Half-Life 2: Episode One review
One Free Man Fights On
So, at this point we already know that Half-Life 2 managed to rank pretty highly with me, delivering a single player campaign most other FPS games can only dream of. Well Valve decided that the One Free Man wasn’t quite done and decided to bring this back in the form of episodic content (well before that kind of thing was the cool thing to do). While we’re still waiting to find out if the 3rd episode has truly disappeared into a void or not here is the review of episode 1. Take heed that this review contains significant spoilers to the events of the original game.
Those disappointed in the original game’s lack of purpose built multiplayer won’t find any solace here. Episode 1 continues the purely single player story of Half-Life 2 in order to better explore the world as it is after the Combine invasion. Once again taking on the role of Gordon Freeman, the action picks up literally where the original game ended. We finally get to see more of the vortigaunts and their role in the story. Gordon was originally going to be put back into stasis by the “G Man”, the mysterious individual who sent Gordon into the City 17 chaos in the first place, until the vortigaunts intervene, transporting both Gorden and Aylx out of the Citadel just as en explosion would have killed them.
The story revolves around Gordon and Alyx attempting to escape City 17 before the Citadel fully explodes and takes the entire place with it. For me, this really helps to push the player’s interests in the events along. Unlike HL2 where partners were very sporadic you tend to find Alyx is with you a lot more and the interaction with her gives proceedings a lot of life. Gordon, being the playable mute, can’t really express emotion so Alyx serves as a good means of providing reactions to various events and it is good to have a stable ally around.
Just as before, the story events occur in real time so players typically have full control of Gordon as all times, helping to establish the immersion that the first game managed to perfectly. Of course, since it’s episode 1 the game just assumes you already know what happened in the original game and thus generally won’t bother to explain these points. Which is a fair thing to do – I mean, the game is designed to be a direct continuation.
When it comes to the visuals there is no disappointment here. For the most part the game looks very similar to the original game, obviously reusing a lot of texture and models as needed. You’ll still find some wonderfully crafted post-invasion environments like the wrecked buildings of City 17 with contrast to the foreboding architecture of the Combine. There’s a lot of detail involved where you can look around and appreciate everything going on.
Characters models quality seems mostly in line with PS2 level graphics, which isn’t too bad. Characters move around fairly convincingly, which is wonderful especially when it comes to sequences like fighting off enemy ambushes and assaults as they’ll dash around, diving for cover and firing at given opportunities, all accomplished without clumsily getting themselves caught on objects. Of course, it’s not exactly the same as before, in that Valve have made improvements here and there, though done so seamlessly you’d be hard pressed to acknowledge them moving from the original game to this.
Of course, as I have to play on low settings there are a few cutbacks my gameplay experiences, yet nothing of major value is lost. Sure, I deal with more fog in general to help loading of objects but I’m still afforded a good field of vision and set pieces that purposely show off still deliver. My computer still manages to keep things running smoothly though which is vitally important.
Unfortunately, I think music is one area that needed improvement and didn’t get it. I wouldn’t necessarily call any of the tracks bad as I certainly didn’t feel like killing my sense of hearing afterwards, but I just can’t recall any of the tracks now that I’ve turned the game off. Fortunately, the vocal work is still amazing. Obviously Gordon doesn’t speak but other major characters help give spark to things, with Alyx inparticular being wonderful to hear chatting away as she comments on the current events, expressing various emotions like joy and shock as the situation calls. You can also hear random lines spoken during combat like grunts radioing in reports.
One major improvement over the original game is a much faster paced start. Sure, it kicks off getting dug out of rubble and trying to figure out how to progress plot events, but it doesn’t take anywhere near as long for the action to pick up and get going which is nice. It provides a better balance of allowing the player to readjust to the world of HL2 without leaving them hanging for too long.
Previously we stuck largely to the one man army style of gameplay where Gordon was only sometimes joined by an AI partner to help him out. This time Gordon finds himself with a partner for much more of the game, rarely finding himself truly alone in his endeavours. Alyx tends to take up this role for much of the game, providing not only a source of banter that our silent hero can’t manage but to lend a hand in the combat. Now, this is something that could have gone horribly wrong (AI allies don’t have a particularly strong track record in gaming) but here it somehow works. Alyx is helpful without encouraging the player to leave everything to her. It also helps that she pretty much doesn’t die, removing the potential for game overs that were the result of the AI’s actions.
