's occasionally the primary source of firepower, and her handiness with a weapon is often invaluable. One scene in a pitch-black underground tunnel has Freeman unarmed except for the gravity gun, tracking enemies with a flashlight so Alyx can shoot them. Others, including one where Alyx covers Freeman with a sniper rifle while he fights through city streets, are more conventional but still entertaining.

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Clearly beloved by her creators, Alyx is Episode One's focal point, and Valve takes every opportunity to show her character off. She talks constantly and believably, and her excellent voice-acting is accompanied by emotive body language and convincing facial expressions. While many of her actions are scripted, she also provides a spontaneous running commentary, cheering Freeman when he nails a headshot or exclaiming, "Light 'em up!" when he sets an enemy on fire. Other familiar characters also make appearances, and although none are as integral as Alyx, they're just as thoughtfully portrayed.

Episode One's story manages to deliver on multiple levels, offering moments of genuine humor, tenderness, and horror. Few action games even attempt to showcase such a range, so the fact that the game hits each emotional note reliably, without resorting to tired cliches, is particularly impressive.

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Owing to plot developments I won't spoil here, there's an air of reckless freedom to Episode One that hasn't been present since the original Half-Life. And although many mysteries remain unresolved, this time around there isn't the sense that Freeman is constantly being kept in the dark, played as a pawn in an obscure scheme. Despite the relentless linearity of the game, there's a newfound sense of possibilities, especially as the episode draws to a close.

Episode One feels like the work of a developer, having cleared the hurdle of a much-anticipated sequel on an entirely new engine, confidently finding its stride in terms of character and story development. It's a fitting coda to Half-Life 2, and seems well-suited as an introduction to a new story arc. Hopefully the remaining two episodes of the trilogy will expand the series' settings and gameplay while retaining the same attention to the plot. At this point, there's good reason to look forward to Episode Two.

Half-Life 2: Episode One
Released June 2006 (PC)
Official Site
Publisher/Developer: Valve

Comments

I broke down and bought this. Pretty good! I finished it in 3, 3.5 hours. I don't really know, I wasn't paying attention to the time, having too much fun.

Still I thought it was worth only the $15US that I paid for it. $20? For 3 hours. Think about it: that's like taking a full $60 game, cutting the length in half, and paying $80. Or chopping the trunk off my $30,000 car and paying $40,000. Or ripping the roof off my $150,000 house and paying $200,000.

You get my point.

Quality does not equate to length.

$20? For 3 hours. Think about it: that's like taking a full $60 game, cutting the length in half, and paying $80.

Or it's like going to the movie theatre and watching "Cars" twice. Or just watching it once, but paying for a friend/SO to come with you. Same thing.

souldaddy wrote:

I broke down and bought this. Pretty good! I finished it in 3, 3.5 hours. I don't really know, I wasn't paying attention to the time, having too much fun.

Still I thought it was worth only the $15US that I paid for it. $20? For 3 hours. Think about it: that's like taking a full $60 game, cutting the length in half, and paying $80. Or chopping the trunk off my $30,000 car and paying $40,000. Or ripping the roof off my $150,000 house and paying $200,000.

You get my point.

Podunk wrote:

Quality does not equate to length. :)

This is why I didn't get into the price issue in the review. I think opinions are going to all over the map regarding whether the game's worth the price. I finished it in about 5 hours, but like Podunk, I think there are more important considerations than length here. I'll gladly pay $20 for the next installment, even if it's the same short length.

Valve could have easily doubled the length by simply padding the game with more shootouts. Instead, they've trimmed away the fat, so to speak. I didn't feel like anything was missing.

I've paid $60 for far longer games that I enjoyed far far less. Hell, I've paid $19.99 for a round of drinks with friends, or twice that for a nice dinner. I don't understand the idea of measuring only time to price. I imagine HL2:Ep 1 would be an easy justification at this price point, regardless of length, as long as the experience was dense and original ... if only it would work on my damn machine *grumble*

Quality does not equate to length.

She may tell you that, but don't think for a second that she believes it.

Sigh... at times like this, I wish, I had a PC.

Half-Life continues to be the only game that makes me loath and love PC Gaming at the same time. The irresistable draw of a game franchise I cherish and the beleagured ability of my still-stout PC to play the game without hic-ups collide and force me into a less than stellar experience that I grudge my way through. On one hand I claim that HL2 was the game that drove me away from PC gaming, but now Episode 1 beckons me back. Sure enough, I follow suit, only to find I must tweak and twist configurations around enough to get a suitable experience.

Gaahhhhh...I hate you Valve...it's time to bring your episodic content to my 360...I'm too tired to tweak anymore.

Read this ancient blog article of mine if you wish. I am not spamming here, as my blog was last written in twelve moons ago, but it agonizes over my statement here in detail.

http://digitalstupor.blogspot.com/20...

