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Half-Life 2: Episode One Hands-On, Details, And Extensive Video Interview

n Wednesday Game Informer Online took a much needed break from the post-E3 onslaught, and boarded the GI jet to Seattle, Washington.  We were invited by Valve to check out the first in the line of episodic content for Half-Life 2.  We got the opportunity to play through Episode One in its entirety, shoot a video interview with Valve’s Episode One Project Lead Robin Walker, as well as get details on the future of Half-Life 2’s episodes and much more.

YAAAAAAY! More Half-Life 2!

While we don’t want to spoil too much about Episode One’s contents, we will say that it took us approximately 5-6 hours to complete on the medium and easy settings (I played it on medium and Nick played it on easy).  Back at the Game Developers Conference when we interviewed Gabe Newell, he said that it took him around seven hours to complete it in his latest play through.  We’re estimating that the average gamer should be able to complete it in no more than six hours, but for higher difficulty settings it could take longer.

One of the elements that Valve added to the Lost Coast downloadable content was a commentary track, much like you would find on a DVD movie.  Answering fans’ pleas for more of this, Valve has included this in Episode One.  While there was only 15 nodes of commentary through out Lost Coast, Episode One will have 115 nodes of commentary.  In our play through we began with it on, but later decided to start the episode over without it.  You wouldn’t watch a DVD for the first time with commentary on, would you?

Cute as ever...

Episode One begins immediately after the citadel exploded.  You’re uncovered from a pile of rubble and debris by Dog and Alyx.  Your main goal is to get out of City 17, but events that take place during your escape sidetrack you and Alyx a bit.  Ironically, the normal progression of weaponry is much different than both Half-Life and Half-Life 2.  You begin with the more superior weaponry from the outset, and move backwards.

Episode One plays quite differently from Half-Life 2 in the sense that it’s a single player cooperative game with Alyx.  Throughout most of the episode, you and Alyx will team together to solve puzzles, cover each other, and take on waves of enemies.  The AI for Alyx is quite intelligent, and when you encounter an obstacle she knows what you are trying to accomplish.  In one area, you’re staged in a three story car garage where there’s antlions coming out of holes.  She’ll cover for you while you plug up the holes.  In another stage Alyx acts as a sniper picking off enemies as you progress down the road.  Alyx isn’t invincible, however, so you’ll still need to protect her.  She seemed to have a ridiculous amount of hit points, but if you’re not careful she will die and you’ll have to start a section over again.

While there are no vehicle elements in Episode One, there are a number of new elements including a much higher emphasis on puzzle solving.  The pacing is well done, and instead of breaking up the firefights as puzzles seemed to do in Half-Life 2, there are going to be a number of puzzles where you’ll have to ward off baddies as you’re solving a problem. One of our favorite moments is a new “in the dark” section, where you lead Alyx through an industrial area with your flashlight.  While a tad like Doom 3, Alyx can’t see something unless you’re lighting it with either your flashlight or a flare.  Fortunately, you can still shoot your weapons while your lamp is lit.

What comes down must go somewhere else

The new technology introduced in The Lost Coast content has been even further expanded.  The lighting is much richer in comparison to Half-Life 2, where the lighting model was as Valve put it, “like filming a documentary.” The lighting is much richer in Episode One, and Valve has the ability to direct light much more.  Other particle effects have been increased, and there’s noticeable motion blur.  On the animation side of things Alyx has 2.5 times the amount of animations as she did previously in Half-Life 2.

One of the elements that many gamers were upset about was load times between sections.  Taking into consideration the variance between everyone’s PCs, Valve has reworked things after looking at the data they received from the hardware surveys they conduct. By automatically defragmenting files that the game uses, it has allowed for a 7 times performance increase in load times.

Valve has scaled Half-Life 2 to both the low end and the high end computer user, but with Episode One they’ve added an even higher end quality setting.  If you’re sitting pretty with a pimped out SLI or Crossfire rig, you’re going to be able to play this puppy at insane resolutions.  For the record, I got to play the Episode on a 30” Dell flat panel running at a ridiculous 2560 x 1600.  While in the real world I’d never get the opportunity to roll like this at home, the experience was breathtaking.  But even if you’re still playing it on a DX7 machine, it’s still going to look remarkably good. Valve learned a thing or two from porting Half-Life 2 to the original Xbox.

I thought this jerk was dead!

But six hours?  Is that it?  Unfortunately, it is short.  But the way we look at it is that for $20 you’re getting more Half-Life 2.  You’re getting answers now instead of waiting for a full on sequel.  And considering that Valve is going to pump out three of these episodes by the end of 2007, for the usual $60 you’re going to get the 18-20 hour game spread out over that time.

So why did Valve decide to go down the road of episodic content in the first place? Valve believes that they can deliver content and value to gamers faster and more efficiently this way, instead of getting started working on Half-Life 3.  The original Half-Life took two years to develop. Half-Life 2 took six years to develop. By Valve’s estimation it would take 18 years to complete the work on Half-Life 3.  Who wants to wait that long?  Not us.

This really isn't a smiling matter

“If you make a game twice as big, it’s four times as much work because the things that you haven’t done yet make the other things you haven’t done yet harder to do.  If you’re implementing two features versus four features you don’t know which one’s causing the bug, so everything gets harder and harder,” said Valve founder/managing director Gabe Newell

Episodic content allows Valve to push new technology faster.  They can add elements like high dynamic range lighting, support new features of current-gen cards, as well as plan for future cards much quicker. Not only that, but the mod and development community will also get these new Source updates too.  Modders can add commentary tracks and HDR elements now, and as episodes role out, add more and more features. 

So that is what is in the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop!

Having development cycles shortened helps the process run smoother and quicker, but Newell stated that Valve’s, “Secret Weapon” was their stat gathering abilities over Steam.  There are over eight million users currently running Steam, and they can follow what is working, and fix what isn’t. With Steam they can not only fix products right away, but tweak their model for Episode 2 and 3 after reviewing data. Instead of having hundreds of playtests they now have upwards of millions.

While we’ll have much more on Episode One next week, take a look at a number of direct feed screenshots from our play session.  As a special holiday weekend bonus we’ve put together a massive video interview with Valve’s Episode 1 Project Lead Robin Walker that has some interesting insight into the process of making the content, and a quick note about Team Fortress 2!  Oh yeah, there’s about 7-10 minutes of direct feed gameplay footage mixed in for you to drool over before the June 1st release of Episode One.

-Billy Berghammer, Nick Ahrens

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