The Episodic Problem

Asknoone

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I understand the demand for the next instalment of the Half-Life series. Not only has it been four years since we last saw Gordon and friends in-game, but it’s been four years since we saw them at all. The rest of Valve’s repertoire has seen comics, full-blown sequels, DLC, frying pans and golf clubs. But whilst that doesn’t strike me as fair for those anxiously awaiting the next chapter, the absence of Episode Three is something I find relieving. Now, I’ve been meaning to write this article for a very, very long time, and the only reason it has been slow in coming is simply that I’m lazy. But this (specifically: “when [in 2007] Valve decided to put their episodic efforts on hold”) rejuvenated my interest in writing the piece, and all the questions I’d wanted to explore regarding the episodic experiment came back to me. So, here I am, fresh from a return to Valve’s alien-ridden dystopia, clearer – I hope – on exactly why the absence of Gordon’s culminating adventure is the best thing that could have happened to the series.

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The Episodic Problem[/box]​

That Valve have chosen to remain numb on the subject of the next instalment says to me that we are due a fully-fledged game in all but name (we’ll have to see if they title it “Episode Three” at all). I don’t mean to imply that a 4-to-6-hour adventure would be lacklustre after four years, and we have thus earned a longer title, but that perhaps it has occurred to Valve that Gordon Freeman’s adventures cannot be reduced to the minutiae of the “episode”. The serialised episode works as part of the bigger picture, but often that picture is illustrated extensively beforehand and the whole structure of the work is such that it is designed for the episodic format. It’s a question of content and form. An episode has its beginning, middle and end, and in the case of television series, we commonly judge an episode by its own merits. Valve’s episodes are likewise contained with their own respective themes and focuses, both in story and gameplay. Episode One had its focus on Alyx, both as a character and an efficient combat partner, and built a bridge between Half-Life 2’s close and the episodic ‘trilogy’s’ beginning. Episode Two introduced us to a wholly different setting, new enemies and launched the next phase of the story. It was more grandiose than Episode One, but it was nonetheless still an ‘episode’, and felt it.

In light not of Episode Three’s absence, but in looking retrospectively at the preceding games, I’m inclined to consider the decision to continue Freeman’s adventures in the episodic format a mistake. I can understand why they did it, and even now the decision makes sense from Valve’s point of view. Six years is a long time to build one game – to embark on another project of that scale would have been exhausting. We’ve also seen Team Fortress 2, Portal and Left 4 Dead in the post-HL2 era, and all of these games have benefited from what Valve learnt producing shorter instalments. But, as we can see from the missing final act, it hasn’t paid off for the Half-Life series. Playing through the two episodes again, I don’t believe that the core Half-Life storyline can be adapted to the episodic format. If the impetus was to release titles on a more regular basis, this came at odds with the specifications of the Half-Life series.

Half-Life 2 ending on a cliff-hanger naturally had us wanting more, and for Valve, who had spent half a decade building this world, it was a great opportunity to continue exploring it. Enter Episode One, a direct continuation of Half-Life 2’s storyline with players once again taking on the role of Gordon Freeman. Valve were quick to differentiate this game from the expansion pack model fans were familiar with. It continued the story from where you left it, rather than taking you back and seeing events in parallel from another perspective. It was an exciting prospect to think that the fate of Alyx, Eli and Mossman would be revealed so soon. To seal the deal, the veil was to be slowly lifted on the ominous G-man. Unfortunately, the act of bridging end and beginning doesn’t quite work. The out-of-character montage at the beginning of Episode One is an attempt to convert Half-Life 2’s crescendo to the demands of the episodic format, and here is its first slip up. Gordon is whisked away from the G-man by the Vortigaunts, diluting in one spurious moment the crushing inevitability of G-man’s control over you showcased mere hours before. Yes, the story is now in part about G-man losing control, but the event is handled with such casual swiftness that it barely registers. It’s an attitude that, as we shall see, predominates both episodes.

