Half Life Episode One: First Impressions

By Shamus
on Oct 12, 2007
Filed under:
Game Reviews

Half-Life 2 ended in an appalling cliffhanger. (Spoiler: You and the female lead were caught in the midst of an explosion. Time stopped the moment before you were obliterated, and then there was a little monologue from one of the other characters. Roll credits. There were ways to justify the main character’s survival, but Alyx seemed to be doomed.)

The opening of Episode One wiggles out of the situation established at the end of Half-Life 2, and while it had the stench of deus ex machina, it was also fun and humorous.

Half Life 2 didn’t really answer any of the main questions: Who is the G Man? What is his goal? Why is he using Gordon – who most likely resents him – to achieve his goals? As I played the game I started to get the feeling this was an X-Files sort of mystery: Lots of mysterious stuff that doesn’t really lead anywhere except to further mystery. I’m a big fan of story arcs and endings, so I’m not crazy about the prospect that there may not be any answers to reasonable questions about the plot. If they aren’t going to tell a coherent story, the least they could do is give us something fun to do.

Which is exactly what we have here. The upside to this making-crap-up-as-you-go approach to storytelling is that it lets them look at the response from one game and adjust the sequel accordingly. Did you like the stuff with the gravity gun at the end of Half Life 2? Did you like teaming up with Alyx? The voice-acted and motion-capped characters? The physics puzzles? These elements seem to be what scratched everyone’s particular itch, and this time around we get a double helping.

The first half hour of the game is… not cutscenes, but scenes nonetheless. Half-Life never breaks immersion by moving the POV outside of the protagonist, and doesn’t lock the player in place without a very good in-game reason for doing so. What we end up with are scenes where NPC’s interact with each other (sometimes nodding in the direction of the camera) but leave you free to move around and watch or ignore them as you see fit. Sometimes developers talk about making the player “a character in a movie”, and this sort of setup is the closest we’ve come to that lofty ideal. The plot may grind on, but you never have an external POV imposed on you, and you’re never deprived of control of your character. I wish more games went this route. (Then again, I wish there were more first-person games in general.)

The game is just packed with cool moments. I’m not against a little padding here and there as required. Half-Life 2 had longish stretches of conventional combat without any dialog or plot advancement, and I didn’t mind. But here they’ve taken the various scenes and set pieces and placed them one after another, without stretches of filler. The result feels almost decadent.

Some mild spoiler comments follow:

You spend the first section of the game with the awesome super-powered gravity gun from the end of Half-Life 2. I can understand why they wouldn’t want to turn you loose in the rest of the game with that much power, but I thought the device they used to take it away was sort of cheap. It would have been better if you had to (for example) toss the gravity gun or otherwise sacrifice it in order to save the reactor. You could have then been provided with a (normal) replacement. The way its super powers blink on and off at the whim of the plot just seems lame.

You spend a lot of time with Alyx this time around. I usually hate “sidekick” games, but Alyx works so well that I don’t mind having her around. She’s also good for directing player attention to the right spot. Her cues were invaluable for showing me where the puzzles were and what I should be doing, without solving the puzzles for me. Having her around allows the designers to take on some gameplay elements that wouldn’t work nearly as well in solitude. In one section the two of us were riding a lift and debris were falling down on us, which I had to intercept and deflect with the gravity gun. With her warning, “Look out! Above us!” I was able to see the stuff coming and deal with it. Without her, it would have taken several instant-death (reload a save game) situations to realize where the threat was and how to deal with it.

My first thought at seeing Barney was, “Geeze man, are you still wearing that Metrocop outfit?” Then I realized that while it’s been years since I saw him, within the context of the game it’s only been a few hours since the main character and Barney parted ways. Still, if I were him I’d make a point of getting out of the enemy uniform as soon as possible. I don’t think either side is interested in the Rules of Warfare at this point, but from a more practical point of view it would make him a lot less likely to get shot in a friendly fire incident.

The point where Dog threw the car over the chasm? With me in it? That was awesome. Laughably implausible, but so much fun.

Tremendous fun so far.

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20121 comments. Blackjack!

