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Half-Life 2: Episode One Review

Developer: Valve Software Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: June 1, 2006 Also On: None

Half-Life 2: Episode One is the first of three standalone expansion packs for Half-Life 2 scheduled to be released by Christmas 2007. Starting immediately after the original Half-Life 2 ended, Episode One leads Gordon and Alyx back to the citadel and finally out of the city, just as the reactor goes up. It is, as I mentioned, standalone; so there is no need to own Half-Life 2 to play it, and yet it can still be picked up at the modest expansion pack price of $20 USD.

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You start by being shown a cutscene frozen where Half-Life 2 ended. Gordon and Alyx are frozen in time as the reactor is exploding. The story begins to unfold as vortigaunts appear and remove the two of you from danger. Then, they go for the G man. This is where things get sticky. As they approach, you’ll hear the last and only line from G-man in this episode… “We’ll see about that.” Nothing too terribly Shakespearean, but it gets the player wondering again, as Valve likes to do at the beginning of each game. Gameplay starts with Dog pulling you from the rubble, showing the citadel’s swirling red clouds and lightning in the sky. They re-acquaint you with the basic controls, but instead of having the trademark crowbar, you start (and play a significant part of the game) with the gravity gun. Gameplay is nothing new, which is not surprising when you consider that it is in fact an expansion pack. There are no new weapons, and many of the textures and sounds from Half-Life 2 are re-used. Again, not surprising.

There are, however, new enemies. In Half-Life 2, there were humans who had been turned to zombies by a head crab attaching to their face. But why didn’t the combine ever get turned in to zombies, you ask? In Episode One, they do. The Zombine (pet name specified by Alyx early on) are combine soldiers turned into zombies by the head crabs, which are essentially the same wobbly zombies as the others, just with more health, slightly faster, and can use grenades. By “use” in this case I mean pull the pin and walk toward you. The Zombine cannot throw the grenades, only activate them and walk toward you, hoping for a kamikaze kill. There are other new enemies, some of which you can only see for very short periods of time or only on monitors, which surely means that Valve is saving these creatures for the later episodes.

As far as value goes, the game is approximately one half as long as the original Half-Life 2, so value is for the player to determine. It’s only $20 new, whereas Half-Life 2 was $50 new. It is true that it’s not an entirely new game, but after playing Episode One I definitely did not feel ripped off. The graphics engine for Episode One has been worked on a lot, as you can see in the screenshots. The high dynamic range lighting has been used in nearly every area, making for a more realistic and cinematic look, as well as dozens of facial animating advancements allowing for more exaggerated, and yet still realistic looking speech and movement from any distance. The models are smoothed out as well. Not an extreme amount, but then again, Half-Life 2 still looks great today, years after its original release. The only aspect of the graphics I wish they had upgraded which they didn’t was the texture size. When Half-Life 2 was released, people had smaller amounts of RAM, maybe 512MB, so the textures obviously had to be smaller, but today I have 4GB of RAM and the textures aren’t any bigger, looking blurry and muddy up close.

The sound is exactly what you’d expect. Nothing sounds out of place, and it is very atmospheric and really puts you in the game. The fight music (which kicks in when enemies start to spawn), however, can sound a bit cheesy when it comes on. While on audio, I’ll explain the commentary system that Valve included. When you start a new game, you get the choice to turn on commentary, which consists of interesting notes and, well, commentary from the Valve team about the game. It is activated automatically, or normally by activating little commentary boxes throughout the game, which, when activated, lower the volume of the game and make you unable to be hurt, so that you can concentrate on what the development team has to say. There isn’t an amazing amount of replay value here, I’d say you can play it once without and once with commentary, and you might want to play it again before Episode Two comes out, your normal single player FPS fair. No multiplayer here, aside from Half-Life 2: Deathmatch, which is included for free, as well as Half-Life: Deathmatch: Source, both of which have been released long before Episode 1 was released. (Don’t get me wrong, Half-Life 2: Deathmatch is a ton of fun, just not original to this package,)

All in all, Episode One is well worth the price when you consider what you’re getting. A fully standalone game worth hours of fun, as well as two multiplayer games worth the same, if not more play time. Although it uses the Half-Life 2 engine from years ago, it looks amazing with the improvements that Valve has made and is a blast to play. If you are a fan of FPS games or are looking to start off on the right foot, take a good look at Half-Life 2: Episode One.

Graphics: 9
Sound: 9.5
Gameplay: 9
Creativity: 7
Replay Value/Game Length: 10
Final: 9
Written by Dave Review Guide