An experiment in content and in distribution, Valve has at long last released the first of three episodic serial expansions of Half Life 2, the title declared game of the year by many online and print publications.
I’m already a fan of Valve’s Steam platform so I had few qualms about preordering the game in digital format. I made the purchase entirely inside the Steam client and the procedure was complete in under 2 minutes. Valve discounted preorders 10% to $18 USD which is comparable to boxed hardcopies I’ve seen in stores, but this is one of few games I was sufficiently excited about to warrant buying only the data to ensure I could play right at the zero-hour (not to mention Half Life 2’s documentation was nonexistent, and Steam allows you to install all its products with nothing but an internet connection or via self-burned DVD).
My preorder afforded me the “privilege” of preloading content onto my hard drive on a few occasions in instalments (no pun intended) of about 300MB. The downloads came in at an average of 180KB/s which was my maximum ISP downrate. I was a bit frustrated that I had to log on to Steam on several occasions to download more content every few weeks, but on release day I was happy to be able to play the game with minimal fuss. Perhaps I won’t let my anticipation get the better of me before Episode Two is released and just download everything a day or two before release.
Evolution or intelligent design?
I counted the seconds until midnight of that joyous day, but was forced to keep on counting since the game was not cleared for launch until about 3PM EST. When I got home from work I ran the Steam client, downloaded little more than a megabyte, waited 2 minutes for files to decompress, and was greeted with a main menu screen showing a crumbling Citadel cascading flaming debris and billowing smokey plumes over a rubble-strewn City 17. I was a little disappointed that my graphics and audio preferences hadn’t been carried over from Half Life 2, but I half expected this after experiencing the same issue with Valve’s free add-on tech demo level, The Lost Coast.
I’ve upgraded my PC a few times since playing Half Life 2, so I was disheartened to see how choppy the game ran at full detail at 1280×1024 (with 8xAF and no AA – the settings that afforded me great performance in HL2). Oddly, turning down the detail at this resolution did little to improve the frames per second, but playing at 1024×768 at full detail plus 2xAA yielded excellent consistent performance. The game and particularly the fonts looked fuzzier at this resolution, but in shooters frame rate is paramount so I didn’t mind. This was the resolution I was forced to settle with in The Lost Coast, but thankfully Episode One ran much more quickly and smoothly even with HDR enabled.
Before I delve too deeply into technical matters I’ll discuss the premise and gameplay.
Calling Episode One “more of the same” is double-edged sword – a curse or a blessing depending on just how rosy your Half Life glasses are tinted. Barely able to contain my anticipation, I’d replayed a good chunk of HL2 in preparation for the launch of the first expansion so I was very pleased to see Episode One continue immediately after the “conclusion” of the original (“culmination” might be a better word). While those who were frustrated by the unexplained lapse in story between the original Half Life and its sequel will be relieved by this continuity, let me say right now that few, if any, questions are answered in the latest chapter. It’s likely more questions are asked than answered, but it’s this uncertainty and sense of discovery that kept me in awe at so many turns in HL2 so I was not at all disappointed by the expansion’s equally cryptic method of subtley hinting at an underlying concrete story. Still, there’s more plot progression in the first 5 minutes of this game than you’ll find in the rest of the episode and some people may be dissuaded by this.
The premise of this short add-on can be summarized fairly succinctly: You and Alyx crippled the Citadel and must escape City 17 before she goes supernova (the city, not Alyx). Of course it’s not quite so easy as it sounds – a few new enemies and some old favourites do their darndest to gib your tender gibbables. The introduction of new foes makes for some strategic considerations while battling varieties of enemies in large mobs, but I most enjoyed the reintroduction of old enemies and the new tactics required to defeat them.
You begin the episode with nothing but your still-superpowered gravity gun, but reacquire your original arsenal over time. I appreciated the way Valve kept me guessing as to how long it would be before I got my traditional weapons back. It would have been nice to see just one new armament, but since you trek through mostly familiar territory it was acceptable in context.
Alyx is your faithful companion for the vast majority of this game, and it’s really great having her along. She is implemented very successfully in that she is your guide but acts believably as if you are guiding her. Her banter is witty and cautiously up-beat when the coast appears clear, emotional and vulnerable when appropriate, and her sentiments uncannily mirrored my own verbal exclamations more than once. She didn’t give it all up on the first date though; Alyx made some surprisingly topical comments depending on what I was looking at, and sometimes had something relevant to say about our surroundings when I queried her with the use button. It was also amusing watching her fight, and you’ll get many opportunities to do so as you will steer her fire with your flashlight at times, rely on her to cover your reloads, and be humbled by her as she takes on enemy forces hand-to-hand with several new 2-model combat animations. All in all I was glad to have Alyx around and dismayed when we were separated.
Although the novelty of the gravity gun has worn off for me, new physics/logic puzzles reminded me why I enjoy using it so much. There were one or two rehashes of old concepts amongst several interesting conundrums, but many puzzles had alternative solutions. For example, I found myself in one area where I obviously needed to make a bridge out of a teetering wooden plank. There was lots of debris around to weigh down the short end of the fulcrum, but I found it easier to jam a chair under the long side which made for a perfectly stable walkway. The polished and believable physics really make the Half Life universe sing, while the variable, viable solutions to roadblocks do much to make you forget about the game’s rules because you are so busy playing! This feeling is the rarest and purest zen of gaming and should not be taken lightly! Savour the flavour!
