Half-Life 2: Episode One

Review by Steerpike
June 2006

I Suppose it Made Sense to Them

Half-Life 2 ended not with a bang but a sort of gurgle that left gamers bewildered. Yawning fissures in the narrative, the surprise ending (not "surprise" like The Crying Game but "Surprise! That's the end"), the new questions raised—it all added up to a distinctly dissatisfying lack of closure. And that was pretty much the only blemish on a game that will nonetheless be remembered as the best first-person shooter to date.

Thanks to the miracle of digital distribution, creator Valve Software can rectify its crime by releasing episodic sequelets. Playwise, the hotly anticipated first scoop of this three-part expansion lives up to expectations. Vexingly, it does not spackle the Kentucky-sized holes in the story, choosing instead to open a few more. The plot by this point is so fractured and bizarre that it feels like you're watching one of those 26-part anime dramas understood only by their creators. But it's an amazing game.

At GDC 2006, I attended a lecture on Valve's tortuous level design process. Brian Jacobson and David Speyrer spoke of the endless focus groups, the ongoing fan playtests, the methodical construction, the agonizing, meticulous effort that goes into every. Single. Frame. They basically slink down to GameStop and kidnap people at random, make them play through a scene that's one step up from wireframe, then hold them down and slurp from their brains every possible salient detail of the experience. They adjust based on the feedback and repeat the process literally dozens of times for every second of every scene of every level. Each mission has been painstakingly tuned through hundreds of iterations before even an instant is green-lighted for production. Needless to say, most developers do not do this, and it shows.

Valve have said that they consider the Half-Life 2: Episode One levels to be the best they've ever produced, and I'm inclined to agree. It has the same plot problems as its predecessor. But Episode One's gameplay is the digital equivalent of diving off a cliff into a cold, clear mountain lake thousands of miles from noise and pollution.

It's a Combine Zombie. It's a ... a ... Zombine.

Half-Life 2 ended in the middle; they either ran out of time and excised huge chunks of narrative to make ship or just lost interest in telling a coherent story and released what they had. But the level design hummed like a crystalline tuning fork, so no one, not even me, was bothered by the half-realized Babelian vortex of nonsense that was the storyline.

You remember the ending: an explosion followed by a peculiar speech that made as much sense as a Twin Peaks dream sequence. This soliloquy was delivered by the mysterious G-Man, protagonist Gordon Freeman's reality-transcendent boss. Episode One begins seconds later when Dog, the world's most adorable monster robot, digs Gordon out from under a pile of rubble. You're quickly reunited with Dog's creator Alyx Vance and filled in on the situation.

The Combine, the alien terror that invaded the planet after your adventures at the Black Mesa research center in Half-Life, has suffered a major setback. Gordon has shut down its interdimensional teleport network, stranding Earth-stationed Combine troops and shattering their infrastructure. The human holding pen known as City-17 is mostly destroyed, traitorous Dr. Breen is presumed dead, and the Combine stranglehold on Earth is temporarily broken. You and Alyx have a simple goal: get the hell out of the city before the Combine Citadel's dark matter reactor explodes and vaporizes the entire area.

You play as Gordon throughout, but in many ways Episode One is about Alyx. She's the daughter of Eli Vance, one of Gordon's Black Mesa colleagues who now coordinates the human resistance. She was just a tot during Gordon's adventure in Half-Life, but the fifteen years or so that he spent in stasis after agreeing to work for the G-Man have, ah, matured her while he has remained the same age. Smart, funny, hot, and equally skilled with handguns and socket wrenches, Alyx was a major character in Half-Life 2 but spent most of the game offscreen. Here, she is with you all the time, and you come to care for her so much (thanks in large part to Rent star Merle Dandridge's voice work) that the handful of moments when you're separated are nerve-wracking. They do a great job of making you empathize with the characters in the Half-Life universe, both good and evil.

