Half-Life 2: Episode 1
Half-Life 2, for some the best shooter of 2004 with brilliant physics, for others the proof that Valve missed a chance and couldn’t live up to the atmosphere/impact of the classic Half-Life and Opposing Force. But still, no matter how you looked at it, Half-Life 2 was a decent and varied adventure that everyone should have played through at least once. The disappointing ending (if you could call that an ending) and the many unanswered questions that popped up during the game were proof enough that there was still a lot more to come. It was the ideal opportunity for Valve to introduce a new distribution method for the next game, something they refer to as ‘‘Half-Life 3 in packages’. Oh yes, the small Episodes are hot! Less risks for the developers, gamers get content faster and the price ain’t that bad according to Valve, so everybody wins! Or maybe not? Let’s have a closer look at this first part.
I can’t say too much about the story since it’s so short: because of a rather funny intervention of some old friends after the end of HL², you’ll be able to explore the Citadel more, in search of an escape route (after you have found a solution for the Citadel that is about to explode, with you in it). And that’s it, don’t expect some kind of explanation of previous happenings or revelations about the Combine or the G-Man: Valve is still holding back everything so you’ll buy the next episodes too. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the final ending won’t disappoint.
And in the end a shooter won’t fail because of a bad story but rather because of poor gameplay and atmosphere. Unfortunately, Episode 1 contains plenty of those latter negative points in the first hour or so. You’re obliged to puzzle your way through the dark Citadel with only the gravity gun. Even when you encounter Combines (which you can throw away, just like at the end of HL²) you can’t pick up the guns they’re carrying. A big false and quite boring start it is then, until you’ll get your hands on some real (and the same old) guns.
All of a sudden you can start worrying again if the lights go out and you need to deal with all kinds of zombies and Combines. This is where Valve prove that they still have ‘it’, those precious, memorable moments like the trainstation-scenes or the amusing ‘blow the roof to pieces’-part. The exaggerated gravity gun approach in the beginning is forgotten quickly enough when you make it to the rest of the game, which offers the right mix of logical puzzles and action-packed intervals.
The teaser movies showed that Alyx would play a more important role in this first Episode of HL². The least I can say is that she furfills her role a lot better than the ass-poking losers you could take with you in HL². Alyx knows how NOT to get in your way and she can use a special small gun (with infinite ammo of course) to take care of any threats. She ain’t invincible though, once you leave her helplessly behind in a confrontation, it’s ‘Game Over’ within seconds. Killing her yourself because she tends to constantly adore you and state the bloody obvious a bit too often, isn’t possible either. Not even the silent star of the story, Gordon Freeman, can make an action to really influence Alyx. That doesn’t belong in a shooter perhaps but if some of the main marketing points of the game are facial animation and the very realistic NPC-movements (especially Alyx comes close to the real thing) then you might expect more options than just observing everything in a passive way. Just like in HL² you never have the feeling that you can decide something for yourself, you’re always being guided by some invisible designer-hand. It’s a playstyle like any other but since you want to get to that next great action-scene you don’t want to be hindered by yet another ‘Oh Gordon, you’re so good and so special’-emospeech. I might be exaggerating a bit but these things annoy you like hell (and they are definitely a big turnoff in the bland beginning of the game). So, you’ll have to live with the sacred mantra of ‘there is only one direction’ and the minor nuisances that come with it. Admittedly, it’s a quite amusing direction for the most part.
A problem that still hasn’t received a proper solution is the low difficulty. Half-Life 2 on Hard was an easy ride already and that didn’t change at all here. The most irritating about it is that you only seldomly get the feeling that you’re dealing with intelligent foes. You’re mostly gonna need to reload that quicksave for a zombie (re-)spawn you didn’t notice in the dark or when a bunch of Combines suddenly come into play through a scripted event. Most of the time it’s only a matter of adapting to that typical linear approach of the game. The AI-dynamics like you might know from Far Cry or F.E.A.R. are neglected by Valve, wait, let me correct that; they have forgotten about it. Despite some interesting battles you can’t deny that the pure gunplay-fun from Half-Life or Opposing Force, just when you encountered Marines or Black Ops agents, has diminished quite a lot. The Combines still have less ‘cool’ and are going down way too fast. It says enough when you know that the memorable moments are coming (again) from Striders, the deformed Antlion-bull, a Combine-megawasp or an overdose of zombies in the dark.
