"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.
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