Half-Life 2: Episode One
First Things First. Don't expect Episode One to be something it's not. It isn't a new game, nor is it an expansion in the traditional sense. It won't break the habit of a lifetime by explaining its intricate plot in its first scene, nor will it magic up a new setting for the sake of it, or invent all manner of new power-weapons that the Combine must have forgotten about the first time around. No, for very much better and (as we'll see later on) a little worse, this is a direct continuation of that game we knew and loved all of 18 months ago. As far as Valve are concerned, you're still playing Half-Life 2, and if Gordon Freeman hasn't been anywhere since his last outing, then why the hell should you?
Let's start uncontroversially at the beginning - the construction of which surpasses any game in recent memory. I've never played through a scene with more emotion, humour, excitement and genuine warmth than what follows Dog's opening unearthing of Freeman at the foot of the crumbling Citadel - nor will I, in all probability, until the unlock of Episode Two.
From the warm hug given by Alyx to the clever grounding of Half-Life's science-fiction sensibilities; from the use of Dog's metallic form as a television reception booster all the way through to a demonstration of the heart-rending bond between father and daughter... The staging of Episode One is breathtaking. Its opening, its 'rollercoaster moment', its train ride from hell: all among the best that the Half-Life universe has ever had to offer. In our review of Half-Life 2. Anthony Holden said something along the lines that it could well be seen as our chosen medium's Citizen Kane - but on this evidence, even higher plaudits should be attached. Weekend At Bernie's perhaps Or even Body Of Evidence. It's that good.
Episode One is never less than enjoyable - but even the most ardent of fanboys could not deny that it fluctuates between periods of absolute exhilaration and periods of, "You know? I recognise that this is an expansion, but I do rather feel that I did this to death last time around." It's a feeling that kicks in during a fair amount of the street fighting and survivor-ferrying at the close of the game, too.
With Episode One, Valve are fighting the fact that not only was Half-Life 2 released 18 months ago, but also that many of us will have completed it a fair number of times. With the two primary environments of this episode already copiously explored the last time around, Valve's new prerogative is to find new and interesting gameplay styles to use within them - a challenge they tackle with furious aplomb, but perhaps not quite enough to avoid the occasional sag into over-familiarity. The result is a wonderful five-hour game, but a wonderful five-hour game with a far greater punctuation of peaks and troughs than in previous works.
Let's look at the ways that Valve by and large get around this, though - a good example appearing in the hour that follows Alyx and Gordon's exit from the Citadel (itself a train journey of scripted tension unrivalled by any other shooter on the market). Trapped underground in a network of decaying lifts, vents, carparks and shambling zombies, it's all very reminiscent of the original Half-Life's ascent to the surface, but more importantly, it showcases Valve nudging a renewed emphasis on the power of darkness into their blueprint. Room after room is blanketed in darkest pitch; your torch constantly dying out. Flares litter the corridors and can be left to burn merrily and throw gorgeous, yet feeble light on affairs. But when the torch fails, the red flares die away and you're standing in inky blankness, surrounded by the groans of a full cast of zombies - it's truly terrifying.
What's more, limited to meagre pistol and shotgun ammo, explosive canisters become at once unseen dangers and unseen friends: never before has the sight of one zombie being singed in the darkness been so welcome. Through emphasising an apparently simple feature like the play of light and dark, Valve make an old game feel wonderfully new - ably assisted by another new feature, the extra-feisty Ms Vance, casually quipping, "You know, we've really gotta talk to Dr Kleiner about getting a new battery for that flashlight," as the zombies approach through the murk.
Alyx is now by your side for nearly the entirety of the episode; equipped with a light-triggered pistol, a series of high-kicks, a neat sideline in wisecracks and more facial animation than you could hope to see on the majority of the dolled-up dames pouting on the dancefloor of Saturday night discotheques up and down the land. Valve hoped for a new co-op dynamic to come through Alyx's more sprightly disposition, and it's paid off tenfold.
