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Half-Life 2: Episode 1 Review | by Mike
June 4, 2006 (4:35am EST)
After delaying Half-Life a year and Half-Life 2 another year, I think Valve finally realized that they should just give up on the whole full game thing. They might be good at making games, but they sure as hell suck at meeting deadlines. I don't even know why they bother setting them, because they always seem to get pushed back. Episode 1 of Half-Life 2 is no different, but at least it was only delayed a couple months and not a full year.

Brief rundown: Originally called Aftermath, Episode 1 was renamed to reflect Valve's new hard-on for episodic content. That is to say, smaller games for cheaper. So instead of the 12 - 15 or so hours of play you got for $50 with Half-Life 2, you get about 3 - 4 hours of gameplay for $20. If you do the math then you're actually getting somewhat ripped off here in terms of gameplay, but honestly I think it's a better product than Half-Life 2.

Half-Life 2 was a great game, don't get me wrong. It was a lot of fun and very well designed, but some parts were almost artificially drawn out to make it longer. The boat sequence is the best example here. Episode 1 gives no such feelings. There's a good deal of action all the way through, and you actually feel like you're accomplishing things as you progress. This is helped along by all the puzzles you have to solve, which are quite nicely done and a bit less blatant than they were in Half-Life 2 (and none of them really involve physics either).

The story takes place right where Half-Life 2 ended. If you recall you blow up the dark matter fusion reactor or some crap like that and there's an explosion and the G-Man freezes time and yanks you out of there. What-the-fuck's follow and people curse Valve for the less than satisfying ending. Episode 1 opens with you being pulled away from the G-Man by Vortiguants and Alyx being saved by them as well. Nothing more than that gets answered during gameplay, and I suspect we won't know more than speculation for a while.

After that you embark upon a mission to stop the Citadel from exploding. Normally that wouldn't be a bad thing, except that it's going to be a really big explosion and you're kind of still right next to it (Vortiguants are helpful, but apparently not too bright). Also apparently when the Citadel explodes it will send out some kind of beacon to the Combine homeworld that will tell them how badly everything got screwed up by that jerk in the HEV suit. Thanks a lot Gordon.

From there the game takes you to a fairly varied number of locations. After messing around in the Citadel with the super gravity gun (always a pleasure), you're thrust into a zombie movie with the, uh, zombies. Including the game's lone new enemy; head-crabbed Combine soldiers, lovingly dubbed 'zombines' by Alyx. The zombines make me laugh because they groan in the Combine voice (somehow that little radio in their helmet still works I guess) and they hold grenades over their heads (sometimes) until they explode or you kill them (and then the grenade still explodes of course). They have a bit more health than a standard zombie and they're faster (though not as fast as the insane building jumping fuck-you zombies you first encounter in Ravenholm), but not too much to deal with.

The zombie sequence is particularly good because you for interaction with Alyx. Ammo is somewhat scarce, so it's a good idea to let her take down the majority of the bad dudes. However the zombie-infested zone is very dark, and Alyx can't see, so you need to keep your flashlight on the zombies and she'll gladly take them out.

Once you're back on the surface you're faced mostly with Combine soldiers, gunships and the always annoying antlions. Antlions are of course infinite in numbers, so you need to devise ways to stop them from flying out of their little nests before they drive you insane. Not too hard to do, but I won't give it away.

After all that the final two sequences involve you escorting some City 17 citizens to an escape train out of the doomed city (the Citadel explosion will take down the whole thing) and an incredibly annoying and persistent strider. The escort sequence is kind of annoying and almost seems forced at times, but it's still pretty fun. Though it's always amusing when the AI has clear view of the safe zone they have to get to, but instead stops to shoot some Combine soldiers across the map. The strider sequence was frustrating (for me anyway), but a lot of fun. And it's always satisfying to kill one of those things, especially when it has been annoying you for the last 15 minutes.

And then there's Alyx. Normally when you have an AI following you around for most of a game it's annoying. However Alyx, while annoying once in a while, is actually very well done. She actually reacts (and reacts properly) to what's going on around her. If she's swamped by enemies she'll call for help, if she can't see she'll tell you to turn on your flashlight (and she won't shoot things if she can't see them). Even when you shine your flashlight in her face she'll react by shielding her eyes like a normal person would. And one of the more satisfying things she does is when she actually celebrates and cheers for you after you take down a particularly large enemy (which I think may be a first for an NPC).

As far as graphics go, it pretty much looks like the Source engine and Half-Life 2. HDR is still kind of stupid looking, but other than that it's nice looking and well done, as you'd expect from Valve. There are minor improvements here and there, mainly some subtle changes to Alyx's shaders and such, but otherwise it's remained the same look-wise.

Sound is, of course, great. The weapons, enemies (in particular one sequence with the Stalkers, which by the way I don't really count as an enemy since they can't hurt you) and ambient sounds are all great. The voice acting, as well, is top notch. Alyx, in specific, has a ton of lines, and all of them are delivered very well. You get a real sense of how Alyx is feeling based on what she says and how she says it. There are even a few moments where she is visibly shaken by a recent situation.

Overall, Episode one is very well done. Above I stated that in terms of the amount of gameplay, the prices don't match up with a full game. However in the 3+ hours I took to play this, I was never once bored or frustrated with it. The overall quality of the gameplay is high and the action is condensed compared to Half-Life 2, so you're getting a good six or seven hours of game crammed into three hours. The story is still lacking, but you do find out some things about what the events of Half-Life 2 caused and the whole G-Man is screwed angle has come into play. Hopefully more of this will be answered in subsequent episodes. Aside from that though, you get some very well done interaction with Alyx, a lot of fun zombie killing and overall it's just a well put together episode.

I'm not sure if episodic content is the way of the future, and if it is I highly doubt many other companies will be able to put together things as well as Valve (I believe Ritual has already proven that aspect with Sin Episodes, though I have not played Emergence yet). However, right now, this episode is well worth your $20. Now enjoy these screenshots!
Half-Life 2: Episode 1

The Citadel is fucked... and you get to go inside!

Dog still kicks ass.

Stalkers are big jerks, but otherwise harmless.

Is that HDR all over you, or are you happy to see me.

Okay, 'Zombine', I fucking get it. Jesus Christ.

Oh shi-

Kleiner is the new Breen! We're fucked!

It's like the poor man's version of that part in Half-Life. I hated that part.

I'm still waiting for that beer, you jerk.

Why do gunships continue to fuck with Gordon Freeman?


Another shot from outside.

My merry squad of idiots. That asshole in the blue didn't even bring a gun. Honestly, who lives in City 17 and doesn't own a gun?

Barney catches the express train the fuck out of this dump.