Originally posted on June 1, 2006
Anyone who completed Half-Life 2 - one of the most accomplished games ever made - was left with more than a few niggling questions. Did you actually save City 17? Will hero Gordon Freeman escape from the G-Man? And did Alyx Vance, the game's leading lady, end up on the wrong end of a thermonuclear explosion?
We needed answers and, finally, we've got them. Half-Life 2: Episode One is the first in a trilogy of games that continue the story of Half-Life 2 - Episode One kicks off seconds after that game's thrilling cliff-hanger ending. But, despite obvious similarities, this is an entirely fresh adventure.
We won't give too much away but Episode One immediately reveals how Gordon and Alyx survive the blast at the end of Half-Life 2. The Citadel is now on the verge of a second catastrophic explosion and your goal is to escape across the suburbs and catch a train out of the danger zone.
Episode One offers more of a breakneck potboiler in comparison to Half-Life 2's epic narrative. Five hours is enough to reach the end but the five superbly-paced chapters are hugely satisfying, both in terms of plot and the sheer volume of action. It won't be long until you're pining for Episode Two but this first episode never leaves you feeling short-changed.
Every effort is made to push Half-Life 2 forwards and to avoid familiarity. Your surroundings are now actively involved in the gameplay. You begin by re-entering the Citadel in spectacular fashion and have to protect both yourself and Alyx from huge pieces of falling rubble with the super-physics gun. Puzzles and obstacles are even more believable as real-world challenges thanks to Episode One's robust and intuitive design.
It's Alyx who makes the biggest impact, though. The charismatic Miss Vance is always by your side and your involvement with her makes the game an incredibly absorbing experience. Alyx isn't invincible but neither does she need to be wrapped in cotton wool - mostly, she's putting you to shame with her gritty combat skills.
For the first part of the game, Alyx packs the only weaponry - you have the grav gun - which creates an unusual, co-dependant relationship between the two of you. In one lights-out section she can't see to shoot and you have the only torch, so you're looking after each other in a challenging, dynamic way.
Valve's achievement is in creating a character you can rely on and feel protective about. Whether she's watching your back or you're saving her from zombies, she's so effective that it's easy to forget Alyx is actually electro-brained AI. She's always aware of your actions, and makes great tactical decisions.
Above: The Citadel is super-unstable and ready to go bang in a big way
And you need Alyx, as Episode One really ramps up the action. Fights with combine soldiers are interrupted by marauding antlions, whose nest-holes must be blocked with wrecked vehicles before you turn your attention to a larger myrmidont antlion. There's lots of things to do all at once but, if you're skilled enough, you can turn this to your advantage.
The new zombified combine soldiers are a great example. Stronger than the shuffling corpses you've faced before, these 'zombines' charge at you while holding live grenades: hesitate and you're coffin-stuffing, but a quick flick of the grav gun allows you to pluck the grenade from the zombine's claw.
Episode One is a satisfying combination of the familiar and the new. It's a constant rollercoaster of taxing but rewarding challenges, many of which intentionally subvert the expectations of anyone familiar with Half-Life's style of gameplay.
Any quibbles - we were always going to want it to be bigger - are minor. Indeed, the frustrating command system that gave orders to citizen squad-mates in Half-Life 2 has been replaced by better, more reliable AI. And Episode One's superior pacing, voice-acting and storyline make other games look stupid in comparison.
Half-Life 2: Episode One demonstrates how games ought to be made, forged by dedication, imagination and more than a little risk-taking. It's an outstanding, stirring experience. And, with two more episodes due between now and the end of 2007, things are only going to get better.