Jonathan Fingas On June 6, 2006 at 10:59 am

Hot on the heels of SiN Episodes: Emergence’s release on Steam is the first episodic game from the very operator of the Steam network, Valve Software. As with Ritual, Valve wants to experiment with the concept of putting out multiple short chapters every few months instead of foisting one large lump of gameplay on us every few years. The company’s turn at the format is certainly panic-inducing for a lot of people; how many of us would like to see a successful storyline go down the tubes if the episodic structure itself doesn’t pan out?

Most reactions to SiN Episodes as a guinea pig have generally been favourable (including Gametactics’ own review), but one of the common complaints about episodic structure as we’ve seen it in SiN is a sense of hollowness: there isn’t much backstory to Emergence, and there isn’t much to do after you’ve finished the game. It’s also a relatively direct shooter focused around clearing hordes of enemies instead of storytelling. That’s all well and good for Ritual, but these problems would spell disaster for Valve, which staked its reputation on strong stories and an abundance of extra content. How well Episode One (EP1 for short) succeeds depends entirely on whether or not it can cram enough meaningful gameplay into a few hours and simultaneously give us players a reason to come back.

I’m glad to report that Valve has kept all the storytelling elements that made the original Half-Life 2 such a success. If anything, it’s even better. One of the hallmarks of the earlier game was the depth of its characters. You cared about what happened to other characters because their actions and dialogue said much about their motivations. Dr. Breen wasn’t a cardboard cutout with a maniacal laugh; he was a scientist, and he was too intelligent for us to casually dismiss his line of reasoning. In EP1, we see something that is still (unfortunately) fairly new to games: character development. EP1 centers around Alyx, and without spoiling anything it’s safe to say that she’s a more complex character than she was before. She’s worn out emotionally and physically; she gets scared and scrounges for any sign of hope. This helps to set the grim tone of the game as well as spur you on to the conclusion of the episode.

The shift in storytelling technique also makes for a more involving game. While the first game was a solo adventure in which other characters were largely secondary, in EP1 you usually have at least one teammate. This means that most of the battles and puzzles aren’t just for self-preservation’s sake. You might not be able to kill a target by yourself or leave others behind. The EP1 gameplay is more realistic in that regard: you might be the most important man on Earth, but you can’t save the world alone. The constant interaction with other characters also means that you don’t feel as though you’re just going through the motions. There’s always a reason to keep going.

The narrative isn’t perfect. Much of the explanation for this ties into the episodic nature of the game. EP1’s story is more satisfying than that of Emergence, but most characters beyond Alyx have only bit parts to play. The story also picks up almost immediately after the events of the previous game; those of us who haven’t played Half-Life 2 (all two of you) will have a hard time grasping the basics of the plot without the benefit of a summary. You can forgive Valve more than you can Ritual for skimping on background information given how closely EP1 follows Half-Life 2, but this is an odd decision when the new title is a stand-alone game. There will almost certainly be some EP1 player in the future who will have no idea why he should care about Alyx, the Citadel, or the G-Man.

The raw game mechanics are at once familiar and fresh. They feel like extensions of the old game without rehashing what you’ve done before. Though vehicles are downplayed in EP1, there’s a healthy share of new environments to explore and new enemies to fight. These new additions can make for some very harrowing athletics and fight sequences. They’re appreciated improvements over Half-Life 2, even if we’ve come to expect them from expansions and sequels to quality games. EP1 has a distinct advantage over Emergence in terms of variety: the landscape is more diverse, there are more enemies, and you have more choice in weapons. Valve is “cheating” in that it has a lot of existing content to draw from while Ritual had to start from scratch, but you can’t deny such an important advantage.

One of the most pleasant surprises of EP1 is that Valve continues to think of clever new challenges for the player. Especially appreciated is the new emphasis on solving puzzles under pressure. Most puzzles in the old game could be completed very patiently, but there are numerous times in EP1 when you literally solve problems under the gun. This is a welcome change of pace from first-person shooters in general, which have a bad habit of treating players as though they’re incapable of shooting and thinking at the same time.

That last point does raise a concern – though not necessarily a negative one – about the gameplay. Valve is logically targeting EP1 at people who have played the first game, and has raised the difficulty level that much higher. An experienced player could finish Half-Life 2 at the hardest difficulty level without too much stress. EP1, on the other hand, starts with the difficulty of the later Half-Life 2 maps as a baseline. There aren’t any situations that feel arbitrarily tough, but you’ll be punished for your mistakes much more often. If you’re new to the Half-Life 2 universe, you should definitely stick to the Normal skill setting if you want to avoid frustration during your first session.

Graphically, EP1 does what Emergence couldn’t and offers a definite step up from what you’ve played before, even if it’s not as dramatic as it would be for a completely new game. This is the first time in memory that a first-person shooter on the PC has used high dynamic range (HDR) graphics, not including the Lost Coast technology demo Valve released months earlier. With the full effects on, the game is much more vibrant than Half-Life 2 was: colours are warmer, lighting looks more natural, and glows appear where you’d expect them to be. The only issue (aside from needing a relatively recent video card, such as my X800 Pro) is that Valve is overeager to use the effect at times. The sky is sometimes so bright that it’s hard to spot enemies that hide against it. This is more realistic than before, but the almost blindingly exaggerated light doesn’t help much.

At least we know the sound is spot-on. The environmental effects haven’t changed since Half-Life 2, but they didn’t need to. Actors still strike a good balance between emotion and cool logic in their voices. Merle Dandridge as Alyx is particularly excellent simply for the sheer flexibility of her acting: she always seems to be exactly in character, whether it’s a crucial speech or a one-line quip asking Gordon to tag along. It’s just a shame that other actors don’t get as much airtime as they likely deserve. The one weakness in the sound stems from the commentary track. The information about the development process is usually interesting; the developers, however, just aren’t as interesting as the main actors. You can’t blame them, but it’s a stark contrast to DVD commentaries by movie stars.

As such, Valve didn’t entirely meet the objectives I set out for it at the start of this review. The commentary track is a replay bonus you may try out of curiosity but will probably never listen to more than once. However, by all other accounts EP1 is proof positive that short episodes can work for computer games. The difference between it and a game such as Emergence is in the execution. If Emergence is a “sugar rush,” EP1 is a small dish of haute cuisine: both taste good, and both leave you wanting more, but one of them is more satisfying in the long run. EP1 is on another level of character depth, graphics, plot complexity, and sound. Is it worth $20 US per episode? If you were never really interested in Half-Life for some strange reason, the answer will probably remain “no.” But if you’ve maintained any interest in following the Half-Life storyline through to its conclusion, the price is more than worthwhile.


It’s short, but full of intelligent storytelling and varied challenges.


High dynamic range makes an already beautiful game much better.


Stellar acting and excellent effects, but there’s nothing new on the plate.


What episodic games should be.

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