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

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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  • by Ford Prefect ( 8777 ) on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:22PM (#15473580) Homepage
    Hope nobody minds, but here's a link to my own MINERVA [hylobatidae.org] - more single-player Half-Life 2, but entirely unofficial and apocryphal. And with more than a passing nod to a certain Marathon...

    Valve likes it [hylobatidae.org], anyhow. And yes, I'm a complete fanboy!
  • Fantastic (Score:5, Interesting)

    by FortKnox ( 169099 ) * on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:27PM (#15473618) Homepage Journal
    Granted, it is short (but if you consider it 33% of a game, its about right), but, unlike even halflife 2, itself, its the most immersive game I've played. Because they concentrated on such a (relatively) small amount of game, they were able to completely and utterly finish it. Alyx reacts to most major situations, jokes during 'down time', and everything. Once all three are finished (assuming the other two are just as good as the first), and you play them in order, you'll agree that it's the best game, yet, that valve has released, and you have to play an additional $10 to get them in pieces instead of waiting over a year to get it all...
  • Movie? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by phorm ( 591458 ) on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:29PM (#15473630) Journal
    If you read through the original (linked from this article) review of Half Life, and then look at what is to be in "Episode 1", it seems that HL2 paints a rather dramatic and almostly cinematically interactive picture. While I'm sure that a good start with episode one will promote the HL2 franchise, with all the other VG movies in the works, I do wonder if Valve would be considering something of a movie-proper related to the Half Life storyline. Certainly, if followed, the plotline could probably be drummed into something decent... especially with the expected content to be added through the continuing episode.

    Has anyone heard any rumours/press in regards to this? Maybe I'm just hopeful (and overly optimistic that if it happened, it wouldn't be a massacre), but a movie involving post-war apocalypse, a savior scientist, the comedic relief (Barnie), a hot sidekick, a nuttie scientist, cruel otherworldly footsoldiers, government conspiracy, and aliens that attach to one's head for happy zombification sound like a good combination to me. Hell, headcrabs and headcrab-zombies are probably in itself one of the cooler things... like an upgrade to the freakiness of chest-bursting nasties from the Alien movie series.
  • by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:29PM (#15473634) Homepage Journal
    Can someone publish the recorded, noninteractive machinima of a thrilling victory in the game? Maybe a 3-part series, about 90 minutes each, pausing at meaningful points in the plot? Get a champion player as the "actor", record the stream of game events, play them back in the engine. Is that technically possible with Half-Life2, or any video RPG? Maybe an open source engine...
  • The problem (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lord_Dweomer ( 648696 ) on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:34PM (#15473679) Homepage
    The problem with episodic gaming is that once companies get a taste of the cash that episodes generate, they (and their shareholders) will look for any way to generate more revenue from it. Often times, this means raising the price every year or so. This happened to MMORPGs where the prices suddenly jumped from $10/mo to $15/mo. And once one company does it and gets away with it, the rest follow suit. I understand you need to adjust for things like inflation, but inflation does not justify a 50% price hike.

    What all of you suckers who buy into episodic gaming can expect in the future is increased prices, more frequent releases of episodes with less and less content, and purchasing the initial version of the game that has had features that SHOULD have been included scraped to provide "must-buy" content for the inevitable episodes. Unfortunately that last one affects EVERYBODY who might buy a game, not just the idiots who buy the episodes as we all saw with Oblivion's horse mod.

    All episodic gaming is is an attempt at prepping consumers to be nickle and dimed for every game element the companies can think of. Think ringtones, wallpapers and games on cellphones, only more expensive.

  • Motion Sickness (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TerenceRSN ( 938882 ) on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:35PM (#15473695)
    Has Valve solved the issue that some users (including me and my brother on a different computer) were having with motion sicknes when playing Half-Life 2? I've played a lot of computer and video games my whole life and I'd never gotten motion sickness until I played HL2. On my old laptop I could play for a while without any trouble but after updating to a newer one - and nothing state-of-the-art - I couldn't play at all without feeling sick. I know there were some possible work arounds but I couldn't make it work.

