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Half-Life 2: Episode 1

Date: June 2, 2006
Author(s): Rob Williams

Finally, our 18 month wait is over! We once again take the role of Gordon Freeman, and have a return of our friend Alyx. Together, we will flight from City 17. The big question is… was it worth the wait?



Introduction & Backstory

Note: Game spoilers ahead! If you want the entire game to be a surprise, you may want to skip through the middle of the review.

November 16, 2004. This was a day that computer gaming was revitalized. Half-Life 2 was one of the most anticipated games of that year, and arguably of this decade. Following in the footsteps of Half-Life 1, gamers everywhere had high hopes for the sequel. Luckily for all of us, that game delivered everything we had hoped for, and more.

Valve Software has a lot to be proud of. Through-out all of the Half-Life games, over 15 Million units have been sold. 4 Million of that were Half-Life 2. Because HL2 was such a technical feat, it was instantaneously used in review benchmarks all over the world. Even a year and a half after it’s release, that fact hasn’t changed at all. Counter-Strike: Source is the number one online FPS game on the internet, by a huge margin. Without question, Valve knows what they are doing.

If you are one of the very few people who have not actually played Half-Life, then I will give you a quick primer. You take on the role of Gordon Freeman and land yourself in the Black Mesa research facility. After completing the first game, you will encounter G-man for the first time. He tells you that you will be used for certain ‘services’. Now you wind up on a train heading to City 17, where you will be used for the previously mentioned services. You meet many friends during the journey, including the cute and helpful Alyx Vance. After evading the Combine, you make it all the way up to the top of the Citadel to deal with G-Man again. Episode 1 begins you off just moments after this encounter.

The citadel and the whole of City 17 is not exactly where anybody wants to be. So, paired with Alyx, it’s our job to get out and get to work on making the flight out of there. I won’t get into anymore of the story for Episode 1, so as to not spoil it for anybody.

Episode 1 is only 5 hours long?

When Steam was originally introduced in 2002, I don’t think anybody knew exactly what to expect from it. I personally understood that it would be a content delivery system for Valves products, but since then, it has become much more. Games like Rag Doll Kung Fu, Darwinia, Red Orchestra and even Earth 2160 have also found their home there.

There will be a total of three episodes, with the finale due in late 2007. Each one will retail for $19.95US, and should prove between 4 and 6 hours long. There are questions about the value of such a game, because 5 hours of gameplay for $20 seems like a lot. In the end, it really comes down to action, and how much you have enjoyed the experience. Many people played Half-Life 2 more than once, so obviously that game proved to be of great value, even though it retailed for $60. After playing through on Normal, I can say that most players will take between 4 and 5 hours to beat the game. I never played on easy, but I wouldn’t expect it to decrease the overall time.

What episodic delivery gives the player though, is an exciting new addition to expect occasionally. Ritual has also jumped on this bandwagon with their SiN sequel. That game spans not 3, but 9 full episodes. That’s a long time to play a game in order to get the entire story. Aftermaths’ 3 episodes seems much more logical from a players perspective.

Have you ever played an expansion pack to a game, but find out nothing has really changed gameplay wise or graphics wise? Each episode is completely stand-alone here. You will not even need the original HL2 in order to play EP1 or any future additions. What this means to the game developer, is that they can have a fresh palette to work with. To keep up with the times, the graphics may be kicked up a notch, or various gameplay methods can be implemented. Episode 1 will not offer major graphic upgrades, but it will feature HDR (first introduced with the Lost Coast demo).

Episodic adventures still seems like a wacky idea to some, but it’s an interesting way of releasing ‘expansions’ to a game. Because Episode 1 features HDR, you can be sure that it will likely replace HL2 and Lost Coast in review benchmarks around the world.


Gameplay & Sound

One of the key reasons why Half-Life 2 did so well on the market was due to it’s tight gameplay. Valve made sure to give fans the experience they want in the new installment. The general gameplay hasn’t changed at all, so you will be able to jump in and enjoy the game right away. Because this is a stand-alone game though, you will first have to reconfigure your keyboard and mouse settings, in addition to the graphics.

