Half-Life 2: Episode One Review

By Chris Remo, May 31, 2006 10:00pm PDT "Now would be an excellent time for procreation!"

Thus declares easily recognizable Half-Life NPC Dr. Isaac Kleiner, set against one of the main menu screens of Half-Life 2: Episode One that you get after booting up the game about halfway through. It is an interesting counterpart to the first menu screen of Valve's last game in its Half-Life series. In the original Half-Life 2, there was a strikingly serene picture of City 17, punctuated by ominous bursts of Combine radio chatter suggesting that the ostensibly peaceful scene is merely the calm before the storm. Not so in that of Episode One, which for me loaded up to a scene that is equally static, but now a product of the chaos that erupted at the end of Half-Life 2. Rubble and dead Combine soldiers littered the streets, ash rained from the sky, and an instructional monologue from Dr. Kleiner was being broadcast via one of the screens that used to air Dr. Breen's comforting messages. Kleiner discussed evacuation of the city, the triumph of human will over the Combine--and, to explain that quote above, which I found difficult to resist including, the fact that due to the events of the end of Half-Life 2, humans' reproductive functions are no longer being suppressed and now is indeed the perfect time to ensure that the race is repopulated as soon as possible.

In many ways, the game is quite clearly a direct followup to the 2004 game: the story picks up right afterward, though improved visually the game is clearly running on the same graphics engine, the setting of City 17 is quite familiar, and there are no new main characters introduced. However, the actual pacing and gameplay dynamic of the game is different in many ways. Its loading screen, with Kleiner's both dire and hopeful address lightened up with the occasional bit of levity, is somewhat reflective of that dynamic. Throughout essentially the whole game, you'll be accompanied by Eli Vance's daughter Alyx from Half-Life 2. Fortunately, she always seems to be able to care of herself; I never found myself frustrated because of dumb buddy AI. Her presence has a significant effect on the tone, cracking jokes during slower moments and sounding genuinely apprehensive during more nervewracking sequences. She's always strong and resolute, but serves to amplify or augment the emotions of a given scene with a broad range of comments; despite the shorter length of Episode One, she no doubt has significantly more lines of speech than in her debut game.

In Half-Life and, to a slightly lesser degree, Half-Life 2, the bulk of gameplay is tackled alone, but it's not just that; the games have a deliberate feeling of isolation and desperation brought on by the excellent pacing and sense that a lot of things really are going wrong and, well, you better hurry it up and get to wherever it is you're going and killing whatever it is that needs to be killed so that whatever it is that's going wrong will end up fixed. That kind of strong but ambiguous sense of purpose and direction is a common theme in the Half-Life universe, and is largely explored by way of Gordon's crucial but still unexplained relationship with the mysterious G-Man. Episode One, though, begins to imply a loss of control on the part of the G-Man--and Alyx is there to give Gordon's puzzle-solving and rampaging a more direct sense of purpose.

Previously in Half-Life games, you'd get to a puzzle section, figure it out, think "Well, it's lucky that all these useful components were right here," then continue on to the next firefight or puzzle, perhaps noticing how convenient it is that everything always seems to fall into place for Gordon. This time around, though, it doesn't feel quite so deliberately engineered, which fits the game's theme of loss of control. Alyx is there to vocalize reactions, which sometimes give you hints on how you might proceed, and which sometimes echo the thoughts you're having. She'll often become frustrated at having to take a long detour, just like you probably are, but those human reactions in a sense remove a lot of the "deus ex machina" feeling of the games; when the game itself has this character that usually feels the same way you do about what's going on, the whole thing somehow feels more believable. Furthermore, she'll sometimes help you out with puzzles or, more frequently, back you up with firepower while you figure out how to proceed. Some players may miss the isolation of the other Half-Life games, which allows them to be paced more at the player's will, but this is definitely a well implemented gameplay change.

Speaking of pacing, Valve clearly had a goal of high gameplay density in Episode One. We've known for months now that these episodic titles will deliver fewer hours of content than we saw in previous Half-Life epics, but to compensate for that, this game is truly non-stop from start to finish. For the record, it took me five hours, almost to the minute. Again, because Alyx is helping you, there is less of a need to separate combat and puzzle-solving. During many puzzles, the combat doesn't fully stop; for example, there are a few scenarios in which Alyx will do her best to hold off waves of enemies while you figure out a way to block off their means of approach. There are a few moments of complete calm, but for the most part this is a game that you will most likely not want to stop playing. The whole time, you'll feel compelled to "just finish this part," which will lead into the next part very fluidly, and so on. Without the sharp divisions of gameplay that segmented Half-Life 2, everything feels more organic and urgent. Plus, while in Half-Life 2, you're working towards a grand goal, in Episode One you're mainly trying to fix or just run away from the ramifications of that goal, which adds to the urgency.

