Further to my earlier post, I'm now somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of the way through Half-Life 2: Episode 1, and it seems that most of what I wanted has been granted to me. The first two chapters give you no weapons but the gravity gun, which is a good move. By taking away your ability to shoot enemies, it removes the traditional run-and-gun mentality and leaves you really free to be immersed in the world the game presents. Friend and ally Alyx Vance is with you pretty much the whole way, and she's got new items of body language to round her out for the extra screen time.
But the thing that's really just blown me away is a sequence that the game entitles "Lowlife". After a train crash, the player and Alyx must travel through a series of underground traffic tunnels in an attempt to reach their destination.
The original Half-Life 2 executed this idea numerous times, including a section riffing heavily on the tunnel breakdown from 28 Days Later. What makes this set-piece genius, though, is its execution.
The player begins the sequence with only the gravity gun (which makes for an unwieldy and ineffective weapon) and the ubiquitous flashlight. Alyx, by contrast, has some variety of semi-automatic pistol. The tunnel is so dark that you can see absolutely nothing except what the flashlight illuminates. In order to progress, you have to light the way ahead through an obstacle course of broken down cars and collapsed girders. The area is crawling with zombies and headcrabs, which Alyx can shoot - but only if she can see them. What's more, the flashlight battery runs down, and can only be recharged by leaving the flashlight off for a period. Some of the more crafty zombies will only begin moving when the lights go out - but luckily you can listen out for their trademark moans and groans. Alyx keeps up running chatter throughout the entire sequence, without becoming repetitive, and also takes the opportunity to reveal in a roundabout manner that she's tired, nervous, and a little scared of the dark. (She tells bad jokes, by the way.)
The role reversal, with the player as guide and the NPC as the muscle, is effective in and of itself, but the sequence also cleverly shows off some of the tech improvements in Episode One, include HDR lighting, which emulates the way the human eye reacts to extremes of darkness and bright light. The darkness-and-light gimmick creates some nice opportunities for clever level design, too. In one instance, your torch beam picks out a long fibrous ligament dangling across the path. Experience with the game will lead the player to visually follow the ligament to the roof to see the barnacle-alien that uses the long sticky tongue to bait prey - and this motion also reveals the nearby headcrab clinging to the ceiling, about topounce! It's a nice horror-style tease and reveal, and the designers obviously thought it was clever too, because they (unwisely) use it again five minutes later.
"Lowlife" is such a fantastic sequence because normally games divide their goals up into different sections - first suspense, then action, then a pause for plot and characterisation. Here the designers fire all chambers simultaneously, combining action, mood, puzzling, and characterisation, and this is exactly the sort of direction that gaming should be going. The icing on the cake is a plethora of small details designed specifically for this sequence, starting with Alyx's bad jokes and irritated comments on the flashlight's battery life, and going through to the way she'll shield her eyes if you shine the light directly at her. She comments on pretty much anything out of the ordinary you lay your eyes on, too.
It's some of the best cinematic gaming I've had in recent memory. Now I just hope the rest of Episode One keeps up the standard!