Deposited once again in that Eastern European, city-wide gulag, you discover the Citadel is about to detonate and take an area of several miles radius with it. I remember reading this initial premise in PC GAMER and picturing panic-stricken citizens rushing for the city’s borders, clambering over the dilapidated infrastructure before a storm of who-knows-what proportions devoured Valve’s prize setting. And yet on my final journey through Sector 17, I met this man:

[box=right]ep1_c17_020006.jpg
The true villain[/box]

The scene sets itself up nicely. Catching sight of us running down the street, the rebel sees we’re about to blunder into the soldiers now emerging from the tunnel. He hits the deck, aims his weapon, and blows them away. A hasty wave, and he’s gone. He’s not hanging around to see what happens next. But that’s not what happens. This total sod of a man just nonchalantly stands there with his rocket launcher, not even bothering to gesture down to us. Any sense of urgency the setting might have had is immediately nullified by an NPC’s that fails to react to his surroundings. Not even Alyx reacts to his presence – not even a “hey thanks for saving our lives”. If the Citadel once stood as a testament of Combine oppression and authority, it’s now an urgent reminder that you need to get the hell out of there. As a setting it should generate a sense of immediacy and tension and the game should be pushing on you to move. But with the rocket launcher man immobile and Alyx oblivious to his existence, the crumbling Citadel leaves the game’s reality and enters our own: it’s just a static object, and we need not fear it

It might be argued that given the rooftop he was on, he’d come from Barney’s base, but that only compounds the problem: those guys aren’t especially motivated either. They’re standing by the wall, sat on couches listening to Kleiner and making, well, jokes. Gallows humour? Maybe, but from every character? There’s some plan or other to get everyone on trains, but there doesn’t seem to be any rush to do so, despite the imminent danger they talk about. The dialogue Barney and Alyx exchange is sparse and boring; it is undoubtedly one of the worst scripted sequences in the series. Cobbled together to hasten the game’s progress, it’s tantamount to a mod team’s best efforts (which is not to disparage the mod community, of which I am a part: it’s an acknowledgement of the limitations of their situation, which is not an excuse Valve can use). Emotionally, neither Alyx, Barney or the rebels appear anxious or stressed, running counter to the setting’s requirements for tension. I want to feel like we should keep moving, but the bare minimum of effort to convey this mood has been applied. Can an episode accommodate such themes and do so effectively? Episode One is hardly a good example.

Recalling Water Hazard and even the later City 17 chapters of Half-Life 2, I felt a distinct atmosphere in both of them. The rebels’ need to get me moving through the canals as fast as possible was evident, and for the latter, the build-up in tension and climax as we approached our goal – the Citadel – was palpable and effective. The design did everything required of it to fuel the desire to surmount it. But the opposite is done to fuel the need to escape. Why? Alyx only appears urgent when prompted by static events, but is casual at all other times. Before I get to Episode Two, where the problems become even more egregious, I’d like to again touch on why I feel these problems are so prominent: the episodic format. Episode One is trying to tell a big story that requires a lot from its environment, its characters and its gameplay. In some aspects it succeeds: Episode One is still a good game that improves on its predecessor in a lot of ways (mostly gameplay related), but in many others – elements I feel were vital to Half-Life 2 – it fails.

Episode Two is a different case to Episode One in that there’s an attempt to create a bigger game. Episode One suffered an overfamiliarity resulting from a return to City 17 and the Citadel - settings we’d been heavily exposed to in the previous game. If in some respects it felt lazy and uninspired, perhaps it was this sense of fatigue we had. The ‘outlands’ were a gratifying introduction, responsible for much of how refreshing Episode Two felt. Indeed, there’s a lot of good about Episode Two, but unfortunately, the problem of a condensed main storyline continues unabated. The most distinct manifestation of this is in how light-hearted the tone feels. Does that sound like a silly criticism? I don’t think so, because tone is important, and Episode Two’s tone is all over the place. The tragic ending feels like a scene from another game. It registers on an emotional level in a way the rest of the episode barely aspires to. And that’s a shame, because it’s a ****ing great ending.

