Evacuate City 17 at once, if not sooner! I cannot state this without enough undue emphasis.--Dr. Kleiner
At well under six hours in length, Half-Life 2: Episode One is a much-abbreviated follow-up to the sprawling, twenty-hour opus that was Half-Life 2. But it's not just shorter. It's more focused, measured, and deliberate. Episode One doesn't always break new ground, but it certainly refines the Half-Life experience, and it steers the series' storyline in an intriguing new direction.
As you'd expect from a Half-Life title, Episode One is heavily scripted and completely linear, with all the action depicted from the first-person perspective of silent protagonist Gordon Freeman. At the beginning of the game, Freeman once again finds himself in the company of the plucky, admirable Alyx Vance, struggling to escape from City 17 beneath the shadow of the smoldering Combine Citadel. Their flight takes them through the embattled city, where they face squads of combine soldiers and extraterrestrial nasties, both above and below ground, indoors and out. Occasionally Freeman gets dispatched for a quick side-mission, but most of the time he's accompanied either by Alyx or their fellow revolutionaries.
While Half-Life 2 interspersed storytelling and puzzle-solving segments with lengthier stretches of solo run-and-gun gameplay, Episode One weaves these elements together into a more cohesive whole. There's plenty of shooting to be had, but owing to the constant exposition and character interaction, the game unfolds more like a story than a shooting gallery. And while the scope of the story is quite narrow, it's more densely packed with atmospheric events and character-driven experiences than any previous Half-Life game.
There's little new in terms of the combat, but Freeman gets access to a wide selection of weaponry, which helps keep things interesting. Most of the weapons, enemies, and characters are recognizable from Half-Life 2, but there are a few new sights and experiences. Valve's HDR lighting technology is in full effect here, and the results, sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic, are almost always beautiful. There's also an extensive developer commentary option, similar to that of the Lost Coast demo, that allows the player to activate comments by the developers and explore the game's features without taking damage.
Episode One's settings tend toward the smaller scale, consisting mostly of urban ruins. With the exception of some scenes within the Citadel and a brief trip through a creepy hospital, most of the environments are pretty generic. Still, they provide ideal opportunities for a series of close-quarters, interpersonal situations and setpieces that have Freeman and Alyx working together, sometimes in surprising ways. Alyx is a capable, intelligent sidekick, so there's no need to shepherd her around or worry about keeping her out of harm's way. In fact, she's occasionally the primary source of firepower, and her handiness with a weapon is often invaluable. One scene in a pitch-black underground tunnel has Freeman unarmed except for the gravity gun, tracking enemies with a flashlight so Alyx can shoot them. Others, including one where Alyx covers Freeman with a sniper rifle while he fights through city streets, are more conventional but still entertaining.
Clearly beloved by her creators, Alyx is Episode One's focal point, and Valve takes every opportunity to show her character off. She talks constantly and believably, and her excellent voice-acting is accompanied by emotive body language and convincing facial expressions. While many of her actions are scripted, she also provides a spontaneous running commentary, cheering Freeman when he nails a headshot or exclaiming, "Light 'em up!" when he sets an enemy on fire. Other familiar characters also make appearances, and although none are as integral as Alyx, they're just as thoughtfully portrayed.
Episode One's story manages to deliver on multiple levels, offering moments of genuine humor, tenderness, and horror. Few action games even attempt to showcase such a range, so the fact that the game hits each emotional note reliably, without resorting to tired cliches, is particularly impressive.
Owing to plot developments I won't spoil here, there's an air of reckless freedom to Episode One that hasn't been present since the original Half-Life. And although many mysteries remain unresolved, this time around there isn't the sense that Freeman is constantly being kept in the dark, played as a pawn in an obscure scheme. Despite the relentless linearity of the game, there's a newfound sense of possibilities, especially as the episode draws to a close.
Episode One feels like the work of a developer, having cleared the hurdle of a much-anticipated sequel on an entirely new engine, confidently finding its stride in terms of character and story development. It's a fitting coda to Half-Life 2, and seems well-suited as an introduction to a new story arc. Hopefully the remaining two episodes of the trilogy will expand the series' settings and gameplay while retaining the same attention to the plot. At this point, there's good reason to look forward to Episode Two.