“How could one man have slipped through your force’s fingers time and time again? How is it possible? This is not some agent provocateur or highly trained assassin we are discussing. Gordon Freeman is a theoretical physicist…” So lectures Dr. Breen, the human face of the antagonist Combine for much of Half-Life 2 ( ).
And Breen is right. Part of what makes the protagonist Gordon Freeman so compelling is his uniqueness—he isn’t some muscle-bound soldier or “agent provocateur.” Instead, he’s a nerdy guy with glasses, a crowbar, and a PhD.
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 picks up right where HL2 ends: with the destruction of the portal atop the citadel in City 17 and the apparent death of Dr. Breen. He’ll be missed. Just as a massive explosion is about to destroy both Freeman and Alyx Vance, your sharp-shooting sidekick, the mysterious Vortigaunts intervene to save both your lives. They also manage to anger the elusive G-Man, a reoccurring character in the series who possesses a creepy voice and considers himself Freeman’s “employer.”
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 is the first chapter in a three-part story-arc set after the events of Half-Life 2. For those who thought Half-Life 2 was too short and resolved nothing, expect more of the same. In fact, both episodes can be seen as expensive remakes of certain chapters of HL2 without fundamentally adding anything new or revealing anything groundbreaking to the plot.
Episode 1 sees Gordon and Alyx fight their way back through the Citadel in order to delay the core from exploding. The initial levels play similarly to the concluding levels of HL2, though now the entire Citadel is coming down around the player. Some scripted segments where you have to dodge debris or fall further into the maze of the Citadel beak up some tired “shoot the energy ball into the hole to extend the bridge” puzzles. You’ll get to see some new enemies like zombified Combine soldiers and Stalkers and more of the Citadel, but the initial levels feel like “deleted scenes” from Valve’s original vision of HL2 rather than an important step forward for the franchise.
After delaying the core, Alyx and Gordon then need to try to escape the city by train, and this requires you weaving in and out of tunnels below the city (which you’ve done before) until finally providing cover for your fellow resistance members as they board the last trains out of City 17. The escort mission once again has you take control of a squad of soldiers, only this time you’ll have to get them from point A to point B in an area overrun with Combine soldiers. You’ll be ferrying soldiers across the same stretch of land several times, and by the third time it feels repetitive. New enemies arrive, but their patterns are predicable. When the Combine riot van arrives, you know that there will be a missile launcher nearby to take it out. Similarly, when you confront the Strider at the end, you’ll find a box of missiles ready to go.
The best thing I can say about HL2 is the allied AI really shines. Alyx Vance hardly ever repeats lines, has life-like expressions, and is handy in a fight. It’s a shame that you two didn’t get to explore more in the first game because her presence adds depth and humanity to the game. Freeman is a silent protagonist; Alyx jokes, shoots, and feels.
As an episodic series, HL2 has jerky, frustrating pacing mixed with lackluster plot development. Essentially, the game follows a pattern of “this happened, then this, and then that” without pausing for breath or character development. You’re constantly on the move from point A to point B, and only during the last few segments does the “on the road” feel get broken up with an escort mission and a showdown with a Strider in the train yard.
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The good news is the game plays exactly like other levels in HL2—both from a technical and a practical perspective. The bad news is that there’s not much new here. The plot developments can be summarized in about three sentences and there aren’t any new weapons or exotic areas to explore. There are various seeds and hints that are further expanded upon in Episode 2, but these tastes could have been better implemented in areas that didn’t play so redundantly. You’re on familiar ground, and you get the sense that Valve is building the series to something, but it’s taking a circuitous route to get there.
[Chris Holt is an associate editor for Macworld.]