NOTE: This review, like the game it discusses, supposes that the reader has completed Half-Life 2. If you do not wish to read spoilers regarding the events of Half-Life 2, it is recommended that you not read this review, and indeed not play Episode One.
When we last left our intrepid heroes, Gordon Freeman was back in the clutches of the mysterious "G-Man," helpless in a black void. The green-eyed beauty Alyx Vance to whom we had grown so attatched was mere feet away from her immanent demise as the Combine Citadel erupted, and players everywhere screamed and cursed the credits roll that followed. Now, a year and a half later, Valve returns to pick up where they left off. Originally planned as a bit of an epilogue expansion pack to wrap up some loose ends, Half-Life 2: Aftermath (as it was originally titled) has transformed into something more. Indeed, Episode One is the first of a trilogy of smaller games that look to advance the story in some major ways.
This isn't the first time episodic gaming has been tried. Capcom published a bi-monthly episodic RPG on Dreamcast called El Dorado Gate, and more recently Bone and SiN Episodes have begun churning out their 5-6 hour chunks of gaming. Indeed, the ancestors of the genre, Wolfenstein 3D and Doom broke their story up into episodes. But this is the first time a existing series with the kind of following of Half Life has switched to this format, and it's sure to meet with its fans and detractors. You're going to get more Half-Life, more often, but you're going to get it in 5 hour chunks. But like it or not, this is not optional material for the Half-Life fan. Episode One is as relevant and as good as anything in the previous game, and you will want to play it.
The new episode begins shortly after the explosion at the top of the Citadel (That's right. Don't let the title fool you; this is a true sequel). It seems that Earth has a powerful ally in the Vortigaunts, the alien race Gordon freed from the Combine in his first adventure. Our scaly green friends weild some kind of power that they use to deliver both of Gordon and Alyx from their respective predicaments. Gordon regains conciousness as our favorite robot, Dog, finds him buried amidst the rubble at the foot of the tower. An overjoyed Alyx greets him with a warm, first-person hug. Indeed this episode is all about building, the relationship between Gordon and Alyx. This can be a little tricky, since Gordon never speaks, but after fighting alongside her for this episode, it's hard not to get attached.
This sense of kinship is helped along by steering clear of the usual "escort the girl" dynamic gamers are used to. Never will Alyx become the weak, defenseless burden that was Ashley in Resident Evil 4 or the princess in Ico. This girl can handle herself; she's handy with a pistol, handier with a shotgun, and can take a zombie's head(crab) off in one kick. Although it is possible for her to die, and her death will mean a game over, it won't happen unless you consciously abandon her in the heat of battle.
What makes this dynamic all the more compelling is the way that Valve has designed the levels to take advantage of teamwork. At times Gordon and Alyx will have to split up, only to save each other later, something that reminded me a bit of Out of This World. At one point Alyx picks up a sniper rifle and provides some much needed cover for Gordon. During another level, Gordon uses his flashlight to illuminate enemies for Alyx in total darkness. They come to need each other, and you'll feel grateful for her presence.
Episode One does a fantastic job of selling its world and its characters, too. The voice acting may be the best I've heard in a game, and the digital actors reading them are no less convincing. In fact, they're even more able to convey deep emotion in their faces than even their Half-Life 2 counterparts. The story itself is, as usual, told in real time, entirely in first-person, and without the cinematic trappings that create the kind of deliberate narrative most are probably used to. Still through conversations, broadcasts, and careful observation, there's quite a lot to be dissected in the short time it takes to experience the episode.
As expected, things come to a halt all too soon. A casual stroll through the five chapters that make up Episode One took me about six hours, and rest assured, the ending is no less nasty of a cliffhanger than we've come to expect from Valve, leaving the fates of our characters uncertain in the face of world-changing events. Really, this just helps to illuminate just how episodic the Half-Life saga has always been. The good news is this time we'll only have to wait 6 months for the next installment, and not 6 years.
Episode One could almost be the beginnings of a true sequel if not for a few nagging issues. The engine, and most of the assets that inhabit it are taken from the previous game, and are beginning to show their age, despite the added layer of polish given by HDR lighting technology. There's also a complete lack of new weapons and only two new enemies to face. But ultimately, this isn't a traditional "expansion" pack, with a set of new props and levels dropped into a game, but rather a true extension of the Half-Life experience and as such, it is a resounding success. It's every bit as much fun to traverse its levels as the levels of its predecessors. It felt great to get back to City 17 and spend some quality time with Alyx, and I couldn't be more excited for Episode Two.