I don't get Half-Life 2. The original is decent enough, immensely innovative for 1998 in its storytelling, set-pieces and continuous gameplay, but the sequel left me cold. You need to know that, because if HL2 is among your all-time favourite games, and there's a fairly good chance it is given the reverent tones in which the game is traditionally discussed, you probably won't want to read any further.
Episode 1 encapsulates many of what I find confusing about the worship the game seems to attract. It's competently made, and the Source engine does impressive work for 2006, but there's nothing special about any of it. Episode 1 is of decent length for what is essentially the first DLC - thanks for that, Valve - but offers little by way of original ideas, satisfied to offer fans a second helping of what they gobbled up two years before. For those who loved the game, that's fine, just don't expect it to hold up so well six years later.
The episode opens with Gordon and Alyx breaking into the Citadel to deactivate a destabilising reactor which could destroy City 17. Considering City 17 already looks pretty wrecked, and later battles in the streets shows it virtually uninhabited by anyone other than the Combine, that doesn't seem such a bad thing to me, but perhaps there's some justification in HL2's plot I'm forgetting. Anyway, your arsenal is limited in these early stages to the Gravity Gun, which can only 'shoot' what it picks up off the ground. It's a fairly amusing weapon to muck about with, especially since Episode 1 increases the number of objects it can interact with. Unfortunately, the first two hours are centred entirely around the weapon, with simplistic 'puzzles' repeated several times over, and doesn't take long to become grating.
The majority of these puzzles require the manipulation of glowing energy orbs to reactivate pieces of machinery. While the orbs' bounciness is occasionally used to mix things up, these segments all involve the same basic skill: picking up an orb with the Gravity Gun and firing it into an inactive power source. Beyond the occasional trick shot - which means finding the right angle at which to bounce an orb off a wall to hit an otherwise blocked target - Valve never tests the player with tasks demanding lateral thinking, or more advanced manipulations of the weapon's potential. Considering this is the developer which went on to devise Portal, whose gameplay appeal is based on players devising inventive use of its tools, it's disappointingly one-note stuff. A journey down to the Citadel's core requires you to blast away falling debris, but that's as close as the episode comes to variety. The combat sections are marginally better, but even the fun of throwing random objects at enemies to defeat them becomes a chore after a while.
The latter part of the game takes Gordon and Alyx out into City 17, fighting through a series of underground passageways before emerging onto the streets. These locations will be immediately familiar to anyone who played HL2, and the fact they are populated by the same set of enemies (bar one exploding zombie) adds to the laziness of Valve's extensive asset re-use. You're eventually given actual guns, although these are the same as from HL2. It's understandable that fans would be happy to revisit the territory of a game they enjoyed so much first time around, but it must have taken some serious rose-tinting to ignore the paucity of anything new - weapons, environments, puzzles - on offer. Those who complain about the muted colour palette in Gears Of War and the like (and I'm one of them) won't find much to charm them here either: HL2 derived a modicum of thematic weight from City 17's drearily oppressive colour scheme, but the bigger environments provided enough dazzle to compensate. Episode 1 mostly limits itself to narrow corridors, even in exterior locations, and there's certainly nowhere as cheesily evocative as Ravenholm.
Alyx represents the episode's only credible claim to innovation, as she's the player's only source of direct attack for the early part of the game. It should be an interesting dynamic, with player and AI taking different responsibilities and mixing and matching their skillsets, except the game never actually requires you to work as a team. Given Alyx's invulnerability, sitting back and letting her do all the killing is a perfectly viable strategy, even if it takes a while. For those eager to advance at anything greater than the pace of a squashed snail, there's no shortage of objects waiting to be picked up and weaponised. Combat would be more interesting were you required to use your Gravity Gun to weaken enemies in some way for Alyx to finish off, or combine your skills more directly: maybe Alyx could shoot at the player, whose Gravity Gun deflects her bullets around an opponent's shielding? In practice, Alyx serves little greater purpose than a mobile turret, despite being a spot chattier.
Navigation shows a similar lack of ideas. Linearity has always been an important part of the Half-Life experience, but requires a steady supply of surprises and spectacle to make up for the player's lack of control over the manner of their progression. Half-Life and its sequel were relentless as set-piece delivery systems, and though some of them were awful (cough cough, vehicle sections), at least they mixed up the pacing and created visual variety. Episode 1 is notable for being a Half-Life game where virtually nothing happens: no sudden helicopter attacks, a distinct lack of giant monsters appearing from nowhere, barely a twist in the plot beyond a train breaking down. The only notable set-piece involves fighting off a horde of enemies whilst waiting for a lift to appear, one of the most tedious and overused scenarios gaming has ever produced. The absence of a specific antagonist or long-term goal denies Gordon and Alyx's efforts a sense of progression or success, especially since the game ends (spoiler alert, if you care about such things for a six-year old game) with the two of them watching the event unfolding that they had originally set out to stop.
I'll probably get around to playing through Episode 2 at some point, as it supposedly redressed many of my complaints. Episode 1, though, is a tiresome retread of a game whose appeal has always been in its aesthetics (scrolling world, set-pieces, character interaction) rather than its plodding gameplay, and doesn't hold up well in an era where Call Of Duty and its ilk have taken most of what Valve pioneered in 2004 and blown it out of the water. On its own terms, the game's refusal to reward players for anything other than following the developers' lead only emphasizes the elements which have dated so poorly. Had Valve allowed players to forge their own paths with the Gravity Gun or make more inventive use of Alyx as a battle companion, Episode 1 might at least have offered some replay value to a game which feels over-familiar and creatively exhausted even on first playthrough.
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