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Half-Life 2: Episode One

The official site for Episode One states that HL2 has sold over four million copies; given that Half-Life 2 was one of the most anticipated shooters at the time of its release, this isn't much of a surprise. What did become surprising, though, was Valve shifting the next installment from an expansion pack called Aftermath to an episodic format. Today marks the release of the first entry, and we expect to see the next one in six months, with the third and presumably final episode coming a year from now. While we knew a lot about HL2 by the time it came out, Valve has been coy about Episode One, and I've avoided watching the teaser trailers, to keep the experience as fresh as possible.

As you may have heard, Episode One begins right where HL2 left off, with the destruction of the Combine Citadel. However, those of you who've been waiting for an answer to how Gordon and Alyx escaped the devastation are going to have to keep holding your breath. If anything, the revelation just gets weirder, instead of clearer. Either way, you're still at ground zero and must finish the Citadel once and for all, since your heroic feats in HL2 apparently just gave the enormous structure a case of indigestion. While you wander around in its bowels, you'll be treated to some more mysterious activities that will presumably be explained later on. In the meantime, you'll encounter the same enemies and use the same weapons, while engaging in mostly the same tactics. There are bridges you need to activate by throwing those energy balls at certain devices, and you'll make a lot more use of the gravity gun in general, but the physics puzzles have been downplayed. Instead, you'll be using the gun mostly to deal with path obstacles.

You'll also encounter the same enemies, save one, and he's just a twist on something you've encountered before. Furthermore, you won't find yourself dealing with much in the way of unusual architecture (save for the Citadel, but there's not much in there that you haven't seen before). The entirety of Episode One takes place in City 17. This is not a bad thing, but I would like to have seen some new areas of it, like sewers or office buildings at least. Instead, you'll be moving through parking structures, urban residences, ducts, and a few sub-basements. There are also no vehicles to drive, which is too bad because they were a lot of fun in HL2.

One of HL2's greatest strengths was its steady introduction of new area types and new creatures. The ant lions, the bridge over a gaping chasm, the prison, Ravenholm, Highway 17, the hover boat, the helicopters that can only be taken down with missiles, the striders -- there's a long list of neat things that HL2 did, and Episode One doesn't feel as fresh as a result, since it largely reuses previous content, and it doesn't advance the story as much as a four-hour experience should. There's plenty of conversation (minus Gordon, natch), but it largely deals with moment-to-moment details. The remainder is mostly devoted to new problems that aren't answered within the scope of this installment. We're left with about as many questions as we had at the end of HL2.
The game still looks quite good, however, and features full HDR for some nice lighting effects. The facial animation is still top-notch, the voice acting is great, and the art style is gritty and detailed. Alyx is with you almost the entire way, and she's typically more of a help than a hindrance, which is a refreshing change. The rebel squads in HL2 tended to get bunched up in hallways, making it difficult to quickly and tactically respond to a threat, so it's nice to just deal with one capable individual. And she's not invincible. There was one section where I had to do a lot of running around, and I left it to her to deal with some problems while I did my thing. Unfortunately, she died, and game doesn't let you progress when that happens. I was more conscientious of her situation from that point on, but there's only so much I can do when I don't get an indication of how much health she has, or if her health regenerates after being out of combat for X amount of time. I'll take her over an invincible ally, though, or over a slew of constantly restocked but faceless buddies.

Episode One is a very polished experience, with a sense of humanity and personality that you rarely see in a shooter. And there are some intense segments here and there. But this installment doesn't have the "wow" factor of HL2; that was an ambitious game with a legacy to live up to. It was a well-crafted experience that had obviously been in the works for years. Episode One, in contrast, doesn't feel as adventurous. It's still Half-Life, which means it looks great, is very interactive, and has some interesting mechanics. But I find myself yearning for the cliffs of Lost Coast, or the fortified bridges of Highway 17. Perhaps now that the resolution of HL2 is out of the way, we can have an experience that continues the story instead of filling in a gap.

If the Episode Two teaser following the endgame credits is any indication, we will encounter some new things and places. I just wish Episode One had advanced the story a little further than it did. One can't second guess Valve, but it seems like the escape from City 17 could have been compressed into a much more compact experience, leaving room for what comes after. Instead, Episode One feels stretched a little thin, especially when you have to go back and forth several times in one section, escorting refugees in batches of two to five people. And perhaps Valve's storytelling style is more suited to a longer arc, because no new conflict is introduced here. Well, there are hints and suggestions, but nothing rears its head in the four to five hours it takes to finish the episode. (On a side note, the game defaults to "Easy" difficulty; we played it on "Normal" and we recommend "Hard" for a good challenge.)

Closing Comments
When it comes down to it, you should like Episode One if you liked Half-Life 2. Despite the fact that it isn't as adventurous or dramatic as HL2, Episode One still offers quality that's a cut above the rest. Its humanity (in the face of strange, masked soldiers and sometimes grotesque creatures) makes it more than a rote experience, and the Citadel is still an imaginative and interesting setting. In retrospect, HL2 appears to be a very difficult game to follow up on, and Valve does a very capable job of keeping the fire going. And buying the game on Steam is a relatively painless experience, especially compared to where the service was when HL2 launched. Judging by the material I saw in the Episode Two trailer, it looks like Valve will indeed open up the world a little. As it stands, Episode One is a brief, stylistically claustrophobic experience whose polish and personality manage to keep things moving.

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