As well as contributing decently to combat Alyx will also help in providing the odd hint to point the player in the right direction. This too is never overdone so that the player still has some sense of finding their own way through. I must say that I didn’t really get lost as I did before, which may be down to a combination of Alyx and less confusing level design. It's worth noting though that while Alyx is a great partner to fight alongside, you still end up having to deal with more generic NPC partners later on at one section, and they are still so ridiculously dumb as to get themselves shot and generally get in the way.
There are a variety of enemy types for Gordon and Alyx to fight off here too. Many are naturally brought back from the original so you’ll have Combine soldiers who will sweep through the area, taking cover and lobbing grenades to try and pressure you into taking a bullet or three to the chest or the antlions who will burst out from holes in the ground and swiftly dance around to attack you. The intelligence varies accordingly based on what you’re fighting. The soldiers will naturally use good tactics to try and create an opening, whereas the antlions are more direct in their assaults (which does not make them any less dangerous).
Episode 1 also brings in a few extra surprises to proceedings. Early on you encounter headcrab zombies that used to be Combine soldiers, possessing more toughness than your regular zombie and sometimes pulling a live grenade out. These new enemies help provide some freshness to those that have experienced the original. In terms of boss battles this episode doesn’t quite have the grandness of the previous game, with the encounters feeling more like souped up regular battles. Certainly they are more challenging than taking on normal hordes but they feel a bit scaled back by comparison.
Weapon selection hasn’t really changed except the antlion bait is gone. It’s not a bad thing since the selection is still good, giving you options from the basic handgun to the more ruthless rifle and the more explosive grenades. Most weapons also come with the secondary fire option that provides an alternate means of using them, which is a nice option to have. Ammo distribution tends to be rather good, maintaining a balance between creating some challenge without leaving you distressingly short all the time. The gravity gun also makes its return and is still fun to use, allowing you to pick up and fling many of the ingame objects. It can be used for combat reasonably well but it also doubles as a means for dealing with obstacles and puzzles.
Control setup remains rather solid. Switching weapons is as easy as tapping a number key or you can cycle through them if that is easier and press fire to confirm. With the bait weapon gone you also have one fewer slots to cycle through which is handy. Aiming is simple enough with the mouse, with the option to adjust sensitivity very helpful to make it perfect for your needs. Unfortunately, the game still doesn’t seem to want to be too friendly to those of us who prefer joypads, as I was once again unable to map aiming controls without using a third party program.
In terms of challenge the game tries to balance deadly encounters with a very generous checkpoint system and it delivers well. Enemy encounters are dangerous as they are the kind where getting caught out can result in a swift depletion of your health, encouraging players to be more aware of possible situations. Various health and armour panels are scattered about to help and it is also possible for players to reload a save from almost any point thanks to the generous auto-save system. So no having to redo entire sections again just because you messed up at one critical point.
As you’re still in City 17 you’ll visit familiar looking locations in this post-ruin world, including the crumbling streets destroyed by the Combine forces and the dark atmosphere of the underground car park as monsters hide in the shadows waiting for fresh meat to walk on by. Progression can take the form of normal pathways or less ordinary such as makeshift tunnels or conveniently positioned containers. It’s fun to work out how to get around and the wrecks can also provide handy sources of cover against incoming fire.
Episode 1 is probably a bit more linear, with the game generally pointing you from one area to the next, but sometimes you’ll be given an option to wander off the beaten track and sometimes you’ll be rewarded with some goodies for your trouble or the game will simply offer more open environments. Thankfully I never really got totally lost like I managed a few times in the original game so at least the game is more supportive towards finding your way around. Length-wise Episode 1 is naturally meant to be shorter but it’s worth mentioning just in case anyone was expecting something along more normal lengths.
That about covers it. Episode 1 manages to retain the good stuff of the original and improves in some other areas. As an extension to the original Half-Life 2 it’s perfect for those gamers eager to see more of Gordon’s struggles against the Combine, but obviously as episodic content it won't last as long.
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