    Anybody else have these problems? Or know if it's better in episode 1?
  • by schwal ( 836247 ) on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:36PM (#15473702) Homepage
    basicaly, if you liked hl2 buy it. now. also, the guy failed to mension the sin episodes comes with the original sin game. and the "zombines" are the coolest enemies ever. shoot, switch to grav gun, grab nade, throw nade, lotsa dead zombies.
  • by falcon8080 ( 975701 ) on Monday June 05, 2006 @01:44PM (#15473762) Homepage
    Ive played HL2 EP1 - and I agree with the majority of the review comments. However I do not believe that this episode was worth $20.

    "Once youve brought all three youll have a complete game and you wont have to wait an extra year for it"
    No, no I wont have a comeplete game. The reason being is that these episodes are reusing textures, prefabs, characters, sounds, AI and the graphics engine from HL2.When I spend $60 on a new game I want it to be just that "A new game!". I dont want to spend $60 on a game that has basically been modded from a previous game ive already played. Not only that, but it also does not come with multiplayer, I cant return it if I hate it and I have to wait an additional year from when I first start the gameto when I am actually allowed to complete it.

    Seriously, where is the value in that? - sure you can suger coat it with "But they have updated the graphics engine!", "They have new character dialog", "its soo rich and immersive" - at the end of the day though you are just paying for a remake of a game you already own, with the added bonus of paying an additional $60 and having to wait a year to complete the game.

    I have now tried episodic gaming, I realise now more than ever that I hate it, and I will never again all into this trap. I urge the rest of you to boycott this type of sales behaviour before we see games chopped up, released slowly and costing more before its too late.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 05, 2006 @02:04PM (#15473941)
    Its sad how valve built this amazing story universe and refuses to cash in on it even a little bit. HL1 built the world and gave it meaning. Most of HL2 was 'get from point A to point B', and ALL of EP 1 is 'get from point A to point B'. Nothing is revealed, there are no story points, just get from here to there and - OH SNAP! - another obstacle just popped up so you'll have to take the more dangerous route, Dr. Freeman!

    They're so afraid to reveal anything that they reveal nothing. They're so afraid to tie up a plotline that they have no plot. Sound to anyone like an ABC drama that slowly drove off a cliff?

    If not for the polish and gameplay (linear as it is) I'd have given up on HL a long time ago.
  • Breencasts (Score:3, Interesting)

    by transmetal ( 904896 ) on Monday June 05, 2006 @03:52PM (#15474783)
    Did anyone else catch the two soldiers (In Barney's hideout) with the comment about Dr.Breen's telecasts and the jugglers? Sounds like someone's been reading http://www.hlcomic.com/ [hlcomic.com] ...
  • by zuki ( 845560 ) on Monday June 05, 2006 @09:02PM (#15476886) Journal
    Obviously, the setting for this somehow has to first mention the way in which Steam (Valve?...) is dealing with content protection and distribution, a fact that many will possibly find intrusive; not sure how much I care, after all it is gaming we are talking about, and in order to protect their IP and assets, the company obviously has to take measures that foil the ever-expanding consequences of today's creative 'online-sharing', torrents and the likes, which should really saved be another debate. Suffice to say that in my personal case, I do not have any issues with this and happily paid $19.95 for the pre-load a week before the game came out.

    Everyone obviously has likes and dislikes in the gaming world as much as in everything else, and while I simply do not have much interest in most of the other games this company or most others have to offer, (save for a couple of Counterstrike matches on a LAN) I do not remember ever being drawn into one as much as I did when I belatedly got into Half-Life 2 a year and a half ago. An avid Sci-Fi buff and Cyberpunk enthusiast, the original premise of the game struck a deeply resonating chord in me, one that no other game so far has managed to, as I have found most of them to be far too awkwardly simplistic, or just hard to get into.

    The keyword here is immersive and what really got me was just how easy the game's developers had made it to fit yourself into Gordon Freeman's character. Again, not being a gaming maven who spends at least 6 hours a day in front of a console, it was a bit of a shock how HL2 got me hooked, like no other game ever did before. The attention paid to atmosphere and details makes for a very eerie experience, the 'Physics Engine' they use is really darn good, and without trying to start a flame war, I would in some levels tend to feel the same way about this particular franchise as I felt about George Lucas and Star Wars in the late 70's, which is to say pretty darn excited.

