Half-Life 2: Episode 1

Half-Life 2 Episode 1

I’m a bit late in getting to it, but Valve released their much-anticipated expansion to Half-Life 2 on June 1st, and it is pretty damn great. I played through it when I got home that evening, and really enjoyed it. With rich level design, new game mechanics, a new enemy, a newly improved partner, and more of the wonderful Half-Life universe, Episode One delivers as promised. But that isn’t to say I don’t have a minor gripe or two…

SPOILER WARNING: There are some spoilers ahead, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know anything about Episode 1.

The Citadel, a tall tower, creates a swirl of storm clouds and is visible behind Alyx who turns to look at it from the rubble of City 17.

The Citadel is really big. Now it’s really big and on fire. And its core is going critical. Alyx looks a bit concerned.

Episode One, as others have described it, functions a bit like the missing ending to HL2, rather than a new chapter. The story was left hanging with many new questions open and very few satisfying answers. Thankfully, Episode 1 picks up at the exact frozen moment of the ending and continues straight into the conclusion of the open-ended chapter. This close continuity was probably the best idea for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that HL2 was released in November 2004, so many players may not have touched the game in a year or more. If you read any game press at all, you already know that Alyx, the female co-star of HL2 makes it out alive. So Episode One simply explains how that happens, which brings up a subtly-handled but very important development in the dynamics of the world. Gordon and the ever-present G-Man’s relationship is altered and lines are drawn. It would seem that the writing team at Valve has figured out the next arc in the plot, which is good to hear, as they didn’t quite have it hammered out at the time of ‘s release.

Alyx leans against Dog's neck, arms folded, and smirks, while discussing the approach.

Alyx and Dog discuss ways to breach the Citadel’s base to prevent the destruction of the Citadel. The acting and scripting is great, as usual.

The implications of this new arc for the episodic content model Valve has developed (which is shared by Ritual Entertainment’s Sin: Episodes) are dramatic, as the word is Valve will be releasing more of these roughly 5-hour episodes at tighter intervals, perhaps 6 months apart. For Valve to do anything this fast is astounding, as they normally deliver everything late. And I have to admit, I was skeptical of the online content delivery system, Steam, figuring I’d always buy a hard copy of my games, but I buckled and purchased it online (there’s also a discount for doing that way). I must say that I’m a convert. For big releases, I’ll probably stick to the physical retail purchase, but I’m comfortable getting the episodes via Steam. Valve has worked hard to maintain trust with its fans and consumers, and for the time being, I do trust them. So far, Steam has been a 90% wonderful new thing and 10% annoyance. Basically, Steam is allowing them to experiment with this new delivery model, and I wholeheartedly support it…for now.

Looking up the side of the Citadel, at the firestorm.

The Citadel is even more striking in Episode 1, as the explosion from the first game wreaked havoc on its pinnacle. That dark energy reaction has created a bit of a storm up there. It’s one of the first play locations in the game.

Looking out towards the opening of the train hangar where cargo cars and passenger cars are stationed.

The game closes at the train station. As a regular train commuter, I can attest to how well Valve has captured the feel of train lines and stations.

The story line was advanced in fits and spurts in Episode 1, with the focus on rich gameplay mechanics and exploring untapped game possibilities in the HL2 universe. In fact, I’d bet that Episode 1 was influenced by some of the mods I’ve played, particularly those that use the darkness and zombies to create tension. Also, Valve put a few new twists on things by allowing creatures like the antlions to invade the urban environments, adding new puzzles, introducing the ’zombine’, introducing the flare as a usable item, and bringing Alyx into the mix as a near-constant companion, which was the most ambitious and entertaining new feature for me.

Half-Life 2 Episode 1

Alyx will aid you in battle and even give you some tips, but ultimately she lets you do the leading. Fortunately, she’s very capable on her own. She’s become more realistic, just as the environments have.

Alyx puts her hand in front of her face to block your flashlight beam from her eyes.

