2: Episode One
Review by Steerpike
I Suppose it Made Sense to Them
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 raisedit 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
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
This creates a twist in Episode One, since the first thing
you see is a crowd of Vortigauntshumanity's alien allies against
the Combinerescuing 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 castDandridge, 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
There is one problem that's become perennial in the seriesnamely,
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
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
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 variancecollapsing sci-fi interior, dark poured-concrete
nightmare and obliterated citysomehow 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.
Release Date: June 2006
Four Fat Chicks Links
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)
Where to Find It
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