Half-Life 2: Episode One is a direct continuation of the Half-Life story. It picks up right after Half-Life 2, with the Combine tower being blown up. Gordon has some unfinished business and, without spoiling too much, ends up being sent on a detour from the G-man’s plan. Going along with Ole Crowbar himself is his new hot sexy sidekick, Alyx, who’s undergone a considerable makeover. She looks somewhat different, but mostly just more detailed and better-animated.
Naturally, the game is also shorter than the full Half-Life 2. Even with a few reloads, we were still hovering around the 5 hour mark in terms of gameplay. This is about on par, dollar for dollar, with Half-Life 2 itself, but Half-Life 2 also came with CS: Source. Episode One doesn’t include any multiplayer goodies.
In fact, the majority of the new content is limited to the levels. There are only two new baddies and no new weapons to play with. There may be some new terrain, but most of it is similar stylistically to the eastern European theme we saw before, so it’s difficult to be sure how much “new” there is. The onus on whether or not it’s worth your $20, then, is on the gameplay.
Episode One obviously plays quite similarly to Half-Life 2. It is more claustrophobic however, and without the outdoor and vehicle levels it has as much in common with the original Half-Life as with the sequel. As a result the pace is somewhat faster than Half-Life 2 and there are a few more puzzles and tricks. The most noteworthy of the gameplay tricks is guiding Alyx’s aim with your flashlight. At one prolonged point in the game, you will find yourself in a dark, underground area and under constant assault by zombies. You have a flashlight, Alyx has limitless reserves of ammunition – the solution is obvious. The idea works, but the length of the sequence is somewhat prohibitive, and much like The Return of the King, you find yourself wishing the creators had the restraint to end it sooner.
The expansion is shorter than the full game, but much more moderate – it suffers neither the poorly received sequences of Half-Life 2, nor does it have especially brilliant levels. While Half-Life 2 had high points like the bridge sequence, there’s really no such moment that stands out in Episode One – for better or worse. There is a steadier, more regular flow of action that reaches occasional peaks and can be quite intense, but more for difficulty reasons than any feeling of wonder. Episode One has nothing to rival the first fight against a Gunship or Strider, though both are present.