Which leads us back to the G-Man. Though his overall motives appear good (he seems to be against the Combine, at least), he is a highly Machiavellian character. He was the architect of the Black Mesa disaster, which cost hundreds of lives and ignited the Portal Storm, the cascade of warp gates that allowed the Combine to reach Earth. It appears now that the whole thing was nothing more than an elaborate test to determine whether Gordon was worthy of employment in his pandimensional Delta Force. The G-Man has always made it clear that he'll kill Gordon or anyone else in a minute flat if they step out of line, and he exists so far outside of earthly reality that it's difficult to think of him as a "good guy," or even a person at all.

This creates a twist in Episode One, since the first thing you see is a crowd of Vortigaunts—humanity's alien allies against the Combine—rescuing Alyx and driving the G-Man off. It's not clear whether they're protecting her, Gordon, or themselves, though given the G-Man's icy reaction to their behavior I suspect it'll go badly for them in the long run. It's kind of a sidenote at this point, but you can bet that we haven't seen the last of the G-Man and that his conflict with Gordon is likely to become as central to the plot as the war with the Combine.

Episode One is pretty much a road movie. Its entire span deals with you and Alyx frantically trying to get out of City-17 while being pursued by the remainder of the Combine army. As such, there's little room for exposition, and I can forgive it for not answering many questions left at the end of Half-Life 2, but I will warn Valve that if they don't tidy up the narrative and clarify things by the end, I for one will be balefully pissed.

It offers the same top-notch dialogue and stellar acting we've come to expect from the series. The cast—Dandridge, Robert Guillaume, Robert Culp, Michelle Forbes, Lou Gossett Jr.—is excellent, favorite characters like Barney Calhoun reappear, and the little moments of humor are a special treat. Ranging from Alyx's doofusy "it's a Zombine" joke to resistance leader Dr. Kleiner's rambling twenty minute citywide broadcast (it's supposed to be an emergency evacuation order) covering every topic from human sexuality to quantum entanglement ... you'll laugh, but you'll never forget how desperate Earth's situation is or how transient this victory.

There is one problem that's become perennial in the series—namely, Gordon doesn't speak. It's really starting to get on my nerves. About the ninety-eighth time Alyx saves your life and gets rewarded with stony silence rather than a thank-you, the concept of Gordon as a cipher begins to break down. I think we're meant to project our own voices onto Gordon, to imagine what he'd be saying and therefore further identify ourselves with him, but it doesn't work. His silence makes him seem standoffish or even rude, like he's so intent on dealing with the alien stuff that he's lost his ability to deal with humans. It's a stark contrast to other characters like Barney and Alyx, who have survived the horror for this long by being able to bicker and tease, to laugh and converse as though everything were normal, to connect, and, in so doing, however temporarily forget the nightmare of humanity's plight. Gordon's failure to communicate with the other characters sets him apart from them, and not in a good way. Indeed, of all the characters in the game I like him the least, despite (rather, because of) the fact that he's never said a single word. People speak to him, and he just stands there, stubbornly refusing to reply. It'll become a bigger problem as the story evolves, since Episode One implies that Alyx would like to be more than just friends ... narratologically ridiculous when you compare Gordon's icy silence to Barney's warmth and cheerful courage.

Source and Steam

Episode One is available for purchase over Steam; you can get it in a box if you so desire, and probably cheaper. Many retailers are selling the game for as little as eight bucks, and you do not need a copy of Half-Life 2 to play. Once all three episodes are out, I suspect they'll release a director's cut version for PC and possibly Xbox.

Valve's magnificent Source engine continues to shine here. The addition of high dynamic range lighting and enhanced particle effects dramatically improve the already beautiful graphics. Episode One should run nicely on even midrange systems, as Source is highly optimized and you have a great deal of low-level control over graphic settings. It's also very stable and ran without a hitch or hiccup.

Valve has also taken to including commentary tracks with its games. Similar to a director's commentary on a DVD, this feature allows you to listen to musings of the game's designers as you play. It's really a nice addition and definitely worth a second play-through if you're remotely interested in game development, because these guys know their stuff, and it's quite fascinating to hear them talk about the tricks they used in level design to guide the player here or there.

