Half-life 2 was a strange beast for me. I loved the first game, but the second was just… strange. The entire movement through the game seemed pointless, even thought the overall design was top notch. Just when things get awesome, story wise, it ends with a cliffhanger. Thus I wasn’t looking forward to Episode 1 with much interest.
Then the Orange Box set came and I preordered it for Team Fortress 2. It came with Episode 1 so I gave it a whirl. Wow. In a word, this is what the Half-life 2 should have been like from the start. It has a lot of really awesome gameplay concepts the first game didn’t, and there’s more exposition in the first 10 minutes of play than the HL2 had.
The story of Half-life 2 is pretty cool, it’s just a pity the first game focused more on getting you from point A to point B, rather than explaining what the hell was going on. Episode 1 doesn’t fill in all the blanks of course, but the narrative is a lot less derivative and is much more expertly delivered.
Graphically, Episode 1 includes an incredible implementation of HDR lighting, used to awesome effect throughout the game. Lighting itself plays a huge part here since you’re now paired with Alix, who’s your primary “weapon” to start off. She can only shoot what she sees, so if the lights go off you’d better be pointing your flashlight in the right direction.
The additional commentary icons you can turn on provide some impressive insight into the design process, and I can only imagine the rest of the game’s fans agree since Valve will no doubt provide this feature going forward. It’s not something you turn on during your first outing through the game since it entirely breaks the immersion, but it’s a really great thing to try with your second run through.
The whole package impressed me enough that the Orange Box preorder for me is entirely justified, especially with the inclusion of Team Fortress 2 and Half-life 2 Episode 2. If you’re on the fence about this set because you may have already picked up Half-life 2 already, don’t fret. Episodic content normally turns my stomach, but if Valve can continue to put them out with this level of quality I’ll continue to support them.
I realize of course this isn’t an intensive review, but I’d rather not spoil the experience of this and/or any ending details of Half-life 2 for folks who may not have played it yet.