Pack your gear, Morgan.. I mean Gordon. There's still three episodes to go.
So, the story of Gordon Freeman and merry aliens will finally be finished with the three episodes post-Half-Life 2 with this being the first of them.
I was never a big fan of Half-Life 2 as I felt it was too much of the old. The original Half-Life was the reason I got into FPS's, though. I never found Doom/Quake etc to my liking but HL was something I liked. It had a bit of a plot and level design had some interesting ideas and of course the scripted events were pretty new back then. Trouble with HL2 was it was too much of the old. From a gaming perspective there wasn't that much new even though the rest of the FPS world had moved on. Far Cry had massive outdoor areas and clever enemies. F.E.A.R. was scarier and had clever enemies, as well. Deus Ex was the perfect combination of FPS and RPG with an interesting plot. Freedom Fighters managed to turn an FPS into a team-game with intelligent team-mates and an excellent command system. And so on. And many shooters had included multiple ways of solving situations. Deus Ex and Far Cry in particular excelled in this aspect. HL2 didn't, it was still mostly a long run through a tunnel, just like the original HL. It wasn't a bad game but hardly the best FPS ever despite the hype.
Episode One is a sure-hit for people who liked HL2, as it's really mostly same old, same old. Level design is unfortunately less interesting and really a waste considering the setting. A city in turmoil would allow some interesting scenes and areas but mostly the game consists of running in cellars and other uninspiring areas within that city. Apart from the first area which isn't very interesting at all just like it wasn't in HL2. Somehow almost all of the areas are very confined and I can't figure out why. Why do I have to move through narrow passages all the time? Where are the large buildings with large, open interiors (sometimes the areas look big, but your movements are still hampered in some ways)? There really aren't any unforgettable levels in Episode One, and that is a shame because the game looks gorgeous and it does have a few neat tricks in its sleeve.
The most important one is Alyx. Without her the game would actually be quite boring for long periods. Especially the dark cellar areas are made a lot more interesting with her doing most of the shooting. She also makes up a lot of the atmosphere with her comments. Faithful to his style Freeman, I think, says exactly one word in the entire episode...
With such confined areas it's also hard to tell whether the enemy AI is good or not as they have very little space to maneuver. I like the Combine soldiers as enemy, especially the sound they make when they die. The new zombie type is, however, annoying more than anything. I suppose the best tactic is to shoot it from afar, but that's hardly possible in the small areas that Episode One is made of.
Confined areas also mean that the player is forced to play most areas in just the right way. He can't think of alternative routes or tactics - something I enjoy in an FPS. Rhythm of the game isn't quite to my liking either. I like to have slower and less action-packed areas to catch my breath once in a while but in this game the breathers are too short. It's practically "one room and after you open the next door, back to shooting beings". There's also a few annoying areas that I wish they had thought more about before releasing them. HL2 had a much better rhythm and as for the latter, it's like a bad version of Ravenholm in a few situations. Ravenholm, at least, was large (or made to appear like it) and managed to create a sort of panic in the player. In Ep One these areas are just annoying.
Being the first episode of the final part of the story, Ep One doesn't really move the plot forward at all. I personally don't get the point of Episode One. I'm sure some will love it, but for me it's not a very good shooter, has very little plot and is short. After all this time developing it one would have expected a little more, especially considering Valve didn't have to spend an awful lot of time developing the game engine.
Episode One is not a bad shooter. It's just average. A bit like a BMW. Technically brilliant but mostly bought by boring people. There is nothing to get excited about. If you have $20 burning in your pocket and nothing to do on a Sunday, you might check this out. But be sure you start the download on Saturday, it took me most of the night to get it.
Uninspiring level design, short-lived. Doesn't really move the story forward. The price is also quite high considering that 20 dollars gives you about five hours of gaming. That would only give you 10-15 hours for a standard price game, and most people think it's too little especially if the game is nothing special.
This episode also has its share of perhaps the most annoying feature of any FPS: the "ambush". With "ambush" I mean any situation in an FPS where you die the first time you get into it but after that it's easy to get through because you know what to expect. Suddenly falling through something into a very nasty place is a common way of setting up an "ambush". I think it's unfair to the player. Sometimes you do manage to get through the situation in the first try, but there is one particular scene that is just ridiculous.
The Bottom Line
Same old, same old, but with smaller and less inspiring levels. Quickly played and quickly forgotten. I'd expect a little more for $20 (almost $25 with taxes).