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Half-Life 2: Episode One Review

By Jeff Buckland, 6/6/2006

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Played on:

PC

Opteron 165 @ 2.5GHz
2GB DDR-400 RAM
Radeon X1900XT Video

Half-Life 2: Episode One is Valve’s foray into “episodic games”. The idea is to give a smaller amount of gameplay at a very reasonable price (usually $20 or less), yet to still have the production values of a full-quality game. Episodic games only really will work as a business model as long as the development team can keep churning out new episodes, and in this case Valve Software is already hard at work on Episode Two, and many more episodes are planned for regular release.


Episode One picks up right where Half-Life 2, the hit first person shooter from 2004, left off. The major cataclysmic events of HL2 are partially explained and you find that life in this dystopian future Earth is still going on. Gordon Freeman, the main character, has lived through the encounter yet still never says a word (nor does the game ever stay from Gordon’s own first-person viewpoint). The alien Combine invaders have been cut off from their homeworld, but they still have a few tricks up their sleeve. Alyx Vance, your partner in crime and all around general hottie from the original game, is back and will help you throughout most of the game. This time, she’ll be staying with you for good, except for a few specific situations where you might get cut off from each other for a few minutes.

All of the enemies and weapons from HL2 are back in Episode One, along with a new enemy type. There are no vehicles to use, and the environments this time generally are more indoors and you’ll find they’re also more claustrophobic and horror-oriented. This is fun for a while, but I found that even with so much new art, it feels like one long run through the remains of City 17. There’s no coastline and no Ravenholm, and while there are some great scenes here, the environments aren’t nearly as varied. That’s not to say this game’s boring or anything like that, because it’s full of great scenes like the wait at the bottom of a parking garage for an elevator and it’s totally in the dark – you’ll need to use flares lying around as well as your hazard suit’s flashlight, which will need to be turned off to recharge after about 30 seconds, forcing you to fight in the dark. There’s also a hospital scene with some great action, and you’ll also find that Alyx can now use a shotgun as well as her trusty pistol. There is also a scene where Alyx gets the chance to cover your advance by sniping enemies behind you, but the whole thing is a little underwhelming as relatively few enemies actually attack at once.


The visuals here are rather similar to what we saw in HL2, and while it seemed there were some new special effects here in Episode One, the system requirements stay pretty much the same as the original game. High Dynamic Range lighting, which was first shown in the Lost Coast HL2 mini-level released least year, is in full use for Episode One and looks great. But you’re going to need a pretty powerful machine to do all this stuff with antialiasing at high resolution, so while the base system requirements are the same, you’re going to need more horsepower than you did for HL2 if you want to crank the detail all the way up.

While you’ll meet up with Barney this time around, you’re mostly cut off from the more memorable characters seen in the original game. The G-man and Dr. Kleiner make only small appearances while Judith Mossman and Eli Vance are missing altogether. Half-Life 2 did a great job of making you feel truly alone in some areas of the game while other parts have great characters to interact with, which are two pretty big extremes that were put to great use; Episode One sits right in the middle, forcing you to (mostly) stay with Alyx and holding back from showing the player any other characters. While this is most certainly a first person shooter with lots of action, the story and characters are what elevated HL2 far above its competition, and much of that is done here in Episode One.


Alyx really does become a major part of Episode One, so if you love her in the original game then this one’s easily worth the money. If you’re not much of a fan of her antics, though, then you won’t suddenly become one with this game. I really liked the few bits of comedy thrown into the game, and it’s Valve’s masterful use of body language, facial expressions, and smart writing that make these scenes truly funny. You’ll also find a few puzzle-type spots in the game which usually require you to study the area and use the excellent physics engine to progress. I never got stuck on one of these for more than a minute, and I found that much like these puzzles did in HL2, they helped pace the game better and brought the frantic action down a notch or two every once in a while.

Still, Episode One has a ton of action, and while they have compressed all this into a mere three to five hours’ worth of gameplay, I think you’ll still find it to be a great game that’s probably worth replaying once or twice. The price tag is very reasonable, being just under $20 over Steam, but you can also find it cheaper this week through many retailers (the lowest I saw was $12.99 at Fry’s). You also don’t actually need to own Half-Life 2 to play Episode One, although it really helps if you’ve actually played it. Finally, the Half-Life 2 Deathmatch package is given away for free via Steam to Episode One owners, so if you’ve never played any Valve games before, this is a great, cheap start to see if you’d like HL2.


While I found that a lot of things that made Half-Life 2 notable – going it alone in many places, using vehicles, interacting with a host of characters – are missing in Episode One, I still really enjoyed the experience, and appreciated how Valve this time made it feel almost like a survival horror game. There were some missed opportunities for great gameplay and a couple of annoying parts that keep this one from being truly stellar, and while some have complained that despite the low price the game does feel overall pretty short (and I’d tend to agree), I think that it’s still a great addition to Half-Life 2. Let’s hope that for Episode Two we get something more like five to seven hours’ worth of gameplay and some more concrete answers as to what’s happening with the characters that we didn’t see much of in this episode.

Overall: 88%

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