If you enjoyed the commentary feature from Lost Coast, you are in luck. It’s back in Episode 1 and there are many nodes throughout the game. It’s recommended you play through first without them, so as to not take away from the gameplay. Chances are good that you will want to go through the game a second time, so the commentary nodes would be a perfect addition then.

Because the game starts off immediately where Half-Life 2 left us, I had originally believed that G-Man would be the first thing we see. Instead, you are under a bunch of rubble and rescued by your good friends Alyx and Dog. Yes, that loveable mechanical beast is back! Your travel with him doesn’t last very long, however. Surprisingly, you begin off not with a crowbar or a pistol, but your energy gun. It won’t be until you are a quarter of the way through the game that you will finally acquire different weapons. Surprisingly though, no weapon from HL2 is missing here.

One complaint about the previous game was that even though you had numerous friends throughout the game, you always ended up going through solo. As an example, there were parts where Alyx would meet up with you, and then run up ahead of you to ‘flip a switch’ or perform some other mundane task. Valve didn’t want this to happen again with Episode 1, and Alyx is by your side virtually 80% of the way through. If you are worried that this will suck the fun out of the game, don’t worry. It turns out to be very enjoyable, and adds an element of strategy.

It’s not simply a matter of Alyx following you around, but she helps save your butt. The character AI is superb, and that’s important since she will be by your side often. In various points in the game, it’s imperative that you help each other to get things done. Just like it states at the end of the second teaser trailer, “Alyx. She doesn’t have a crowbar, but she’s got your back.”

You don’t want to take advantage of her devotion to keep you alive though, because she will eventually die due to your carelessness. It seems as though she has far more health than you do, but that shouldn’t hold you back from watching her back. For an offline game, EP1 does a great job with the team play element.

Episode 1 improves on the first games puzzle elements, and may actually require you to get your brain kick started occasionally. Some of the more elaborate puzzles are coupled with monsters trying to kill you. It can get quite exciting at times, to say the least. Though puzzles can sometimes be less fun than getting a root canal, Alyx will be there to help you complete most of them. As odd as that may sound now, it does add to the joy of completing them.

Sadly, you will not be hopping in a dune buggy or powerboat this time around. There is likely to be vehicles in the later episodes, but in this one there is just no need.

As everyone had anticipated, the gameplay is as solid as can be. The smaller additions in Episode 1, such as puzzle solving and teamwork adds much to the experience, and the entire episode comes together seamlessly. There is not one part of the gameplay that I can speak bad of, it’s near perfect.

Half-Life 2: Episode 1 – Sound

The sound quality that we received in Half-Life 2 is back in full force. Many of the sounds you hear in EP1 are recycled from HL2, but they are some new ones. One thing that I personally liked about HL2, were the parts of the game that had music add. Not only was it well done, it added a lot to the excitement. Well, this music is back and even more prevalent.

You will encounter a lot of the same baddies you took care of in HL2, but their sounds haven’t changed. The weapon sounds haven’t changed either, but really they didn’t need to be. Ahh.. the voiceover’s! There are many of them in the game, especially from Alyx. She is not afraid to speak her mind, or grunt loudly while trying to push a zombie away.

Overall, the sound is extremely well done. If you have a 5.1 speaker setup, your ears will -love- you.


Graphics, Benchmarks

Though it’s been over 18 months since Half-Life 2 has been released, the graphics have not had any sort of overhaul. Despite some aspects of the graphics to be slightly outdated, they are still impressive overall. Since Episode 1 is more of an extension than a new game, it was designed to still work on machines as well as HL2 did.

The main addition to the source engine for use in Episode 1 is HDR, or High Dynamic Range. HDR is a special rendering of light that’s designed to give off a far more realistic outcome than with previous methods. One popular way of giving HDR examples is to picture a sun, and the way it naturally reflects light off of everything. As we seen with the Lost Coast demo, the easiest way to show a difference with and without HDR, was straight from the drop spot.

Looking at the screenshot’s above, you can see the immediate difference between using HDR and disabling it. Not only does the sun shine realistically off the water, there is also a realistic shine on the wet mountain and ground in front of you. Undeniably, HDR is a great feature to add to a game, so thanks to Valve for finally implementing it into Half-Life.

