"the unprecedented level of polish make(s) Episode One worth every hard-earned penny."

User Rating: 9.3 | Half-Life 2: Episode One PC
Episode One is a continuation of the Half-Life 2 story and picks up just where you were so helplessly cut-off at the end of Half-Life 2. Stepping back into the boots of Gordon Freeman has never felt as good as it does in Episode One. Unlike in Half-Life 2, you’re paired with Alyx for pretty much the entire length of Episode One, and this keeps things quite a bit more interesting throughout. Valve has successfully improved Alyx’s a.i. and also made her a companion that you actually want to have by your side. As this is only the first of three episodes to continue the Half-Life 2 storyline, you’ll find yourself watching the credits before you know what hit you. But fortunately, the 5 chapters that make up Episode One consist of the best Half-Life gameplay you can find.

The gameplay hasn’t actually been changed, but it has been polished, and superbly refined. This is the best of Half-Life 2. And considering how magnificent that game already was, if you’re a fan of the series then must play Episode One. You’ve got gravity-gun puzzles, zombies to fend off in dark corridors, and Combine soldiers to shoot. The only part of Half-Life 2 that isn’t represented in Episode One is any sort of vehicular segment. There aren’t any new weapons, and only one new type of enemy. And you’ll largely be traversing the same type of areas, considering you’re still in the confines of City 17. And yet, somehow, developer Valve has made nearly the entire trip seem fresh. The enemies act differently in many cases, and thus, you’re forced to play differently.

But above all, the team dynamic with Alyx is what makes Episode One so good, and so seemingly new. Half-Life has usually been pretty lone-wolf oriented, with the exception of several particular situations in Half-Life 2. But you never felt like part of a team during those sequences. With Alyx, in Episode One, she’s not only a likable character now, but a useful partner that you’ll come to rely on. Alyx’s artificial intelligence has been ramped up considerably, and throughout the entire length of the Episode you’ll witness just how deadly Alyx can be, driven home by a host of new animations and abilities she can perform. But from a different perspective, Alyx has also grown as a character and you really become attached to her by the end of the Episode, more so than was possible in Half-Life 2.

Possibly the best part of Episode One is the intelligent and witty dialog throughout, mostly spoken by Alyx. You’ll often find yourself smiling or even laughing. This simply drives home the quality of the production considering most first-person-shooters don’t spend much time on these details at all. The voice-work, with the returning voice cast, is incredible, and the Half-Life sound effects are as good as always. The only slight disappointment is how the music is implemented. The music always suits the situation, and the compositions themselves, although never memorable, up your adrenaline—but the timing can often be off, with the music starting at the wrong time or lasting a bit long. However, that largely depends on the player.

The Source Engine, which had some age on it even when Half-Life 2 was first released, is still fantastic and in Episode One, with full HDR lighting effects throughout the entire game world and on every character, the Source engine once again outshines many of the more technologically advanced graphical engines out there. This game is polished in every aspect, and that’s no different with the visuals. Even though you’re traversing through similar environments, everything looks better, and the game has been optimized for better performance to boot! The High Dynamic Range lighting gives the game a new coat of paint, but once again the real reason why the Half-Life 2 game world is so eye-catching is because of its amazing art-direction that never ceases to amaze.

Episode One is a short ride at about 4 hours the first time through. And when you go back through with the interesting developer commentary tracks enabled you’ll probably breeze through in just 2 hours. But that’s kind of the point, since Valve will be releasing its next episode in a matter of months. There’s no new multiplayer to speak of with Episode One, and many will end up complaining that they spent $20 (or a little less) on a game that can be finished in one sitting. But Episode One is the best Half-Life gameplay to date. Everything here has been improved with a fresh coat of paint, and some new inspiration—even though things at first appear so similar. The team-dynamic with Alyx, the sharply written dialog, the more intense and challenging combat and puzzle situations, and overall the unprecedented level of polish make Episode One worth every hard-earned penny. And even though you’ll be watching the credits a lot sooner than you’d like, what’s here is a blast from start to finish.