Half Life 2, like the original Half Life that preceded it, did a lot to change the face of gaming as we know it. It made things like ragdoll physics absolutely mandatory for any game that deemed itself “cutting edge”. It was arguably the first major release for the Steam content delivery service, which overcame several hurdles to become the success story it is today. Half Life 2 set new standards in how you tell a story through a game, and now Valve hopes to change things up in the gaming world once again, by releasing episodic add-ons to what some believe to be the best game of this decade.
Half Life: Episode 1 begins exactly where Half Life 2 ended, Alyx Vance is mysteriously rescued by Vortigaunts, and Gordon Freeman is even more mysteriously delivered from the clutches of the ever elusive G-Man. The protagonists find themselves outside the Citadel building of City 17; a structure which is in it’s death throes. All of these story elements are revealed to the character from the perspective of Gordon. It is this type of story telling that the Half Life series has popularized, and it continues to work well; Valve has become a master of their art over the years, providing increasingly stunning set pieces and scripted elements that still feel spontaneous, even on repeated play-throughs.
For the most part, Episode 1 provides little in the means of new weapons or environments like your average expansion might, but what it does provide are a series of exciting battles and encounters, and some level of resolution to the frustratingly obscure cliff hanger that was seen in the final moments of Half Life 2. Throughout this very brief episode you’ll fight zombies underground, battle Ant Lions in an abandoned parking lot, take part in numerous skirmishes with the remaining Combine of City 17, lead stragglers to victory through enemy fire in a train yard, and even take down a few Striders in some wonderfully paced set pieces near the episodes close.
Some may find the brevity of the episode displeasing, but it manages to pack in so many adrenaline fueled escapades, and most importantly, so much fun that it is hard to feel disappointed, especially considering the price point. Whether you are downloading the episode on Steam or playing it as part of the Orange Box on consoles, you’ll easily be getting your money’s worth.
Episode 1 manages to make quite a few subtle graphical improvements to Half Life 2, and they are a nice addition to a game that already looked pretty phenomenal. Lighting is more realistic, and is showcased well in the episode’s underground sections. The animation has also been tweaked a little, a welcome change considering the stiffness of certain movements in Half Life 2. The improvements are most noticeable on Alyx, which is good because there are very few moments where she won’t be by your side killing zombies and Combine soldiers, occasionally even a Zombine or two.
Alyx is an exercise in friendly AI done correctly. She never becomes a burden, and more often than not will be an important ally, killing zombies that pounce from behind that you had no idea where there, and provides witty banter throughout the ordeal. It’s a shame that more games can’t spend time cultivating their AI’s behavior, if more companies spent as much time as Valve we might not have such dreadful computer controlled friends in video games, who often send themselves careening off cliffs, into enemy fire, or both on a really bad day.
With Episode 1, Valve has demonstrated a new standard of constructing entertainment. Because the ride is short, it is filled to the brim with exciting moments from start to finish. The lack of down time immerses you in a feeling of immediacy and urgency, heightened by the almost constant presence of the Citadel in the distance as it prepares to implode.
All in all, Episode 1 is a great experience at a reasonable price. It’s perfect for a saturday afternoon when you have a few hours to kill, and although around the length of an epic film at 2 to 3 hours, you’ll find your self infinitely more entertained than if you were simply watching events unfold on a screen. Valve has demonstrated that episodic gaming may very well be the future, as digital distribution seems nearly ready to overtake the hard media format. Episode 1 is a shining example of what is possible when a development team puts their heart into their work, and although not as revolutionary as the game from which it is based, it’s indeed an experience worth having.
The graphics are improved upon a foundation that was already great, and new touches in the lighting and animation department really sell the experience
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After all this time Half Life still hasn't gotten old and perhaps it never will. The gameplay is as solid as ever, from the first whack of the crowbar to the last.
The sound design of the Half Life team is unparelled, not only from the quality of it's effects but the originality as well. So many sounds are iconic to the Half Life universe and they are represented perfectly here.
Half Life fanatics will enjoy playing through this again and again, but for your average gamer this is going to be a one time experience
A solid induction into the Half Life saga, not a major step forward for gaming as a whole, but a riveting and exciting time none the less.