In terms of story, Alyx's presence pounds emotion into every scene and in terms of action, adds a new level of teamplay. In an odd way, you don't feel as lonely as before - good as previous vent crawling might have been, it's a better experience when someone calls after you that she knows a few stories about your previous adventures in air ducts. What's more, when she says "Good shot!" it sounds like she really means it - with Episode One, Valve have just nailed context-sensitive chitchat; having Alyx complain if you shine the torch in her eyes, for example, or making zombie noises at worrisome points to try to scare you. I've just never seen anything like it before.
She is, however, pretty much impervious to injury. This is perhaps a wise move in terms of keeping that familiar fast pace of Half-Life flowing, and in terms of avoiding that awful FPS cliche in which you're forced to babysit an NPC whose death means automatic game over. Sometimes, though, it feels a bit strange. I mean, it does tear the urgency away from a situation somewhat when your answer to protecting your lovely companion from the advances of a crowd of zombies is to throw a grenade at her feet. Should she have had a health bar? Well, I suppose you're still concerned for her safety (wait until that moment on the Citadel-City 17 Express Rail Link if you think otherwise), and there would have been squabbles over health stations -but issues with her near-godhood remain.
Alyx is also another good tool for Valve in the fight against familiarity. One top-side situation, for example, has her hole up in an apartment window with a Combine bluelaser-sighted sniper rifle. You must then run into the streets ahead with little ammo and put your life into her hands: leading enemies into her wavering sights and knocking boards away from windows with the gravity gun to expose the military men rushing towards you. It's ingenious stuff that neatly sidesteps those occasional nagging doubts of 'been there, done that', genuinely creating a bond between you and your ladyfriend as well as a thrilling action set-piece.
As we near the close of this review, it would normally be fashionable to pick up on how gorgeous Episode One looks, revelling in the gently falling snowflakes of debris around the imposing Citadel and marvelling in the HDR lighting effects as a battle with a Combine flying machine rips holes in the wooden framework of the building you're hiding in, and lets sunlight cascade in - but I'm going to be different and talk about the sound. The sounds of Episode One are magisterial - and best showcased at a point at the game's close when you face off against a Strider that's not only more manoeuvrable than before, but also has a far better pair of loudspeakers. The synthesised trumpets and parps that thing gives off are amazing: terrifying, desk-vibrating and amazing. Valve sound people: gold star awarded.
The things I love about Episode One are innumerable. I love the way you're played with by not being given the crowbar until halfway through the game; I love the script's pitch-perfect gags; I love the way the whole thing opens with an hour free of bullets; I love Alyx blasting an Antlion that's about to eviscerate me. What I'm most pleased with, however, is the fact that this seems to be the last we'll see of City 17 and the Citadel themselves - because I really feel that my over-familiarity with them and their denizens costs me a significant proportion of fun. Good as Valve prove themselves in providing neat new takes on the action we all know and love, I honestly don't feel that they've quite covered up the fact that working your way out of a wrecked Eastern European city is inherently similar to working your way in.
Without a shadow of a doubt Half-Life 2: Episode One contains the best Freeman moments ever conceived, but by necessity it carries too much over from before to be as consistently entertaining as its forbear. Nevertheless, to my knowledge there has never been a game with quite as much snappily delivered warmth, wit and... Well, soul. Episode One is a truly significant footstep taken on the road to gaming nirvana. And who knows, by Episode Three that journey might even be complete.
Download Half-Life 2: Episode One
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Time Was Frozen, Alyx was in danger, there was a blinding light and the G-Man whisked us away before disappearing. The colours faded into darkness and we were left alone. But not, it seems, for very long.
We begin where we left off; there's a Citadel crumbling around us, a city lying in ruins around it and a damsel that needs relieving from an element of distress. Even though we'd never say that to her face. There aren't too many damsels that pack as much firepower as Ms Vance - and this time round, Valve is promising that she'll have even more kick to her... But let's get down to it: what do we know about this episode, once an expansion? What bedazzling nuggets of previously unheard wonderment did we extract from Valve designer Robin Walker in our cosy tete-a-tete?