Life and death in the Half-Life franchise has always been important. Each death in Half-Life 2 was one less human on the planet – with the suppression field in place, that meant one step closer to total extinction. The situation in Episode Two is very different, largely due to the destruction of the Citadel and the relative freedom of the survivors. But I wouldn’t consider this a better situation than was had previously. The Combine suffered an embarrassing blow on an unimportant outpost called Earth which consequently left them without means to call home. If they return, they are not going to spare humanity. The situation is now black and white. Humanity no longer faces eternal oppression, but death. Should that super-portal open, Earth “won’t last seven minutes”

With that in mind, compare these two scenes from Half-Life 2 and Episode Two respectively:

In Half-Life 2, you first encounter the synth gunship on your journey along the coast. Once you’ve helped the rebel outpost shoot it out of the sky, the excellent Bailey score sounds and the reality of what you’re fighting for becomes a little clearer. Rebels, tired and injured, barely standing, wonder what it is they’ve managed to live a little longer for. It’s a poignant scene that works on a number of levels, emphasising the stakes and the odds we’re up against

Enter Episode Two. The set-up is similar: the Hunter Chopper chase comes to a bottleneck at a resistance outpost and, minus a rocket launcher, you have to find a way to take it down. The solution involves using the Gravity Gun to use its own mines against it, and it’s little innovative scenarios like this that work very well on a gameplay level. But on an emotional and story level, it doesn’t work at all. A few rebels were mercilessly shot down in the process, but a couple are still standing as the ensuing scene requires it. What interaction occurs between these two survivors? The two of them share a joke. More of that gallows humour, perhaps?

Not for me. For me, it underscores the lack of attentiveness the episodes have for Half-Life 2’s established world, thematics and tone, summarily pissing all over it for a few laughs. Laughs that, I presume, filtered in from the development of the more tongue-in-cheek aspects of Portal and Team Fortress 2, which were being developed simultaneously. The result is that the life and death struggle has been diluted in favour of goofy humour that pervades most encounters with human NPC’s (see Sheckley and Griggs, or, later in the game, the Ar2 scene). One need only look back at Half-Life 2 to emphasise the change. Ravenholm. for instance, is a place you just don’t go. Alyx is reserved and solemn when she speaks of it. She doesn’t seem to want to talk about it, making hint – although few were needed – that something terrible happened there. And so it did. Ravenholm was shelled by the Combine and its inhabitants transformed into the grotesque zombies we’re familiar with. It is an appalling fate. Throughout the episodes however, zombie encounters elicit a “ZOMBIE-Q!” from Alyx – even though their cacophonous cries are as unnerving as ever! Is it to make to Alyx more fun to be around? To make her a ‘cooler’ companion? Perhaps; she was, after all, the focal point of Episode One. But it has a clear and detrimental effect on the entire emotional core of the games, and I think something significant has been lost by that.

All of this can, arguably, only be the result of the episodic format and its need to accommodate and convey the scale of events from Half-Life 2. In a perverse way, perhaps the lack of a prolonged development cycle has taken Valve away from the intimacy of dealing with all of these different moments within the game. That six year development cycle imbued Half-Life 2 with something that a quick turnaround can’t quite replicate. Episode Three, on the other hand, might just have it: by not being an episode at all, but a game worthy of the continuation of Gordon Freeman’s story. If that does prove to be the case, let’s hope that Valve do eventually return to the episodic format, but create an experience born out of it, rather than for it.

I'll have more to follow on this topic in the near future, so if you'd like to keep up, feel free to email me or catch me on Twitter.
 

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brad92

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Damn good article, Ross. I especially loved the comparison you made between the Gunship scene in HL2 and the Hunter-Chopper scene in Ep2. I've always felt the latter was really off.

"You gotta give the Combine a lot of credit though. They're tough competitors. A real class act".

"Well, I could use a drink".

Really not cool.
 

Deadrawkstar

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Main Idea?: "I think Valve should make Half life Three instead of Episode 3."
Let me know if I got that wrong.
 

BabyHeadCrab

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Very well written, Ross. I personally believe the experiments with episodic gaming have made Valve realize they were working with novels, not comic books.

I think we can all agree that episodic gaming, as previously lauded by Valve and its affiliates, wasn't merely a failed experiment.

A lot has been learned testing the waters of episodic gaming. The end result of said trial and error will hopefully be a full fledged sequel to Half-Life 2 with a more maturate, less labyrinthine way to add additional content to the revered and often umbrageous tales of Gordon Freeman.
 

