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Game: Half-Life 2: Episode 1
Developer: Valve
Publisher: Valve
Year: 2006
Reviewed: 2008
Platform: PC
Genre: FPS
Reviewer: ValkyrDeath

Two years after Half-Life 2 came out, and we get the first of three episodic sequels. As usual with Valve’s releases, it’s a high quality release, just disappointingly short. Most of the attention to detail that marked the previous Half-Life games as great are here again, but it doesn’t quite match the full length game overall. Having said that, it’s still beyond almost anything anyone else has put out in the genre.

Half-Life 2 Episode 1 Alyx and a bridge
Umm…ladies first…

One of the best elements to distinguish the game from its predecessor is the fact that Alyx will now accompany you for the entire game, only occasionally leaving your side such as when you set off on one of Gordon Freeman’s inevitable vent crawls. Alyx is a very useful ally, especially in the middle section of the game, and proves herself to be capable of taking out enemies far better than the friendly AI in most games has ever managed. It is possible for Alyx to get killed, but she seems to be actually made out of some sort of bullet-proof material and it’s practically impossible for this to happen without actively going out of your way to get her killed. This is A Good Thing, since one of the chief problems with allied AI in first person shooters has been the annoyance of trying to keep the hopeless gits alive as they do their best to get themselves killed at every opportunity. Alyx, on the other hand, is more likely to kick the headcrab off any zombies that come close to her than have her brains consumed.

Episode 1 can be roughly separated into three segments providing different gaming experiences and offering some of the diversity of the previous game while still managing to keep the consistency of everything fitting into its place in the game’s world. I’ll talk briefly about each of these. The first third of the game, after a rather lengthy but entertaining exposition sequence, sends you back into the Citadel in its new chaotic state. The interesting thing about this whole section is that you’ll spend it armed only with the gravity gun, albeit the more powerful enhanced version that the Citadel’s badly planned security system leaves you with. This makes the area feel more like a puzzle game, adding some variety to the gameplay. The environmental puzzles are well planned and implemented without being overly difficult, and it’s nice to have a change from the usual FPS gunplay.

The middle segment of the game is where Alyx’s company really proves its usefulness. During your escape from the Citadel you’ll find yourself in dark zombie infested areas. A core mechanic of this area is the use of the torch. This not only allows you to see, which is always a benefit when in the dark, but also allows you to direct Alyx’s fire by pointing it at whichever approaching shambling zombie Combine solider you might want to kill next. You could always shoot them yourself too if you feel like lending a hand. The apex of this section is quite tense, and the whole dark combat idea gives the region a different atmosphere again. And it manages to do all this better than another game that I won’t name (rhymes with Bloom Free), chiefly by realising that there’s absolutely no reason why someone would feel the necessity to turn off the torch in order to fire blindly into the dark rather than aiming at something he can actually see.

Half-Life 2 Episode 1 Tower
Sauron relocates to City 17.

The last part of the game has you fighting through the streets in a similar way to the Follow Freeman section of the episode’s predecessor. Unlike in that chapter though, instead of just random groups of expendable soldiers following you around, you have the ever faithful Alyx again. And she shows a great ability to cover you from a safe position while you do all the dangerous work. Then the game ends with a brilliant, frantic action set piece involving lots of running and taking cover, followed by an open ending, but that’s to be expected from an episodic game.

While it is only a short experience, which will only take you around 4 hours to complete, it is still up to Valve’s usual standards. Everything has clearly been thoroughly tested to make sure the product is bug free and well designed in all areas. The graphics have been updated slightly with more realistic character models and some well done HDR lighting, which manages to avoid the usual traps many games fall into of making every object look like it’s a novelty shaped light bulb. If I had to find flaws with it, other than the short length, it would be an area just before the end of the game involving escorting people across a courtyard and through a warehouse building, then returning to escort another group, which is repeated several times. Each time you do this, different groups of enemies attack, adding a little variety, but you’re still just going over the same ground repeatedly. It’s almost as if they finished the game and realised it was incredibly short, and decided to pad the game out a bit by sending you backwards and forwards. But it’s still high quality action and it doesn’t go on for too long, so it’s not a big deal.

Ultimately, Half-Life 2 Episode 1 is a very worthwhile release, which is still better than most FPS games by other companies, despite the length. If you liked Half-Life 2, then there’s no reason at all why you shouldn’t get this. If you didn’t like Half-Life 2, then you probably won’t like this either, but then there may be no hope for you anyway.

Save System Review: Save anywhere. The only true save system for an FPS game.
Graphics: Like Half-Life 2, with added fancy lighting and better looking character models, a bonus when Alyx will be tagging along with you all the time.
Sound: On a level with the last game, with great sound effects, a fitting soundtrack and some of the best voice acting around, which they make use of a lot more this time round.
Bugs: Approximately nil, give or take none.
Gameplay: Brilliantly balanced action, as ever for the series, with some interesting variety and only the one minor misstep towards the ends.
Storyline: Like last time, the plot integrates with the action perfectly and starts to get more interesting, introducing new mysterious story elements to keep you going.

Arbitrary Final Score: 4 stars

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