A lot of games claim to be “first-person,” but no franchise has ever capitalized on that point of view like Half-Life. From the opening moments of the original, in which you were thrust into the bowels of a secret government installation, to the closing scene of Half-Life 2, which left you face to face with the sinister Administrator, the series’s mission has been to show you things as you’ve never seen them before. Now, developer Valve Software is trying something else that’s new: episodic content, purchased on-line and delivered on demand.
HOT TIP: Don’t waste health or ammo — take cover and let Alyx do as much shooting as possible.
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 picks up where Half-Life 2 left off, in medias res. As the Administrator attempts to reassert control over Gordon, a horde of Vortigons intercede on his behalf. From there, you’re dumped back outside and the game begins. Episode 1 is a slim adventure, clocking in at a mere five hours and mercifully lacking any of the vehicular-based levels from the last game. But in those five hours, it shows more verve and invention than any game I’ve played so far this year.
Half-Life’s strength doesn’t lie in breaking new ground for the medium — lots of games lay out linear paths to follow, team you up with NPCs, and arm you heavily. The key here is execution. Most games are content to show you cutscenes in order to advance the story. Half-Life stays in character, so to speak. Near the beginning of Episode 1, the friendly robot called Dog hurls Gordon and Alyx across a gap. I expected a slow-motion exterior view of the toss. Instead, I was hurled into space, and that was followed by a horrific crash, all seamlessly integrated into the usual gameplay.
Every part of the game feels as if it were taking place in real time, without ever breaking the fourth wall. You see a Combine dropship out a window and know that it’ll track you down momentarily. You battle a gigantic strider as you race across a level, getting only sporadic glimpses of your foe as it demolishes everything around you. The linear level design only heightens the tension. You know exactly what threats await, but there’s no way around them. There’s only one way out, and that’s through.
Half-Life and Half-Life 2 both made good use of allied NPCs, but Episode 1 keeps Alyx alongside you for the vast majority of gameplay. Her presence heightens the emotional impact: she trembles after a horrific trainwreck, wishes Gordon good luck when he sets off on his own, even cracks mordant jokes when things look bleak. Oh, and she’s got an itchy trigger finger.
NEW AND TRUE: Episodes purchased on-line and delivered on demand.
Episode 1 isn’t available in stores; you purchase it via Steam, Valve’s on-line storefront. I was able to download it in about 45 minutes, which is less time than it would have taken to ride the T to Best Buy and back. There’s also an option to play while listening to developer commentary. More critical than self-aggrandizing, the audio tracks confirm that Valve didn’t blunder into the success it’s found with Half-Life. The developers open their kimonos to reveal how they encourage you to look in the right direction at the right time, why Alyx follows rather than leads Gordon, and how software bugs can lead to innovation. It’s a master class for anyone interested in game design.
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 sets the standard for shooters. As an example of interactive storytelling and blowing stuff up real good, it’s without equal. There’s just one problem: Episode 2 is still months away.