More of the same... but that's not a bad thing.
One word. Alyx. Alyx made me love this game. I have never been so attached to an NPC in my life. Her facial expressions, reactions, conversations, and friendliness are so astounding you forget you're sitting there playing with a digitally created character. Alyx covers your back, saves your neck, and even gives you a warm hug during the course of the game. (Most gamers reported tingling sensations during the hugging sequence.) ; )
The source engine, after a few tweaks here and there (namely facial muscles and HDR), still looks good after a couple of years. It's not the best graphics out there, but I was still impressed while running it in 640x480 (High Detail) on my Radeon 9550. Once I made the upgrade to the X800GTO I cranked the settings to high and at 1280x1024 and the visuals were mindblowing. Every rock and car is ground out to the highest detail, the citadel is like nothing you've ever seen, combine troops eyes glow at you from a distance, the black rappel ropes fling effortlessly through the air like they were... real ropes. Whoa.
The AI of the creatures was markedly improved, combine zombies (zombines) can track you down quickly and always seem to pull a grenade right when you don't have the gravity gun handy to whip it out of their hands and send it flying.
The difficulty settings were also better, I played the game all the way through on the hardest setting and actually had a few levels where it took me quite a few tries (10 to 15) to get past certain sections. Normal difficulty was just about perfect, not so easy that you coast through the levels, but not so hard that you can't get past them without being a pro.
I loved the fact that the game never seemed to go into "time filler" mode. Even though it clocked in at 7 hours for me on my first play (on Hard), they were the most action-packed 7 hours of my gaming life. I had trecked through the citadel, met familiar and unfamiliar enemies, gunned down endless creatures and troops, and fired probably one too many RPGs for my ears to handle.
Valve has done was has been very hard for gaming companies to do over the years. Create a game with characters we care about. We laugh at the so-brilliant-he's-stupid Dr. Kliener's, we honor and respect Dr. Vance, we feel like we're with an old war buddy when we're with Barney, and we guard Alyx with our life because... well you have to to win the game. ; )
There is much more is this short but deep adventure that I enjoyed, but I'll leave it to you to uncover.
No new weapons, no new characters (one new baddie), not much for new level design, just more of destructive ol' City 17.
The combine soldiers still seem stupid. Must be those crazy outfits.
I know Valve does this on purpose, but it still bugs me. I want to know more about what's going on. I've been through all the FAQs, all the Stories, Guides, Walkthroughs, with very few of them shedding any new light on the story of Half-Life. Information is given to you in morsels, and you are expected to continue trudging through the game relying only on tidbits of interesting data and dialog. But then again... maybe that's why I love playing this game, because we all have fear, and we always fear... what we don't understand.
Valve tantalizes our taste-buds time after time with this series, it's a beautiful love/hate scenario. We love what the games give us and yet hate Valve and Steam for the waits and the cryptic storylines, and yet again, that's why we keep coming back.
The Bottom Line
Debris are flying through space... Dr. Breen's ominous words echo through the digital panels... you are sucked back into the middle of an explosion... time stands still.
The soft rumbling of a familiar robot pierces your sensitive ear drums, you hear a familiar voice... someone searching... Alyx. The debris is lifted away and you are greeted with the overwhelming disaster that you have just created. Welcome... to Half-Life.
The Half-Life series (to me) is not about what's revealed. It's about what's NOT revealed. So much of the story and information that could be revealed isn't, they only tell you what you absolutely need to know. Nothing more. Nothing less. Every piece of data that you learn is critical, and should be well-taken note of.
Get ready for the ride of your life through a game (series) that will not be duplicated for years to come. "Action-Packed Adventure" is now the understatement of the year.
Half Life 2: Episode One, and the rest of the Half-Life games may or may not be your cup of tea, but it's one that I'm going to be sipping from for a long time.