Ahh, Half-Life 2 how I missed you so. When Valve announced that the adventures of Gordon Freeman would continue and we wouldn’t have to wait 3+ years I was ecstatic. With three announced episodic expansions coming, I anxiously awaited the release of the first on June 1st, 2006. Now that the time has come, I’m happy to say that Valve’s still at the top of their game when producing great FPS games and a total FPS experience.
The start of Half-Life 2 Episode 1 immediately follows the events of Half-Life 2. You’ll witness how you and Alyx survive the Citadel explosion. You’ll also see almost every character you interacted with in Half-Life 2 in some form or another. I’ll leave it at that as with a game like this it’s better to be surprised with what you will go through rather than have some reviewer spoil plot points for you. Needless to say, you’ll be wanting more when the episode does end especially with the way it does end.
Episode 1 lasts five chapters and gives you roughly five hours of gameplay. While that might not seem like a lot, there’s plenty of action and surprises in those five hours that makes this product worth the $20 investment for Half-Life fans. As with Half-Life 2, Episode 1 will take you through some really intense and creatively scripted sequences. There are some areas that can lead to frustration and you’ll have to die a few times or so to get past them but Valve has done a good job at minimizing these situations and the game autosaves frequently at good points.
Valve has always done a good job at intermixing puzzles and combat. Half-Life 2: Episode 1 continues that tradition and takes it up a notch. Part of the reason is Alyx has a really large role now in the game compared to Half-Life 2. She’ll be with your for the most part and provide a lot of the fire power early on. A great design decision was to make Alyx invulnerable. You’re not going to have to worry about your partner and you won’t be forced to restart since she doesn’t die. That’s pretty good as you’ll see her get into many situations where a vulnerable Alyx would’ve lead to many restarts. She is vital to the episode and offers a lot of help in taking down enemies as well as advancing the story through her hacking skills. With one less thing to worry about you’ll concentrate on keeping yourself alive throughout the game. When Alyx does need to protect you and herself, she does an admirable job. Between her sniping skills and her expert aim with small firearms, Alyx is one of the better AI teammates to grace the computer monitor.
A few puzzles involve the ever popular physics system that Valve has incorporated in the Source engine. Needing to manipulate the environment to go past certain areas, the game gives you the tools necessary but won’t make the puzzles impossible to figure out. The puzzles do offer a nice little break from the gunplay that’s prominent in the game.
The improvements on the engine that have been released in other previews and games are all tied together in Episode 1 to give the game an improved look. The HDR lighting really shines here and offers an impressive recreation of realistic lighting. The game’s visual looks cleaner and includes new features but there’s no high level leap in graphics quality since the release of Half-Life 2 over a year ago. The textures and models are improved but you won’t notice too much of a difference from the original game. That’s not a bad thing of course as Half-Life 2 does still hold up well by today’s standards.
The facial animations are also improved in Episode 1. You won’t have to look much further than seeing Alyx’s reactions throughout the game. From being scared to overly happy, the faction animations in the game are top notch and really convey how the character feels. Valve really hit the nail on the head in this area as it gives the computer generated characters lifelike appearance.
The sound is top notch and those with surround sound setups will benefit from the great use of it. I always liked the selection of sound effects that Valve used for the game and Episode 1 is no exception. The voice acting is also done well with Alyx providing most of the dialogue. The guns sound as powerful as before given some great feedback when you fire a weapon. From the powerful steps of the strider to the gurgling sounds of the zombies, the Half-Life 2 Episode 1 audible experience continues to be impressive.
Only two new monsters make their appearance in the first episode and one’s just a combination of a Combine soldier and a zombie. The new zombie does pack a punch with the grenades it carries. You’ll be doing a lot of back peddling as you see one charge at you with a live grenade in hand. The other monster can be seen in the Citadel level of Half-Life 2. The stalkers are skinner creatures that have a red LED light that shines from its eyes. These guys aren’t too tough and only do minimal damage with their melee attack but they are featured in one really cool scene involving a crashing train. Overall, nothing too new in the monster department so I’m hoping Episodes 2 and 3 offer up some new enemies to fight against.
No new hand weapons make their way into the series yet which is a little unfortunate. With that, you’ll be familiar with each weapon since you’ll have dealt with them before. The gravity gun is featured pretty heavily in the first half of the episode though. A twist on the rollermine does give you something new to play with as Alyx is able to turn any one of these annoying weapons into an ally. I was hoping that the cool sentry guns would make their way into the episode but they don’t show up in this part.
After finishing the episode, I was eager for more. That’s the problem with Valve’s long time frame between new content. While you’ll enjoy some great moments in Episode 1, you’ll have to wait a long time to experience more. It’s unfortunate that Episode 2 is slated for Spring of 2007 as Episode 1 was a great deal of fun. A nice little bit is that you’ll see a preview for the second Episode on completion of this one. There’s not too much new in terms of gameplay as much as things have been tweaked a bit. Because of this, there could be some fans that are disappointed with the lack of new weapons or monsters. What it does achieve though is successfully continue the great adventures of Gordon Freeman. The game gives fans of Half-Life 2 more of what made it such a big hit.