From the Archives:

  1. Lanthanide says:

    In the game world, there is only 1 gravity gun, so they can’t just replace it with another one.

    Well, that’s not quite true – Dog has one. But he kinda needs it.

  2. Mike says:

    Despite your best efforts your spoiler appeared in the RSS feed. :)

    No worries, the game is years old and even though I haven’t played it yet I watched a video of the ending on YouTube.

    In the future, maybe a link to a separate page would work better. But that might be a pain in the ass with weblog software.

  3. Shamus says:

    Well, if they don’t want to retcon in another GG, they could have done something related: Have the gravity gun directly related in the final action to fix the reactor. Some sort of direct feedback then fries it. The idea that I push a button, a light flashes, and now my gravity sucks again… It just feels cheap and arbitrary.

  4. Shamus says:

    Telegraphing the event would have been a good move as well, “Gordon, you’ll need to use your gravity gun to decombobulate the electon smashatron. It might not be good for the gravity gun, but it’s the only choice we have.”

    Then when the GG is returned to normal instead of being destroyed the player can feel relieved instead of cheated.

  5. Rob says:

    I had the same beef with the gravitron. I enjoyed Episode 1. I thought it was better than hl2. But now that I’m halfway into Episode 2, I can tell you the ep1 is small potatoes. ep2 is even more impressive. There are many more environments to explore and more unique enemies! You get to hang out with Alex and there are some amazing things that happen (thanks to some improvements to their engine). I haven’t even tried Portal yet but I hear it’s awesome!

  6. Phlux says:

    Does Episode One include director’s commentary? All their new games do. If so, I recommend that you check it out. Valve includes a lot of info on “why we made these gameplay decisions”. I usually end up agreeing with them once they talk about what problem they were solving.

    If Ep One doesn’t have it, then check out The Lost Cost, which is a free extra level for HL2. There are some interesting discussions on there about “making players look UP”. They use Alyx for this in Episode One a lot.

  7. Althanis says:

    I haven’t even started Episode Two yet, but Portal is a BLAST! And don’t feel bad about how long it takes you to play a game Shamus. It took me 3 years to finish Half-Life 2 because I’d play it hard for a while, then just not play it at all for months. I knocked out Episode One in 5 hours though.

  8. Gregory Weir says:

    The downgrading of the GG wasn’t *that* arbitrary. It was the final stabilization of the reactor that “sucked” the magic out, just like it was the destruction of the portal at the end of HL2 that made it go normal the first time. I even seem to remember some sort of animation that indicated this was what was happening, although I’m not sure.

  9. InThane says:

    Yeah, Ep 1 has commentary, along with a couple of “this is how we did it” moments where they actually take control of the camera to show you the background stuff.

  10. Trevor says:

    Episode Two is similarly awesome. They took a long time to get around to it, but it’s worth the wait.

    The very best part, and I didn’t expect this, is that the game still performs beautifully on my “older” hardware.. A Sempron 2500+/GeForce 6600. There are new breathtaking outdoor scenes with lots of foliage that work marvelously. Ran it at 1168×864(?) with no issues and it looked beautiful.

    Valve is the king of level design. You only need to listen to their commentary track to get a sense of the thought process and dedication they take to making levels *work*, as opposed to a hodgepodge of corridors. You owe it to yourself to go back and play it again with the commentary track on, if only for a few minutes.

    Episode Two’s commentary actually includes clips from the actress who plays Alyx… Provides an interesting new insight to the making of the game.

  11. Anon says:

    Halo 3 is nothing compared to the Orange Box.

  12. Duckhunter says:

    I’m not much into the game, but I would like to point out “Concerned: The half-life and death of Gordon Frohman”, as it almost actually made me want to play the game.

    http://www.hlcomic.com/

  13. Lanthanide says:

    Concrned is MUCH better if you’ve played the game. There are lots of jokes in there that you won’t get unless you know what they’re referring to.

    The ravenholm strips in particular are excellent.

  14. NobleBear says:

    I hated FPS games then a buddy got me ep1, and not only did I enjoy it but it has me reevaluating my opinion of the genre.

