Half-Life 2: Episode One review

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Ah, Half-Life: the only game universe that nobody ever seems to have a bad word for. And it’s no surprise, with better voice acting, a better plot, better graphics and game engine, and better gameplay than any other first-person shooter in the history of the world. So to say that the new outing is more of the same is less of a damning statement than it might be. But it’s still a damning statement.

Half-Life 2: Episode One review

Because Episode One is a funny fish all round. It isn’t really a mission pack and certainly not an entirely new game. It isn’t even an episode one in the Star Wars prequel sense you might expect. The best way to describe it is simply as an extension pack. It places you back in the action from the precise moment at which Half-Life 2 left off, and you continue from there on. The reason for the Episode One label is that this is the first of several extension episodes to be released that continue the story. Valve itself describes the game as “a four- to six-hour adventure of greater density and detail than non-episodic releases”. Which is to say that a lot happens quite fast and then suddenly it’s over.

While a new episode is good from the point of view of continuing the story, it really is just more of the same. There are no new weapons, no new settings, no new anything apart from a nastier type of zombie. For most of the time, you’re fighting your way back and forth through the same old streets and sewers of City 17. First, in an attempt to delay the Citadel from going pop and taking the inhabitants of the city with it, and then in an attempt to escape from it before it actually does pop. It isn’t long before you find yourself experiencing serious gameplay dej vu as one of those annoying Combine gunships appears and you start running around with the rocket launcher that just happened to be lying on the ground, going through that familiar duck-fire-run-reload sequence you’ll have first experienced in the lighthouse by the coast. There are one or two cool set pieces involving Alyx’s robot pet dog, but none on the epic scale of those in the full-length game, and none of the breather levels to contrast with the action scenes.

Positive points? Well, it’s prettier, with full HDR (high dynamic range) graphics if you have the hardware. The other major advance is that Alyx, comely urchin that she is, accompanies you for nearly the whole episode. There are more nice one-liners, some flirtation and the backup that comes from her fire support. But that has a downside too: she isn’t completely invincible, but is nonetheless irritatingly immune to zombies, head crabs and spiders despite the fact that she’s wearing jeans. The same monsters have your protective hazard suit’s flat-line tone ringing in your ears before you can shout, “get out of my WAY, you stupid cow!”. Oh, and her ammo never runs out. It breaks the feel of immersion and much of the tension turns to annoyance.

Compared to the likes of Opposing Force, the original Half-Life mission pack, which had you playing from an entirely different point of view, Episode One leaves a lot to be desired. It’s short, it’s a bit dull and you’ve seen it all before. Play it if you’re a big fan, don’t bother if you’re not. Roll on Episode Two.

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