The ground is shaking, and a gigantic metal tower creaks above you. Sparks and fires light the shadows to reveal a mauled corpse in every corner, and debris and more bodies fall from the sky. Throughout the five hours of Half-Life 2: Episode One, you're always aware of your environment, thanks to the poor lighting, the shaky terrain, and the devastation around the war-torn city that you're trying to escape. The whole world feels of a piece, and it's all falling apart on top of you.
The confusingly named latest installment of the Half-Life story picks up right after 2004's Half-Life 2, and while it covers terrain from the last game—zombie-strewn tunnels, squad-based street battles—it's more compelling in every way. As with the first two titles, there's no clunky exposition: The physics puzzles, the shoot-outs, and even the characters and exposition fit seamlessly into the experience. But the graphics and physics have been improved a notch: Check out the battle in the attic of an old hospital, where bullets shatter the individual slats of the roof and the floorboards. Now that Valve has switched to short (but frequent) episodes, the story is also much tighter, with no filler or repetitive fights between setpieces. Where the last game felt like a ride through a haunted house, this one finally achieves the cinematic depth to which the series has always aspired.
Beyond the game: In the ingenious "commentary mode," you can trigger short comments from the developers, and hear exactly how hard they worked on every detail.
Worth playing for: Fan favorite Alyx is back, and her character is the game's biggest innovation: Valve has developed her into a deftly written co-star who watches your back throughout most of the game. Players who are as smitten with Alyx as Alyx is with the protagonist will beam every time she calls out "Nice shot!"
Frustration sets in when: The endless load times are back, too.
Final judgment: It's just a remix of its predecessor, but this is still the strongest and most thrilling Half-Life title yet.