    The only thing I still find lacking is reaction shots of Gordon or at least more exposition on him.

    Overall though, its good stuff.

  15. ShadowDragon8685 says:

    I loved HL2. Ravenhold scared the piss out of me, I’ll admit, but the best parts were rocking and rolling with Alyx at your side, and the Super Gravity-Gun.

    Then they went and made the first Episode entirely around those. It was love. :)

    Seriously, most NPC “buddies” are either so retarded that they kill THEMSELVES, and thus make you reload, are bossy to the point that you want to kill THEM, or are invincible, because it would be bad for the plot if they died, thus making them portable human shields for the players – portable shields carrying guns, as an added bonus.

    Alyx, I am happy to say, was none of those. She was intelligent in her actions, sophisticated in her reactions to events, capable of following Gordon damn-near everywhere. She didn’t lead, she let Gordon (the player) do that, she didn’t boss, but she could offer advice if you asked her. (Try pressing “enter” on her sometime.) (That feature wasen’t really fully realized in Ep1, because it came so late in the dev cycle. I have yet to play Ep2.)

    She wasen’t invincible, but she was close. She struck a good balance between “invunerable human shield” and “eggshell that you must protect at all costs”. I felt I could trust her to hold her side of the battle, but I coulden’t let her get swamped, either.

    And the emotion… Well, Alyx is such a convincing character that I, personally, wound up caring about her, wishing that HL2:Ep1 had some kind of “emotive feedback” system like Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner, or GTA: San Andreas had, where you could push a button and have your character react positively or negatively to the NPC. (IE: when she’s freaked out about having been caught face-to-face with a freaked-out stalker, I wanted so badly to reach out and pat her shoulder, or put an arm around her.)

    Frankly, I think they need to recreate Half-Life as being “the story of Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance” rather than Freeman alone. As long as they can keep up the convincingness of Alyx’s actions, I’d rather have her than a whole squad of nameless NPC partners any day.

  16. Poet says:

    Half-Life is a fantastic game series, but I’ve got a small beef with it. Half-Life 2 runs fairly well on my system. Episode 1 runs fine…with all the settings as low as they can go. I just picked up Episode 2, and my computer is preparing to file charges for rape. I understand completely that they want to show off new technology as they develop it, but I’d just as soon see the magic in Half-Life 3, rather than being dicked a bit worse by each Episode. I know, now, that by the time Episode 3 comes out, I’m going to have to give in and buy a new, top of the line system, rather than trying to cram a bit more hardware into the existing rig. And that makes me sad. Sad in my pants.

  17. Trigear says:

    So ironically enough, shortly after I got in touch with Shamus to verify that the game transfer had gone through, my computer died. Motherboard failure, it seems. It’s been a long time coming; I just wish it didn’t have to come just as I was getting into Half-Life 2: Episode Two, which I have been awaiting for a long time. Ugh.

    Now I have to cough up something like $400 to get my computer running again. Boo.

  18. Trigear says:

    Also, I had a feeling you’d like it, Shamus. Glad my intuition was right. Keep on going, the game just gets better and better.

  19. Ernest says:

    Liked the bit where Dog threw you and the car across the chasm? Just wait until you get to the cop headcrab-zombies… with grenades.

  20. Miral says:

    And sawblades. Those are always fun :)

    Ep1 rocked pretty much all the way through (and I really like having Alyx around; since I’m not really much of a run-n-gun player she let me mess around with the gravity gun a lot more, which added to the fun).

    Ep2 was more of a mixed bag for me. It started out great, got a bit boring immediately thereafter, became fun again for most of the rest of the game, and then dropped into a black hole of pain and torment for the endgame “big fight” sequence. (I don’t want to give away any spoilers here, since I know Shamus hasn’t played either one fully through yet.)

    Portal is simply the most fun game I’ve played in a very long time. (Especially the credits sequence.) It’s just a shame that it’s so short, but hopefully there’ll be more Portal goodness coming along later. (And it actually helps if you play Portal before Ep2. You’ll see why later.)

  21. Since Half Life 2 I wanted to learn more about Alyx. I guess I will find out soon when I order my Orange Box :-)

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