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Half-Life 2: Episode One (PC) artwork

Half-Life 2: Episode One (PC) review

"If one thing really makes Episode One worth playing, it’s the connection to Alyx that starts thin but grows progressively stronger before the game’s three hours are up. In Half-Life 2, she was little more than a forgettable supporting character. In this episode, she’s at your side for the entire game, and provides both a surprising amount of battle support (it’s virtually impossible for her to die, so keeping her alive isn’t a concern) and a pleasant boost in morale. The Half-Life series has you doing a lot of cool things, so it’s nice that someone is finally acknowledging your heroics."

Half-Life 2: Episode One can be completed in about three hours, but that’s not the issue. The game is the first in a planned episodic trilogy created as a follow-up to Half-Life 2, telling the story that Half-Life 3 would likely have told. As such, the three titles would probably comprise a full-length game when taken together as one; expecting Episode One alone to fulfill that duty is unfair and a major misunderstanding of what Valve was trying to pull off.

My issue with Episode One is that the folks at Valve don’t use their time wisely. I would expect that when a game is this short, its developers would do their best to make every second count. Instead, I found them stalling for several chapters before truly getting into the meat of what ultimately makes Episode One a (begrudgingly) worthwhile experience. It’s an adventure far removed from the masterpiece status that its predecessor so rightfully earned – but I can’t tell you to skip it, because you’d be missing out on some seriously great stuff here.

If you’ve beaten Half-Life 2 – and I have to assume you have, because why else would you be reading this? – you’ll recall a chapter near the end of the game called “Our Benefactors,” in which players stormed the Citadel, were stripped of most of their weapons, and were forced to plow through their remaining opposition with an enhanced gravity gun, now a fully-charged behemoth of a device capable of lifting virtual any object in existence, including the damn soldiers. Up until this point, you’d been using the trusty weapon to devise unique strategies with any environmental objects that were gravity gun-feasible. Now, any object in sight was a potential tool of death, and the gravity gun was your only defense. The level wasn’t about strategy… it was about sitting back and having a great time with your godlike power.

I realize now that half the fun of this chapter was in the mere surprise of lifting an Overwatch troop off his feet and firing his electrified corpse back into his group of comrades. The experience was so amusing that players responded, and not long into Episode One, you’ll see that Valve was listening. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Mid-explosion is a weird time to end a game, but it sure makes for a hell of a cliffhanger. Sure, Gordon Freeman made it out just fine thanks to his old buddy G-man, but Alyx is only a second away from being swallowed up by a giant ball of fire! Episode One immediately resolves this the only logical way it could: By sending a group of vortigaunts in to rescue Alyx, zapping her safely to the foot of the tower. Duh! They also do Freeman the favor of releasing him from the G-man’s stasis, but we know this isn’t the last we've seen of him, if only because he's friggin' G-man. The rest of Episode One chronicles the duo’s escape from City 17, but not before they head back into the Citadel to prevent the reactor core from melting down and destroying the entire city.

Well, it just so happens that the gravity gun conveniently survived the explosion, and as they re-enter the Citadel, they conveniently stumble into another weapon-confiscation cell that conveniently backfires on the device, super-charging it once more. Yay! Only now that the element of surprise is gone (unless you’re surprised that Valve would recycle old ideas), the lengthy segment that follows gets old fast despite a few clever gravity gun-based puzzles. Soon, I found myself wanting to get my hands on some normal weapons and get down with some normal action. The new surprise: That an Our Benefactors extension can actually grow tiring! I usually like being proven wrong, because I’m usually pessimistic. Fate, it seems, has a bone to pick with me.

Don’t worry, it gets better. But first, it gets worse.

Fast forward a bit. Business in the Citadel inevitably is taken care of, and now Freeman and Alyx must escape from City 17. They run into an unexpected obstacle, however, and soon they’re hoofing it through an underground network of sewers, subway tunnels, and parking garages. We’re finally reunited with our basic weapon set – the pistol and the shotgun – and it’s soon clear we’re meant to use them against the legions of zombies and antlions that stand between us and the surface. Once again, Valve proves that certain elements of the Half-Life universe should only be applied in moderation: Zombies and antlions can be fun foes to battle, but not when they’re thrown together, and not when we’re forced to fight them for such an extended period of time. The game finally becomes “normal,” and then it slips into faux survival horror mode.

And they added a new type of enemy, as well: The zombified Combine troops, which Alyx is quick to name “zombine.” Har! This enemy’s special ability is to pull a live grenade out of its ass – not literally, unfortunately, for I rather enjoy seeing someone pull a live grenade out of his ass – and bolt in your direction at top speed. This is shocking and clever the first time it happens, and aggravating the next million times it happens.

