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Half-Life 2: Episode One (PC) artwork

Half-Life 2: Episode One (PC) review


"I can't avoid the impression that this Episode was rushed to screens."


The last thing you remember, there was an inescapable explosion, a lamenting Administrator and a long, boorish face of destiny commanding. The question is not “will you survive”, but “what are the circumstances of your survival.” Less a question, more a statement.

This is theatrically appropriate for what the Valve team is trying to say, this time. Half Life: Episode One has more of a theatrical feel in this installment, as Alyx gives you more of an emotional performance to establish tone. The first time I played I felt very much her tension and stress, and patiently waited while she caught her breath after a particularly anxiety loaded event.

Emotional context isn’t the only overhaul that this Episode presents. The Source rendering engine gives us a much prettified sheen of deeper contrasts and subtler looking textures. Episode One has aged better than Half Life 2, but not by much. The impression is strengthened by the scene setting explosion which connects this Episode to the events of HL2.

Before we continue, let’s consider that Episode One would be a strange place to start, but for newbies, here’s the rundown: Half Life 2 and its subsequent Episodes One and Two, are First Person Shooters in which you assume the role of the silent protagonist and BCIT Physicist, Gordon Freeman. It is your task to follow the environment-told story, shoot through and solve any opposition that will confront you. The world is lavishly detailed, characters endearing and memorable, and quite frankly, unforgettable.

Valve achieves this by presenting puzzles that feel like a living reality. Many hours of Quality Assurance and Testing occurred before release to the public, and the result is a product of high quality, professionalism and polish. Except - I'm about to say - that this isn’t quite the case here.

The developers have learned from the first game: Environmental physics puzzles are shorter, combat is better interspersed between these and storytelling scenes. You aren’t going to get worn out, want to take a break from a tough segment, or lose patience with any of the situations you’re thrown into.

Oh wait, there’s that elevator thing.

You see, the first "tutorial section" has you to blocking Antlion spawns; crawling through vents to locate precious gear; spotting Zombines with your flashlight so Alyx can kill them; and other basic tasks. However, you might hit a dead wall of frustration. I say “might”, but I cross paths with that room like its a live wire of sparking death.

Variety is the spice of life in Episode One, and the difficulty is pretty even until that part. According to the commentary, which is unlocked after a complete play through, they dispersed many items about the room so that players could tackle the zombies however they liked. Sounds great, right? A room with some explosives, some tables for fortressing, a partner with unlimited ammo.

Here’s the problem: Horror. What’s that? Half Life 2 is a post apocalyptic first person shooter and therefore scary? Maybe even a horror? Not on your life. It is true that Episodes One and Two have darker story elements in them, and are both higher tension than HL2, but you still play the bad dude who tears through all opponents like vengeance incarnate.

This has a way of obliterating the tension. For a brief, and singular moment, HL2 changes tone entirely. Welcome back to Ravenholm. While you may want to use the gas cans, tables, and other flammables to hinder the many waves of zombies and zombines, you won’t have the time to do so.

Instead you’re going to be scrambling about after your first death with a better idea of how you might survive the next one until you happen to hear Alyx tell you to get into the freakin' elevator. No wits, no glory. Quick saves will be your best friend here, but you know what? It can be forgiven. Easily.

I’ll tell you why: The richness of the storytelling in Episode One is timeless, old as civilization itself. Themes of family, trust, dignity, and heroism all come into play here. The uprising has begun, and you are its champion. No sooner are you above ground than you are treated to more of the layered environmental storytelling which this series established as a genre staple.

From there, your task is to escape City 17 before the Citadel explodes. You’ll protect a few nameless NPCs, and then partake of a thrilling boss fight. It occurs to me that Episode One has several; the core, the elevator room, and then the Strider. You’ll not be bored during any of these fights, except ...

How many times have you also nearly won but been killed after reaching the ladder because of low health? Perhaps this is Valve’s way of communicating tension, making the objective realistically difficult to achieve. Yes, the Episode One has a difficulty setting, but only affects how bullet spongey the enemies are. That is not difficulty done with any finesse.

To put success within reach, but require precision and skill of the player is difficulty done right. It’s easy to say that Episode One is not perfect, that its age is showing, but it continues to shine as a story well told. So, let’s wrap this up.

The Good News
Half Life 2: Episode One looks better, has more balanced combat and puzzles than is predecessor. Combat is every bit as satisfying and varied as you expect, but you might be frustrated when waiting for that blasted elevator. Alyx shoots as good as she looks.

The Bad News
Episode One is very short - less than ten hours; the elevator wait is almost nothing more than a game of chance. Can you keep your cool while zombies jump out at you from the pitch black? No new weapons or vehicles, but with a story this narratively compelling, that’s a minor gripe.

Recommendation
Valve bundles Episode One with its cousins, Episode Two, The Lost Coast, and Half Life 2, so be sure to wait for a seasonal sale to grab all of these at once. You won’t regret it.

4/5

hastypixels's avatar
Community review by hastypixels (December 05, 2016)

Once upon a time Asteroids was all he ever needed. Over twenty years later poor optimization still ceases to faze him. Remember kids: bandwidth isn't the answer. Fun is.

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