When I first finished the original Half Life, even after saving the bulk of humanity, I felt a certain measure of irritation at the cliffhanger ending. So, with some reservation, I went out and bought myself a copy of Valve's latest add-on pack for that title, Half Life 2: Episode 1, on the principle that nothing is worse than uncertainty. Plus, I like to blow stuff up.
This is the Combine's idea of City Planning.
First, a little background (I'll try to keep it as spoiler free as possible, don't worry). Half Life 2: Episode 1 continues where the first game ends, immediately after the destruction of the Citadel. Alyx and Gordon are trying to escape the city before the Citadel's reactor goes critical and turns into the biggest Roman candle you or anyone else have ever seen. You must stabilize the reactor or everything for miles around will be reduced to glowing mist.
Be warned: Half Life 2: Episode 1 is a high-end title, graphics-wise, with lots of shiny things that could slow you down. I ran my copy at 800X600 resolution on a ATI Radeon 9500 graphics card at approximately 34 FPS, and it ran smoothly except for some lag when loading.
The game does do some things differently than the original title. For one, you are hardly ever alone in Episode 1, since most the game revolves around you and Alyx trying to escape City 17 and to help out various other resistance members along the way. Valve decided to make this process easier on you by changing the nature of team or squad based combat. You don't directly control your teammates; rather, the NPC AI works in conjunction with you, making its own tactical decisions on the fly. This system reaches its apex in your collaboration with Alyx. For example, in one area that has no artificial or natural light, you have to shine the flashlight on your enemies while Alyx uses her pistol to take them down. The fact that the NPCs are no longer simply cannon fodder for you to hide behind makes the game very exciting.
This isn't Grand Theft Auto so saving her life will not make her like you.
There are no new weapons for you to play with, unfortunately, but don't let that distract you from the experience. For most of the early part of the game you are only armed with the gravity gun. Later, you will receive all the weapons you had in the original game as you make your way along. You will even get another crowbar from your old friend Barney Calhoun. It makes you wonder if he thinks you have some odd attachment to crowbars.
The story itself is compelling enough, despite its brevity, to keep players wondering what will happen next. Valve must be commended for making the other characters in the game three-dimensional in more then just how they look. There are a number of personal touches in them, as well as little personal quirks that prevent them from becoming dull. For example, Dr. Kleiner's urging of the remaining City 17 population to indulge in the urge to procreate and to "do their part" in rebuilding the human race in such a straight faced and academic way is a good example of this, along with Alyx's response to the speech: "Is Dr. Kleiner really telling everyone to get busy?"
As far as challenge goes, the game gives you plenty of this as well. Episode 1's focus seems to have shifted away from run and gun action against large groups of enemies (although this does play a part) to solving puzzles and overcoming challenges via the player's coordination and reflexes. For my money you can't do much better then having to catch large pieces of metal in mid air with your gravity gun before they smash an elevator platform. Miss one piece of debris, and you and Alyx will take a one-way ride to the basement and a messy death. Such puzzles can occasionally be frustrating, but do inject more challenge into the game.
Last, the new cooperative battle system really makes an already great game even better. Players will get to see more of City 17 than ever before. Expect to experience new combat and puzzle challenges, such as negotiating a room filled with laser alarms or engaging in a running battle with three Striders outside a museum.
Gordon, stop trying to pull off my shirt with the gravity gun!
Gameplay-8 Gameplay is exactly the same as the previous installment. You walk, you run, you crouch, you swim, and you also get knocked clear across the room when that grenade you failed to notice detonates right under you. Fortunately, your old pal the auto save system returns as well- at the start of every chapter and at certain important points in the chapter the game auto saves your progress quickly and easily so you can get along with what you're doing.
Graphics-10 Episode 1's graphics continue to remain at their usual high standard from the previous game and remain largely unchanged. The characters are great and the level of detail provides an experience that is extremely easy for anyone to get immersed in. The improvements to the character modeling are more on the nature of touching up work, but they look even better then they did in the first game.
Audio-8 I should say a little more about the audio here because, honestly, it goes a lot to making it easier to immerse yourself in the experience. There is, for instance, a time when you enter a dimly lit parking garage and, right on cue, the music jumps up. It's a dark, but not quiet, piece that makes you sit up and look around for what might be coming at you. It's that and other scores throughout the game that cause you to delve deeply into the game until the sound of your growling stomach disrupts your focus. I'm not exaggerating; that's exactly what happened to me, so be prepared!
Value-8 At $20.00, Half Life 2 Episode 1 is a good value for the money. The only downside is the shortness of the game- most players will probably beat it in a day or two. Despite that minor flaw, however, Episode 1 is a great game that no fan of the Half Life 2 should be disappointed with.
Curve-8 The game has a great shine to it. It is absolutely beautiful with everything from the way the characters look and move. Kudos to Valve for doing such excellent work at giving us such high class eye candy.