Some areas in the game are like night and day if you have HDR enabled. As you can see by the above shots, the difference is clear. Like in Lost Coast, the HDR acts realistically to real eyesight. Once you look directly at a wall that’s lit up by the sun, it will adjust to your virtual eyes. So if it’s bright at first, once your ‘virtual eyes’ gain focus, it will be easier to look at. If you have played DoD: Source, you can expect similar HDR effects.

Other areas that the engine has amped up are particle effects and motion blur. The character animation is much more refined also, which pays off since Alyx is by your side constantly. She walks and runs far more realistically than in HL2. The actual character models have not changed at all though.

Since the graphics have been amped up overall, you can expect this to become the replacement for HL2 and Lost Coast benchmarks that we see now. In order to give you a general idea of the performance you can expect with Episode 1, I have benchmarked using two different resolutions, with and without HDR, using the d1_c17_02a level.

For some comparison purposes, I ran the same tests using d3_c17_12 level from Half-Life 2, which has similar elements to the new level tested in Episode 1. Since HDR is not available in Half-Life 2, it will undeniably have higher FPS on average.

The testing system includes an AMD 3200+ Venice at 2.8GHZ using the DFI Ultra-D motherboard. The Corsair 3500LL PRO 2GB kit was used, at 280MHz, using 3-3-2-0 timings. The video card is an eVGA 7800GT with a 445MHz core clock and a 1.07GHz memory clock. The NVIDIA 84.21 drivers were used, under a dedicated Windows installation. The average FPS were gathered using FRAPS, and the results listed are that of a full 5 minute run.

As we expected, the average FPS was lower in Episode 1, but still proved quite good for this stand alone card. Turning off HDR made quite a difference on the average FPS. If you can use HDR and still have 60FPS, I would recommend keeping it enabled.


Conclusions

18 months was a long time to wait without answers, but finally the day has come. Was is worth the wait? Without question! Episode 1 met all of our expectations and surpassed some. As soon as you enter the game, you will find out exactly how Gordon and Alyx survived the massive explosion.

The gameplay is absolutely top notch and everything just works perfectly. The teamwork Alyx provides makes the game only that much more exciting, and gives you even more responsibility than in HL2. You will not only be trying to save your own behind, but protect Alyx in the process. Coupled with the better puzzle solving, this is a great experience. The real kicker is that it’s only 4 – 6 hours long, but at least we will not have to wait as long for the next episode. Hopefully we will be playing that one this Winter.

Is the game worth the $20 asking price? Without a doubt. Being that it is a 4 – 6 hour game doesn’t even come into the equation, because chances are good you will be playing through the game more than once. Though I have not played with the commentary mode yet, that should only prove to add even more to the game. Personally, the game took me exactly 4 hours to complete on the medium difficulty. I did find it ended quick, but the experience was truly amazing. If you a hardcore player and want to try to get through the game as quick as you can, it should only take you a little over 3 hours.

EP1 does have a few bugs that didn’t get squashed during testing though. One area in particular, took me around a half hour to get through only due to a bug. I didn’t realize there was a bug at first, until I reloaded my last save. Other bugs that have been reported include missing textures and stuttering. I personally had the game stutter quite badly at a point near the end of the game, but it ironed itself out fairly quickly.

Does this episodic delivery thing work? Well, instead of players paying $60 for a 15 hour game, they will pay $20 each for three 5 hour games. If Valve finds the need to update the source engine with the new releases, players can be welcomed with better graphics, sound, gameplay or whatever else they want to throw in. Because of the new graphic additions to EP1, modders will also be able to add HDR and such to their personal maps, so you can be sure to see mods in progress and in the future to have some stellar graphic tweaks.

No question. If you enjoyed HL2, pick up EP1, you will not be disappointed. I am awarding Half-Life 2: Episode 1 a well deserved 94%.

Pros & Cons

+ Top rate gameplay
+ Teamwork and puzzle solving
+ HDR is best we’ve seen so far
+ Sounds amazing, especially with 5.1
+ Commentary is back!

– Minor bugs, including stuttering at points

– Can complete the game in an evening

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