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Half-Life 2: Episode One cover

With the video game market increasingly moving toward more expensive consoles and cinematic game experiences spanning dozens of hours of game time (and therefore commanding huge budgets that restrict the field to the top small handful of publishing titans), it's no surprise that many independent third-party studios are looking for an alternate delivery method for their games. Valve Software, which made its big break with Quake: Half-Life in 1998, is one such pioneer, having developed a direct-download delivery system called Steam in 2002.

Steam's parallel distribution of Half-Life 2 in conjunction with brick-and-mortar delivery by Sierra Entertainment (later Vivendi Universal, which had purchased Sierra) resulted in one of the most high-profile legal cases to hit the games industry, a complex battle over digital distribution rights fought between 2002 and 2005. In late 2004 a Seattle judge ruled in favor of Valve's exclusive right to digitally distribute its property, stating that Sierra/Vivendi was indeed in breach of contract by distributing Half-Life to Internet café patrons on a pay-to-play basis without Valve's permission. This case became a flash point in developer-publisher relations and was closely watched by the gaming world, the result considered a victory for independent developers.

Now with Half-Life 2: Episode One, Valve has again taken the first step forward in alternative distribution, foraying into the realm of episodic game content. The result, some say, is a gaming experience superior even to the highly acclaimed Half-Life sequel. Episode One, available via Steam download for $20 (and with its odd echoes of George Lucas's titling misfortune), is the first in a trilogy of compact continuations of Half-Life 2. The second episode will be released at the end of 2006, and the third in mid-2007.

We pick up where Half-Life 2 left off, accompanied by the spunky Alyx and her charismatic robot, Dog. As did its predecessor, Episode One offers richly detailed textures and superb facial animations on all characters. Most impressive to me, however, was the animation of Dog, a hulking yet playful seven-foot-tall robot with an electronic mind arguably superior to his human companions'. Human facial animation can be attributed to advanced motion capture, but in Dog the skill of the animators truly shines: his actions convey emotion and intelligence, from playful antics to disturbingly calculating undercurrents that give him a true sense of alien intelligence, all delivered without hands or eyes.

While it can be argued that third- versus first-person perspective preferences are largely a matter of taste, my being firmly in the former camp inhibited my ability to fully immerse in this game. The camera and character movements are so smooth as to feel unreal, and the vagueness of first-person positioning makes certain views that should instill a sense of vertigo—such as looking down a dangerous cliff—lack impact. This is an artistic touch that World of Warcraft manages to achieve (en route to Durotar I've climbed mountains sporting views that literally made my stomach drop), yet Half-Life 2, with its vastly more detailed textures, does not. In some respects the high detail actually works against it, as it approaches what roboticist Masahiro Mori called the Uncanny Valley; the semblance becomes too real, such that our human social recognition systems activate and immediately pick out the subtle cues that tell us a person is not emoting quite enough, and is unhealthy, instinctively repulsive.

Doubtless the many fans of Half-Life 2 would disagree, and for them this additional content should be highly satisfying. The game play is tighter; the creators' familiarity with their world and their tools is evident; and for $20 this is a satisfying return. The episode takes about five hours to complete, and in addition to helpful close-captioning for the hearing impaired, Valve has provided another first: a commentary audio track, available in the starting options. This feature alone will intrigue those seeking a closer look into the game development process, and, like many of Valve's pioneering advances, it's just darn cool.

Erin Hoffman is a writer and game designer living in Troy, NY. She works full time for 1st Playable Productions and herds cats on the weekends. Read more at Gamewatch.org and Gryphonflight.com. She has contributed to Fantasy Readers Wanted—Apply Within, Enchanted Realms II, and The Best Software Writing I: Selected and Introduced by Joel Spolsky.



