This review is somewhat different as it looks at two separate issues; firstly is the game itself of course, but I also want to look at the concept of episodic content. I’ll get to that a bit later, first we need to have a look at the game itself.
If you played Half-life 2 then Episode 1 won’t come as a major shock to the system, although some noticeable improvements have been made, and if you haven’t played Half-life 2 then brace yourself, because you’re about to be blown away… Whilst essentially the same as Half-life 2, there are plenty of tweaks and polishing that add up to some marked improvements from its predecessor.
As one might expect, the game picks up where Half-life 2 left off, and after a somewhat eerie intro clip you are recovered from under some rubble by DOG. Alyx’s lovable oversized robot pet; with Alyx herself not far away. You are quickly re-equipped with the gravity gun, Half-life’s iconic physics weapon that allows you manipulate movable objects at a distance. After a quick puzzle to familiarise the player with the mechanics of the gravity gun (your sole weapon for long time), all the original stars are reintroduced to provide you with the plot that forms the basis of Episode 1.
The first order of business is to get out of town as fast as possible. No wait; scratch that, the Combine reactor is too unstable, it’s going to blow and it’ll take you with it if you can’t get it under control, and so your return into the rapidly decaying Combine headquarters begins, and this time Alyx is there to back up most of the way. While trying to save your own hide, you also come across some vital information that the aliens are desperate to send out into the galaxy and copying this information makes you even more unpopular with the former overlords, which makes your escape from the citadel even more treacherous… I’m sure you get the idea.
The graphics in Episode are superb, particularly the facial animation and body language which, when combined with the excellent voice acting, really a tremendous level of immersion to the game and really help the player identify with the characters in the game, particularly Alyx, as you spend so much time with her in this episode. Not to mention the amazing level of detail put into each and every level.
Similarly, the sounds are on par with Half-life 2 and you’re definitely missing out if you don’t use surround sound or high quality headphones when playing this game.
In terms of gameplay the same rule applies, those who’ve played Half-life 2 will feel right at home; in fact this may feel more like an expansion than a new product, although the concept of episodic content does blur this distinction. Most of the enemies you face will be familiar, although there are a few new faces are trying to remove you from the face of the planet, but sadly no new weapons to help prevent it from happening (although the standard arsenal proves more than sufficient).
Being an episode means that there is only about 5 or 6 hours of gameplay, possibly a bit less if you sail through on Easy mode, but when you do finish the game, there is the option of replaying again with the audio commentary option turned on, which I highly recommend. The commentary scatters little audio icons throughout the game which, when clicked on, provide a voice over from one of the guys at Valve about some aspect of that part of the game, which provides some very interesting insight into how much effort goes into designing and developing the game.
Sadly there is no multiplayer aspect, not even new maps to add to the existing Half-life 2 multiplayer, which does reduce the replayability options somewhat, but as the game only costs around ?16-20 it’s still pretty good value for money.
This leads me on to my review of episodic content as a whole, which seems to be rapidly taking off in popularity. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, episodic content is comparable to watching an episode of a weekly TV show, or the entire series in one go, and as you may expect, there are both advantages and disadvantages to this model of game development.
The first obvious advantage is that games are released more frequently, however of course they are also a lot smaller and far shorter gameplay. On the other hand, being developed in smaller chunks opens up more pricing models and distribution options; for instance downloading the game, rather than going out to purchase it from a store, becomes far more viable and far less time consuming.
Similarly with the full price of the game broken up over the episodes it becomes more affordable to some people, but of course with the price of distribution factored into every episode rather than just once, the overall cost of the entire series could be higher.
From a development point of view, episodic content offers some great opportunities for smaller developers who can use the money generated from the initial episodes to fund the creation of the following content, rather than trying to fund the creation cycle of an entire game. With the shorter development time, there is also less exposure to technology lag, whereby when a game takes several years to create the technology has moved on so far that the game seems dated before it has even hit the shelves.
Some gamers complain that games released in episodes create continuity problems for those people who did not play or did not finish the preceding episodes, and also that when they do finish an episode they are left with a feeling of frustration at being left hanging rather than the feeling of completion usually associated with completing a video game.
Lastly there is also the multiplayer aspect to consider; should it be included in games released episodically, and if so at what point? If you don’t include a multiplayer option you severely reduce the replayability and value for money of the game, but including a multiplayer option in the early episodes runs the risk of losing your audience to the multiplayer game and not purchasing future content.
All in all I love the idea but I think that it definitely lends itself to certain games more than others. I doubt episodic content will ever replace the current development cycle entirely, but I think it’s a great system and I look forward to seeing where it leads.