Half-Life 2: Episode Two is more than just a game - it's at its finest.
For the first time in the series history, Episode Two kicks off with an introductory movie – a flashback of sorts detailing the most important story events of Episode One very much like a ‘Previous on Episode…’ segment. It would appear that Valve decided to break their golden rule on ‘never letting the player leave Gordon’s perspective’ but fortunately they pulled it off rather well albeit the inclusion of some rather irrelevant action scenes.
Almost immediately thereafter, however, we are thrust into the action of Episode Two. Episode Two may be the most exciting new entry in the franchise’s storied history thus far, and there will almost never be a moment when nothing meaningful is happening to either you or the supporting characters. Episode Two sees the player moving north from City 17 into the surrounding countryside. Gordon and Alyx are tasked with reaching a missile base called White Forest further north in order to transport a transmission packet that will hopefully close a giant super-portal hovering over the remains of the Citadel – if it isn’t closed, and in the words of Eli Vance, it will be the Seven Hours War all over again, but this time they won’t last seven minutes. And if that isn’t enough for the player to feel the pressure of doom closing in on them, Episode Two is riddled with dramatic encounters, tragic events, large-scale firefights, meetings with mysterious entities and, most importantly, answers to some of the questions of the Half-Life Universe.
Considering that Episode Two is an expansion on Half-Life 2 and Episode One it’s of no surprise that we are almost immediately given the Gravity Gun – the iconic weapon introduced in Half-Life 2. Throughout the game you’ll be using the Gravity Gun more often than most of the other weapons – whether your pelting your objects into enemies, solving puzzles or pelting a Hunter-Chopper’s own mines back at it. As the game progresses you’ll slowly but surely regain full use of Half-Life 2’s arsenal ranging from the trusty crowbar, to the pistol, to the AR2 all the way to the powerful Rocket Launcher. It may be of little relevance, but there is a lack of any meaningful new weapon to our arsenal. For the past three games we have had pretty much the same arsenal of weapons and it’s starting to feel a little boring now. While the weapons we currently have do the job it would be nice to see at least one new weapon in Episode Three. With this in mind, the genre-redefining formula that made Half-Life 2 doesn’t change much in Episode Two but feels more refined and tighter than in previous installments. And this is, by no means, a negative thing.
Of course this doesn’t rule out any new additions to the widely popular series. While there is certainly a definite lack of new weapons, Episode Two offers an array of new enemies, situations, puzzles, environments and a new car. The Antlion Caves is the one of the first new environments we traverse through in Episode Two and the environment we are inside for the first third of the game – and it’s much different to the typical costal and urban environments we grew used to in Half-Life 2 and Episode One. Originally cut from Half-Life 2, the Antlion Caves gives players a first look into the inner-workings of the Antlion family. The levels themselves feel atmospheric and look almost organic (what with the Antlion Grubs and larvae on the walls) and several new types of enemies are included that make it feel more original and separate from the rest of world. In fact, they almost remind me of the old Xen levels in the original Half-Life.
One of these new enemy types is called the 'Worker Antlion'. Resembling something of a termite, these extremely fast adversaries move from side to side quickly, pelting you with acidic bolts and making it hard for the player to accurately target them from a distance. They are a welcome new enemy and relatively fun to fight. Another enemy (more of a variant than an entirely new one) is known as the Antlion Guardian. They look pretty much like a regular Antlion Guard, except these ones are acidic as well and have a glowing abdomen. For a rather lengthy portion of the game, the player is on his own, racing through the caves trying to escape the Guardian whilst looking for a larvae extract. While initially feeling different and entertaining, the experience does eventually get a little frustrating after a while.
We finally leave behind the caves and reach the surface. A brilliant vista awaits us – the Combine forces from City 17 move across a bridge in the distance, Gunships fly overhead, A Combine Advisor is seen being transported to an unknown location. Still, there isn’t much time to watch the event. As we move into the field below, scattered with wrecked cars, several Thumpers and dozens of explosives, we soon find ourselves pulled into a battle with Antlions alike, an Antlion Guard, and a very pissed off Antlion Guardian. It’s a fitting end to the first half of the game.
The second half of Episode Two – and defiantly the most compelling half - is set in the game’s second main environment dubbed ‘White Forest’, a large and relatively desolate expanse of countryside located north of City 17. To help players traverse across the large environment, Alyx and the player are given access to a new vehicle dubbed the ‘Hotrod’. The Hotrod is a fast muscle car developed by a group of rebels that resembles an old 1969 Dodge Charger. The Hotrod is exceptionally fun to use, it has a high top speed, good acceleration and a useful Turbo for quick speed boosts. The Hotrod is relatively easy to control; more so than the buggy in the original Half-Life 2 and that is a welcome improvement. The Hunter – Episode Two’s iconic new enemy – is the most notable new adversary to appear in the game. Referred to internally as the Mini-Strider, the Hunter’s appearance resembles something of a mix between a Dog and a Tripod. Armed with long-range explosive flechettes, an array of deadly melee attacks and the ability to follow the player pretty much anywhere, the Hunter is probably the most dangerous and vicious of all of the Combine Synths introduced thus far. White Forest offers for some great and non-linear firefights. However, after playing through the game two or more times you’ll soon feel that, compared to the second half of the game, the first half lacks much of the intensity and drama found later in the game.