As you may know, Episode One plans to peremptorily remove Freeman from stasis apparently way before schedule -starting the very instant that Half-Life 2 ended. From here runs four to six hours of densely packed Half-Life wonderment - in typical fashion raising as many questions as it provides answers for, but addressing, in the words of Walker "What exactly happened to the Citadel after that big explosion? Is Breen dead? And what is the G-Man's involvement in all this?" The Citadel is about to be taken out in characteristically spectacular fashion - and is due to take the remnants of City 17 with it.
Episode One will therefore see a mad dash through the crumbling vaults and towers of Breen's former administration building, before showcasing its wrecked environs: awash with Antiions that have flooded into the wrecked city, panicked Combine troops and pockets of humans desperate to escape. Kleiner, meanwhile has hacked into the Citadel's propaganda network and his face replaces the chiselled, furry jaw of Breen on City 17's manifold screens - delivering his own brand of dire warnings and crackpot theories, while on-screen violence between the resistance, enemy troops and the Antiions continues to erupt.
Axis Of Evil?
It's at this point, however, that we come across a revelation: there's some new faces in the ascendancy. "Episode One marks the rise of a third power in the HL2 universe and one that'll have a large impact on Gordon's future,'' explains Walker as we bring a crowbar to his usually tightly-shut jaw. A third power? The Vortigaunts? Well, Walker has elsewhere confessed to us that the doleful beasts will "play a very important role in what happens in later episodes" rather than initial ones, so a pro-active green energy burst from them is perhaps unlikely. Who then?
It could be an axis of power never seen before. Or, if we move slightly into conjecture, it could be the Combine themselves - pan-dimensional creatures such as that of the monstrous visage that we saw promising Breen a host body in the closing moments of Half-Life 2.
Our evidence for suggesting this lies in what Walker tells us next "The Combine aren't happy with Breen's failure to deal with Freeman and the Resistance. In Episode One, you learn some of the ways in which they're starting to take things into their own hands, none of which is good news for Gordon and Alyx." Don't forget, headcrabs perhaps aside, none of the creatures who met the pointy end of your crowbar last time were of direct otherworldly (or indeed other-dimensionally) origin, instead manufactured by Breen in the Citadel using the Combine technology granted to him in Xen's side of his Faustian pact.
Voluntarily or extremely involuntarily, the soldiers, zombies and Citadel stalkers are all adapted humans: biological, mechanical and tech-hybrids pumped out by the monolithic Citadel. The only things you see crossing the inter-dimensional divide in Half-Life 2 are the two Combine gunships that come through the portal Breen is attempting to escape through at the game's close. If the Overseer's true overseers are taking matters into their own (spiny) hands, you can expect a fair number of creatures making a similar jump in the hours after the close of the original game.
What Valve is really priming in this new era of episodic Half-Life though is Alyx. Lovely Alyx. "In Half-Life 2, Alyx was helpful mainly because of what she said," explains Walker. "In Episode One. she's helpful because of what she does. After you've fought the Combine and other enemies with her at your side, you won't want to go into battle without her."
Whereas Alyx's former appearances were by-and-large plot-driven and reserved for periods of relative inaction, she's now in the thick of it and by your side for pretty much the entire span of the episode. "She'll protect you more often than the other way around, taut you do need to keep an eye on her," he adds, pre-empting our unconscious knee-jerk response to those hated FPS levels in which you have to babysit flailing female NPCs. "Many of the problems you encounter in Episode One would be too much for any one person to deal with, even if they are Gordon Freeman."
This more active feeling of combat camaraderie isn't simply reserved for the sexy be-hoodied one either - Barney will be there to help out with the street-fighting, while Dog makes an appearance at the start - in Walker's words, showing up "long enough to be very useful".
In terms of enemies, the previously unassailable Stalkers seen manning the Citadel in HL2 will make a confirmed reappearance. What's more, Alyx isn't the only character to have learned new tricks, with enemies both old and new packed with a fair number of surprises.
Mr De Ath I Presume?
Overall in Episode One. there's a real feeling that Valve is trying to streamline the "action bit, quiet plot bit, action bit" pattern of Half-Life 2 - using a sparkier Alyx with a few new talents to make the whole experience a more organic one, melding an already successful formula into a much more densely packed and closer-knit experience.
