If you haven't played Half Life 2 then Episode 1 isn't the place to start. Knowledge of the series is important in order to be able to understand the game. It picks up directly from the end of the previous game, a first for the series and one which I wasn't necessarily expecting from Valve, after the differences from Half Life and its sequel.
After the massive explosion at the end of the last game, some interesting events occur at the start of the game which save Gordon and Alyx and place them in a race against time to escape City 17 before its imminent destruction. This forms the basis of the game as Alyx accompanies you for the duration, making the game play like an extended version of some sections of Half Life 2.
Firstly, the graphics and sound are superb, as always with a Valve release however they don't seem to be much better than the already excellent Half Life 2 graphics. There are times when sound plays an excellent part, creating an effective atmosphere during a well executed underground section.
The voice acting of Merle Dandridge is outstanding and both the animation and carefully calculated use of her character helps make Episode 1 a subtly different experience to Half Life 2. Whilst I enjoyed the last game's bleak and lonely sections, the coast driving section in particular, it does make a pleasant change to feel supported by a believable character. There are times when Episode 1 feels like a co-operative game rather than a single player experience, which is some achievement.
Yet, whilst Episode 1 feels like a different game, in reality it is a little too similar to its predecessor. Perhaps the innovations developed in between the original Half Life and its sequel was to blame for this, but Episode 1 provides more of the same. Now this is a relatively hollow criticism as the gameplay is sublime, but a lot of the gameplay feels familiar, albeit in slightly different locations.
Using the gravity gun to solve puzzles still satisfies, but many are similar to those found in the last game. No new weapons and only one new enemy don't help to remove the feelings of déjà vu, but again the balance is well implemented and the fresh enemy is different and fits in with the plot of the game.
The other main issue I have with Episode 1 is that it doesn't drive the story forward in a way that Half Life 2 or Episode 2 does, instead merely feeling like a link between the games. Whereas the other games sowed seeds that were later picked up on, Episode 1 doesn't really give us much new information and instead plays like fast paced escape, which is exactly what it set out to. However, whilst this works, I was left a little disappointed and feel that this is currently the weakest entry into the series, though it is still an excellent game.
Yet, this is still a superbly made game and brilliantly executed, with the gameplay being enjoyable and first-rate. Some have criticized the brevity of the game and whilst it can be completed in around 5 or 6 hours it never outstays its welcome and sets up Episode 2 well. The idea of episodic gaming is to release games more frequently and at a lower price, which inevitably means shorter experiences.
Overall, if you are a fan of the Half Life series this is an essential purchase. If you have yet to experience the series, then the availability of the key games through The Orange Box for an outstanding price makes this a highly recommended purchase. If Episode 1 wasn't available for such a reasonable price then it would score a little lower. Yet Episode 1 provides quality gameplay and acts as a link between more important chapters of the story, all for a bargain price. Whilst not as memorable as the others games, this Half Life experience is still worth playing.
Half-Life 2: Episode One (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
Half Life 2: Episode 1 had a lot to live up to after the staggering Half Life 2 was released. Valve took a risk and decided to release the next installment of the saga as a series of episodes, which would be released more frequently and at a lower price. However, responses to this decision have been somewhat mixed, due to the lengthy two year development process involved in creating Episode 1.