Tollbooth Willie

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You know, I'd never even given second thought to a lot of things in this article until reading it.
 

Tollbooth Willie

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Yeah. Pretty glad I read this article now. With Episodes 1 and 2 I kind of just went through the motions and that was that. Now that I think about a lot of things, well, it's different.
 

clem131

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Well written, interesting perspective, good examples and I agree about the general tone being a bit brighter in the Episodes than in HL2. I enjoyed it, though. I never saw it in the black/white perspective you talk about. To me, it was like "Ok, delivered a huge blow to the Combine, yay!". It fits, in my opinion.
I think that you make a tricky jump, though, going from the problem statement to the reason for these problems being the episodic content. You just state that. That's the issue, isn't it? It feels you should elaborate more on that rather than just stating that the issues in the game come from the need to rush it out. I don't think you can know that for sure. For example, it could have been the tone and humor from TF2 and Portal bleeding in, as you suggest, but if anything there is a higher probability of it happening over a long development time. Or it could have been intentional. Maybe the tone and setting were not supposed to be the same as in HL2 by design. What if they did it on purpose? It has been a while since I last played EP2 with commentary on, but I remember they explain that Griggs and Sheckley are the way they are on purpose, they were designed like that.
Thanks anyway, very nice read.
 

Boff

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I think another key understanding is the phrasing. The experiment into expisodic development.

I think people forget the "why". Why did valve do episodic, was it for our need of more content quicker and faster (entertainment as a service) or was it something a little different.

and the key word is "development".
HL2 drained Valve. Read the foreward in raising the bar - Gabe was utterly defeated, Crunch times, break ins, new gameplay paradigms, new engine, big risks etc etc. it was a huge drain, and gabe even mentions families breaking up in the process. Doing a bit of development myself and having a family I know exactly how horrible this situation is.
Having a price tag on a box in a shop as you walk past to see the years of bitter misery packaged like that and some snotty kid complains it's not worth the money for the length.
- oh my -.

With Source being modular, they just upgrade the engine and pump out new content without the stress of a big release, and due to the engine upgrading, all the games will be of the same graphical callibre. Valve time is an affect of valve planning and as we know valve plans don't always work out. The source engine upgrades being backdated, didn't work out. The epsiodes didn't work out. The development of the episodes wasn't working either.

The data pulled out from the episodic development experiment is dotted around in various interviews.
They admit they went delivering material of the same callibre as HL2, and the deadlines shifted from one big one to smaller but many deadlines so the issue of crunchtime didn't go away in the same way they'd hope.

I suspect a new model is in place. Work on stuff you want, when you feel like it - no questions asked.
When the project has reached enough critical mass of content, then the warning lights flash up and then they plough in all resources on tightening it up, spit and polish and get it out of the door.
 

Vic

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Terrific feature - I definitely agree with this. The Episodes truly were a mistake - but at least they taught Valve what to do and what not to do.
 
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Chris D

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Terrific feature - I definitely agree with this. The Episodes truly were a mistake - but at least they taught Valve what to do and what not to do.
Yes, it taught them never to release a Half-Life game again ;(
 

Vic

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Heh - not quite to that extent! I think (or, at the very least, I hope) they learned more about how length can be surprisingly important to establishing emotional and tonal integrity.

Ironically, many of these criticisms can be addressed to Portal 2 as well, although I suppose they had completely different objectives in mind when developing that.
 

Born

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In full agreement with this article. To be honest, I couldn't really stand having Alyx 'tagging along' in Episode 1. Don't get me wrong, Valve made a very, very solid effort to make her more than just an 'AI companion,' but unfortunately, that's exactly what she was. Her off hand comments and occasional outbursts such as 'Nice shot, gordon!', often weird pathing nodes and habits of edging into my line of sight just before I project an explosive barrel with the Gravity Gun just irritated the hell out of me. It ruined the immersion. Which, for me, is what made HL2 so goddamn special. Half Life is naturally not a cooperative game. Those 16-20 hours of relative loneliness and isolation in a foreign world was utterly, utterly brilliant. Not having Alyx around so much in Episode 2 was quite frankly a welcome relief. All of this being said, however, some parts in Episode 1 were put together nicely with Alyx; I particularly enjoyed her role as a sniper providing cover while you moved up City 17's streets.

