Steam Game Review #3: Half-Life 2: Episode One

After the epic cliffhanger that was Half-Life 2, we were all waiting with baited breath to see what had happened to Gordon Freeman. We didn’t have to wait long, as in June of 2006 Valve let us know with the release of HL2: Episode 1.

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Does it hold up to the high standards set by it’s predecessors?

HL2: Episode 1 starts out immediately after the events of Half-Life 2. You don’t have to wait long to find out that shit has hit the fan, and Alex is looking for you (Gordon Freeman.)

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The G-man appears early on, as do the vorgons (vlorgons? blorgons? Douglas Adams would know.) Your gravity gun is intact and Alex is back with you… for now.

This is the first game I really recall playing through a second time with the developers commentary turned on. This was perhaps due to the relatively short campaign. There’s a lot of emotion in that campaign though, and plenty of classic Half-Life moments.

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The game absolutely screams on my aging 8200gs, and the graphics are still vibrant and enjoyable. Characters still share emotions clearly, and there’s no subtlety lost due to texture issues.

As with all previous Half Life titles, the health and armor game mechanics are of the classic ‘regularly scattered power ups’ type.

The voice acting is still excellent, and the emotional connections you made with the characters in the previous game shine through brightly. This is high drama, with well paced tension and regular action segments interspersed throughout.

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In fact, it’s more than a few minutes before you get to any action. The first 10-15 minutes is pure story-line, and excellently serves to draw you back into the dystopian world of Gordon Freeman.

The familiar characters, engrossing world, and action game fun all blend masterfully into a brilliant, of short gaming experience.

In a way, Half Life 2: Episode 1 is my favorite of the Half Life games. It launched before Portal, before TF2 was the king of the hill (hehe), before Left 4 Dead. Yet it still holds its own with these greats It’s the characters in this game that stick with you. Alex is infinitely likable, and the game directors over at Valve know just how to exploit that likability to their storytelling advantage.

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The puzzles are light adventure game-esque fare, with plenty of exploration of hatchways and ledges. As in previously Half Life games, I found myself always looking over my shoulder to see if I was being observed just out of reach. There’s a spy novel’s worth of alien subterfuge going on just below the surface of the Half Life series, and it’s this ongoing story that really adds depth and additional replay value to the series.

Meta comment: There’s something about game reviewing that reminds me of ‘Pokemon Snap’. Not only are you playing through the game and trying to experience the story as intended, you’re also looking at it from a photographer’s viewpoint. “That’ll make a great screenshot” runs through my mind often. It’s fun, but I wonder if it detracts from my immersion. /end comment.

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The gravity gun remains the center of the weapon rack, and it has received a nice upgrade from the previous game. You certainly feel like you are progressing, even if all your weapons have been stripped from you after the events of the HL2.

Immediately after receiving the upgrade you’re plunged into the heat of battle, and you find yourself flinging soldiers hundreds of feat into the air. It’s a bit cartoonish, but it’s also great fun.

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Alex is also a pleasure to interact with, never feeling like a weight like so many NPCs can. With her electronics toolkit, she actually feels like a useful contributor to the story-line beyond a romantic interest. That’s always a plus.

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All in all, this is still a terrific game. If you’re on the fence and still haven’t played it, bite the bullet and pick it up for a 5$. You’ll be very happy you did. The developer’s commentary alone makes it worth it, and there’s some great character development that fans of the series shouldn’t miss. 85%, a great showing even after all these years.

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