Erin Hoffman is a writer and game designer living in Troy, NY. She works full time for 1st Playable Productions and herds cats on the weekends. Read more at Gamewatch.org and Gryphonflight.com. She has contributed to Fantasy Readers Wanted—Apply Within, Enchanted Realms II, and The Best Software Writing I: Selected and Introduced by Joel Spolsky.
5 comments on “Half-Life 2: Episode One, for PC (Windows 98/2000/XP/ME)”
SCG

"Quake: Half-Life"?
HL1 was built with a modified Quake engine, but that's as far as the connection goes.
Valve also provided audio commentary in the Lost Coast tech demo, so offering commentary with Ep1 is not a first.

Thanks for the comment, SCG. You're right, that "Quake:" is an error, my apologies. Interesting about the tech demo. I would still say that Ep1's commentary is a first in that it was a fully released and marketed game instead of a demo intended to display a graphics technology. Commentary on the HDR stuff followed logically since they were trying to display specific tech, whereas the Ep1 content actually focused on the development of the game, story, architecture -- the whole deal. It does bear mentioning, though, so thanks for the heads-up.

Lal

For a game review you have spent very little time discussing the game itself. Since story is important to the Half-Life games, there is a good reason for avoiding spoilers, but that doesn't explain why almost a third of the review is dedicated to the Steam delivery system. Given where this review is being hosted, I had expected some discussion of the SF-nal aspects of the game - something that would make up for, or at least explain the lack of detail elsewhere.
While it can be argued that third- versus first-person perspective preferences are largely a matter of taste
Indeed. However, using World Of Warcraft for comparative purposes is a curious one since the games aren't remotely alike. Perhaps a comparison could have been made with a third-person perspective game in the same genre, such as Resident Evil 4 or Ninja Gaiden.
The game play is tighter
In what way is the game-play tighter? What is different about the game compared to Half-Life 2? Are there any new enemies or weapons? How well does the game flow?

"While it can be argued that third- versus first-person perspective preferences are largely a matter of taste"
Indeed. However, using World Of Warcraft for comparative purposes is a curious one since the games aren't remotely alike. Perhaps a comparison could have been made with a third-person perspective game in the same genre, such as Resident Evil 4 or Ninja Gaiden.

The reason for the WoW reference was that that game managed to instill a sense of vertigo, whereas Half-Life 2, for Erin, failed. As far as I can recall, neither Resi 4 or Ninja Gaiden are ever in any position to produce a sense of vertigo as the result of teetering at the edge of a vast height with an actual threat of falling. And whilst I don't agree with Erin (I have too many nasty memories of crawling along cliffsides in earlier HL incarnations) I don't think the comparison is unfair.
I see the point about the fluidity of PC movement in HL2; it's a substantial contrast to the slightly more "human" movement animations of Chronicles of Riddick or KillZone PS2, but I think it suits the playstyle of HL2 and I'm happy to leave it at that.
Erin, fair play about the commentary - I've not actually played Episode 1 yet due to my tendonitis, so I've no idea how it's integrated. I imagine they used a similar system but you're right that a tech demo and a commercial product are quite distinct things (FYI I believe that Lost Coast will be bundled with the packaged release of Episode 1).
Now, with Episode 2 things are going to get very interesting, as Valve appear to have already far surpassed the portal technology demonstrated recently in Prey...

Lal

As far as I can recall, neither Resi 4 or Ninja Gaiden are ever in any position to produce a sense of vertigo as the result of teetering at the edge of a vast height with an actual threat of falling.
I would disagree regarding Ninja Gaiden, specificially when you enter the Monastery catacombs just above the dragon zombie. The sense of immense height is there as well as the threat of falling off. I've done it a few times with careless jumping, or by getting carried away with the claw fiends and doing an Izuna Drop into the void. Your mileage may, and in this case does vary.
Now, with Episode 2 things are going to get very interesting, as Valve appear to have already far surpassed the portal technology demonstrated recently in Prey...
I've heard about this via the Eurogamer website and it is almost tempting enough for me to abandon the Xbox and upgrade my PC to cope.

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