I guess AI in computer games just isn't yet advanced enough to create the illusion of a genuine, life-like companion.
 

MFL

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Articles and conversations like this are what make this forum a unique place. True and fleshed out discourse and critique at a literary level of games that deserve to be talked and thought about, even years after the first times we played through them. Even if we don't always agree on the fine points, Samon, I do appreciate and respect your love for art, and the time, effort, and thought you put into your own.

p.s. Nice comeback.
 

Tollbooth Willie

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In full agreement with this article. To be honest, I couldn't really stand having Alyx 'tagging along' in Episode 1. Don't get me wrong, Valve made a very, very solid effort to make her more than just an 'AI companion,' but unfortunately, that's exactly what she was. Her off hand comments and occasional outbursts such as 'Nice shot, gordon!', often weird pathing nodes and habits of edging into my line of sight just before I project an explosive barrel with the Gravity Gun just irritated the hell out of me. It ruined the immersion. Which, for me, is what made HL2 so goddamn special. Half Life is naturally not a cooperative game. Those 16-20 hours of relative loneliness and isolation in a foreign world was utterly, utterly brilliant. Not having Alyx around so much in Episode 2 was quite frankly a welcome relief. All of this being said, however, some parts in Episode 1 were put together nicely with Alyx; I particularly enjoyed her role as a sniper providing cover while you moved up City 17's streets.

I guess AI in computer games just isn't yet advanced enough to create the illusion of a genuine, life-like companion.
Wow. Okay. You know what. I like this post. You just summed up a lot of my feelings on Episode 1 for me. Same goes for Episode 2.
 

Schru

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I don't think the problem stems from having Alyx around more than in Half-Life 2. She is a wonderfully crafted, convincing and expressive character, and using her as a proxy for various more elaborate emotional feedback can only enhance the narrative.

As Ross writes in his article, the problem lies in the overall choice of tone for the episodes, as well as what Valve chose to show happen to the fictional world as a consequence of the ending of Half-Life 2. While the main characters became more fleshed out and expressive, the universe was shrunk somewhat and the 'background' became less rich. Hence the more casual and easy-going, and not quite as immersive atmosphere.
 
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I knew it, my instincts and visions are allways right. I knew that episode 3 is going to turn into Half Life 3. Since my vision (All my visions came true) about Gordon waking up in a combine version of Aperture Sciense without a portal gun in a test chamber where you would die if it was Half Life 2. In the dream I was Gordon and I allmost died from the toxin waters but then by pressing the E bottun in the vision with Gordon's hands I grabbed on the wall's ledges(must be a new kind of a costum hand apllication like in the Portal 2 ending). Maybe I'm mad but those strange Half Life visions starts to look more and more true, because my instincts helpd me to get so many things like Garry's Mod 13 and a lot more.

Valve if youur reading this comment please tell me I'm right.
 
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Als that Black Aperture site is giving me a feeling that I'm right because I had the visions before the site went up.
 

Tagaziel

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It's a nice article, I'll give you that. However, I disagree with your assertion that the gallows' humor seems out of place. Consider the fact that most of the rebels, if not all of them, are not fresh to the battlefield. They've seen their friends, loved ones, total strangers taken away by the Combine, not once, not twice, but many times over. They are mostly desensitized and are used to being surrounded by death and suffering. Jokes are what I expect from survivors of a genocidal regime that dragged on for two decades. You're not from a communist country, so I understand that you may not understand how humans adapt to terrible living conditions and, in general, a crappy life. Soviet countries were characterized by a apathetic, indifferent population that could hardly put up any kind of resistance. The Combine is such a Soviet government, but turned up to eleven in all aspects. When you take this into account, the citizens' reactions (or rather lack thereof) are a realistic, plausible result of the environment they lived in for the past years.

That's why I expect rebels, particularly those in the Outlands, who had to endure much more brutal Combine operations, Xen wildlife rampages and issues with supply of basic necessities, to exhibit a morbid sense of humor and relative indifference to death and suffering of others. Because that's the right thing to do. You either build up an immunity, or you go crazy.

