Publisher: EA Games
Release Date: June 1, 2006
It's not easy being a mute theoretical physicist with an unexpected aptitude for armed combat. Just when you think you've saved the post-apocalyptic world from the threat of marauding alien forces by destroying their portal, the ever-baffling G-man turns up, freezes time, delivers his usual round of cryptic one-liners and performs his customary vanishing act leaving you with more unanswered questions than a round of Trivial Pursuit.
Such was the ending of the best-selling action-packed extravaganza of Half Life 2 which saw gung-ho scientist, Gordon Freeman, detonating the core inside the Citadel and leaving over four million gamers with a tantalizing cliffhanger. Rather than waiting years for the development of a sequel, the good people at Valve have opted for an episodic format which will allow them to bring games out on a more regular basis, while making more frequent updates to the engine to account for rapidly changing technology. Enter Half Life 2: Episode One, the first part of a promised trilogy that takes off exactly where Half Life 2 ended. The game focuses on your attempts to escape the crumbling ruins of City 17 before the Citadel's reactor implodes and reduces everything to death and rubble.
Half Life 2: Episode One is a standalone product meaning you don't need to own the first game, but it would help make sense of a lot of the material and in-jokes. As a whole, the game feels more polished than its predecessor with an updated graphics engine, and gameplay design enhancements that build off everything that made the series so successful. Like all the games in the series so far, it's a superbly-crafted, interactive rock-and-roll rollercoaster of a ride that manages to set a perfect balance between brains and brawn, and in some especially intense sequences, makes you use both at the same time.
Perhaps the biggest change in the gameplay dynamic comes from the fact that Alyx, the daughter of a Black Mesa scientist, accompanies Gordon throughout much of the game. It's a big change to the usual solitary nature of many FPS games and one that obviously required a lot of overtime on the part of the game designers. Alyx's character model and animation have been subtly overhauled since the first game with more attention paid to the model's lighting and textures, and crouching, crawling, jumping and fighting actions. Some especially neat animation maneuvers include watching her wield a shotgun, practice martial arts on zombies, or block her face when you shine the flashlight in her eyes. The designers have tried as much as possible to place her in an auxiliary role, more of a guide and occasional trigger-happy ally than a leader who directs the gameplay at the player's expense. There are some great opportunities for creative team play such as in the zombie-infested pitch-black confines of the underground parking lot where you must point your flashlight at the undead for Alyx to slaughter. Or when you run the gauntlet and she provides cover with a sniper rifle. The AI powering Alyx was almost without exception very impressive, functioning independently and with a superior sense of aim. Although she can die (and it's game over for you if she does) there's no indication showing how close she is to dying. You get the feeling she's practically indestructible and you'd have to actively try to get her killed.
The range and depth of facial expressions has been noticeably augmented, not just for Alyx, but all of the NPC's in the game giving them even more humanity and emotion than before. Wherever possible, the storytellers have tried to develop the characters in line with the plot in generally satisfying directions. Relationships are fleshed out and there are plenty of familiar faces in central roles and cameo appearances. Alyx in particular makes up for Gordon's laconic nature with a wealth of finely voice-acted comments and jokes about their surroundings, situation and particular enemies. Overall the NPC's successfully bring a warmth and humor to the otherwise grim nature of your predicament.
There are some new environments including the rapidly crumbling interior of the Citadel bathed in fiery orange hues with fantastic ambient details such as falling debris, and a hospital whose bleak décor was inspired by pictures of a medical facility in Chernobyl. That said, many of the environments in Episode One have been recycled and players of the first game will recognize a lot of the interiors and textures from the first game. There are sadly no new weapons to add to your arsenal and a significant part of the game is spent relying almost exclusively on the gravity gun both for puzzle solving and whacking hostiles.
Combine soldiers, headcrabs, zombies, civil protection, man hacks, gunships, hopper mines, barnacles and all the enemies you love to hate reprise their familiar roles as obstacles to your progress. A new addition to their gang is the Zombine – a combine soldier with a headcrab problem that must have something to do with its really bad habit of running straight at you holding a live grenade. The enemy AI didn't appear to be much improved since the last game and the squad tactics that made soldiers so formidable in the first Half Life game are still conspicuously absent. Some new squad tactics have been added including the impressive door breach where a squad of Combine soliders will explode through a door in a shower of bullets, smoke and splinters. However, this remarkable display doesn't make them any less easy to eliminate. You'll also get to see them rappelling down the side of a building and if you're aim is good enough to take them out on the way down, you'll get an notable display of the game's rag-doll physics. Some new antlion action and laser activated turrets that require accurate grenade tosses show how the designers have strived to add new gameplay content, often with great success.
With the addition of high dynamic-range lighting technology for video cards that support it, you'll notice a new shiny vim to the graphics in certain parts that can unfortunately be blinding at times. The outdoors scenes look expansive, with a great sense of depth and distance, and beautiful details such as billowy falling ash. Some fantastic lighting angles make for great visuals and there are plenty of times you just want to stop owning zombies with your shotgun and admire the artistic endeavor. There is tremendous range in the interiors from the creeping horror of claustrophobic, dimly lit spaces, to the breathtaking vista of the cavernous Citadel interior. Whatever the setting, Episode One manages to reconstruct it with a fidelity and attention to detail that out-shines Half Life 2.
Sound effects are just as you'd expect with great atmospheric effects that perfectly evoke spaces and landscapes. The distant sound of crumbling debris or the ambient noise of a female announcer's public announcement add layers of texture to the game. The music kicks in from time to time somewhat predictably alerting you to the onset of an action cycle. There is a good range from the programmed synthesized sounds you might think of if someone told you to imagine what sci-fi sounds like, to the pulsing metal tunes that accompany your zombie pounding efforts.
Of course, the drawback to episodic releases in that generally, as soon as you've started to settle into the game, it's over. There are roughly four to six hours of gameplay here and considerably less for veteran FPS gamers. An optional commentary track provides a small incentive to replay the game and offers some interesting (although highly scripted) insights from the designers on what they tweaked and where. Be sure to stick around until after the end of the credits for the Episode Two trailer which looks like it might lead the game into some interesting new and epic territory.
Overall it's hard to fault such an immersive and well thought out game which expertly melds frenetic twitch-factor action with a variety of logic puzzles. Although the main plot isn't explained to any satisfactory extent, there is some great character development which should help create a degree of empathy for future releases. It's a short but sweet experience that easily has enough new material, substance and improvements to justify its release, and $19.99 price tag. If you have been even vaguely following the Half Life series this far, you have no excuse good enough to avoid playing Episode One.
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