Friday, July 21, 2006

Half-Life 2: Episode One Review

Half-Life 2: Episode One, developed and published by Valve.
The Good: Slightly improved graphics (which are still really good), few solo missions, top-notch voice acting
The Not So Good: Short, feels the same as the original with no well-defined extras
What say you? A worthy, but short, follow up to Half-Life 2: 6/8

Half-Life 2 is really popular, and it’s no surprise, because it’s a fantastic first person shooter. The ending of Half-Life 2 left many people wondering what happened to our beloved heroes, uber-scientist Gordon Freeman and sexy (in a digital sense, of course) vixen Alyx Vance. Valve has decided to answer those questions by further confusing the gaming world with three episodes that expand upon the Half-Life 2 story. The first of these is Half-Life 2: Episode One, a stand-alone single player “campaign” of sorts where Gordon and Alyx venture out of the citadel and into City 17.

In true Half-Life 2 nature, the graphics of Episode One are outstanding. The game uses a slightly enhanced version of the Source engine, incorporating dynamic shadows and upgraded facial expressions. There are so many high points to the graphics in the game; the character models, and especially the faces, are extremely detailed and life-like. The environments are also well-done, although the metallic settings of underground sewers and cold buildings gets repetitive after a while (Episode One looks a lot better in the wide open City 17). There are tons of lighting effects as well. Half-Life 2: Episode One shows the graphical power of the PC in all of its console crushing glory. The sound is also very nice: the voice acting (which features all of the actors from Half-Life 2) is superior, and is position-based depending on which direction you are facing. The music comes in at appropriate times, and it accompanied with great sound effects from weapons and explosions. Half-Life 2: Episode One clearly continues the high production values from the original game.

There is not much difference between Half-Life 2: Episode One and the original game, however. Some would argue that this is a good thing, considering how acclaimed Half-Life 2 was, but Episode One still feels like you’re playing the original game, rather than a distinct addition that adds something new to the game. Most expansion packs add something to the core gameplay, but Half-Life 2: Episode One is just a solid set of levels that closely resembles the source material. The game’s few differences involve an enhanced gravity gun that can pick up people; this is great fun, flinging Combine soldiers across the map, but it only lasts for one of the five chapters. The rest of the weapons are standard Half-Life 2 fare. The AI in the game is slightly improved, although they still don’t use cover as much as they should and are pretty easy to defeat for skilled players. This time around, you spend most of the time paired up with other characters from the game, instead of slogging through enemies by yourself. The teamwork in the game is a welcome addition, as fighting alongside someone else feels more realistic than a Gordon versus the world scenario. Your compatriots can hold their own, too, engaging enemies pretty well with their unlimited ammo. It’s almost easier to take them out yourself, but the benefits of a moving turret with unlimited rounds are something you can’t pass up. The biggest knock against the game is its length. I know that three episodes are planned, but the game is over so quickly (you can finish it with a good day’s work, including a break for lunch) that the $20 price tag almost doesn’t hold up. If the core gameplay of Half-Life 2: Episode One wasn’t so enjoyable, some people might feel ripped off.

Half-Life 2: Episode One is designed for people who have completed the original game. Although it’s technically a stand-alone game, you won’t really understand what’s going on unless you’ve finished Half-Life 2, although you can still enjoy the action. So, is it worth it? For people who enjoyed the original, I’d say yes. The price is a little steep for the amount of content; it’s closer to one of the booster packs available for Battlefield 2 than a budget title, but still cheaper than the $30 rip-off expansion packs for The Sims 2. If you feel justified paying $20 for five hours of gameplay, go right ahead: fans of the game won’t be disappointed. People who marginally enjoy first person shooters could steer clear of this game and not feel badly about it: there are really no changes from the original game. Half-Life 2: Episode One is deserving of the Half-Life 2 moniker, and adding more team-based gameplay makes the game more enjoyable and reasonable, science fiction setting aside. Bottom line: get it if you like Half-Life 2 and you’d like to experience more single player first person shooting action. For the rest of us, it’s generally more of the same. The same is good, but the same is still the same.