Escape From City 17: A Celebration of Half-Life 2: Episode 1
When you talk about a game that ignited a fan base into a fervor of praise, adulation, and demand for a follow-up, it’s almost impossible not to talk about Half-Life 2. The second coming of Gordon Freeman was one of the grandest interactive spectacles of in all of video games. In terms of weaponry, enemies and storytelling, Freeman’s journey to free humanity from the clutches of the Combine is top tier and its vague ending left players hungry to explore more of the universe and the aftermath of Half-Life 2’s events. Valve was happy to oblige in a unique way, bringing us the first chapter of a story that not only explored the crumbling of the Combine Citadel, but would also put a fan-favorite character in the spotlight. Today marks the arrival of Valve’s first experimental foray into the episodic experience with Half-Life 2: Episode 1.
The development of the Half-Life 2 episodic trilogy brought many different approaches for Valve. It was the first story of the series written by a collaborative group lead by Marc Laidlaw, rather than solely Laidlaw himself. It was also the first expansion for the series that Valve handled entirely in-house as opposed to going to outside contractors. The developer’s goal in this first episode was to establish the characters and world following the crumbling of the Combine’s influence in a battle scarred Citadel and City 17. Players would visit familiar locale and see the far-reaching effects of the damage they had done in the core game.
Integral to this was Alyx Vance. Gordon’s occasional ally in Half-Life 2’s core game was brought alongside Gordon as more of a partner and navigational tool, not unlike Navi from The Legend of Zelda in terms of role. Alyx’s A.I. was reworked to not just guide, but often times react to Gordon in context to his actions. However, a big difference was in the obtrusiveness of the character. Where many other guides are pushy and often annoying, Alyx is made to be more natural and dialed back, allowing the player to progress at their own pace without unwelcome pressure. Alyx was also designed to help the character in a given context, such as taking up strategic positions to cover Gordon or take point on killing enemies Gordon directs her to in order to converse precious ammo. The result was a strong and believable companion that makes Gordon’s journey through the game far less lonesome.
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 retreads a lot of ground and doesn’t introduce a lot of new things. Rather, it revisited and re-used previous concepts and ideas in a post Half-Life 2 state. Gordon and Alyx find themselves in the crumbling City 17 where the damaged Citadel from which the Combine controlled the populace is in danger of collapsing and exploding due to Gordon’s actions in the core game. Gordon and Alyx take on another mission to stabilize the deteriorating Citadel just long enough to allow the citizens of City 17 to escape. Even for the reuse of so much material from the main game, Half-Life 2: Episode 1 was impressive in allowing players to see the disarray of structures, civilians, enemy forces and other widespread effects of the war on the Combine.
Half-Life 2 Episode 1 would never manage to reach the accolades of its core game, but it did manage to retread numerous elements from Half-Life 2 in a new and compelling way. The setting continuity is spun in a way that makes for another good adventure. Additionally, Alyx’s role and participation in the game was stellar. With her quirks, quips and support, she makes for arguably one of the best sidekicks to ever come out of any video game. Episode 1 may not have gotten that perfect 10, but it was a worthwhile addition to the universe of Half-Life nonetheless.