Finally, four chapters in, the game picks up. Freeman and Alyx emerge from the underground station to a lovely view of a now ominous-looking Citadel looming over a leveled city – the striders, it seems, have effectively tossed City 17’s salad. The parts still intact hold a few remaining resistance fighters, and soon enough Episode One captures the intensity and urgency that made Half-Life 2’s final act so exhilarating. That game often had you and your pathetic rocket launcher faced against teams of hulking striders at once. Valve wisely doesn’t try to top it this time around, but there are still a number of standout moments – particularly a run through a dilapidated old hospital that echoes memories of Nova Prospekt. That level ends with a battle against a gunship in the hospital’s attic, a reminder that Valve still has the ability to conjure up those big, “epic” moments we all loved in Half-Life 2.

The game’s finale is phenomenal as well for reasons I won’t ruin, even if the escort mission leading up to it feels a little lazy. So while Valve had trouble getting this adventure started, they sure as hell closed it with a bang.

If one thing really makes Episode One worth playing, it’s the connection to Alyx that starts thin but grows progressively stronger before the game’s three hours are up. In Half-Life 2, she was little more than a forgettable supporting character. In this episode, she’s at your side for the entire game, and provides both a surprising amount of battle support (it’s virtually impossible for her to die, so keeping her alive isn’t a concern) and a pleasant boost in morale. The Half-Life series has you doing a lot of cool things, so it’s nice that someone is finally acknowledging your heroics.

The outstanding (optional) commentary track that accompanies Episode One fills in a lot of the technical details and gave me a much deeper appreciation of how much thought and effort was ploughed into this adventure. But it didn’t make the game more enjoyable, nor did it forgive the lazy design choices in the game’s first half. Episode One is best played if you think of it as a necessary bridge before getting to Half-Life 2: Episode Two, which thankfully got this series back on the right track.

Suskie's avatar
Staff review by Mike Suskie (July 05, 2008)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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bluberry posted July 05, 2008:

I agree about the first two chapters (the levels are cool, I just wasn't digging having the super grav gun again--maybe it would have been neat if you only had the regular one and it gave you ways to deal with soldier using that) but I thought Lowlife was actually pretty cool. it would have worked better with Episode 2's new flashlight, but I had a great time with it.

cool review, anyway. though as a quick one-off opinion, I also read your HL2 review (and liked it too) but that last line was really lame. I'd change it :P
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Halon posted July 05, 2008:

Yeah I also liked the second half of Lowlife. The car pushing bit was pretty clever and the end where you had to wait for the elevator in the darkness was cool. The worst part about the game is it is pretty unnecessary if you think about it. Valve could've gotten rid of the whole idea and added one more level to Episode 2.

The whole game just seemed stale to me. It seems like everything was ripped out of some part of the original. The best part of HL2 was the surprises in each level and there were very few here.
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Suskie posted July 06, 2008:

Ha, you're totally right, that line sucked. I wrote the review pretty late at night and never really proofread the thing with a clear mind, so I deleted it for now until I can think of a better way to close the thing.

I actually didn't enjoy the elevator part at all, mainly because I didn't want to have to worry about a zombine running up behind me and killing me with one of those damn grenades. (Is it just me, or did they make the blast radius for grenades much bigger in Episode One?) Lowlife was my least favorite chapter of the game, mainly because those zombines score too many cheap kills. I know you can just rip the grenades out of their hands and throw them back, but I can never think of that on the spot :P

Anyway, I still plan to review the remaining components of the Orange Box soon, so keep an eye out.
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Halon posted July 06, 2008:

That brings up another complaint I have with the franchise: you can't hotkey! Luckily I hotkey the gravity gun into my mouse so I can quickly switch to that when I see zombines but it's a pain that you can't hotkey other weapons. Luckily the game is easy enough so fumbling though weapons isn't too big of a problem.
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dagoss posted July 06, 2008:

"... the striders, it seems, have effectively tossed City 17’s salad"

That's an, um, interesting, uh, way to put it.
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Halon posted July 06, 2008:

Hahaha that's a brilliant line. Can't believe I missed it last night, but I suppose that's what I get for reading it at 3-4 in the morning.
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Suskie posted July 06, 2008:

You know you can just hit the G key for the gravity gun, right? I usually do that, but occasionally I don't reach far enough and turn on the flashlight by mistake.

Thanks for the feedback from everyone, by the way. I haven't felt as "on" lately as I have at other times so everything helps.
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Halon posted July 06, 2008:

Yeah I know about that but it doesn't help me much. I programmed it into my mouse actually and switching to it was never a problem for me. It's the other weapons that I can't hotkey. After playing HL2 three times and the episodes twice each I'm pretty good at using the mouse wheel but still not perfect.

This is what I would do if I could hotkey each individual weapon.

Mouse 3 - Gravity Gun
Side buttons - Shotgun and Pulse Rifle
Q - Grenades
R - use button

I don't use the other weapons enough to put them in.
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Suskie posted July 06, 2008:

Yeah, I really wish I could hotkey the grenades, since I never really have enough time to select them individually and only really bother to use them against turrets. I guess having a grenade trigger is one thing Halo has over Half-Life.

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