When Half-Life 2 finally hit the shelves around a year late, it fast became one of the biggest PC games of the year. It was no surprise that valve were going to continue the game and bring out a third title but what did come as a surprise is that, via steam and retail channels, they would release episodic content for HL2, sort of like expansion packs except not requiring the original game. The first of these has just arrived and Valve is a company with a vision of the future at the forefront of its mind. Episode One may only be a taste test of HL action but it's worth every cent you pay for it.
Warning. The following paragraph, in fact the whole game contains massive spoilers from the original game. If you haven't finished it, do not read on. The game begins right where HL2 left off after Gordon and Alyx destroy the Citadel, or so they think. You awaken under a pile of rocks, where Alyx and Dog greet you. While the both of you are trapped in City 17, you are in danger so the main aim of this episode is to stop the cataclysmic reaction of the Citadel and get you, Alyx and as many civilians as you can out alive.
As expected the gameplay is very much reminiscent of Half-Life 2 although now that valve has had more time with its Source engine and PC technology has advanced they have been able to extend the player experience even more. The game is split across five chapters, with a sneak preview of Episode Two the reward for completing the game. How the game actually plays is pretty much the same as HL2. Take on some combine, defeat some aliens and solve some puzzles. Sounds a bit boring, but it is the storyline which keeps this series ticking along.
Valve are the absolute benchmark for storytelling and it is no different with Episode One. While in reality the storyline of Episode One probably only contains about two days of actual content, it has critical sections which need to be told before you can continue. Valve also has included something we'd love to see in many high profile games and that is a DVD style commentary track. As you play through the levels, speech bubbles appear and when activated, give the player information about what Valve was trying to do in that scene and how it changed during development. It's an interesting insight to learn why games change from design to final stage and how much impact play testers can have on a title.
The levels themselves aren't overly impressive but do the job well. Half the game is set in the citadel, with the rest in the outside world helping others out. What really is impressive in Episode One though is the puzzles. Again valve has used the gravity gun to excellent affect and the puzzles aren't likely to leave you stuck for to long but they are a little more extravagant than last time around.
For those without the original game, Valve has included HL 2 Deathmatch which was released for free soon after the original title. The World's Biggest game, Counter-Strike is not included which is not surprising considering it is no longer a free product. Both original HL DM and HL DM Source are included.
Visually Valve again delivers with the best facial technology around and of course their powerful Source engine. With that said, there isn't a huge improvement on the visuals but to be honest it's hard to expect that in what ultimately is a glorified expansion pack. The sound however is once again excellent with the voice actors of both Alyx and Gordon reprising their roles and positional sound once again present.
Valve has once again proven that it knows its stuff when it comes to gaming. Half-Life is fast becoming one of the most legendary series of all time and Episode One only enhances this view. Considering this can be picked up for less than half the original game's price, it's almost a must have for those with powerful PC's.