Back in 1997 Stephen King wrote a book called “The Green Mile.” He released this book as a series of six booklets, each about 90 pages long and each costing around $3. It was, IMHO, one of the best books he’s ever written and harked back to the days of serialized novels, which were very common about 100 years ago. But if you stop to think about it, what he also did was manage to sell you a paperback novel in six parts for $18, about what a full hardcover book was going for a the time – that’s the real genius. Valve has done a very similar thing with Half-Life 2: Episode One. People who would never dream of spending $60 on a game, who are perfectly content to wait a couple of months and buy it off the discount rack for $39.99, are going to find themselves buying the three pieces that will (Valve tells us) comprise the conclusion of the Half-Life trilogy at the low, low, bargain basement price of $20 apiece, and before they know it, they’ve bought a $60 game. Which then Valve will turn around and package as a single item with the catchy title of GOTY or something similar, and they’ll sell that for $50 or so, and then there will be the entire packaged Half-Life trilogy for $75.99 at Best Buy for Xmas, and it will all culminate in the Half-Life Compendium (Half-Life 1, 2, 3, Counterstrike, Day of Defeat, Blue Shift, all that jazz) in a box made from hammered platinum with a full color poster of Alyx in a camouflage bikini selling for $129.99 – reserve your copy now. What I’m trying to say is that Valve has quite a marketing department cooking for it, and Half-Life 2: Episode One is clearly the child of an unholy alliance between brilliant game company and scheming marketing gurus. What is advertised as 6-8 hours of gameplay took me just a smidge over 4 hours, and people who are good at these things, who don’t spend twenty minutes trying to get across the room filled with electrified water, are going to be done in less than 3. Believe me, only the Special Olympics contestants among us are going to need 8 hours to complete this, and that’s only because their giant tongues keep gumming up the mouse.
To give credit where credit is due, the folks at Valve have developed a sixth sense about what works for FPS games. They mix some scary sections and some puzzle sections and some hardcore action sections with a careful dash of scripted segments included, and you’re rarely traipsing through a section for what feels like far too long. Just as the puzzles get frustrating, just as you’re saying to yourself “Jeez, I hope that was the last switch I have to find and flip” it turns out that it was, and you’re off into a firefight or a mini movie to advance the plot.
The 3 or 4 hours that it takes you to run through Episode One is classic Half-Life. Digging yourself out of the rubble of the citadel explosion (though how you survived is never made quite clear), you and Alyx, with a little help from Dawg (way cooler than Aibo), are tasked with finding your way to the citadel core. There you must stabilize the reactor to keep it from destroying all of City 17 before the residents can be evacuated. It ends – well, I’m not going to tell you how it ends, but it comes down to another cliff hanger which presumably will find some continuation in the next piece. Throughout it’s gravity gun flinging, crowbar bashing, Combine killing fun. For those of you familiar with Half-Life 2, everything you see here is pretty much the same – same weapons, same pseudo-outlandish physics engine (which I personally like), and for the most part the same enemies. The sole exception seems to be a zombie Combine soldier – like a regular zombie only tougher and faster and armed with grenades – Alyx calls them Zombines. Oh, and there’s now a zombie that looks like a dog, or at least it runs like a dog on all fours – maybe those were there last time and I just forgot about them. Alyx seems to have an unlimited supply of ammunition which comes in handy early in the game when ammo is in short supply (later it seems ridiculously plentiful), but, while tough, she’s not indestructible. If she dies, you lose – just something to keep in mind.
The Source engine is now, I don’t know, about a year old give or take, looks great, and doesn’t tax most systems. I would have liked to try the game on my old machine to prove that point, but with Steam, of course, I only get a single install even, I think, if I delete it off one machine to install it on another. Maybe I’m mistaken, or maybe that’s just Steam for you. I must admit that one advantage of Steam in this instance, and with episodic gaming general, is that (in theory at least) a game company could produce these mini games far faster than a full game, zip it to me via digital distribution, and allow me to play little pieces of new content more quickly and more often. Back in 1998 the Wing Commander series did a very similar thing, releasing the Secret Ops episodes online in small chunks every month or so (though I think those were free), and no one else but me remembers what the hell I’m talking about so I’ll stop now.
The economics of entertainment are a funny thing. A movie, about 100 minutes of entertainment or so, costs about $10 – no one seems to blink paying that. A novel, which in hardback is $25 or so, entertains for, say 6 hours (your mileage may vary significantly) – I see that as a bargain, though many people wait for the paperback, and still more people try to find the paperback used on Ebay. I pay almost $70 a month for cable – 500 channels and nothing but crap on. So why do people feel that $50 for a game that takes 15 hours to complete is so expensive? I don’t even know, and I’m one of them. And Half-Life 2: Episode One (4 hours, $20) part of what will presumably be 12 hours ($60), absolutely excellent (really, really excellent) gaming though it is, feels too expensive. I can’t change how I feel about that, but I can’t really justify it either. As I sit here thinking about all the game reviews I’ve written over the past six years (can you believe it’s been six years!), I can’t recall a single game that I knocked simply because I felt that it was too expensive, after all, I get them for free. Half-Life 2: Episode One, then, gets the dubious award of being the first – it’s an amazingly good, distressingly short game. Does Steam have a discount rack?