The Fly wrote:

It's a fitting coda to Half-Life 2

Excellent use of language overall, and particularly, 'coda' here, Fly. The whole of the Half-Life saga sounds like a symphony to me, with something as small and episodic as this release serving to echo the strains of the previous works.

You've convinced me to play it.

Haakon7 wrote:

You've convinced me to play it.

And I've just gotten around to starting it.

Amazing. I love it so much, and I'm only about an hour in.

I liked most of it too. Alyx was set very realistic, allthough with a bit of a short memory. At one time she is totally horrified and 2 minutes later she's shooting down zombies calling cheerfully "light em up!".

Also I found the combine attacks inside the reactor a bit too static. You round the corner, there is a energy field with combines comming out, next corner, same story.

For the rest, I really loved the Alyx leaning against Dog move, love the whole experience. It is certainly a step further in the right direction. I wonder what they will make of episode 2.

Arise! Valve put out the usage stats for episode 1.

http://www.steampowered.com/stats/ep1/

Edwin wrote:

Arise! Valve put out the usage stats for episode 1.

http://www.steampowered.com/stats/ep1/

The "Average Number of Deaths" graph worries me.

I just started playing on medium. I'm a couple of hours in (I think I'm at Low Life) and I'm really not having a whole lot of fun with it. I'm dying a lot for stupid reasons (EG: I died figuring out how to catch debris falling on the elevator, then I died because I thought I was done catching the debris falling on the elevator, then I died because I thought more debris was going to fall and fell off the platform when Alyx told me to "RUN!" to get off the elevator) and the game seems to favor the Resident Evil school of combat (You have a room full of zombies to kill. Here's three bullets. GO GET 'EM TIGER!)

The fact that I'm already above average on the deaths (I was somehow killed by the door of the train when it closed) makes me think that the Urban Flight section is just going to frustrate the hell out of me, especially since I'm already playing with gritted teeth and a permafrown.

I'll give it another try tonight, but I'm beginning to think it's not my kind of game. Either that or I actually just suck at video games and I should sell my ps3 and take up macrame.

Are you playing on PC or console? In general your experience seems to match that of a lot of console people, which leads me to believe that the ports are pretty poor.

I've played Episode 1 both ways (PC and console) and enjoyed both equally. I do remember dying a lot in the elevator sequence on PC, before they patched it. I don't remember ever being low on ammo, though. Maybe you're not using the gravity gun enough?

Perhaps your favored play style is harming you, and you're not playing the game optimally? You might want to search youtube for a video walkthrough. That might educate you as to what you're missing.

Hans

Switchbreak wrote:

Are you playing on PC or console? In general your experience seems to match that of a lot of console people, which leads me to believe that the ports are pretty poor.

The 360 port is fine. Sounds like he might be playing it on PS3, though?

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

The fact that I'm already above average on the deaths (I was somehow killed by the door of the train when it closed) makes me think that the Urban Flight section is just going to frustrate the hell out of me, especially since I'm already playing with gritted teeth and a permafrown.

The "Urban Flight" section has a high number of deaths because there are a lot of instant-death, physics-based booby traps to maneuver around. It's a section that's very, very easy to die in not because of difficult combat sections but because it's easy to misstep or get an unlucky bounce on some debris.

Okay, so I finished the dang thing last night.

In answer to your questions: Yes, I'm playing on a PS3, but I also played Half Life 2 (episode 0? What do we call that one?) on the PS3 and I enjoyed (most) of it.

The play style I used is pretty much the play style I used in HL2: Hang back, kill some dudes, quicksave, progress a little, quicksave, etc. I'm not charging in where angels fear to tread with only my gravy-gun (not a typo! Reference to my favorite webcomic) and my trusty girl-friday Alyx to save me. I may play Borderlands like that, but only because I'm playing Brick and charging in with him just makes sense.

I think my problem is that I kept thinking of the game as a First Person Shooter, and by volume it just isn't. It's a puzzle game. I didn't have this problem with Fallout 3 or Portal, but Half Life 2 was really heavy on environmental and jumping puzzles and really light on combine killing.

My other problem with the Half Life series in general has been the fact that navigating the world isn't always obvious to me. I died twice in one section of the final boss fight before I realized that there was a ladder that I could climb to get to missile reloads. I suppose it's a compliment of sorts to Valve. Basically, I look at their environments and think "Well, I can't possibly be able to interact with that" and then it turns out that interacting with that is precisely how to move on to the next part of the game. Though in my defense, the fact that broken doors look exactly like doors you can open doesn't help me in the "what can I actually do?" department.

Anyway, my wife has convinced me to give episode 2 a shot tonight. Based on what I've read, it's less WTF and more BFG. If that's so, then I'm so totally on board.

Episode 2 is totally worth it just for the ending.