Short but oh so sweet.
This expansion has fixed all of these issues and except for its short length is a much stronger experience than HL2.
This review contains no spoilers regarding the story but does address what happens in a few sequences of the game. If you're the type of person that thinks saying Far Cry takes place in a forest is a spoiler then proceed at your own risk.
Episode 1 picks up the very instant HL2 ended. This introductory sequence is a bit weak in story but it did enough to kick-start the game and gets it moving. The first chapter or so takes place in the same area where HL2 ended and you'll see a few environments from that game mixed in with some newer stuff. The first section is by far the weakest part of the game involving mostly jumping puzzles and other elements of that nature.
After this section of the game though you begin your romp through City 17 once again and things really pick up. The action is much more reminiscent of the excellent action sequences from HL1 than the more vanilla sequences that made up most of HL2.
The combine zombies really spice up the action too due to their kamikaze strategy of randomly pulling out a grenade and running at you. Often times they appear in a group of other hostiles and you'll find yourself in a race to kill them before they can pull out a grenade.
Most of the weapons from HL2 are back for this sequel. I found it interesting and slightly frustrating that this is the first HL game where your first weapon is not the crowbar. You could argue that your most useful weapon this time is the beautiful and deadly Alyx who is your almost constant partner.
Speaking of beauty, the graphics seem very nice with the new lighting and the other tweaks Valve put into the engine this time. It basically looks exactly like HL2 but the new lighting and improved animations and textures on the main characters add a nice touch that makes the game seem fresh. If you look closely you'll see some cuts and bruises on some of the main characters you encounter as you progress in addition to other neat graphical additions.
Despite the new features if you were able to run HL2 and have a DX9 graphics card you should be able to see all the new features with no issues. My game only chugged in the few sections that involved water which was due to the reflect all option being enabled.
The sound is just more of the same. It is exactly the quality of HL2 but the addition of Alyx throughout almost every section of the game really gives the sound an extra boost in addition to giving the game an excellent plot devise and adding a really immersive almost conversational aspect to the gameplay.
Alyx is the most interesting addition to the gameplay in Episode 1. Instead of just standing behind the lines like in the last game she gets her hands dirty quite often in Episode 1. There are several very interesting scenes involving Alyx covering you while you run point for her and so forth.
During an early portion of the game your flashlight is the only light you get and Alyx needs it in order to function. So managing your flashlights power, placement, and continuing to fight monsters yourself spices things up a bit.
It's also nice that Alyx is quite tough and won't be getting herself killed so often as to be a hindrance or annoyance. I was able to get her killed a few times during a particularly difficult sequence but fixing the problem just required me to be a bit more aggressive.
It's also impressive that Valve was able to create a character, which was so well animated, written, and voiced that I actually found myself talking back to the screen out-loud in response to some of the things she said. Now that's immersion.
My only real complaint about the game is that it's just so darn short. Just when you feel like you're getting going it's over. It really is that short. Don't go into this thinking it will be the length of Opposing Force or even Blue Shift because it's even shorter, but thinking about it I don't really mind given the way Valve is pricing it. Considering that after Episode 3 we'll have a game that is basically the length of HL2 for $60 is not all that bad. I wouldn't mind them lowering the cost to $15 per episode but $20 is tolerable.
I also can't complain about Steam this time around. When HL2 was first released I wasn't able to play for hours due to a huge download but this time Steam just decrypted my files and I was off and running. Steam is really kind of nice so long as Valve keeps it similar to how it works now. My only worry is that they'll change their mind sometime in the future and lock me out of all the games I purchased and begin requiring subscriptions for content I already paid for.
But right now the pros of Steam far out weigh any possible future cons. I love not having to swap CD/DVDs into my drives, I love having all my games in one place, and I also love being able to buy a game right from my computer chair.
Half-life 2: Episode 1 really is a great game all by itself. The action is much more compacted and reminiscent of the marine sequences from HL1 that we loved so much while still utilizing the more interesting real world physics puzzles of HL2. But unlike HL2 the game doesn't let itself become bogged down in the physics to the point that you'll feel like you're playing a physics demo or a brick-stacking simulator.
The worst thing about the game is the teaser trailer they show you right after you beat it. It's downright mean of Valve to show us that and then make us wait 6 months. But it's ok because we'll be able to enjoy this little gem for at least another month or more.