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Review of Episodic Content, Half-Life 2 Episode One 330

Posted by Zonk
from the future-of-content dept.
Half-Life 2 was worth the wait. Great story, beautiful graphics, and inventive gameplay made the game a worthy successor to Valve's 1998 classic. Last week gamers were finally allowed access to the next part of the story. Half-Life 2: Episode One is a fast-paced and entirely worthwhile continuation of Gordon Freeman's tale. It also raises some really good questions about the very idea of charging for small chunks of content. Read on for my review of this $20 experience, and a few comments on the episodic content debate.

  • Title: Half-Life 2: Episode One
  • Developer/Publisher: Valve
  • System: PC

The climactic finale to Half-Life 2 (HL2) left most players with mixed emotions. Elation at the completion of a fantastic shooter, and frustration at the sudden ending to the game's engaging story. Episode One picks up immediately after HL2 leaves off, and quickly reacquaints you with Alyx Vance and her robotic comrade. Within minutes, you're back in the thick of things, hard at work playing liberator to the human race. Episode One's story centers on the escape from City 17, the aftermath of the events of the original game, and the relationships between the resistance movement members. There are a few answers, some disappointing cop-outs, and a lot of new questions raised. The fate of Doctor Mossman, in particular, is a nagging question; her exploits are a briefly mentioned plot thread that is never readdressed or resolved. Like HL2 proper, the end of the episode is a major cliffhanger. If I had as many 'fade to white' moments in my life as Gordon has, I'd be awfully confused. These are hallmarks of Valve's storytelling at this point, though, and I don't begrudge them the need to keep us begging for more.

In fact, in almost every way possible Episode One is a success for Valve. This game is the first in a trilogy planned to end next year, and Valve has done a fantastic job in capturing interest with this initial effort. Unlike SiN Episodes , which amused but failed to engage, Episode One was so gripping I almost immediately restarted the game with 'commentary mode' enabled just to see if I could glean any more from a second go-round.

As entertaining as the story is, this title truly shines in its gameplay. Creating Half-Life 2's gameplay was a long process of trial and error. For the player, a degree of handholding was required to teach the skill required to play. Episode One, in contrast, relies on your knowledge of FPS controls and experience with the original title, packing the relatively short game with eyebrow-popping moments. New uses for the gravity gun, clever physics puzzles, the near-constant presence of Alyx Vance, and some very challenging gunplay all add to the title's brisk pace. Of particular note are the moments where Valve tweaks the player expectations. A quick crawl through the ducts becomes a drawn-out odyssey through heavily trapped rooms; you know you're having fun when death provokes a laugh instead of a sigh of frustration.

While I certainly wouldn't classify HL2 as 'easy' on normal mode, the difficulty of firefights in Episode One takes things up a notch or two from combat in that game. Several action set pieces move beyond the more straightforward boss battles; they pit you and Alyx against waves of different enemies, or put you in close quarters with some vastly unpleasant creatures. The addition of a new zombie (the 'zombine') and smarter combine soldiers contributes to this challenge. The zombine in particular (a headcrab-infested combine soldier) is a tough opponent. It takes quite a few more hits than the normal zombie to dispatch. It also displays limited tactical ability, waiting for a small knot of its kind to form before rushing you, or using a grenade to act as a walking bomb. The smarter human footsoldiers are often a frustrating surprise; they take cover and shoot straighter than their cousins in the original game.

Episode One looks great, of course. Some additional shiny has been added to the title, but for the most part you're going to be seeing the same textures and environments as in HL2 proper. It would have been nice to see some dramatically new areas, but the urban jungle you traverse on your way out of the city is as engaging as it is familiar. Sound effects are also reused, but the musical stings to accompany important moments are new and seemed more carefully composed than some of the previous offerings.

In a nutshell, Episode One is Half-Life 2 all over again. Perhaps because of its short duration (only about five hours or so), it actually manages to be even better than the original title in almost every way. The puzzles are inventive, the combat is more intense, and the story grabs you within minutes of game start; the moment, early on, where Dog and Alyx have a great moment of simple character interaction made the price of entry well worth it (for me). I've played a lot of games since Half-Life 2 came out, but this is still a franchise that impresses; Valve delivers on everything it promises. If you like story with your shooter, play this game.

The fact that Valve has released a great product should come as no surprise. What strikes me most about this title is its place in a larger debate. Episodic content has provoked a number of earnest conversations this year; how much to charge, how much content is enough, and how often content is released all seem to be sticking points in the gaming community. When Bethesda began releasing commercial mods for Oblivion earlier this year, there were a number of people that felt three dollars for horse armor was a tad much. Subsequent releases for that game have been weightier, and their low price (just $1.98 for a pirate ship) seems to have allayed criticism of those offerings.