    The gaming experience on this Episode One is nothing short of breathtaking. As others have mentioned, there are plenty of cute puzzles and new tricks to keep one guessing, the introduction of some new and welcome characters like those lovely grenade-wiedling Zombines, and after spending a leisurely two sessions playing through this in 'Normal' setting, must report that I feel just as elated as before with HL2, as I reached the climactic ending. Obviously, I cannot give the game a newcomer's look as HL's key-commands are tatooed in my synapses, but the flow was very natural, and it definitely felt like we all picked up where it left off the last time around....

    There were no bugs that came to halt the otherwise smooth experience. Wish I had the necessary resources to experience the HDR effects, but it would appear that my laptop's graphic card is not capable of rendering it. Oh, well...

    On the down side, I did find some of Alyx's scripted answers and come-ons a bit irritating after a while, as they tended to detract from an otherwise solid storyline, bt that's something I am willing to live with. The commentary is a pretty fine way to acquaint yourself with the finer points of game design if you so desire, and very unobtrusive.

    But as in good wine, what matters most to me in the end is the aftertaste, and I must report that I - for one - cannot wait for the upcoming release of Episode Two later this year. I find that the episodic format suits this game pretty well, and as long as we know what to expect, do not find it offensive or bothersome.

    So there you have it. A solid 8.5 at least, with a big grin on my face and plenty of other-worldly and futuristic inspiration. Fantastic game, well worth my or anyone's time.


    Disclaimer: No, I do not work for Valve or any associated companies... after a game like this, I almost wish I did!! (LOL!)
  • double ripoff (Score:2, Interesting)

    by MSZ ( 26307 ) on Tuesday June 06, 2006 @08:00AM (#15478758)
    I almost bought it over Steam. Since I live in Poland, that would be $20 + 22% tax. Comes out to $24,20.

    Funny(?) thing is, it's available for about $19.50 as a physical DVD package in the game section of the offline shops. Something is not right here... I mean, online distribution was supposed to be cheaper, right?

    Anyway, the concept of episodic releases isn't bad. The pricing is. Whole HL2 was IIRC about $50 here. This episode doesn't have comparable amount of fun that would really justify the price.

    Sin "ep1" was worth the price since it did contain refereshed Sin1 game as a bonus. That old stuff made it up for the deficiences in the "ep1".
  • by cecom ( 698048 ) on Tuesday June 06, 2006 @03:34PM (#15482341) Homepage Journal
    I don't hate Steam either. In itself it probably isn't a bad technology and it does make certain things convenient. I don't hate Windows Update either for the same reasons - it is an useful tool.
    The things that I am opposed to are:

        - It _requires_ an Internet connection. Even if you buy the CD, you need Internet connection to "unlock" it (or something like that). You need Internet to reinstall it too. If Valve goes out of business or decides to stop supporting it, you can't play your game. In the first day of the release many people couldn't play the CD they purchased because Valve's servers were overloaded. That is simply unacceptable.
    (Incidentally the same reasoning applies to Windows activation, but at least MSFT provide a way to activate by phone)

        - An Internet connection is needed even for single-player offline mode! I have read many complaints from people who selected "offline mode" but after a couple of weeks the game refuses to start. Perhaps this was a bug and it is fixed now - I don't know.

        - I have also seen many complaints from people who had their accounts deactivated by Valve. Perhaps they were "hackers" and deserved it from Valve's point of view, but I don't care about that - if I have paid for a game, I would like to be able to play it wherever and whenever I want, not when Valve decides to grant me this privilege.

    Understand that I don't have first-hand experience with HL2, because I refuse to buy it on moral grounds, so perhaps my facts may not be 100$ accurate. However I was really looking forward to playing HL2, so when it came out I spend some time reading Valve's forums - I think it gave me a good idea of the situation.

All laws are simulations of reality. -- John C. Lilly