More Of The Same? - Half Life 2: Episode 1

One of the first ever let’s play series I did for YouTube was Valve’s staple Half Life 2. While I wasn’t as awestruck as some fans of the series, I can appreciate that at the time of release that game would have been revolutionary, combining simplistic intuitive controls with incredible storytelling that was mostly accessed through cues in the background. Recently I headed back to City 17 to continue my adventures with Dr Gordon Freeman and companion Alyx Vance in pursuit of more headcrab zombies, quirky puzzles and of course any more information concerning the ever-elusive G-Man.

Now it has been a good while since I played Half Life 2 from what I remember it looked great. Not mind-blowingly spectacular by any means but certainly utilitarian, Valve are very good at dark rusty kind of textures that we say plenty of over the corner of the game. Speaking of dark, this title featured visually darker sections much more heavily than its forebear, often plunging you into complete blackness and surrounding you with zombies - I found myself relying on the flashlight much more than usual. The lighting effects that we are given are perfect for their role, and the occasional sparks and energy blasts we see are nicely convincing. While we don’t get any of the beautiful panorama shots present in Half Life 2, it does definitely feel like effort has been put into the small spaces we see, and I don’t begrudge the designers for that choice.

 Our mechanical friend DOG returns for the next episode in Valve's magnum opus #FuckYeah

Our mechanical friend DOG returns for the next episode in Valve's magnum opus #FuckYeah

"Now as we all expect it’s fairly standard FPS fare when it comes to gameplay. I love the smoothness of camera pans whether using a gamepad or mouse, as it’s little things like this that help keep you immersed."

The game ran almost flawlessly on my system at 1080p and a butter-smooth 60fps, and really is not taxing at all. I did encounter a few bizarre microstutters at some points, this maybe happened three times over the course of my playthrough, but nothing crashed the game so there’s that. Details on items and weapons look great, as do the models, it’s pretty much identical to Half Life 2 for all intents and purposes. I do think that these titles will start to look dated in the near future, but in 2015 we’re still at the point where everything looks just dandy to me.

Now the sound design with this one was very interesting to me. The ambient musical tracks present in the game are extremely quiet and unintrusive, which does add to the starkness of the whole thing and increase the sense of isolation. Occasionally however, during lengthy combat segments, the volume really ramps up and we’re treated to very loud very fast passages, and I wasn’t as keen on this, as it really does become overwhelmingly noisy, particularly when trying to see what’s going on or use sound to determine the location of your next target. I can see what they were going for here with this dynamic disparity to establish a mood, but it could have been pulled off a little better by taming things down just a little bit.

The audio effects and acting are great as per usual, a real strength of the series. I must commend Merle Dandridge here, the voice of Alyx, as while she is the only speaking role that accompanies you throughout the whole game, her delivery feels extremely organic and I was highly impressed. The ominous moans and whispers of the zombies is as blood-chilling as ever, particularly during the very dark sequences, and the weapon sounds you’ll hear while dispatching are nothing short of sublime. Valve really take a no-nonsense approach to sound effects that I appreciate, and for some reason the one that stands out to me is the crossbow. The dull thunk that accompanies seeing an enemy slump to the floor is so satisfying.

TURN THE FUCKING LIGHTS BACK ON PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE

Now as we all expect it’s fairly standard FPS fare when it comes to gameplay. I love the smoothness of camera pans whether using a gamepad or mouse, as it’s little things like this that help keep you immersed. Movement is fine, a very stripped down affair, apart from some small issues that I had when trying to jump into vents or other small spaces, the navigation of which plays a larger role this time around.

"I really didn’t mind the lack of difficult logical problems, but if you were expecting the same degree of nuance as before, you won’t get it here I’m afraid."

Speaking of which, our lovely companion Alyx Vance travels with us over the course of this adventure, and feels much more like a true partner, dishing out damage to combine forces and scaling obstacles as well as Gordon Freeman himself. While she’s a more-than-capable bullet sponge, she can actually die, so don’t let her take on all the zombies by herself, okay? She starts to panic in pitch darkness, and you’ll have to use that trusty flashlight to pierce the blackness and illuminate the oncoming hordes.

Simple logical puzzles also return from Half Life 2, but do note that the challenges are both fewer in number and arguably much simpler. There is nothing new on offer, more of the same kind of thing we’ve seen before, perhaps tighter if anything, less open to novel problem solving. In any given room it’s usually extremely obvious what to do once you’ve explored, and not much is required of the player in terms of grey matter. Not that that’s a bad thing of course, I really didn’t mind the lack of difficult logical problems, but if you were expecting the same degree of nuance as before, you won’t get it here I’m afraid.

So this game currently retails at £7.99 on Steam, and for that price, I’d really have to say hold off for a sale or buy it as part of a larger bundle. I got about 3 hours out of the main story, so it really is very short, and while it’s a great experience, don’t pay full price for it. Who is this for, you may ask? It’s for people who’ve played Half Life 2 and want more, that’s really it. If you haven’t done that, you likely won’t understand a great deal of the plot, so make sure you do that first. It’s another adventure in the Half Life universe you love, nothing more, nothing less, but a highly enjoyable experience overall, however brief.


Author: Ollie Burton

Ollie is a student at Newcastle University in the UK studying Cellular & Molecular Biology. In his spare time he operates this website, is an avid gaming & film fan and plays in a blues-rock band, as well as editing for the University's student newspaper, The Courier.