First off let's get that name out of the way. Originally HL2:EP1 was named Half-Life2: Aftermath, to me a much cooler an more logical name. I don't understand how HL2:EP1 was approved, because it's not true. HL2:EP1 is NOT the first part of HL2, it's a continuation of the HL2 story, so how could it be Episode One? I understand that they wanted to get the "Episode" in there to show that this is episodic content and the "One" because this is the first in a three-part extension of the HL2 story-arch. But they should of gone with "Half-Life - Aftermath; Episode One", granted it's pretty long, but I mean we've seen worse, like last years "Peter Jackson's King Kong; The Official Game of the Movie" and when it comes to confusing number combinations there's greats like: "Winning Eleven 7" and "Final Fantasy X-2", and there's those that have both like "Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield" but I digress, you can't judge a book by it's cover and you certainly can't judge a game by it's name, so let's move on.
Episode One picks up right where HL2 left off, so if you haven't finished HL2 I would suggest you do so before moving on to EP1 and there are potential spoilers beyond this point if you don't know how HL2 ends, However it's not much of a secret, and I'm not going to go into any details. Basically HL2 has a cliche ending, where a reactor is about to blow, but instead of the protagonist narrowly escaping in the end, the game ends with a cliff-hanger, with several questions left un-answered. In EP1 you are coupled with Alyx and to a certain degree her pet-robot DOG, together you must escape from City17 before the reactor-core in the Citadel blows.
The environments are familiar and so are the weapons and most of the enemies, so if you just finished HL2 you might want to wait a while before playing EP1 unless you really just couldn't get enough of it. However EP1 does bring some new things to the table, there are some interesting new enemies, such as combine-zombies, or "zombines" as Alyx jokingly calls them. Speaking of Alyx, she is with you for about 90% of the game, in what Valve is calling "single-player Co-op". The AI for Alyx as well as other characters has been improved, and very seldom does she do anything stupid or irritating. In the heat of battle she is in full control, and many times she will save your life when you're short on ammo or tasked with solving a puzzle while enemies are advancing on the two of you. The only times her AI gets confused is when you're moving back and forth through tight areas, she sometimes gets in you way, or your line of fire. Fortunately friendly-fire isn't possible, but this does break the suspension-of-disbelief.
Being the biggest benefit of first-person games, the suspension-of-disbelief is much greater than in third-person or "god-view". I really have problems with scarry games, I just couldn't cope with Alien Vs. Predator and had some reservations about playing RE4, to my relief, that game was actually not very scary, it was creepy and gory but rarely scary, in part because of the third-person view. Half-Life 2 on the other hand really creeped me out a couple of times, the Ravenholm section especially comes to mind. It's amazing that one can become so immersed in a game that it frightens you, I mean, it's just a game! What's even stranger is that having Alyx by your side has the same effect as being there with another person, the section where you're moving through complete darkness with little more than a flash-light (with way too short battery-life) to light your way, with head-crab zombies and zombines thrashing at you, you feel oddly more secure with her there! I guess it's just like watching a scary movie, it doesn't get really scary until the main character is completely alone.
Most of the puzzles (or maybe challenges is a better term, since it is usually pretty easy to figure out what to do, and more a challenge to execute them as you are often attacked while trying to open a gate, move across a court-yard or cover-up an ant-lion hole) are designed so that you will need Alyx's assistance to complete them, this brings a new dynamic to the series, one reminiscent of the co-op levels of Sprint Cell: Pandora's Tomorrow. These are all well thought out and fun to perform.
When it comes to the Havok physics system, it's amazing how quickly you get used to having physics in games. When I first played HL2 I was amazed by the physics and spent time playing around with it. This time around I take it completely for granted and a game can definitely not survive on physics tricks alone anymore (not that HL2 did mind you). Valve is well aware of this, and the focus on the physics is not as pronounced as before, though they are still utilized through-out.
I was surprised by the difficulty level of the game, the enemies are fairly aggressive right off the bat, even though you are helped by frequent med-kits in the first section of the game. Valve has either found a good balance between introducing the game to new-comers and returning players alike or it just happens to suit me very well. I never really got stuck anywhere, but I did need to retry some sections several times before successfully moving on, making the game challenging enough without frustration.
EP1 is just as sleek and well done with excellent voice-acting, story, art-style and level-design as the original HL2, but it doesn't bring all that much new to the table and the physics aren't as impressive nowadays. For $19.95 on Steam it's well worth it in my mind.
My Score: 8 of 10
On a side note, it's been a while since I sat in front of my computer to play a game, and man is my desk way to low! Hello Carpal Tunnel Syndrome! Sure I should get a new desk, but besides the height I'm quite happy with it, and for some reason, sitting at it to surf or work with images I don't feel that there is a problem. So what I would REALLY like, is to not be tempted to play games on my PC, because I have no love of keeping up with the latest hardware either, so if only there was a console that could play the few PC games I don't want to miss that require mouse-control... oh wait, there is! Well, will be soon....
When asked about Nintendo Wii, Gears of War lead designer Cliff Bleszinski was quoted in an interview with Joystiq as saying
"Give us a Half-Life 2 with those controls and I'll be first in line to buy it." Cliff, I'll be right behind you!
Of course what he means is, a game of HL2:s caliber, but actually porting HL2 would be great. Hey they ported it to the original X-Box so it's definitely not a question of processing-power. Of course the X-box architecture is very close to that of a PC and it uses a special version of Windows and DirectX, but still... I would love to play through HL2 again on the Wii! Come on Valve! Let's see Steam on Wii Connect24!...