13: Half Life 2: Episode 1

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Good lord that’s a lot of colons. This is a game that every single person on the planet now owns, thanks to Valve giving it away free with TF2 and everything else, and it having been on sale four thousand times. It’s supremely playable, certainly. One of the complaints I had about Half Life 2 was that while I appreciated the diversity of situations, the stages were always ten minutes too long. Thanks to the constraints of making a game in six months, this isn’t the case here.

Environments zip along and there is still that characteristic change from one chapter to the next. Shiny gravity gun bit! Underground dark bit! Outside street battle bit! Hostage rescue bit! Being honest, I much prefer Half Life 2 when you’re not fighting enemies – combine combat is very dull, as they pretty much always get the drop on you because they leap out of their magical doorways, so you take a bit of damage, easily kill them, and carry on. The Zombine are not my favourites either, though I appreciated being able to run away while they held up a grenade, sans pin, with a triumphant and short-lived expression of glee.

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The problem is, despite the presence of the gravity gun, fighting is not fun. I don’t want to say it’s not a challenge as I didn’t play on the highest difficulty, I’m sure it would be then, but it is certainly not fun. Combine are boring enemies, Antlion swarms are annoying enemies, I’ve seen zombies to death, magical barnacles that appear on the exact ceiling you just looked at are not a good mechanic. Because Half Life 2 is not about fun combat, it’s about situations. Set pieces, if you will. Every one of them is beautifully crafted, but Valve’s devotion to making every fight distinctive just cuts out the soul, it’s like seeing the prized watches of a watchmaker. They spin beautifully but I’d prefer the laser-powered sundial that someone at Croteam is trying to hack together with silver foil and a manic grin. You know that you’re going to fall through the floor into a room of headcrabs, you know that unopenable door with the zombies behind it is going to magically open when your back is turned, you know the combine are going to rappel in ahead of you. It’s all so contrived. You kill them and carry on because as I say this is a supremely playable run and gun but there ain’t no heart. I have another problem, and it’s gurning manically at me.

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It’s like a precursor to Portal 2, the first exploratory stages towards that triumph of Valve engineering and writing. You can see all the pieces there, the buddies workin’ together against the world, the puzzles for each of you to solve, the attempt at constant banter. The problem is that Gordon and Alyx are a crappy pair of partners. Gordon doesn’t speak and it’s just…glossed over. Alyx is just having this constant conversation with herself, there’s not even anyone else for her to bounce witticisms off. And there’s just huge segments of the game spent waiting for her to mess around with a console and open the door or seal the door or whatever. You get in each other’s way, basically. And you could tell they’d just done some work on their expressions technology as every time Alyx was about to say something sad would be prefaced her making this ridiculous frowny face, and every time she was about to say something happy you got this supervillain grin.

But it is a very well made game, just not hugely enjoyable. Like Half Life 2!

3 stars, bit over 3 hours spent.

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