As for the supporting cast. Walker adds: "The people Gordon met in Half-Life 2 are facing new challenges, and the resulting events won't leave them untouched." Really? That sounds pretty personal. Could we be on the brink of seeing the first death of a main Half-Life cast member? Don't rule it out...
But away from such pontificating, why the sudden shift in gears to the episodic format? Won't the move to shorter four-to-six hour bursts of Freeman action piss off gamers more used to their videogame violence in more substantial chunks? "We've certainly shifted gears in one way - we want to deliver experiences more often to our customers," explains Walker. "It took (is about five years to deliver Half-Life 2, and we decided we just had to improve on that amount of time. We're pretty sure players will appreciate being able to return to the Half-Life 2 universe more often, even if each of these experiences is shorter than the average traditional game."
What with Episode Two in simultaneous development (perhaps, the cynic within us suggests, formerly being the second half of Aftermath), the first two Steam deliveries can be expected to appear in relatively quick succession - at least in terms of the usual turnaround it takes for a Half-Life game to appear.
"We've found episodic work conditions to be easier than five-year projects," continues the Valve man. "At this point we have really well-developed tools, a lot of knpwledge in the use of those tools, a world-class engine and a clear sense of what our players enjoyed in HL2. We had absolutely none of those things when we started out on Half-Life. As a result, we've been able to spend all of our time focusing on delivering a densely packed experience throughout each episode."
Like a Candle
Slightly barmy fisherman aside, the two biggest introductions in the free Lost Coast download are also set to take a starring role. High Dynamic Range lighting, last seen making an Orthodox church look very pretty, will use and abuse the smoky, particle-filled air that signals both the Citadel and City 17's demise, so you can guarantee that the sun will be the haziest of recent times.
Second, the developer commentary nodules that allowed you to listen to Valve's art bods prattle on about the scenery you're lacing with bullet-holes will also make a grand reappearance. What's more, they're far more tightly packed this time if you're feeling inquisitive, are pat larly nerdy or are simply playing through for the fifth time.
Back For Good?
Half-Life 2 is, was, and for a long time will be the greatest shooter available on PC - and despite its short stature (clearly a cross that we'll have to learn to bear as episodic content becomes more and more prevalent), Episode One remains firmly ensconced at the top of our Chock-A-Block-style hype machine. There's a huge amount that Valve is keeping back, preferring you to discover it on your own terms rather than in the oily words of a journalist like me, but we're undeniably on the verge of the most densely packed and well-thought out Half-Life experience to date.
At Half-Life 2's close, the G-Man told you he'd received some interesting offers for your services and that ordinarily, he wouldn't contemplate them, adding "these are extraordinary times". A lot is due to change in the Half-Life universe and Valve can't wait to tell you about it. Have allegiances shifted, or is it business as usual? Time will tell. Wake up Mr Freeman. Wake up and smell the ashes.
Catwalk City 17
Where did she get that hat? Where did she get that hat?
I don't know about you, but I'd really like to dress my girlfriend up like Alyx and get her to shoot things. Failing that I'd at least like to wear the Black Mesa hoodie she sports myself. This then, is a direct plea to Valve to kickstart the manufacture of Alyx's clothing and to send me some for free (seeing as it was me who came up with the idea). When directly questioned on where Alyx's hoodie could be purchased, Robin Walker laughed it off saying: "Is Harrods out of stock?" This is clearly not good enough, anc means that the papier-mache HEV suit I've been painstakingly building for myself has become largely redundant For shame.
But does it come in a box?
EA put it on shelves, Valve puts it on Steam
You'll need an Internet connection to run Episode One as it'll need Steam (obviously). However, members of the 'Hey Hey 56k' crowd need not despair, since Valve has struck a deal with EA that'll see full copies of Episode One adorning shelves of gaming emporiums up and down the country.
Exact pricing is as yet unconfirmed, but it'll certainly be around $19.99. With favourable current exchange rates, this means it'll certainly be a nice bonus for us UK-ites.
If you're mad and haven't played the original game, you'll be able to play Episode One as a standalone game - and it'll come packaged with Half-Life 2 Deathmatch and a Sourced-up version of the original's Deathmatch to boot.