In comparison, last month's SiN Episodes was 5-6 hours of gaming for twenty bucks. About it, I wrote "If Emergence was $15, this would be a sure thing; at $20 I'm not sure this particular ride is worth the price of admission." Now that I've seen what my $20 can get me, I know it's not worth the price of admission. If we can expect Valve's success is a high-water mark for episodic content there's going to have to be a serious reexamination of pricing and release for future, lesser offerings. I'm willing to wait for Episode Two at this point; as far as I'm concerned Valve already has my money. At the same time, I'm unlikely to purchase the next episode of SiN. The story just didn't grab me, but the amount of time we're going to be waiting is what really frustrates. With no word yet on a release for the next episode in SiN's season, we're looking at a three months wait (or more) for another length of lackluster writing and time-worn gameplay.

Valve has proven they can deliver, and four dollars an hour should be a premium price for their premium product. In contrast, SiN is just not worth it. I want faster, cheaper, or more. Two of those three will make the next developer to try for the episodic market a success. Perhaps a SiN-quality game that lasts eleven hours for $15? Or the same length for $10 every other month? I would even be interested in true micro-installments. Two or three hours of content for five bucks every month would be a good standard to set. At that rate, the television season comparison SiN is reaching for becomes a reality.

What I enjoy most about the concept of episodic content is the potential. Can developer schedules achieve a brisk enough turnaround? Will enough gamers purchase the second episodes of SiN and Half-Life 2 to ensure there will be a third? With the popularity of Xbox Live, will more developers jump on the episodic bandwagon? I, for one, certainly hope so.
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Review of Episodic Content, Half-Life 2 Episode One

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  • not doing that (Score:5, Insightful)

    by joe 155 (937621) on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:21PM (#15473568) Journal
    In a nutshell, Episode One is Half-Life 2 all over again. Perhaps because of its short duration (only about five hours or so)

    Five hours of gaming for $20... I must admit my reaction has been tempered now I think that $20 is like £14... but that is still a lot for 5 hours. If I buy a game for that much I would want a lot more than 5 hours of play; maybe I'm just tight. I've bought games in the past for less than this (infact I actually got a copy of Metriod Prime 2 free from nintendo) and they have given me easily over 20 hours and counting.
  • Re:not doing that (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ahsile (187881) on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:26PM (#15473611) Homepage Journal
    I'm more than a little peeved that I paid $20 for this amount of content. I expected the game to take me at least a few nights to beat, but instead I was finished by early Thursday evening. The gameplay was a little tougher than the original HL2, but I'm still not convinced it makes up for the price.

    I may play the game again in commentary mode, which was enjoyable in HL2:Lost Coast. But, in contrast, I have devoted countless hours (read:many many days of life and *cough*work*cough*) to CS:Source, and it just happened to come along with the package I got for HL2.
  • Re:not doing that (Score:5, Insightful)

    by athakur999 (44340) on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:35PM (#15473692) Journal
    Is $20 for 5 hours really that bad? A movie ticket to see a two hour movie costs $8-$10 (or more). $20 isn't going to get you 5 hours worth of games a place like Gameworks or Dave and Busters. A hardcover book costs around $15-$20 and maybe only last around 5 hours if you're a fast reader.

  • by Cheapy (809643) on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:38PM (#15473712)
    Am I the only one who thought that Half-Life 2's story was very bad?
  • by spentrent (714542) on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:43PM (#15473757)
    If you play and you do not feel you got your money's worth, complain. Call billing support and ask for a refund.

    If that fails, charge the fuckers back.

    These guys set their prices based on your willingness to pay. Talk with your wallet.

    Think about this: most people won't bat an eye when they are asked to pay 20 bucks to buy a new book. That's five hours of content, considerably cheaper to produce than a video game
  • by XaXXon (202882) <xaxxonNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:53PM (#15473844) Homepage
    First of all, I was disappointed that for the first day I tried to buy/download episode 1, I kept getting "server is too busy, try again in a few hours" errors.

    When I was finally able to purchase the game, I downloaded at about 400KB/s, which is pretty respectable for my connection (though it can do ~1MB/s to the right server).

    The production value of the game is very good. The character interactions are very good and the constant interaction with Alyx is very good. She does neat little things like covering her face when there's an explosion hear her.

    The story is "ok". I'm pretty picky about plot in general, so "ok" from me probably means "pretty good" for most other people.

