An Intense HL2 Fix
HL2:E1 is the first of a series of three "episodes' which will collectively form a sequel to the best-selling PC shooter Half-Life 2. If you didn't like that game, then you can go ahead and forget about the episodes - they don't revolutionize the game. They simply tweak it and condense it down into brief but excellent bursts of excitement. To use a Seattle metaphor (Valve is based in nearby Bellevue, WA): If HL2 was a grande latte, HL2:E1 is a shot of pure, high quality espresso.
Episode One is essentially a fast-paced ride through HL2 in reverse: you begin at the foot of the Citadel with just your gravity gun, which will briefly regain its super-charge only to lose it again. This was a very smart decision on Valve's part, as the super-charged grav-gun made the endgame of HL2 very easy. Here, using the grav-gun is challenging, as the game will throw the same numbers of enemies at you as before, but there are fewer health stations. All in all, the first few levels are a nice refresher course which pave the way for the ramp-up in difficulty that is evident in Episode One, although the pace can flag a bit towards the very start.
Since you only have the grav-gun in the game's beginning, you'll be relying mostly on Alyx to do the shooting for you. Alyx will be with you for most of the game, excepting one or two puzzle sequences, and she proves a competent ally. While you don't have to babysit her, Alyx can die if left completely unaided, but more often than not you'll want to stick with her just for the extra firepower.
Episode One's firefights have a tendency to be much more chaotic than HL2's - multiple kinds of enemies are blended into each fight to great effect. While HL2 would toss several Combine at you, then some headcrabs, then some more Combine, Episode One will have you entering into the middle of already massive brawls between Combine and Headcrabs, then have both turn and start attacking you, making the fights feel a bit like a free-for-all. This panicked deathmatch-esque feel is refreshing, and much more welcome than the combat in HL2, which would often get stale due to the lack of variety.
Variety is in fact the key thing in this expansion: don't be fooled by the reviews, there are plenty of new situations to encounter in Episode One, such as - tricky respawning "burrows" for Ant-Lions; a level that takes place in almost complete, claustrophobic darkness; friends with sniper rifles and last but not least, the new enemy in the game, the Zombine. This headcrab on a Combine body is a little like a cross between the bomb-headed kamikazes from Serious Sam and a walking tank - they can take huge amounts of damage, are more capable of running than normal headcrabs (although not quite as fast as the quick variety) and have the unpleasant habit of running around with activated grenades in hand. Because of the nature of these enemies, you'll want to draw a bead on them first - making you even more panicked when you're surrounded, as you will be several times in Episode One.
In fact, if there's one thing Episode One does even better than HL2, it's the scare factor. The dehumanized workers that lurked in the Citadel play a larger role this time around, and are almost guaranteed to freak you out completely in one scene. The dark level, Lowlife, has you desperately avoiding running out of battery for your flashlight and sweeping the area constantly to try and see those zombies creeping up on your flanks. It's the best integration of survival-horror into an FPS to date. Valve somehow figured out what Doom3 and F.E.A.R failed to do: how to introduce dark, scary environments with limited flashlight battery without feeling cheap.
It is worthwhile to note that even though Episode One is intense almost from start to finish, it is a rather short ride. 6 solid hours of gameplay still feels like a ripoff for $20, especially when all three episodes, with approx. 18 hrs of gameplay total, will equal $60 - $10 more than the original game. Still, if each episode manages to approach the high concentration of Half-Lifey goodness into the relatively small doses, it feels fairly well worth it.
While Episode One doesn't totally reinvent the series, it introduces some intriguing new twists, is brilliantly paced, and fun from start to finish. I can certainly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed HL2 and wants to see what happens next.