I can’t say this any other way – the game is short. I’d been told by many to expect 4-6 hours of gameplay my first time through, and this was about accurate as it took me just over 4.5 hours. However, this short span really packs a punch. Some sequences in Half Life 2, such as the airboat, were obviously designed with efficiency in mind; “We made the airboat so we may as well get our money’s worth,” Valve must have said. If Half Life 2 can be considered akin to a 10-course meal, with each course finishing and dishes being cleared before the next, then Episode One is a sumptuous buffet with dishes overlapping the next course. When a new game mechanic is introduced, it stays in play while new elements are thrown into the mix, melding into a sort of sci-fi shooter jambalaya. Overall I felt that the game could have been drawn out longer if Valve had so chosen, but the way Episode One introduced new elements in a simple and friendly fashion made for some really involved, high-pressure situations when required to put all your training to the test. I felt like I got the most out of the new game mechanics while still making progress.
The graphics have been slightly improved in this expansion. While many assets are rehashed from the original (notably textures, models, and scenery) they are rejuvinated by enhanced bloom and some new texture shaders. Although some supporting voice actors are reused from HL2, the number of generic NPCs has been greatly reduced so I never got that “attack of the clones” feeling. Once again, NPCs had a surprisingly long list of witticisms to spew, and the player is often granted the option to stick around in some areas as long as he wishes to listen in on long exchanges between random NPCs as well as those who “know each other”.
One aspect of design worth noting is the fantastic autosave function, carried over from Half Life 2. The player is notified onscreen of automatic game saves at critical times such as after loading new zones, but the game is saved transparently before all dangerous areas. Even a novice player could get through this game frustration-free without manually saving the game once. The prompt to save your game upon exit is pure genius, and the accompanying screenshot is indeed worth 1000 words. Overall the interface of this game is very clean and well organized. You can even alt-tab out of the game without crashing!
The most notable graphical update is the much-lauded high dynamic range (HDR) lighting effect. My new DirectX 9.0c compliant video card handles this effect a little more gracefully than my old 9800Pro which I’m thankful for since this effect is the belle of the ball when viewed at a high frame rate. Though indeed beautiful and striking, the effect is used for more than eye candy. One area, illustrated below, is exceptionally bright and you must allow your eyes to adjust to the scene before navigating treacherous walkways. The transition of such areas from overbright to bright to hazy to clear is quite convincing and affects your perception of objects and textures appropriately.
Sound is as good as ever, and the voice acting is very believable and organic. Despite the lack of hardware-accelerated audio the positional sounds are precise enough that when I heard growling from behind and slightly to my right, that’s instinctively where I turned. The music, though similar to Half Life 2’s short snippets and “stingers”, is much improved and feels more like a soundtrack to exciting events than a binary event triggered by walking through an invisible gate. Also thankfully MIA is the annoying habit of music cutting off due to new area loading screens popping up unexpectedly. I was not a fan of the original’s soundtrack due to these reasons, but Episode One’s themes undeniably added to the excitement of many action and suspense sequences.
I knew this was a fun and well-balanced game, but had no idea how meticulously researched and expertly crafted it was until I replayed it with developer’s commentary turned on. This mode places many speech bubble icons around the landscape which can be activated with the use button to hear various members of Valve’s design, coding, and art teams comment on a particularly cool effect or behind-the-scenes nuance of scripting. Unfortunately the game plays out in real time while all but one commentary was narrated so at times it was difficult juggling my attention between the jargon and the Combine (Alyx would probably call this “Jombine”). Also, a few spoken sentences did not display closed captions which made words difficult to decipher in areas with a lot of ambient sound. Still, it’s a great extra to bundle – especially in a $20 game – and I’m very glad to hear that Valve intends to include this feature in future products.
In 2 playthroughs I found the game to be bug-free with the exception of some weird floaty behaviour when I jumped on an upturned table or piece of debris. Despite the freeform unpredictability of the often appropriately named Havoc physics engine, not once did I experience inexplicable corpse-dancing, unassisted box bouncing, or spastically flying debris as I did in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Aside from loading screens (which are slightly quicker than in Half Life 2) there was almost nothing to pull me out of the experience of playing.
There is no one thing that makes this game great, and the elements gel together into something much greater than the sum of its parts. It’s easy to pick the game apart into its building blocks, but examining the trees makes you oblivious of the vibrant forest all around you. Episode One lives and breathes. It positively teems with atmosphere due to the synergy of elements. A texture on its own may tell you that a brick wall is decrepit with age, but a shiny goopy halo with subtle bump mapping, scratched stucco floors, dusty sunbeams streaming through filthy high-up windows, a low moan of wailing winds, and a rotting half-chewed corpse in the corner combine into a wordless tale. Though it is a linear game, one can spend untold hours with the zoom button depressed, pondering the dichotomy of utopian resolve vs dystopian humanity that is expressed merely architecturally.
I love this game. I really do. I love it as much as the original, and that’s saying a mouthful. I finished it on release day in two sittings (my belly always rumbles at the worst times) and was so amazed by some sequences, vistas, and arenas that I immediately reloaded some save points just to replay them. The opening sequence is truly awesome and very well paced. The action, puzzles, conversations, and other various tableaux fit the experience just right and are variously interspersed in sensible and entertaining intervals. When Episode One concludes you’ll wish it hadn’t.
It’s one of those rare games that is so good I couldn’t wait to play it, and the original, all over again. In fact, I’ll likely purchase the two expansions for Half Life: Source while I bask in the afterglow of Episode One.
Valve has promised to reward players with two more episodes to be released approximately 6 months apart. This feels like an eternity to wait for story resolution, but it’s a lot better than waiting another 6 years for the next true sequel. The Source engine still has legs and it’s great to see it grow incrementally with my gaming PC over a couple of years.
If you own and enjoyed Half Life 2, there’s nothing better you can spend a $20 bill on than this first expansion episode.
5 out of 5 zombines