    My beef with the game has to be Alyx's health/ammo levels. She has infinite ammo, so there's bits where in order to conserve ammo, you have to pretty much just wait around for her to kill baddies (and point them out with the flashlight.. which while being cool at first gets old). The second bit is that she can die, but there's absolutely no indication of how much health she has. There's no number anywhere and it's not depicted on her character, either. She's fine, she's fine, she's dead. If she starts saying "Oww!" a lot, then you probably need to get her away.

    Anyways, they've got my $20 for episode 2.
  • by LMN8R (979699) on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:55PM (#15473859)
    The story is very subtle and not at all in-your-face. It's an absolutely amazing story considering there wasn't a single cutscene, and if you pay attention to all of the details in the world you'll be amazed at just how rich the gameworld is. Don't believe me? Check this out: http://members.shaw.ca/halflifestory/ [members.shaw.ca] Not at all pulled out of his @$$, but rather a thourough analysis of everything.
  • Re:not doing that (Score:3, Insightful)

    by LurkerXXX (667952) on Monday June 05, 2006 @02:33PM (#15474165)
    I understand that you went in blind, but I think the grandparent's point was, Valve absolutely hasn't been trying to hide this. If you'd looked around, you would have easily found that they only planned this to be a few hours play, nothing nearly as long as HL2. I'd much rather it was a longer game as well, but I've known for months that it wouldn't be. They weren't trying to pull a switcheroo on anyone.
  • Re:The problem (Score:3, Insightful)

    by dR.fuZZo (187666) on Monday June 05, 2006 @02:42PM (#15474233)
    Welcome to capitalism. You are, as always, free to have contempt for people who want a product more than you do, or are better able to pay for it. Have fun with that.
  • by Macthorpe (960048) on Monday June 05, 2006 @03:05PM (#15474424) Journal
    Ah, sarcasm on the internet.

    One wonders why we bother.
  • by Toby The Economist (811138) on Monday June 05, 2006 @03:57PM (#15474837)
    > Half-Life 2 was worth the wait. Great story, beautiful graphics,
    > and inventive gameplay made the game a worthy successor to
    > Valve's 1998 classic.

    You are bloody kidding me.

    HL2 was to HL what Episode 1 was to Star Wars.

    Valve made an unbeliveably basic mistake; having a non-speaking Gordon only works if there are no burning questions he would absolutely have asked - and he would have asked where the hell he's been and what and how do the resistance know about it.

    HL2 was really good - graphics, gameplay, etc. But it's not a *great* because Valve fundamentally broke the plot.

  • by i_ate_god (899684) on Monday June 05, 2006 @04:10PM (#15474943) Homepage
    A lot of people are complaining that HL2 EP1 wasn't "new enough", but I'm not quite sure what they expected from a game that continues from the last point they played. What, in the 15 minutes between part 0 and part 1, brand new tech is invented?

    HL2 EP1 contains the same scenery and same graphics because it takes place in the exact same timeframe in the story. They are still at City 17, they are still at the citadel, and they are still fighting the combine, who are still using the same technology they did 15 minutes ago.

    And this is what you should expect from episodic content. They are chapters in a story, not seperate different stories.

    Is $20 too much? Depends on the game.

    I wouldn't pay $20 for salmon, but if its wrapped up in wine soaked rice and seaweed with cucumber and avacado, thats a different story.
  • HL2:EO (Score:4, Insightful)

    by zerosix (962914) on Monday June 05, 2006 @04:53PM (#15475335)
    Well, I must say I'm a little disappointed at all the negative comments about Episode One. Most of these cynical comments aren't even justified. There are several key points about Episode one that needs to be understood. One of which is that this was in no fashion meant to be a "new game." Yet, the valve team released it knowing there may be people playing this title that didn't play Half-Life 2. Therefore, a background needed to be built to understand what was going on, yet not too much for those who had already played the game. This is an extremely difficult balance to reach.

    One of the cool features that were added was the ability to play through with the commentary engaged. After I finished the Episode, I played through with the commentary which answered a lot of the 'concerns' I had as to why things were a certain way. Had some of the pessimists actually participated in the commentary they wouldn't be so quick to oust Valve on some of the decisions they made regarding Episode One.

    Now, I'm not saying Episode One is a perfect game. All I'm saying is that a lot of the griping about the content is not necessary.

    Here are some things (my short list) I found good about the episode:

    New content - Stalkers, Combine Zombies, and helpful roller mines to name a few.

    Puzzles - While many of the puzzles weren't overly difficult I thought they offered a fresh change from 'same old, same old' puzzles set. Plus, the core puzzle took be back to the good old Half-Life 1 days with some of the puzzles encountered there.