It’s the little human moments and reactions that can sell a character’s believeability. Here, Alyx responds to your flashlight in her face while in a darkened room.

Alyx’s artificial intelligence (AI) and scripting really are state-of-the-art. Valve got ambitious with this episode and pushed a normally aggravating and unsatisfying element in gaming: the computer-controlled partner. She’s got a natural ease to her character and is able to add banter to the scenes without being overbearing, annoying, or fake. On replays she, of course, becomes less convincing, but she rarely appears unnatural, which is impressive. I say bravo to Valve. I hope we get more of this.

Alyx and a female resistance member look out onto a city street, with the sunlight filtering through the dusty air, at antlions attacking amongst rubble and wrecked cars.

New game mechanics, such as the urban antlion burrows, mean that support from NPCs is vital in combat. Here, a resistance memeber drops an antlion in the distance so you can handle the burrow holes.

The Citadel core glows bright blue, as a beam runs through a mechanical claw into the top of the sphere, which just crests the bottom of your view.

The Citadel core. The Source engine can handle some pretty fantastic visual effects. It’s also the site of a few puzzles and combat. The core itself is very similar to the containment sphere in F.E.A.R., actually.

A Combine biomechanical gunship lays upside down and belly up through a hole in the ceiling of a largely wooden structure.

The leftovers from your battle with a gunship from inside an old building. It isn’t Half-Life without a good gunship battle.

The level design is, as always, rock solid. However, as is Valve’s way, they sacrifice freedom and replayability for design and narrative tuning. I still hope for open-ended sandbox combat scenarios a la Halo, but Half-Life has always been about telling a story and developing the characters and plot, so I’m willing to let that go. Fortunately, the penultimate scenario involves a bit of this gameplay style and I welcome the change of pace, I’d just like a bit more. Some people, apparently, were having too much trouble with the underground scenes that take place in the dark. A sequence involving an elevator and an onslaught of enemies was a particular problem, so much so that Valve added some item pickups and health packs to the scene based on play stats through Steam. I say “Bah!” to that. Toughen up, people!

A zombine soldier hoisting an armed grenade over its head, as seen through a door in a dark room.

Zombine! Alyx’s little wordplay names the new enemy for you. This new enemy has about 50% of grenade combat figured out. Here’s a zombine showing you how to arm a grenade. I’m not so sure about the throwing part.

The addition of a new enemy and enemy scenarios to this mix allowed for some new game sequences I hope to see more of. Now, with Alyx’s help, the roller mines can be converted to weapons against the Combine, which is more than a little fun to watch. The ant lions, now that they’re invading the city, erupt from burrow holes that can be plugged up with vehicles, adding an urgency and frenetic pace to their presence, which used to involve more avoidance than direct engagement. The most interesting addition is the ’zombine’, a Combine soldier who still knows how to operate grenades, but doesn’t quite get how to throw them. As always, Valve loves a good turnabout with their enemies, and the zombine delivers.

Light filters through a hole in the ceiling, illuminating some rubble, showing off the high dynamic range effects.

Have I mentioned how gorgeous Valve’s level design is? The HDR lighting adds a level of beauty and realism that makes mundane moments like this one rather stunning.

A yellow commentary track bar sits in the lower third of the screen, as Alyx looks down the pit surrounding the Citadel. A commentary balloon can be seen in lower left.

It would seem that many gamers don’t listen to the commentary, as Valve reported some paltry usage stat like 17% or something via Steam. I don’t understand that at all. The commentary is great. Any gamer worth their salt must give it a listen. Plus, it adds replay value once you’re tired of the regular gameplay. Valve should always include this feature. It’s great.

What’s more, is this new game, that clocks in at 4 or 5 hours of gameplay, uses new technologies like high dynamic range lighting, and the kick-ass commentary system, costs only $20. You don’t even need to own HL2. If you’ve got the hardware, you owe it to yourself to check this out. Plus, you’ll be able to enjoy the forthcoming Episode 2 (which will come bundled with Team Fortress 2 and the amazing-looking Portal). Do it.