Traditionally the summer isn't a great time to release video games. The weather is nice, there's lots of sport on and 'blockbuster' films are lining up to compete for your well-earned pound. Why be cooped up inside, hunched over a keyboard and mouse, when you could be happily skipping along in daisy-filled fields? Of course, this isn't an entirely accurate depiction of an English summer, especially this English summer, but the point remains. If you spend the winter months huddling in gas heated rooms, the summer represents a rare opportunity to get out and about for a few months. So, to release Half-Life 2: Episode One, the first in a trilogy of episodes, at the beginning of June could be considered a bold move on the part of Valve. This would, however, miss the point entirely because it is not when but what Valve is releasing which is bold.
Episode One was originally intended to be part of the Aftermath expansion pack, but is now part of a trilogy of 'episodes' to be released over the course of 2006 and 2007. The idea of episodic content has been floating around the industry for quite some time, but is only now seeing fruition. The logic behind episodic releases is fairly simple and pretty understandable. With budgets getting bigger and margins getting smaller, episodic content is an opportunity to release polished games with less outlay and therefore less risk. We've already seen examples of this with SiN and the variety of add-ons made available on Xbox Live for games such as Oblivion and PGR3. On the flip side it raises questions about value for the gamer. There has been a growing trend for shorter games, and the move to episodic content reflects this. The question is: does Episode One, with its 4-6 hours of gameplay, represent value for money?
Rather like a good pair of slippers, there's a certain comfortable familiarity about the Half-Life series. Ever since the beginning it's shone brightly as an example of truly fun gaming in a genre often criticised for being derivative. Although always recognisable as an FPS, Half-Life has that little bit of extra polish and ingenuity that has set it apart from the rest of the pack. Episode One continues this trend, providing gameplay which is both familiar but engaging at the same time. You'll recognise the enemies, the weapons, the allies and the gameplay elements in Episode One, but unlike many other titles, familiarity doesn't breed contempt.
In Episode One, Gordon 'The Free Man' Freeman, is once again trying to escape whilst all hell breaks out around him in City 17. Unlike Black Mesa, however, where all his troubles began, he is not alone, for now he has Alyx Vance to accompany him. If anything separates Episode One from all that preceded it, it's the focus on single-player co-op gameplay provided by having Alyx with you. Previous games, apart from the occasional alliance, were largely lonely affairs with the ever silent Gordon rampaging his way through wave after wave of soldiers, zombies and other 'wildlife'. As such, playing alongside Alyx is a refreshing change of pace for the series and one which is carried out to near perfection.
From a gameplay perspective Alyx is a great addition and her contribution to fire-fights is both helpful and, on occasion, essential. Her combat AI rarely, if ever, falters as she takes up good tactical positions and warns you of impending danger when necessary. If you're running short on ammo she can help you take care of enemies and save your skin where normally you surely would have been killed. One good example comes when you can lure hapless zombies into the open for Alyx to pick-off from a sniping position. This also serves as a good example of the enemy AI since they will follow you if running away is the only safe option you have. This can, as exampled above, be to your advantage, but can equally lead to your demise if you're overwhelmed. As if to emphasise this need for cooperation, the early parts of the game find you restricted to your trusty Gravity Gun; therefore requiring you to utilise Alyx to the full. This favour is returned later on when you're plunged into darkness and Alyx relies on you to illuminate the oncoming hordes of 'zombines'.
Alyx is, however, a lot more than a simple gameplay device. The 'relationship' between Gordon and Alyx is something which was developed slowly throughout Half-Life 2 and this is further developed in Episode One. There are so many moments throughout Episode One that serve to enhance your attachment to Alyx. The painful emotion in Alyx's face as Gordon disappears to perform another death defying task is clear to see. The bad jokes, the insecurities, the fear; they are tangible. When Alyx looks at Gordon - at you - through the screen, it feels real, it feels meaningful. This may sound syrupy, but Episode One is one of the few examples of a game that marries decent gameplay, story and meaningful characterisation into one package. Some games do one or two of these at most, but Half-Life 2, and especially Episode One, have really reached a sophistication that isn't seen in a whole host other so called 'triple A' titles.
On to more mundane topics, the audio and visual quality of Episode One continues where Half-Life 2 left off. Graphically it seems as though the Source engine has received some optimization, so if you play Episode One on the same PC as you did Half-Life 2 you'll probably notice slightly improved performance. The addition of HDR, as previewed in the Lost Coast level, adds a further level of depth to the already impressive visuals. The sights and sounds of the decaying City 17, the turbulent red cyclone above the Citadel, the pulsating and visually distorting inner core and the sounds of distant conflict create a believable and alive environment. The voice acting is also worthy of praise, being among the most professional ever featured in a video game.
Problems? There were a couple of minor crashes for reasons unknown, but they were isolated incidents in a generally uninterrupted gaming experience. It would have been nice to have seen some additions, like using your gun as a melee weapon, ala Halo, but there's so much greatness in the gameplay that this is a trifling complaint in an otherwise superb game. While short, you can also play through the game using the commentary mode which was debuted in the Lost Coast tech demo. It's a nice addition and something well worth looking at.
So, if you've reached this far you probably have a fair idea to the answer of the question posed earlier. Yes, Half-Life 2: Episode One is well worth your investment. It is short, at around 4-6 hours depending on ability and difficulty level, but they are 4-6 hours of intense, taut and finely tuned gameplay the like of which you're unlikely to find in many other games. Once you're ensnared by the charms of Episode One you'll be chafing at the bit for Episode Two to arrive. It's only six months away, but it might as well be an eternity.