Gordon Freeman's Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day

A motivated adult will finish Episode One in about four hours. While I'd have preferred to see six, the level design is so impeccable that you won't come away feeling ripped off. They've got their craft down to a science.

It does a great job of building tension and keeping play diverse. Your first visit is to the Combine Citadel, a very different place now than it was when you went in to confront Breen at the end of Half-Life 2. After that, you and Alyx endure a terrifying run through a pitch-black parking deck from hell and come out on the fringes of a ruined city, through which you must pick your way if you hope to reach the train station and the escape it promises. The variance—collapsing sci-fi interior, dark poured-concrete nightmare and obliterated city—somehow makes you feel like you're playing a much longer game than you actually are.

Gordon's weapons and equipment are the same as in Half-Life 2. Your most important tool is the Gravity Gun, which in Episode One you must learn to use with a finesse and creativity beyond anything required in earlier puzzles. Those puzzles, in turn, have been refined to the point where you don't even realize that they're puzzles ... meaning that you rarely get frustrated but are constantly challenged. More and more, they are based on environmental physics, reinforcing the Gravity Gun's importance. The game's physical world is as realistic as can be expected, and you must master the art of solving problems in a nonstatic environment. This, combined with the outstanding level layout and regular doses of lead-spitting action, means that Episode One is as adrenaline-saturated as we could have hoped without ever devolving into mindlessness.

Once again, the Combine aliens only appear briefly, and then only on monitors. Your encounters are with human collaborators, alien mutants left over from the Xen invasion of Half-Life, and a variety of Combine war machines. I'd forgotten quite how terrifying the spindly, skyscraper-sized Strider battletanks are until the climactic encounter, when one squeezed into a narrow lot and proceeded to vaporize half the train station. Their scale, their lethal grace, the efficiency with which they chew through opposition mark Striders as an example of innovative enemy design and stunning animation, so much so that even when you're killed by one you feel like you're getting a prize or something.

Next Week on an All-New Episode

Half-Life 2: Episode One is really one of the best games I've played in recent months, and I'm eagerly anticipating the next installment. Though it provides little in the way of exposition and does nothing to reduce the opacity of the plot (which would be interesting if it made sense), its mood and design are so elegantly realized that minor complaints about storyline holes can't seriously diminish the accomplishment.

According to Valve, we should see Episode Two appear around the holidays. Episode Three will follow in late spring or early summer of 2007, and then we have a really long wait before the true sequel. It's always been clear that Half-Life is a three-part story: Black Mesa, the Combine invasion, and whatever's to come next. Following the adventures of Gordon Freeman, a mild-mannered physicist forced into increasingly deadly situations and increasingly desperate circumstances, is an ongoing joy for those gamers that have loved the series.

I worry, though. Valve will have to fail sometime, and soon. It's not that I'm hoping they will; quite the opposite. It's just that with each passing triumph, expectations for the next product become correspondingly higher. Half-Life still ranks among many gamers' top five, but Half-Life 2 blew it away. The first episode, while brief, is a dramatic improvement over that. Thus, we expect even more from the second, more still from the third ... then there's Half-Life 3 to consider. By that point, it will pretty much have to come with a hooker in every box if it hopes to keep upping the satisfaction ante the way Valve has done in the past. It's simply algorithmically impossible for each installment to be so much better than its predecessor, since gamers' expectations will soon exceed anyone's ability to beat. Because Valve has never betrayed us, never left us feeling raped of our fifty dollars, we will never be satisfied with "satisfactory" from them. Their games can't be "good" any more. A "good" game from Valve would be called bad. Nor can they be merely exceptional, nor even brilliant. By this point we expect them to be mystical, and that's as unfair as it is unrealistic.

But until that disappointment arrives, we've had nothing but the best from Valve, and Episode One continues that trend in every conceivable way. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Valve
Publisher: Steam
Release Date: June 2006

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

1.2 GHz processor (2.4 GHz recommended)
256 MB RAM (512 MB recommended)
DirectX 7 level graphics card (DirectX 9 level recommended)
Windows 2000/XP/ME/98 (2000/XP recommended)
Internet connection

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