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Half-Life: Episodic Screwup

Valve screwed up.

Valve screwed up in a major fashion.

There. That should have sufficiently gotten everyone’s attention.

No, I’m not talking about Left 4 Dead 2. I’m actually on their side with that one.

I’m talking about a different issue entirely. One which is admittedly less timely but still close to my heart. A recent interview with Gabe Newell, co-founder of Valve, brought this issue back into my mind and I realized that I had never written down my thoughts on the subject before.

Quite simply, the decision to make Half-Life 3 into a series of episodic installments was a mistake.

Half-Life 2 remains one of my favorite shooters of all time. The combat, pacing, story, environments, and character development are all nearly unmatched.

Valve decided to follow up on this smashing success with three episodic installments with the idea being that they would take the place of what Half-Life 3 would have been.

We’re approaching five years since the release of the second Half-Life and I find myself decidedly unfulfilled.

Not only has Valve not yet even finished the three Half-Life “episodes” yet, but Episode 3 has some wickedly difficult work ahead of it if it hopes to finish off the episodes in a fashion even a fraction as satisfying as a full game would have been.

I had fun with the episodes, sure, but it felt like they were meeting me halfway. For every step forward they took, it felt like there was an accompanying step back.

The strong point of the Half-Life episodes was clearly story. That’s just about all Episdoe 1 had going for it. There were no new weapons, the campaign was very short, it reused many of the same obstacles and scenarios we had already seen in Half-Life 2, but Episode 1 was a short but significant little chunk of story.

But in exchange for that story, we got what felt like a rehash of Half-Life 2. It did not feel like the beginning of a proper new story arc or gameplay experience. It felt like a tacked-on extension of the previous story arc with recycled gameplay ideas.

Episode 2 was better. At least in the finale you got one new weapon to play with. It wasn’t enough to make up for the lack of new stuff in the episodes to that point, but it was something and it was coupled with a fairly spectacular finale that actually did manage to change up the gameplay a bit, however briefly. Episode 2 also nicely continued the tradition of great story in the episodes.

But again, problems struck.

The gameplay mechanic of stripping all the player’s weapons away and forcing the player to slowly find them over the course of the game works well over 10 to 20 hours. It does not work so well over the course of two five-hour episodes.

It got old. It just added to the feeling that Valve was just reusing tricks to make these episodes feel more substantial than they really were.

The only real innovation present in the episodes was the story. Everything else was like tiny chunks of Half-Life ripped out of a full game that did not feel as substantial without the context of the rest of the game around it.

I haven’t even mentioned the most significant thing that I feel is missing from the Half-Life episodes, and that is substance and pacing.

By far my favorite thing about the Half-Life series is that the full games feel meaty. They feel satisfying. From start to finish you get a compelling story arc, you get tons of places to go, you get a great story, lots of fantastic set pieces, terrific character development, a great variety of things to see and do, and places to explore. The games feel worth your time and keep you interested for the entire ride; a ride that is not only longer than most other shooters but far, far more interesting.

I think there is a reason that most shooters today only last six to eight hours and I don’t believe it is because the budget only allows them to be that long. I think the true reason is that they can’t be interesting for any longer.

But Half-Life games can.

They’re more than just the same old run and gun shooting mechanics. They give players a true adventure, not just a shooter. The Half-Life episodes remove this adventure aspect.

By repeating the same “lose your weapons and then find them all again” arc, by doling out the Half-Life experience in such small, disconnected chunks, you lose that grand feeling of adventure that I so loved in the Half-Life games, and that is the most egregious sin of all.

Stripping the Half-Life series of their adventure spirit is taking the Half-Life out of Half-Life.

It’s entirely possible that once Episode 3 is released some mystical day in the far off future, that it will, somehow, manage to connect all of these disparate elements, to pull all three episodes together, and to finally make all three episodes into the proper Half-Life 3 story arc that was supposed to have been.

But it’s got a hell of a lot of work cut out for it if it hopes to do that.

Long story short, Episode 3 needs to be Half-Life 3 for this to work in Valve’s favor.

Now don’t go misunderstanding me. The Half-Life episodes, despite all my gripes with them, despite my lamentations over what could have been, still remain some of the best shooting experiences out there.

Sure I vastly would have preferred a longer wait for a fuller, more satisfying installment. Sure I think that breaking the experience up into episodes was a mistake. Sure I think that Valve completely and totally missed the point of the whole “episodic” fad it was so desperately trying to latch onto (not to mention overestimated its capability to deliver an experience catering to that formula in a timely fashion). Sure I think that the Half-Life franchise just does not translate well to episodes.

But, they’re still better made than the vast majority of shooters on the market and they’re still more fun.

That’s the amazing thing about Valve’s creativity and talent. Despite the fact that I feel that the Half-Life episodes are too short, not as satisfying, and reusing many of the tricks of their bigger, fuller Half-Life 2 sibling, they’re still better than just about everything else out there.

That is why I want to see Valve finally put the full force of their talent into a full Half-Life 3.
It’s time.

It’s been close to five years since Half-Life 2 and we don’t even seem close to getting Episode 3, much less Half-Life 3 proper. If Episode 3 is just another short episode, I don’t even want to think about how long it’s going to take them to actually get us Half-Life 3 proper.

The bottom line is, the Half-Life series is one of my favorite of all time. It is for only that reason that I am being so hard on it. I feel like the episodes, while great for what they are, do not live up to the full potential of what a Half-Life experience could really be.

Hopefully Valve will find some way to make good on that potential sooner rather than later.

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Reader Comments (1)

I agree, I was unimpressed with the HL2 episodes. I mean, I love them. I love the story and was always driven to play. But I can't wait to finish the game and was thrown off by the odd, short episodes within part two.

August 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLuke

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