Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Orange Box: Half-Life 2 - Episode One (Xbox 360) Review

Last fall, Valve Software released The Orange Box to the PC, Xbox 360, and later the PlayStation 3 to critical acclaim, quickly earning top scores across the board rating it as one of the best titles on all the above platforms.

While that itself is an excellent achievement, the thing about The Orange Box is that it’s a compilation of games, not one game unto itself. For that reason, I personally can not justify reviewing The Orange Box itself, as it’s simply not a fair assessment when compared to other titles that truly are one game only. Thus, I will be reviewing the different titles of The Orange Box individually, rating them on their own merits.

The first title I played from The Orange Box was Half-Life 2: Episode One. My first proper play through of Half-Life 2 was the Xbox version, which I reviewed here. For those of you who know me or have been following this site for the last few years, you’ll no doubt know that I’m highly critical of Valve for Half-Life 2. As my original review shows, I generally thought positively of the gameplay, but I had serious issues with the story, or lack thereof, and the game's lackluster AI. It did not live up to the hype, and it certainly failed to live up to the revolutionary genius that was Half-Life. In fact, I consider Half-Life 2 to be one of the most overrated games in history.

Having said all that, I’m happy to say that though it‘s not perfect, Half-Life 2: Episode One has redeemed the franchise in my eyes, addressing many of the issues I had with its predecessor.

The great strength of Half-Life’s story was its simplicity. You play as Gordon Freeman, a research scientist in the Black Mesa research facility trying to survive a catastrophic alien invasion. Nice, simple, and effective. Many questions were raised and anticipation for the sequel, for some answers, was high. When Valve finally released Half-Life 2, we got some drivel of a “story” in an alien occupied Earth that made no sense and focused in Gordon running around from point A to B with no realistic motivation what-so-ever. Worst of all, it answered no questions from the original game, and simply raised a bunch more.

Thankfully, Half-Life 2: Episode One went back to the basics, and focuses on Gordon and Alyx simply trying to escape City 17 before the Citadel explodes and destroys the city. Simple, focused, and without the BS that dripped from Half-Life 2. Even better, Valve did away with the long winded, one-sided conversations that everyone had with Gordon in Half-Life 2, which only served to alienate any character attachment, and kept things short and sweet. Now, even important characters like Alyx simply talk _to_ Gordon instead of with him. As a mute character lead, this is how conversations should be handled.

So yeah, I approve of the story set up in Half-Life 2: Episode One. I also really enjoyed the level design. The Half-Life series has always featured puzzles, but once again, Half-Life 2 mucked all that up by forcing players to simply use the Gravity Gun to drop bricks or whatever into baskets. Thank you Valve, but I wanted to play a game with Half-Life 2, not a physics tech demo. Once again, Half-Life 2: Episode One brought a lot of the puzzles back to the series’ roots, and focused on tricky situations to open doors, navigate around trip wires, and to actually do more with your environment.

They also seemed to have beefed up the shoddy enemy AI. Half-Life featured excellent enemy AI for its time with the Soldiers, who remained challenging many years after. Half-Life 2, on the other hand, featured AI akin to Goombas and was a joke; no challenge what-so-ever. In Half-Life 2: Episode One, enemies did seem to put up more of a fight, even on Normal. Now, this may have been because I was trying for the One Free Bullet Achievement, in which you can only fire one bullet in the whole game, but it was fun relying on the Gravity Gun and grenades to see things through. I also loved the excellent use of zombies through the game, with suitably dark, Doom 3-ish atmospheres.

Half-Life 2: Episode One features only two new kinds of enemies, the Zombines, zombified Combine Soldiers who carry grenades, and Stalkers, humans turned slave workers by the Combine, as well as no new weapons, however I can overlook this simply due to the high quality gameplay the title offers over its predecessor.

Another great feature is Alyx herself. She follows you for the whole game and actually proves to be a useful companion instead of the usual dumb AI sidekick. Alyx will effectively kill enemies and deal with situations, and she’ll also offer good puzzle solving advise. I do wish they could have enhanced her path-finding AI, however. Often times in tight areas she’ll get in your way like the citizens did in Half-Life 2, and I also had a bug happen in the hospital where she got stuck on a cabinet door which prevented her from following me for the rest of the level.

From a technical standpoint, the Source engine is showing it’s age, but it still does the trick. Character models look great and offer a full range of facial expressions. The environments are wonderfully detailed, gritty, lived in, and thoroughly smashed up from the civil war, though a bit lacking in texture quality. There’s also great use of HDR lighting everywhere.

Now, being an episode, Half-Life 2: Episode One is the first installment of what Valve themselves admits they should have called Half-Life 3, and because it’s only the first third of this story-arc, you can expect a short amount of game time compared to your average shooter. For me, it took me 4.5 hours to play through the episode, which isn’t bad considering many full games are between 8 to 10 hours.

Still, it has done well for setting the stage for more to come. As I mentioned earlier, Valve lost me with Half-Life 2, as they did just about everything wrong in so many key areas of that game. Half-Life 2: Episode One, however, sets the stage for a lot of potential for the remainder of the series, and if Half-Life 2: Episode Two can continue on this level of quality, gameplay, and design, I just might have to take back a lot of those things I've said about Valve over the last few years.

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