Few companies tease its customers as well as Valve. 1998's Half-Life ended on an intriguing note, with series hero Gordon Freeman basically being "recruited" by the mysterious G-Man to work for him as a dimension-hopping commando. But fans were really caught off guard by the ending of 2004's Half-Life 2, as Gordon and ally Alyx Vance were caught in a massive explosion. Rather than have us wait years and years for the outcome of that cliff-hanger, Valve has taken the series into episodic territory to get us answers more quickly. Half-Life 2: Episode One is the first in a new trilogy of episodes that are scheduled to be released over the course of the next year. (You don't need to own Half-Life 2 to play Episode One, as it's a stand-alone product, though it would definitely help if you did.) And Episode One is a memorable romp through the Half-Life universe, with gameplay that's even more satisfying than that of Half-Life 2. The only downside is that, due to its episodic nature, it's over far too soon.
Gordon Freeman is back in action, with Alyx by his side, in Episode One, the first of a trio of episodes that continue the Half-Life story.
Unfortunately, Valve's storytelling remains about as cryptic as ever. The episode starts off on a wrong note, as there's an incredible cop-out to explain how Gordon and Alyx survive the explosion and how the G-Man gets knocked out of the picture, but it gets a lot better after that. Rest assured, answers are finally given, but keep in mind that new questions are raised, as well. Episode One is about the escape from City 17. Though the quisling Dr. Breen was defeated in Half-Life 2, the Combine remain on Earth, cut off from their alien dimension. Now, with the Citadel reactor on overload, it's a battle to escape the ruins of the gutted Citadel and the city itself. Of course, that's easier said than done, and you'll once again be plunged along a tightly controlled and highly scripted ride filled with a fair share of ups and downs.
Half-Life has always been a mix of combat and puzzle-solving, but the formula feels honed to a razor's edge in Episode One, as Valve seems to have designed content that's geared toward Half-Life veterans. The puzzles and battles seem even more complex and challenging. In fact, the best encounters in the game require a mix of puzzle-solving and combat as you desperately fight to stay alive long enough to figure out what you need to do next.
There's a wonderful new team dynamic at work in Episode One, thanks to the fact that Alyx battles alongside you throughout most of the episode. After playing on your own throughout Half-Life and Half-Life 2, it's refreshing to have a companion by your side, and Valve takes advantage of this by throwing you into situations where you must rely on teamwork to survive. Alyx is a capable assistant (perhaps almost too capable, since it's pretty tough to kill her off, and she seemingly has unlimited ammo), and she's often the difference between victory and defeat in many encounters, as she'll cover your back while you're busy trying to sort out the puzzle.
Alyx introduces a new team dynamic for Half-Life, such as when you have to illuminate her targets for her in the dark.