Available in retail or via the Steam payment and download system, Half Life 2: Episode 1 marks a radical change in the way developers can deliver their content to gamers. By offering episodic content, Valve can reduce lead times, and build new technology into their games as they go, rather than waiting for the next big title to come around.
Episode 1 picks up from the cliff-hanger at the end of Half Life 2, with the Vortigaunts stepping in to save you and Alyx from imprisonment and death, respectively - and the G-Man is not taking it well. Before you know it, you're back in City 17, next to a citadel that's about to explode, taking the whole city with it. Why they couldn't put you somewhere safer is beyond me.
Alyx stays close by for most of Episode 1, though there are still moments when you're left to your own devices, and you'll need to keep an eye on her. While she can look after herself, she can die if you're not being attentive enough.
Graphically, Episode 1 is very familiar, though no less effort has been put into the environments than previously, and the game engine has been given a lick or two of paint - including high dynamic range for enhanced lighting effects. While you still don't get to keep it for long, the super gravity gun makes another appearance, and there's a nasty new zombie to play with wearing combine armour and running around with grenades), but overall, there's less of a feeling of innovation here.
It lacks any of the vehicle-based levels of the previous instalment - which were easily my favourite elements - and there's a keen sense of deja vu about some of the levels. Puzzle solving is still a key element, and the AI of the Combine soldiers and other adversaries has been improved, making fi refi ghts more intense than before, but the game itself feels extremely short - even for an episode.
I'm by no means an expert gamer, and I got only five hours of solid gameplay out of Episode 1. I never achieved the same level of excitement and involvement as I did from the previous title, though that's not to say I didn't enjoy it a great deal.
An intriguing addition is the commentary track (yes - just like the special feature on a DVD) that lets you listen to comments from the developers by clicking on speech icons that appear during the game.
Overall, Episode 1 is a good product, with a mix of suspense, excitement and entertainment. Sadly, it suffers when held up against its older brother, which offered more variety and certainly more gameplay - though obviously for a higher price.
Verdict: A worthy successor to Half Life 2, with cinematic gameplay and new challenges, but many will fi nd some sequences too similar to its predecessor, and may feel cheated by the shortness of the experience.
Score: 3 1/2 out of 5
Publisher: EA / Valve
Price: $30 retail/ $US20 for download