This review originally appeared in E164, July 2006.
Half-Life 2's climax was bad. Not inadequate, but cataclysmic; as in Ghostbusters crossing the streams bad; Indiana Jones on the rope bridge bad. It posed the question of how on Earth its heroes could survive, rather than how they would. For observers sat both mesmerised and mystified at their mice and keyboards, it could hardly have gone any better. For their part in that suicide gambit, they were given goodbye reassurance of Valve's merit as a visual storyteller, and of its desire – if this is how it closed the most anticipated game of all time – to make a real go of its soon-to-be announced follow-up episodes.
The first of those, once titled Aftermath, is a six-hour adventure trapped inside a moment: the return to clarity from the whiteout. The particulars of that emerging scene involve a crippled Citadel, outside of which Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance have been miraculously transported to safety, in circumstances that we'll refrain from disclosing. Of Half-Life 2's towering achievement, that says it all. Every moment, no matter how mundane, can be considered a spoiler. Every incident that, at heart, involves a common interaction or set-piece traditionalised by FPS history, is an event. It warrants a delicate synopsis.
What Episode One brings to Half-Life 2 is a series of vivid contrasts on a series of different levels. Where the catalytic incident at Black Mesa involved disaster, and the introduction of City 17 a resistance of tyranny, what follows now is a transition period of anarchy. All the forces neatly arranged in the previous game, fortified and pigeonholed, are now in a state of recoil – your goal as Freeman being to evacuate the dizzied human survivors before everything snaps ruthlessly beneath the Combine cosh. In this respect, what was remarkable in Half-Life 2 is even more so here. With that game, Valve had the Grand Unified Theory of physics, together with one Viktor Antonov, to add flavour to the FPS template; now neither holds the same benefit of newness. It's a third element, just as instrumental to the achievement of that Edge 10, that's carrying the series forwards.
Scripting, of both dialogue and event, is a process over which Valve seems to have achieved exclusive mastery. Half-Life's narrative does nothing altogether new, and nothing to upturn the quite reasonable condescension of Roger Ebert or his peers in more mature media. But in an interactive genre bound to the traditions of the pop-up gun and invisible hero, it simply doesn't get more sophisticated than this. That may sound disparaging, but consider it a compliment. To direct the eyes with this game's deftness, without the benefit of a fixed camera, is an achievement on a par with the most Oscarworthy visions or the most Booker Prizeworthy prose. And it's far from the full extent of Episode One's advancement.
Perhaps having recognised that the three most interesting characters in Half-Life 2 – the Combine, the ever-watchful Dr Breen and City 17 itself – would hold a diminished appeal second time around, its successor has manoeuvred its cast to give the game a new personality – one better suited to its more action-packed chain of events. With Breen, Eli and the oblique G-Man essentially absent, save for minor contributions at the outset, this is very much Alyx Vance's time in the spotlight, under which she shines. Much of her strength as a partner – like the AI of the Combine – is illusory, born of a massive unseen health bar that can, for instance, survive the immediate blast of a grenade.
But what an illusion it is. Congratulating your accuracy, alerting you to incoming grenades (and the cup runneth over with those) and siphoning off enemies before capably dispatching them, Alyx is something more than an ally – she's a companion. Beyond guiding both your footsteps and gaze to where the action is, she breathes humanity into a world where almost every other person you encounter is too shell-shocked to speak. Between the spells of chaos and calm, she proves herself capable yet vulnerable – another, most beguiling contrast. Her sympathies bathe the cold and browbeaten City 17 in a new light, which is something the game spends much of its overall energy achieving.
In a literal sense, the Source lighting system has been overhauled to dramatic effect, shooting auroral HDR blooms between the peaks of the city skyline, and tracing characters with aggressive yet precise crests of overbrightening. The fruits of the Lost Coast experiment have added a whole new strategic layer to Half-Life 2's combat, whereby enemies can now cloak themselves in blinding glare. Again, this is more a testament to scripting and spawn placement than AI intuition. One boss battle, moreover, is a near-facsimile of The Lost Coast's, albeit with a physics-heavy twist that joins many others in taking the game beyond what you expect.
But therein lies the only real issue to be had with Episode One: a vague sense of conflict in a game that could just as easily be considered episode two. It's a new beginning staged in a world where much is familiar, and structurally it feels like an inverted reprise – a retreat from the Citadel in more ways than one. This doesn't make it necessarily worse, only diminished in certain regards and better in others. Beginning with one catastrophe and ending with another, it also feels like quite a peculiar way to start a trilogy. But when speaking of a game that's blessed with its forebear's incomparable diligence, available at a steal and brilliant throughout, that's hardly disastrous.