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Half-Life 2: Episode 1

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Got this mostly becaue it was inexpensive.  I hadn't really read ahead of time about how it's a mini-addon.  Apparently, some playtesters put it at only five hours of gameplay.  In FPS games I search around a lot, so it took me longer than that.  And, my "play" time was extended by getting stuck a couple of times.  More on that later.

I like director's commentary on DVDs and other behind the scenes info.  The process and motives of a design are very interesting to me.  I had downloaded the Lost Coast technology demo where they introduced the commentary balloons and I enjoyed them.   So I turned on them on at the beginning of this game.

That turned out to be a mistake.  For a teeny technology demo level, they're fine.   But in a game it ended up giving away all of the puzzles.  Some of the discussions on design decisions were really interesting.  I'm prolly going to go through it again and listen to them.  But I ended up turning them off halfway through.  They really detracted from the gameplay experience.

And that ended up getting me a little annoyed and frustrated at the beginning.  I didn't really die a whole lot of times, like in Call of Duty.  But I really wasn't enjoying the game at all.

Part of it was that, similar to the end of Half-Life 2 itself, you start this game without any weapons except the gravity gun.  Again, the game was a bit too adventure game puzzlish for the mood I was in.  It wasn't the FPS I was wanting to play.

Also similar to HL2, early on I missed an exit, out of the unlighted garage level.   I don't know what it is about their level design, but three times now I've wasted a great deal of time walking past obvious exits without ever looking that direction.   That really added to the feeling of frustration.

After turning off the commentary, things mostly went better.

I did hit one level design bug.  Early on, in the crashed train, I got stuck between a wall and a support.  I had to reload and go through the cutscene again.

That earlier bug had me thinking I'd hit another trigger bug later on.  In the final level, where you're trying to get to the train, a Strider comes in and starts shooting at the handle you just turned for Alyx.  I tried shooting the Strider with bullets.  I managed to nail it with the three rockets I had.  I stood within easy view of it by a fence.  I just couldn't seem to get its attention.  I checked the walkthru, which told me that I should just wait until it blasted a hole for me.  But I waited and waited at least another twenty minutes.  I reloaded an earlier save, in case I'd missed a trigger.  Looked for other walkthrus.

Eventually, after a dozen reloads, including several quit-and-restarts, and even rebooting the computer.  After at least 45 mins of frustration I managed to stand in the corner I needed it to shoot at.  It took a long time to raise itself up.   But eventually, finally, it shot the wall and I could continue.

And in a way, that kind of sums up my feelings for this entire game.  It really felt like just a series of triggers.  Somehow, they've lost the feeling of a larger, living world around your character.  Part of that was brought on by listening to the behind-the-scenes balloons.  But I think it falls right into place with how Half-Life 2 felt.

There was also a level, maybe a little more than halfway through, where I had to fight a big bug, along with a bunch of little bugs that are constantly regenerated out of their holes.  And it just pissed me off.  It turns out there is no trick to killing this thing.  You just have to run around and try to scoop up ammo and avoid everything long enough to kill it.  I gave it maybe a half dozen tries.  But I wasn't having fun, so I gave in and used God mode.  (Hint: In order to bring the console down you have to click a checkbox in the options.  That cost me another 20 mins.)

They also had two levels that were completely pitch black.  I've decided that I just really don't like that.  Hearing a sound and trying to whip around and spot a glimpse of the bad guy in the light beam just isn't fun for me.

On the positive side, the graphics are good, as usual.  They used the adaptive lighting that tries to model the eyes' adjustment to light levels.  That comes into play occasionally as you look from a bright area to a darker one.

Alyx is handled fairly well.  They discuss in the commentary how they started with her bugging the player constantly.  But in the final release she just gives occasional hints.  She has unlimited ammo and is useful in the pitch black levels, where she'll shoot monsters that you reveal with your light.  And unlike Val in Far Cry, you don't have to spend a lot of time babysitting Alyx.  I don't think she ever dies in this game.  Albeit, there's a bit of a macho or comrade twinge when you see her getting pummelled by a monster.  It feels like you should be protecting her.  You do have to protect some other NPCs in the next-to-last level.

When the end finally came it felt a lot less climactic than the earlier games.   Which I guess is appropriate for a small episode in a series.  But somehow it's just not quite as satisfying as a full-blown game.

I'm trying to decide if there's any way to make this episode system work for Valve.   I contemplated even shorter episodes that were even cheaper.  But that starts getting into a pay-per-minute mentality.  I suppose really short games might work in a subscription business model.  That would remove some of the pay-to-play feeling.

21 days elapsed time.  5 sessions.  11.75 hours.  44 deaths.  1.75 hours wasted.

On my brother's Game Total Value Scale, Threat?  What Threat?  Overall, it wasn't a great gaming experience.  Might have been better without the commentary balloons.

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Last modified: August 26, 2006
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