Half-Life 2: Episode 1: Nothing Half About It
Half-Life 2 rocked the PC gaming world with an unmatchable recipe for success: story-driven sci-fi gaming sprinkled with action, a new physics engine, cool aliens and awesome weapons. It set a high standard for first person action titles that games of today still strive to match.
How does developer Valve attempt to improve the already near-perfect formula? Simple: they don't. With a few tweaks here and some polish there, Half-Life 2: Episode 1 picks up right where its big brother left off, putting you in the boots of Gordon Freeman just after the explosion atop the Citadel. Both games look and play almost identically, the only real difference being that Episode 1 is a shorter and more intense experience. Visual detail has been increased, the narration is as powerful as ever, and a new dose of adrenaline has been injected into its blood. Half-Life 2: Episode 1 recreates the success of its predecessors and delivers another amazing, albeit shorter, game.
Halving Your Life
On the surface it looks like any other first person shooter, but scratch just below and you'll find a multi-layered experience waiting to be discovered. Episode 1 (no, not Star Wars) takes the most intense moments from a sci-fi movie and blends them together with a touch of interactivity.
Just like Half-Life 2, Episode 1 gives you the mega-useful gravity gun that allows you to push and pull objects. Sounds simple (and maybe even boring) in writing, but when you get a hold of it it's extremely versatile and a lot of fun to use. You can jerk computer consoles out of the wall, fling shrapnel at your foes or even sling enemies into each other. With the unbelievable Source engine running the game, the environment is yours to toy around with. Be gentle... Or not.
The story gradually unfolds with you (Gordon Freeman) and Alyx Vance climbing into the Citadel to shut down the core before it blows half the city away. Your main tasks will be restoring power to various devices, solving machinery-type puzzles, and initializing platforms with your gravity gun. There are a few enemies inside the compound, but they're fairly easy to dispose of.
As you progress you'll continue to peel off layers of the story to uncover the juicy insides. The game gets more intense, so don't think you'll get a rest anytime soon. This intensity is actually the least-desirable aspect of the game. Compared to Half-Life 2: Episode 1 is extremely fast-paced. Valve exchanged moments of silence and anticipation for crashing buildings and pounding sequences of tension. It's to be expected, as this new installment is just part one of a three-part release plan. Third-life, in a manner of speaking, so the refined, action-oriented gameplay is forgivable.
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 continues the cut-scene-free gameplay from the original Half-Life game. Players see the world through the eyes of Gordon and are able to move around while important narrations are taking place. Some feel this detracts from the story by limiting players to what Freeman experiences. It does, however, serve up a new level of cinematic drama. Video games have an advantage over other forms of media because they're interactive. Instead of locking the narration on one path, players are free to explore and make choices. Even though the ability to look around while you're being spoken to seems trivial, it's really an incredibly effective game mechanism.
Another subtle nod toward immersion is the control set. Many games, especially first person shooters, give you a huge list of key commands to memorize before you can really get into the game. This creates a little distraction in the back of your mind where you're trying to remember which button opens the inventory, which one lets you push crates, which is crouch, etc. Half-Life 2: Episode 1 disposes of all that rubbish and simplifies things to the core actions: moving, looking around and firing (with the occasional crouch and jump). Most of the time this is all you'll be doing, and within five minutes it's completely second nature. Your mind is free to lose itself in the game.
Half-Life 2 was (and still is) known for some of the best visuals in any PC game. Not only are they stunning from a technical standpoint, the environments are constructed in such deep detail that they ooze history. Half-Life 2: Episode 1 continues the tradition and brings a few little tweaks to spice things up a bit, such as improved character modeling and more detailed shading.
The real breakthrough is with character face models, especially for Alyx. Your sidekick shows a lot of emotion without even saying a word. A shrug, a raised eyebrow or even a smirk let you know just what's on her mind. You can almost feel her gaze when she stares at you with her hand on her hip. And thanks to a strong script and excellent voice acting, the characters are remarkably deep.
Musically, Half-Life 2: Episode 1 is very subtle but effective. Ambient sounds from fire crackling to footsteps and machinery grinding in the distance usually fill your speakers, while a skeleton musical score raises itself only on occasion.
Just Episode 1?
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 is really just one-third of a full game. Valve will release two additional episodes over the next year that will continue the story arc. Releasing episodic content at more frequent intervals (and lower prices) is a relatively new method of game distribution. Fortunately Valve can use the incredibly convenient Steam download service to streamline the process. Wait and lusting after games for months on end could be a thing of the past. It's a perfect setup for impatient gamers.
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 packs a strong punch. It's got everything Half-Life 2 has compressed into five or six hours of game-time. It has a little more action and more linear levels compared to its big brother, but in the end you'll still be salivating for more.
Review by John Bardinelli
There are about 24,000,000 results when Googling "half life 2 review", so I don't intend to do the 24,000,001st review of this fantastic game published by Sierra and developed by Valve.
HALF LIFE 2
|| Generally, before releasing games, publishers and developers give game portals some screenshots where you can see the graphic features of the in-development game, and perhaps some game action. I wanted to go further and highlight the architectural and photographic aspects of the game, which I'll demonstrate with QTVR images shot during game play, the first time (that I'm aware of) that this has been done.
In 1998, when Half Life was first published, it was the first storytelling game of the entertainment history; a movie-like game, where just the intro took about eight minutes of titles of the cast and the directors, moving you on a train while exploring your way to the MESA base station. Valve worked very hard on the game-rendering engine, resulting in spectacular simulated worlds presented in HL2; today, it is probably the state-of-the-art in real-time rendering systems.
The game engine, called SOURCE, offers many features that are oriented to give better realism to the maps inside the game. The physics of the game engine enable you to interact with the surrounding objects in any one particular area, and there are strong analogies between digital photography and the rendering engine; the intent of both mediums is to represent the environment, freezing it in the former and recreating it in the latter. As a result, both are immersed in the basic aspects of the real world: lights, environment, shadows, materials, colors, depth of field, FOV, etc.
For example, the light in HL2 is a central point of development for the engine. Valve implemented dynamic lights, vertex lighting and light maps, and even High Dynamic Range lighting, an advanced feature in digital photography. There are a few professional cameras able to capture HDR images, and you can imagine the difficulty in reproducing it. (see Greg Downing, see HDR SHOP).
The technique I used to 'shoot' this kind of QTVR, within the game, is the same as shooting a QTVR in reality, except here I didn't have a tripod, a camera, and a panoramic head!
The first big problem for me was not to find out how to get the non-existent equipment to work, but to communicate to the characters, telling them "I'm a photographer. Don't shoot at me". Luckily, thanks to Valve, there were tools for 'modding' the game; meaning that I could modify the game to my preferences using the basic features of the code. Through some console commands I could disable objects and materialize others.
The first step was disabling all the enemies around me with some code in the game console so that I could take pictures. To improve the already great graphical display of the game, I used a mod that enables bloom effects on the rendering engine, by Neotokyo (http://www.neotokyohq.com).
After freezing the enemies, I was in the map, and it was a vast one, so I needed to materialize some items that could take me around it. Again, with a few console commands, I provided myself with some vehicles - a jeep and motorboat - so I could search for the appropriate shoot location for my panorama.
I'm quite happy with the results: The light falling inside the buildings is impressive and dramatic (see QTVR wood house) and the outdoor light, with some fog effects and distance blur, gives a depth of field that no one engine can similarly do today.