Half-Life 2: Episode One (2006)

Looking back, why did people not approach the prospect of yearly Half-Life installments with the same suspicion as a Thomas Pynchon book signing or a Jeff Mangum world tour? (Okay, so every once in awhile these things work out.) Valve’s monolithic, twice decade-defining flagship franchise condescending to become serialized, expansion pack entertainments instead of rare magnum opuses is like your most brilliant, successful longtime friend suddenly frequenting your hometown bar: sure, his presence is appreciated, but wouldn’t you sacrifice constantly seeing him to know he was still on the move toward grander goals? Valve’s desire to create these episodes is understandable, perhaps even noble; both full-length Half-Life titles’ development cycles sound like living hells that would turn any programmer’s hair grey, if he didn’t tear it all out in the process. Plus, a desire to give the world Half-Life at a more frequent and inexpensive rate places them somewhere between Santa Claus and the dudes who invented Napster on my list of generous individuals.

The problem, however, is this is not the Valve way. The company is an ever-buzzing brain trust that isn’t happy unless its members are blasting down the walls fencing in game physics and storytelling, or redefining the distribution paradigm with Steam, or wondering what reality would look like through a stupid-looking pair of goggles. Valve the ideal is so much grander than Valve the developer that when it actually gets around to making a game anymore, that title must stand for the same ambition and playful futurism as the rest of the corporation’s endeavors. The Half-Life episodes were fated to choke on their creator’s chutzpah from the start, dwarfed by the never-ending possibilities and ceaseless perfectionism to which they were once thought an antidote.

But Half-Life 2: Episode One must be judged by what it includes, not what it promises, and it is still an experience of extraordinary moments. It is a small meal, but an unexpectedly satiating one. Its complete similarity in tone and setting to its forefather (it will take until the comparatively pastoral Episode Two to even officially leave City 17) somehow manages to breed familiarity, but not contempt. Perhaps it is simply a pleasure to board this roller coaster once again, or maybe it proves that innovation is not the only key to brilliance. Both Half-Life episodes, along with the mythology-linked Portal games, subscribe to Half-Life 2‘s storytelling formula and are similarly accomplished games. (The original Portal, with its sly alligator grin and knottier themes, might even transcend it.) Episode One proves that a Half-Life game can, in fact, triumph on the strength of spectacle and setpieces alone.

It is also Valve’s most assured effort as covert action movie directors thus far, so dizzily and fantastically upping the stakes that lesser writers would have the characters constantly spouting, “Oh great, what else can go wrong!?” Elevators take just long enough to descend that Gordon and Alyx are set upon by zombies; successfully evacuating City 17’s refugees doesn’t save Gordon from facing off with a particularly nasty Strider. This is a breathless experience, one with no coastal drives or hiding out in a friend’s laboratory. As masterful as I found the pacing in Half-Life 2, there is a beautiful, masochistic joy to how Episode One moves from one gut punch to the next. Plus, it includes the series’ funniest joke: a rebel scientist awkwardly commanding everyone to get it on in the streets to stick it to their oppressors. (It’s even more oddball and hilarious coming from the generally sexless Valve.)

Episode One is best known as the moment Alyx Vance earned placement in the series’ promotional art right next to its goateed protagonist. I would argue that it’s earned, as over the course of the game, Alyx becomes a sounding board, tour guide, tag-team partner, and maybe even something akin to an actual character. If Valve designed Half-Life 2 to endear the player to Ms. Vance, here they work to make the player’s response to her borderline Pavlovian. Despite a conclusion that returns to its predecessor’s brief squad mechanics, Episode One is somehow even lonelier than the past Half-Life titles. It’s essentially a two-hander story, with Alyx filling the role of Gordon’s companion and window to the world. She is integral to understanding Episode One‘s narrative and the slight changes in its combat, so her departure is devastating if even for the briefest moment. She’s essentially cast in the reverse role of Yorda from Ico, but departing from either of these women feels surprisingly alike. I still don’t know if I would call Alyx Vance a complex character or the apex of how women should be portrayed in video games, but Episode One does render her one of gaming’s quintessential companions.

Perhaps the most shockingly un-Half-Life quality of Episode One is that one of its most notable innovations isn’t cutting edge physics or a revelatory means of narrative presentation, but a new enemy type that isn’t even truly new. The “Zombines,” Combine soldiers who have fallen victim to headcrabs (the name is coined by Alyx Vance, because of course she’s the sort of girl who would get a kick out of lame puns), really do intensify the firefights in Episode One. They are blunt steamrollers of creatures, often armed with grenades they fling haphazardly, and they are maddeningly entertaining to pick off in cramped hallways or unlit parking garages. Yet on a purely conceptual level, they seem like something out of a lesser game, their lame enemy hybridization like something out of a second string Resident Evil. The often unexpected maturation throughout the Half-Life saga makes it all the more frustrating when it decides to play to such an adolescent, male idea of “cool.”

If nothing else, Episode One provides Half-Life 2 with the denouement it deserves, ending at a cliffhanger which actually results directly from Gordon’s actions and not simply a fake-out twist. Valve must have realized the original ending created more frustration than intrigue, as the G-Man is sidelined early in this installment and not heard from again until Episode Two. But tossing Gordon’s omnipotent archnemesis says much more about Episode One‘s intentions: Like Gordon, Valve wanted to be freed from expectations and reclaim its free will. Episode One is brimming with all the whizz-bang scenarios and raw enthusiasm it needs to live up to its name, but it is also a rare portrait of one of gaming’s most unorthodox success stories trying “just” to make a great game when they want to do so much more.

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