    Good Intro - Some of individuals didn't like scripted scene at the beginning. I thought it a very well introduction for veteran and new players alike. Now if you didn't like it because you just prefer run and gun, it's your purgative, but say that next time. I thought it did a good job of setting up the story of the episode and what your 'goal' was for the content.

    Different from HL2 - While I thought they did a good job of extending the story line, I thought it was cool that they didn't follow the same example 100%. The game play all though similar had a different feel to it, to me it seemed there was more sense of urgency and I thought they did a good job of conveying that to the player. You can actually trap yourself! :P

    Intriguing, Good Story line - Now, I started playing Episode one not really expecting any questions to be answered. The thing I have really enjoyed about the Half-Life series is how entwined you become in the story line and want to know more. It makes you think; guess some people don't like that!

    And the bad(short list) things:

    Linear - The one thing that I have never really liked about the half-life series is how linear the levels are throughout the game. Of course this is not why you play Half-Life but it's always in the back of my mind.

    Drawn out - Some of the sections/ideas were a little too drawn out in my opinion for the content. For example, the ball sockets got a little old after a while. Also, I thought there were too many areas that were pitch black

    Dexterity required or bugs? - Some areas I thought required a little too much finger dexterity, such as were you had to knock the falling debris out of the way with the gravity gun, for some reason I had a hard time with my timing, it seemed sometimes the Ggun wouldn't even shoot sometimes, but I couldn't tell if it was me or what.

    Unfair insertion - Also I didn't really like the fact that I was pushed into fighting the Antlion Guard without knowing it was there.

    Well, with that, I thought the Episode was good in general and I can't wait for the next!

  • by cecom (698048) on Monday June 05, 2006 @05:18PM (#15475503) Homepage Journal
    No Steam spyware on my machine, thank you. I don't need a service (esp. written by a game company) connecting to the Internet in the background and downloading software.

    Also I don't think I should need an Internet connection to play a single-player game. It may seem like a worthwhile trade off for now - it is convenient, the game is not bad and most of all do have Internet connections after all. However we are giving up our freedoms one by one and I won't be surprised when the next version of Steam charges 25c each time you start the game.

    So yes, I would gladly pay full price for a hacked version of the game - one that doesn't require a Steam account, social security number, zip code and good credit rating.

  • Pros and Cons... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Cybrex (156654) on Monday June 05, 2006 @05:40PM (#15475676)
    The idea of an HL movie kept running through my head as I was playing HL2. The story is certainly interesting and deep enough to make a very good movie, but there are some aspects that might not translate well to a movie:

    * HL1 is a little too straightforward to be a movie in its own right, but the events in that game are critical backstory to explain WTF is happening in HL2. Movies that open with a long expository narration can cover a lot of ground quickly, but typically make for horrible movies. Opening the movie with "BTW, Earth got invaded 20 years ago and this guy who just woke up on a train had something to do with it" would be hard to hammer into a watchable flick.

    * The striders kick much, much ass, but the comparisons with War of the Worlds would be, really, not too far off. Unfortunately, the recent WotW movie pretty much blew, which combined with the "it's yet another video game movie like that crappy Doom flick" factor would hang like a cloud over it.

    * You couldn't have a movie without Gordon speaking, which would piss off a subset of fans of the games. Not insurmountable, but a factor to consider.

    That said, if they made a Half-Life movie I'd see it on opening day no matter how bad the reviews were, and I'd find a way to bring my trusty crowbar with me. ;-) Just the idea of seeing a trailer for the movie, with the Valve opening on the big screen, gives me goosebumps. I wonder if they could get Michelle Forbes, Robert Guillaume and Lou Gossett Jr. to reprise their roles on the big screen? I could see Guillaume playing Eli with no problems at all, and while Forbes doesn't look much like Dr. Mossman she does convey a similar serious attitude in the new Battlestar Galactica. If you've seen Enemy Mine then you know that Louis Gossett can play aliens quite well, though the Vortigaunt physiology might be a stretch.

    Wow. I'm a geek.
  • by pandrijeczko (588093) on Monday June 05, 2006 @05:50PM (#15475758)
    The original Half-Life was unquestionably one of the best PC games ever made - and with the number of fan-made mods, Counterstrike, etc. it also represents just about the best value for money that can be bought in any game also. I've sat down and replayed the original game & the two expansions several times now.

    Half-Life 2 may well have exceeded the original but I have yet to find out as I've never been near it, not even a hacked copy. Why? Because of Steam.

