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.