Alyx has been outfitted with a whole lot of new animations, and along with the rest of the game is visually updated in terms of polygon count and additional visual effects. She has some great "dynamically scripted" actions, for example delivering a strong kick to an enemy that happens to get too close. Quite often, you'll hear Alyx but not see her, since you're dealing with enemies or puzzles yourself, which makes it all the more enjoyable when you happen to glance over and see her smash an enemy with the butt of her rifle as a finishing move. She's also got plenty fo say about what's happening; the first time we encountered those horrible black headcrabs, the spindly-legged poisonous ones, I muttered a curse under my breath. I was a bit startled when she exclaimed "I hate those things!" immediately afterwards.

To befit her role as a strong action heroine, Alyx has been outfitted with some new shaders, such as subtle rim lighting that makes her stand out in the game environments. High dynamic range lighting, introduced to the Source engine in the free Lost Coast level, has also been added to the game. It is used to much better effect than in Lost Coast, where HDR seemed to be deliberately exaggerated to show off what the the technology was capable of. Here, it is more subtle and natural. While most of the visual improvements are beautiful, I have to admit I have somewhat mixed feelings about some of them, particular the highlights on Alyx. One of the things I really love about the look of Half-Life 2 is its lack of reliance on a lot of the really obvious pixel shaders that most first person shooters pack on to replace an absense of real art direction. The game's muted color palette and impressive but subtle lighting gave everything a sort of documentary-like feel which, for me, greatly enhanced the overall atmosphere of the game. That feeling is not quite as present in Episode One, coming off a bit more like an action film rather than the raw depiction of events that one would want to make an action film about. This is a minor complaint, really, and one I do not expect everyone to share.

Unsurprisingly, all aspects of audio are up to the staggeringly high Valve standard. Most first person shooters make an effort to go all out with the weapon sound effects, while things like music and voice acting are best left undiscussed, but this has never been the case with Half-Life. Alyx voice, which you'll be hearing quite a lot during the game, is excellently acted and recorded, as are those of the other familiar characters you'll encounter. The rest of the sound design is essentially what you would expect; you'll recognize most of the sounds, but they're still just as effective. The game's music, however, deserves a special mention. Music has always been used minimally in Half-Life games, and that doesn't change here. However, it does seem that the range of instrumentation has been improved on the part of the composer, and there is one memorable piece in particular that is more chaotic than anything I remember from past Half-Life soundtracks. As usual, the decisions of when to break out the rare instances of music are still somewhat of a mystery to me, but that just makes it all the more exciting when one of the driving beat-heavy tracks kicks in and you feel endowed with a particularly strong heroic purpose.

All in all, Half-Life 2: Episode One doesn't offer a revolutionary experience over its predecessor. What it does offer is significant improvements in just about every meaningful area of gameplay: pacing, variety of puzzles, overall density, and so on. It's a much shorter experience, but it is by no means like five hours taken out of a larger game. No, this is a larger game compressed into a five hour block. That in itself is something of an achievement; it really is absolutely packed with action to a degree that you simply never see in games that take twenty hours to complete, because that kind of development would be impractical. It makes up for the fact that a lot of assets have been reused, if touched up, and the weapon selection is identical to that of the previous game. You'll be doing so many new things in those environments, and you'll be in so many different situations with those weapons, and it's packed so full that you won't feel short changed.

It all really illustrates how little evolution usually goes on in the world of single-player shooters. While most developers spend time thinking up new weapons and making new environments, the actual game experience isn't changing all that much. Probably because they wanted to get a product out in 18 months instead of six years like it took last time, Valve has hung on to the existing weapons and many of the environment design, but that development time went into improving and polishing the gameplay to an astonishing level of quality. There are a couple specific puzzles that are used perhaps once too often, and it continues to be a bit frustrating that the super gravity gun can pick up this huge boulder here but not that little bit of rubble over there, but these are complaints that are made more out of a sense of duty to have a few complaints than because they're significant flaws. It is hard to describe without spoiling specific scenarios just how much you'll be doing in the game. As you would expect, of course, there are still some great old fashioned battle sequences, and the game ramps up to these. Early in the game, there is a great deal of puzzle solving, as the working relationship with Alyx is introduced. As the game progresses, however, it gets more and more frantic, and towards the end there are two battles that stick in my mind as some of the most memorable I've had in recent gaming memory.

Oh, and regarding the story, in case you were wondering, you're not going to get tons and tons of answers; you'll get a few explanations and hints, but mainly--and you should be used to this by now--more questions. Roll on, Episode Two.

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