However, Episode Two is quite linear in design, very much like the previous Half-Life installments. Of course this is not, by any means, a negative thing either. The Gameplay is constantly changing. Whether you’re running from an Antlion Guardian, fighting off hordes of Antlions with a group of Vortigaunts, fighting off a pack of Hunters or racing around in the Hotrod dodging incoming fire and utilizing the Magnusson device to take down the Striders, you’ll constantly be doing something different and its likely you’ll never get a feeling of déjà vu. And, best of all, you are accompanied through a great majority of the game.
Unlike Half-Life and most of Half-Life 2, Episode One introduced an entirely new way of playing a single-player FPS campaign. In Episode One, Alyx was with you throughout most of the game, providing cover, firepower and more importantly company throughout the adventure – it was probably the closest thing to a single-player co-op ever. However, unlike most FPS games that tried to implement this feature, Alyx never seemed to get in the player’s way and was far more of a help than a hindrance. Episode Two continues to develop this trend and therefore includes many situations that are built with NPC teamwork in mind. This time, however, Alyx isn’t with us for the entire game. For the first time we are accompanied with a Vortigaunt – and he is with us for about the first 1/3 of the game. It’s a welcome change and we finally get some further insight into their lives, their beliefs and their history. Not only this, but the rebels themselves also seem to have had their AI upped a bit. Griggs and Sheckly, introduced in the beginning of the game’s second chapter, are probably the most notable of these. They are an extremely comical pair and offer much of the game’s initial comic-relief.
If it’s one thing that Valve pride themselves on, something they’ve done brilliantly since the original Half-Life, it’s the aspect of capturing the illusion of reality in their games. It feels as if your apart of the experience, apart of the world that you’re playing in and apart of the struggle that the supporting characters are going through. Nothing makes this more possible than the supporting characters. The stunning Facial Animation System developed by Valve and the Hollywood quality voice-acting in the game make the characters come more to life then you could ever expect. After a while you begin to care about the characters, connect with them in ways you wouldn’t think possible in a video game. Valve have humanized their characters so much that when the character’s do suffer, you immediately feel as if your apart of that suffering as well.
A new addition to the cast of Half-Life is Dr. Arne Magnusson – the lead scientist at White Forest base. He is an extremely pompous man, arrogant and self-absorbed but this doesn’t rule him out as being a great character addition. Magnusson provides much of the seriousness behind Episode Two and he is always frustrated when the other characters fall off track slightly. He is a very humorous character to listen to and is a welcome addition to the already brilliant case.
If it's something that Valve definitely do better then everyone else, it's pacing. Unlike Halo or other similar FPS games, Half-Life isn't your typical shooting gallery type game. Everything in the game is paced brilliantly. Just when you feel the combat is getting to be too much, it ends and the game offers you a relatively relaxed session of puzzle-solving. There isn't any feeling of Battle-Fatigue and the game never feels stretched at any point. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the game is riddled with some truly memorable combat moments – the ambush at White Forest Inn sometime during the latter art of the game may be one of the game’s most intense and memorable firefight. Valve also does a brilliant job of allowing players to see, vaguely, where they are heading in the game.
The most exciting part of Episode Two may be its final battle. The final battle involves us using the Hotrod, traversing across a large area of open space, in order to halt the advance of Striders closing on the Missile Base. To help us with the onslaught, we have a new invention of Magnusson’s dubbed the ‘Strider Buster’. The Strider Buster is an effective and efficient tool that can be used to destroy a Strider extremely quickly. Despite this, within 5 minutes of the battle beginning you’ll feel your hands starting sweat and your heart beginning to race. Despite the lack of infantry and Gunships (which is understandable and no means an incredibly negative thing), the final battle is probably the best final battle in the series’ history. You immediately get a huge sense of accomplishment at its end.
If it’s one thing I haven’t touched upon yet, it’s that the Source Engine still has it! The engine has undergone a major overhaul since Episode One. Soft particles add a much more realistic feel to smoke and fire effects. Improved HDR increases the quality of lighting in the game. Soft Shadows improve the quality of shadows in the game. Cinematic Physics allows for some incredibly impressive real-time destruction sequences that make the world feel more dangerous, volatile and unstable, Motion Blur improves the visual quality and a superior Facial Animation system brings the supporting characters more to life then in Episode One. The design of the levels feels and changes naturally over the course of the game – not one level feels and looks like a previous one. The audio aspect of the game is brilliant, as always. Voice acting is of Hollywood quality, sound effects, especially those of the Hunter, are great to listen to and the soundscapes associated with each map bring them to life in an unprecedented manner. The soundtracks are constructed brilliant and bring a feeling of intensity to some of the game’s more intricate firefights and encounters.
Overall, Half-Life 2: Episode Two is nothing short of an amazing achievement on Valve's part. The episodic nature of the game allows the experience to feel much tighter and denser than what could have been possible on a monolithic release. The Gameplay is extremely well-toned but it is the story and the human feel of the supporting characters that make the game feel so real - they realistically react to everything that happens to them, you actually care what happens to them and you get the feeling that you’re fighting for something other than the liberation of Earth. The ending is probably the best that Valve has ever come out with - I felt sick, upset and angry all at once. However, after playing through the game several times you’ll soon feel that the first half of the game is a bit lackluster compared to its incredibly compelling second half. Though despite being somewhat short in length, averaging at between 6-8 hours, Episode Two is an artistic and technical achievement beyond anything that I have played in recent years, and I think it's safe to say that it's much more than just a video game that you play for the heck of it - it's art at it's finest.