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TECHNOLOGY

Review: New 'Half-Life 2' packs action into short episode

By Marc Saltzman
Gannett News Service

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The first objective is to descend into the giant Citadel structure to diffuse the reactor at its core.

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Computer gamers have been buzzing about "Episode One" -- the first of three episodic adventures that serve as sequels to the popular "Half-Life 2" action sci-fi game, which has sold 4 million-plus copies worldwide and has garnered more than 35 Game of the Year awards.

In many ways, "Half-Life 2: Episode One" is even better than the original "Half-Life 2," but it's a short thrill ride that may leave some gamers impatient for the next installment, due out by year's end.

Available as a download via Valve Software's Steam service or on CD-ROM at retail, this sub-$20 game once again lets players step into the shoes of the goatee-wearing Gordon Freeman, a scientist who leads the fight to save the Earth from vicious aliens.

The story continues where "Half-Life 2" left off. Gordon and his attractive ally, Alyx Vance, miraculously survive a reactor blast in City 17, only to find the giant Citadel structure is about to self-destruct, which could level the area once and for all.

With Alyx by your side, your first objective is to descend into the Citadel to diffuse the reactor at its core. Played from an immersive first-person perspective, "Episode One" successfully straddles action and puzzle-solving as you work toward your goals under pressure.

The gravity gun, a "Half-Life 2" fan favorite, is back in "Episode One," and re-establishes itself as one of the best weapons ever invented for a computer game. By holding down the right button on the mouse, Gordon can suck up nearby objects -- or even bad guys -- and then you can launch the projectile forward by pressing the left mouse button. Or you can suck the cover off a vent so you can crawl through it to unlock a door in another room.

The game also benefits greatly from its extraordinary artificial intelligence and convincing "performances" by the game's characters.

Enemies react smartly, so diffusing this global extraterrestrial threat isn't going to be easy or predictable. It's as if the baddies study your fighting habits and alter their strategy accordingly.

Alyx, on the other hand, is so lifelike in her appearance you will almost believe she's a real person -- from the way she embraces you when she realizes you're still alive, to her teasing facial expressions, to how she uses her hands to comfort her faithful robotic companion. As with other games in the series, voice acting is also top-notch.

"Episode One" is fun, gorgeous and full of surprises, but you likely will be finished in about five hours. For a value-priced episodic game this isn't necessarily bad -- not to mention you also get two previously released multiplayer modes bundled with 'Episode One" -- but its short length may disappoint fans of the series.

That said, not only does "Half-Life 2: Episode One" prove episodic content works, but the game is one of the most exhilarating action titles so far this year. Too bad we have to wait until the holiday season for "Episode Two," and the second half of 2007 for "Episode Three."

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