X06: Half-Life 2: Episode Two Impressions

We meet with Valve in Barcelona and check out Xbox 360 versions of Half-Life 2 and Portal.

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BARCELONA--Currently scheduled for release in the first quarter of 2007, Half-Life 2: Episode Two (working title) for the Xbox 360 is a compilation of five games that, believe it or not, will retail for the price of one. The five games in question, in the same order that they appear on the single disc's game select screen, are Half Life 2, Half Life 2: Episode One, Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. We met with Valve earlier today, and although we weren't permitted to get our hands on a controller on this occasion, we did get to take a look at both Half-Life 2 and Portal in action.

The first game we checked out was Half-Life 2, which is essentially the same game that was released for the PC almost two years ago. The only difference, aside from the fact that you'll be playing with an Xbox 360 controller instead of a mouse and keyboard, is that the Xbox 360 version looks better. That's right, the Xbox 360 version of Half-Life 2 boasts visual enhancements that are available only in the subsequent episodic content on the PC, so regardless of how powerful your PC setup is, the Xbox 360 game will look better. To illustrate this point, we were shown a sequence in which you're riding through storm drains on an ATV and being hounded by an enemy helicopter--the lighting and particle effects were noticeably superior to those on the PC, and the water in the storm drain boasted a great reflection of the aforementioned enemy as it flew overhead. As impressive as that was, Valve's focus for X06 was clearly on Portal, so that's the game that we spent the bulk of our meeting checking out.

Portal was being shown at X06 by two of the young developers (now employed by Valve) responsible for the game Nerbacular Drop on which Portal is based. Set in the Half-Life universe, Portal will see you assuming the role of a test subject at Aperture Science Laboratories. The first teaser trailer for the game, which features diagrams explaining how the portal gun works, is in fact an instructional video from said laboratory, and the female voice that narrates it is the same one that will talk you through the game's storyline as you progress. Details of the storyline are obviously being kept under wraps for the moment, but you can rest assured that the Half-Life universe looks quite different from the perspective of a lab rat in an Escher-painting-like maze than it does through the eyes of Gordon Freeman.

Your goal in each level of Portal is to find and reach an exit, which will invariably require you to do a lot more than simply look around for a big green sign and then walk toward it. Rather, you'll find yourself in environments filled with hazards and platforms that can only be negotiated using the portal gun. The portal gun, in case you're not familiar with it, launches orange and blue portals (each mapped to a different button) that are big enough for you and for various objects to go through. When something goes into one portal, it'll come out of the other, and that's as true for laser beams and balls of energy as it is for boxes, weapon emplacements, and, of course, you. The portal gun can be used on any concrete surface, so although many of the levels in Portal feature surfaces that you can't pass through in places, you'll pretty much have the freedom to move between any two surfaces that you have a line of sight to from your current position.

All of the levels in Portal are brand new (that is, you won't recognize any of them from Nerbacular Drop), and when watching somebody else play the game, it's very easy to become disoriented and lose track of which way is up--until you start falling. Because of the game's unusual design, each level has to go through rigorous testing, and while assuring us that it's impossible to portal outside of the gameworld, the Valve representatives that we were talking to also pointed out that at no point will you be able to mess up so badly that a level becomes impossible to beat. There are multiple ways to beat most of the levels in Portal, and we're told that the last time a tester managed to get into a hopeless situation was several months ago. Worthy of note is that Portal features an autosave feature that kicks in every time you solve a significant part of a puzzle. The thinking behind this is that once you've gone to the trouble of figuring out and completing a puzzle (some of which require split-second reflexes), you probably won't want to do it again.

At the end of our meeting with Valve, we came away feeling suitably impressed with what must surely be one of the best value-for-money offerings on any release schedule right now. It's unfortunate that we didn't get to see anything of the other three games, and of Team Fortress 2 in particular, but rest assured that we'll bring you more information as soon as it becomes available.

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