I’ve been through Episode One, and then went through again with commentary. It was short. The second trip through – where I instantly knew the answers to the puzzles – was preposterously short. Still, better a spoonful of awesome than a heaping bowl of mediocrity.
I’ve said in the past that the constant re-writing of graphics engines is bad for games, because your artists have to spend so much time re-learning how to do their job and use the new tools that nobody ever has time to polish anything.
A good example of this is how the Playstation games grew to look better and more sophisticated on the same technology. For the most part “early” Playstation games look crude compared to games made near the end of the console’s lifespan, even though the games use the same hardware. This is true on PC side as well, although usually developers are so busy chasing the latest rendering buzzwords that they don’t take the time to let their engine and tools mature.
I think Episode One is a good example of the step up in quality you can get if you’re willing to stick with one engine for a few years. They did manage to sneak a few rendering improvements in there (none of which are available on my hardware, so they don’t affect me) but the step up in quality is obvious. It looks like the same game as Half-Life 2, but it plays better. If you listen to the commentary, you’ll note that their initial design for most of the set pieces sounded annoying, confusing, or unrewarding. The game reached its final state of smooth, rewarding gameplay only after numerous iterations. Iterations they wouldn’t have time for if their artists and content developers weren’t so proficient at their tools and able to turn out assets at a steady rate. To put it another way: Those earlier, less fun versions of levels are what we’re usually stuck with in PC games.
I was right about the plot. It went almost nowhere in Episode One. Instead, we got what I predicted: More mystery (the new mind-blasting aliens) without resolving any old mysteries. This is not a bad thing, but I would really love it if they threw us a bone every now and again and revealed a bit more about the G-Man, the Vortigaunts or the combine.
The ending was yet another cliffhanger. And another explosion, at that. I see a pattern developing here. I’m more forgiving of that sort of behavior here than I was with Dreamfall, but only because the gameplay here is so tremendously fun. (In an adventure game, all you have is story. If your story doesn’t work, you got nothin’.)
I’ll probably get Episode Two once it goes down to $20. People complain about the length of these episodes, and they are indeed short. Five hours is a very brief game. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I’ll buy a 5 hour game for $20 without giving it a second thought, but I’ll agonize over spending $40 on a 15 hour game. The $20 price point is just irresistible to me.
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