Those zombie-encounters can be quite nasty. There were already the howling Zombie Hounds, introduced in a marvelous way in Ravenholm, but now you also have to withstand Zombines (Combines that got the headcrab-treatment). They ain’t as fast as the hounds but they definitely carry a lot more punch than the ordinary City17 civilian with a headcrab as facial protection. Sure, no problem you think, from a distance these chaps won’t be a problem. Wrong, since the places you’ll meet them are so tight and obscure that you won’t notice them all on time. Once they inevitably get closer to you, you not only need to avoid their claws and hard punches but also their kamikaze-behaviour; as if they want to triumphantly show the big prize they’ve just won they stand still, grab a grenade and heavily wave with it in the air. Several seconds later you can pray you’re not in the blast radius anymore.
With these explosions the force of the beautiful Source-engine is on display again, full with optimisations and extras like HDR. Still, not everyone has the hardware to display these details so it’s good to know that Episode 1 runs pretty smooth, even on older systems, and that on low settings you can still properly enjoy the game. Beautiful but familiar too, it’s remarkable to see how much resources of the previous game have been used again. That doesn’t only count for textures and other environment details but also for the weapons (except for some new objects you can hold/throw with the gravity gun but those ain’t too worldshocking).
You might have noticed it but Episode 1 is a stand-alone product. Just about the only advantage of this is that you won’t need to reinstall HL² (if you had removed it from your hard disk). Or maybe Valve really wanted to cater to that kind of exceptional gamer who has never played HL² but who really wants to start in the middle of a storyline? Of course, multiplayer is available too in this package. There is lots of fun to be had with the completely unaltered HL² Deathmatch (no new maps/weapons), but the real cherry on the cake is the conversion of Half-Life 1 Deathmatch to Source… *cough*. The fact that the developers didn’t even bother to put this remake in the filters of the global Steam-server browser says enough. Judging by the ‘overwhelming’ amount of servers that run this Source-conversion I can only conclude that this was a waste of time for the devs. When you do try it, you’ll also won’t see anything at all that adds something meaningful to the original HL1 Deathmatch. So, singleplayer clearly remains the focus here. Or better said; the ‘online’ singleplayer, since you’ll need internet-access, just like with HL², to activate the game. It’s once again one of those limitations that copy-protections needlessly cause for consumers. Want to play your game on multiple PC’s in the house but they’re not all connected? You’re screwed.
Does Episode 1 hit the right value-for-money sweet spot? A bit more than five hours on Hard for about €20 ain’t that bad (if you have a credit card, it’s even a bit cheaper on Steam) and aside from the first hour you’ll have a great time, just like with the great moments of HL². I won’t start a comparison with the price/gamelength-relation of the original game. Even if all the episodes together would guarantee the same length, even then you can easily complain that HL² (and nearly every shooter of the past few years) was too short already. In other words: the episode-concept ain’t a failure at all, as long as Valve can resist the idea of scandalously small content. So next time, I would still expect more instead of less content.
The disgraceful part of Half-Life 2: Episode 1 isn’t perhaps the price/playtime issue but the overall lack of something fresh, something that really stands apart from the original game. No new weapons and actually no surprising advancements in the storyline really hamper the enjoyment. Episode 1 is just a bunch of extra levels tied onto Half-Life 2 with a content that is almost completely recycled (but perfected also). ‘Episode’ in this case is nothing more than a trendy name for a mini-mission pack. It’s still quality, otherwise you wouldn’t have seen the decent score at the top of this page, but just be warned that you won’t be blown away.
It will take some time to deliver an episode that we could consider a classic in the same way as many consider the HL1-expansion Opposing Force a classic. Valve tries to learn all the time though by collecting data from our adventures in City17. Hopefully they draw the right conclusions from those statistics and provide some worthwhile new stuff and a more thrilling multiplayer package in Episode 2.