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10:00 - The Considered Opinion
10 hours since I put down Episode One at midnight last night, I've had a good chance to sleep on the experience and have a think about the game itself. Here are some thoughts from the morning after...
First off - it was, overall, a cool experience. There was about four hours of gameplay, which is perhaps a little bit skimpy for $20 - but on the other hand, this is Half-Life we're talking about. Who can not play it?
One of the things that I found really lacking about the game was variety. HL2 had a lot of different areas, from outdoor lakes, to the streets of City 17, to Ravensholm. The gameplay was also very different in parts, with Gordon mounting up in buggies and speedboats to make his way through the game. Episode One has significantly less of this, with most of the game taken up in close-quarters combat - and the first hour being incredibly samey, with just the gravity gun for company.
The problem is perhaps one of scale. Within the context of Half-Life itself, none of the puzzles or areas that I found repetitive or dull would be either. HL2 is a 15+ hour game, and spending half an hour fiddling around with a power core reactor is a decent puzzle, and appropriate in scale. Within the context of a three hour game, such a puzzle is proportionally big. For some reason, I expected the same percentage of variance, within the smaller timeframe - if that makes sense. Perhaps I should adjust my view, and look at Episodes One, Two and Three of HL2 as the bigger game - in which case, all is probably as it should be.
There are some fantastic standout moments. The frantic firefight as you wait for an escalator, running out of ammo as Zombines stream towards you, is adrenaline inducing. The first 10 minutes, when you get to see some characterful interaction beween Alyx and Dog amidst spectacular scenery, is genius.
And my, what scenery. Valve has put higher-res textures in Episode One, it's clear to see - with headcrabs and buildings alike showing far more detail. Some of the City 17 areas are truly spectacular when you're running with all the eye candy on, and the HDR really adds to the effect. Dark areas really are incredibly dark, and the overbright effect is also neat without being overused. As you watch the city crumble around you, you can really believe it.
Believability seems to be one of the things Valve has pinned itself to for this Episode, with character one of the strongest aspects. Ep One is almost the videogame equivalent of a buddy movie, with Alyx next to you every step of the way, talking, giving advice, showing the state of her emotions. There are points where you really feel for her, as she is exasperated one moment then putting on a brave face the next. She is the closest this industry has come to a fully fleshed-out character, in my opinion, and Valve should be praised for this - their awesome facial animation in the Source engine makes this possible.
If there was one thing I was disappointed in, it's the lack of story elements. There were promising hints at the beginning - an introduction featuring G-Man and Vortegons, an appearance by Breen, the weird alien things that Breen appeared to be colluding with - but then those elements disappeared, to be replaced with the rather more mundane issue at hand. Like an episode of Lost, I was rather hoping for answers to the mythology, not just more plotline.
Effectively, Episode One is three or four levels from a larger game, rather than a mini-game in itself. Approach it with this mindset and you'll walk away happy.
Would I recommend this? Well, as a game in itself, it's got great moments without being spectacular overall. As part of the Half-Life series, it's essential gaming for anyone with a remote interest in that storyline. What is going to happen to the human survivors of the Combine domination, and how that conspiracy relates to Gordon and G-Man, can make for a compelling experience. After all the hype, we're on the comedown a little, because we expected so much. Here's hoping Episode Two arrives pretty quick.