    If Google want to offer me a free Search Bar that gives me the option of running in a basic mode or advanced mode where my surfing habits are tracked, that's fine - they've given me something for nothing and the choice to be tracked or not. If another software company wants to offer me some free software on condition I look at some advertisements, that's fine also - I won't install the software but they've been good enough to warn me first, which I appreciate.

    Steam, in my experience, is different. Maybe it's changed now but when I tried it a few years ago against Half-Life (1) and Counterstrike as (what I then thought was) a piece of software for getting easy updates to both games, I found it far too intrusive - plus I heard lots of stories about what that piece of software was sending back about my machine to Valve. In the end, I got rid of it and stuck with manual updates.

    Sorry, I don't care how good a game is - if I don't trust what that game producer is doing "behind my back", I won't buy it, it's that simple; in just the same way as I won't buy any DRMed CD by even my favourite music artists and I won't rent movies that "self destruct" after a single play.

    Unfortunately, it all gets back to the "mindless cattle" consumers amongst us who get totally lost in the hype and marketing around products that make it bad for the rest of us - it's those same people who hand over their rights, and mine, to companies who want nothing more than to crowbar more money from us while treating us all as criminals.

    I don't mind going into a shop and paying for a game - whether it's on the day of it's release or on a budget label later on.

    I'd prefer NOT to have to insert that CD into my PC every time I play that game but then I can probably find a "No CD" crack on the Internet and keep that CD nice, shiny and unscratched in a dark case somewhere so I put up with that.

    I'll endure having to have a registration code for a game because if that game's producers have spent some additional money on hosting some game servers for me to play on, that seems a reasonable way of giving the true customers value for money away from those who decided to copy the game.

    But I definitely WILL NOT allow any piece of spyware like Steam to do it's dirty little job of ratting it's way through the contents of my PC & pay for the privelige.

    As far as I am concerned, Valve can produce the most stunningly inventive game ever invented and offer to pay me to play it - but if it's got Steam as a back-end, I still won't touch it.

    If Microsoft are the OS mafia & Sony are the music thugs, then in third place are the Valve triads....

  • Re:not doing that (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ChaosDiscord (4913) * on Monday June 05, 2006 @06:07PM (#15475873) Homepage Journal

    Hell, I just saw a Cirque du Soliel show in Vegas and spent $125 [admission.com] for two hours of entertainment. So clearly entertainment should be priced at $60 an hour. So clearly HL2:E1 should have been about $240 and the original HL2 is worth more than $600. My copy of Freakonomics, which I got for $18 [amazon.com] and took me about 3 hours to read is grossly underpriced; why wasn't I charged ten-fold more?

    Perhaps on the other hand, why are video games so expensive? Why does anyone buy them at all? Instead of dropping $50 on the newest video game (about 15 hours of entertainment), you could buy 6 paperback novels (about 24 hours)!

    Different forms of entertainment isn't directly exchangible. You need to compare games to games. Market forces have set games at roughly $50 for 15 hours of play. That's what other games roughly charge. The competition for HL2:E1 isn't a few movies: it's Far Cry Preditor.

    (And keep in mind that for both examples you gave, there are cheaper and quite popular options. I rent far more movies (about $3/movie; watched by 2 people) than I see in theatres. I purchase far more books in paperback than hardcover. I even sometimes use the library or borrow books from friends.)

  • by Metsys (718186) on Monday June 05, 2006 @06:15PM (#15475934)
    Quite honestly, I think this whole episodic content thing is more about getting more money out of us than making better games. Yes, episodic content certainly has it's perks, but either make the games better or make the games cost the same.

    I actually keep track out of how much time I spend playing these games, I found this interesting, and I think you will too.

    Half-Life 2
    Game Play, 15 hrs; Cost, $50; $/GPH, $3.33

    half-Life 2: Episode 1
    Game Play, 2 hrs 50 mins; Cost, $20; $/GPH, $7.07

    Doom 3
    Game Play, 18 hurs; Cost, $55; $/GPH, $3.06

    Doom 3: Ressurrection of Evil
    Game Play, 9 hrs; Cost, $35; $/GPH, $3.89


    $7.07 is a lot to play per hour, even compared to the rather expensive Doom 3 expansion. Also, the overall quality of the game wasn't as good as Half-Life 2. I'm not even talking about wow value or new stuff, I found the pacing to just not be as good. Anyone else feel that the power ball puzzles got a little old in the first chapter? How about the escort after escort at the train station?

    This is the same reason why the whole idea of micropayments and the Xbox Live Marketplace made me sick. I knew what they were up to. Valve and Ritual seems to have the same idea. "For just three easy payments of $19.99 you can get 9 hours worth of Half-Life 2 expansions!" I wouldn't mind if they made the games worth that much.

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