This has been true even in Half-Life 2. Barney, to maintain his cover, tortures innocent people as a CP on a regular basis. Does he feel any remorse? No, he only remarks about catching up on his beating quota. Does he show any concern for the well being of rebels that serve under him or Gordon? No, what matters are orders. Befehl ist befehl. We reach the Citadel or die trying. The same is true for any major character, except for Alyx, who, being the youngest in the cast, hasn't yet built up a wall of cynicism to protect her.

Besides: the reason Alyx's sorrow at the end of Episode 2 is because she is the first character who is crushed by someone's death. Having hardened veterans break up every time they see a comrade fall would be both terribly unrealistic and cliche. It would also cheapen the impact of Episode 2's ending.
 

kineaesth

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Having hardened veterans break up every time they see a comrade fall would be both terribly unrealistic and cliche. It would also cheapen the impact of Episode 2's ending.
This is very true, and I'm immediately reminded of "Winston's been hit" - no-nonsense, relatively unemotional, patch him up and get on with it
 

Asknoone

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I am delighted by the responses this article has received, particularly the range of rebuttals and criticisms (which, when I have more time and I'm not being forced to type on a Mac, I'll be responding to in full). The launch of the new site seemed a great opportunity to open up a dialogue about the two episodes that didn't consist of asking where Episode 3 was and when we were going to get it. They've been standing alone for a few years now and I wanted to go back and take a look at what they gave us and what, with that in mind, we can expect from the future of the series.

One of the things I want to repudiate the article of is the idea that these tonal shifts render the episodes unsalvageable. I don't believe that's the case at all and, as someone on Steampowered pointed out, summarily "pissing all over the game" for "a few laughs" is hyperbole. The effects the episodes have have not destroyed but dampened and weakened the overall arc.

Mik, I hear your point loud and clear, but I would argue the humour presented in the games is not consistently sardonic and in tune with the situation at hand. Yes there is a coping mechanism in place to deal with the harsh realities of Combine life / radical reversal of humanity's situation in the universe, but do you think it's presented as well as it could be, or is it merely humour without the subtext? Oliver's example is great, but there's none - or very little - of that in the episodes. I don't ask that NPCs show overly exaggerated emotion at the death of every comrade. I would also argue there's no evidence that Barney tortured anyone during his undercover work. That's an assumption and one that does not mesh with Barney's established character. The way he emphasises 'beating quota' is sarcastic.

Anyway, there is a lot more to be said about the episodic model and all the other factors that have contributed to the aspects of Episode One and Episode Two that I have criticised. I'll do my best in the next few days to respond properly.
 

SpotEnemyBoats

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Love the article, and whilst the fan community makes ridiculous puns of the lack of a new episode. Like you said, its not just the lack of innovation or any of the jazz, its about the tone and the overall direction of the episodes that felt sorely lacking. Doug Lombardi once said in other words that the episodes were going into the direction of Call of Duty, and a break from the Half-Life franchise was needed. We won't just have a game that will wow us all, but a game that will truly be a master piece just like the originals (Hl1 and HL2).

Valve isn't Activision, they won't use their premier franchise as a cash cow. For that, I applaud them.
 

dfc05

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Great article, and an enjoyable read. The only small point I'll nitpick on is that "each death in Half-Life 2 was one less human on the planet – with the suppression field in place, that meant one step closer to total extinction." Based on the reaction I've read before, most people thought the rebels who tagged along with you felt expendable (perhaps because they were constantly getting all up in yo' face all the time). I did tend to protect them obsessively when I played, but I thought that was because I'm a weirdo, not because they were particularly valuable.

I do agree that the Episodes pale in comparison to HL2 though. Less cohesive feel to them, and much less memorable.
 

ríomhaire

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The problem with rebels in Half-Life 2 is not that players treated them as expendable, they acted expendable. It's very difficult to stop them running into sniper fire because they get bored ten seconds after you tell them to wait in an area.
 

rjthrog

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yeah the artificial intelligence weren't so intelligent in city 17
 
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