Half-Life 2: Episode Two
So Who Likes antlions? And I mean really likes antlions, enough to marry one. If this sounds like you, and you'd marry an antlion, then you'll love the first section of Episode Two. If you're like anybody else, and had had enough of the limitless, hive-minded cannon fodder by the end of Half-Life 2, then you won't. Valve have decided to have the mute Gordon Freeman spelunk a giant antlion cave, full of not just antlions, but a new sort of antlion. A wholly more annoying sort of antlion which vomits acid on you, not unlike the original game's bullsquids. It's not an entirely bad section of the game, but it whiffs of Xen, and leaves you feeling deflated - especially after the stunning intro showing off the Source engine's newfound ability to explode really large things.
For the game to be touted as taking a new direction towards grand, open vistas and rolling, beforested hills, only to send you almost immediately down a mine shaft, is disappointing. To have you fighting old enemies and arbitrarily picking up all your old weapons (which you somehow lost again, and were somehow scattered along the first level again), well, it feels like we're retreading old ground, fighting fights we fought in Half-Life 2 and Episode One. The polish is beginning to dull, and with minimal plot progression throughout the whole game, the appeal of episodic instalments of Half-Life 2 is waning.
One more paragraph of moaning before I start to explain the 82% at the end of the review. Take Far Cry's beach, Oblivion's sewer exit, Half-Life 2s town square - each of these are moments in which the visual spectacle of a large area impresses the player. Episode Two just doesn't seem to have that single moment of impact, despite having the perfect environment for it. The Source engine, despite a whole host of tweaks and upgrades, occasionally looks tired (especially indoors), and it's becoming harder and harder to avoid a seen-it-all-before sense of cynicism. An expansion is still an expansion, even if you call it an episode - and there's not much expansion happening here.
That said, I should mention that this is still Half-Life 2, and Half-Life 2 is incurably fantastic. This episode will undoubtedly end up in your collection anyway (rendering moot this entire review), being tied to both Team Fortress 2 and Portal (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), and it does pick up after the antlion caves. Gordon and Alyx find themselves en route to White Forest, the last homely house this side of City 17, and temporary residence of all of our old scientist pals. Kleiner and Vance are working on a method of sending Alyx's code (the one she stole from the exploding Citadel) in order to close the super-portal above the ruined city and prevent Combine reinforcements from arriving.
With them is a new Black Mesa alumnus, Dr. Magnusson, whose hard-nosed attitude, ego-driven personality, and innate dislike and thinly veiled jealousy of Gordon Freeman provides the best lines in the episode. The addition of the abrasive character adds a nice sense of balance to the cast which was becoming a bit too Super Best Friend Scientists', as well as injecting some humour into proceedings. Watching how characters look at you with a sense of apologetic despair as Magnusson derides you is what Valve's facial animation technology was built for. And who could've predicted we'd finally capture an expression of reluctant gratitude in a collection of emotionless polygons?
Help, I Need Somebody
One of the best tricks of Episode One was its Alyx/Gordon personal relationship-driven co-operative play (you know, when she'd make zombie noises at you in the dark). This returns in Episode Two. with the bulk of the game, post-caves, resembling a coming-of-age road trip across the landscape. Not only are you teamed up with Alyx in this adrenaline- (and petrol) fuelled race across the countryside, encountering various Combine and rebel forces along the way, but for some of the pre-cave japes you're accompanied by none other than a friendly vortigaunt chum. He intones monotonously, occasionally joking about Freeman's various traits (such as his knack for falling down holes, about which the vortigaunt notes, "no pit would be complete without a Freeman climbing out of it"). He also shoots lightning out of his hands, which is useful.
It's a lessened sense of camaraderie than in Episode One. as there's no feeling of impending doom (whereas in the previous instalment you were inside the soon-to-be-exploding Citadel), but companions continue to be extremely useful - if not in a practical sense then in some atmospheric, social sense. It might be stretching Gordon's bleak muteness to breaking point but it's refreshing, and informative (given our host's dislike of soliloquies), to have Alyx narrating next to you too.
On the road to White City you'll come across the face of Episode Two - the hunter. Tripedal killing machines, carrying that distinctly cyber-organic Combine style, they take some beating before they finally fall down. You'll meet them in a variet/of situations - while under siege in a house, or during later sections where they accompany their older, ganglier brothers, the striders. The muscle car, which is in your possession for the majority of the game, can be used to great effect here: with enough velocity you'll snap their legs and send their funny faces slamming into the bonnet with a sickening thud and a terrified whimper. Their own needles stick into surfaces shortly before exploding, giving you that one crucial moment to dodge away. It's easily the coolest enemy ever to have graced the Half-Life universe - not counting that giant crab with the ball-sack.
The closing sections of the episode, which will take you about seven hours to reach, present something that many were expecting to feature throughout - a truly open area, with no specific route to take. True, the rest of the game is a shade less linear than levels of old, but this final arena allows you to take part in a colossal battle between rebels and striders, who are being accompanied by squads of hunters. You've got to locate these striders, pick up a Strider Buster, take care of the hunters (ideally by driving over them, but miss and crash and they'll be all over you with their spikes and lean, muscular bodies), before finally gravity gunning the sticky bomb onto the stridor's body. Then it takes a single shot to blow the thing to gloopy shreds. It's one of the greatest parts of the Half-Life saga so far, and there's more to it than I'd care to ruin for you right now.
The mysteries of "that bloke in the suit who keeps following you also begin to unravel ever so slightly in Episode Two (something that pleases me immensely), but at the same time more questions are created than answered. Links to Portal are made (similarly, links to Half-Life are made in Portal), and then followed by imaginary ellipses and question marks. Main characters constantly get interrupted as they try to reveal plot secrets too; what we wouldn't give for an "Excuse me Alyx, can't you see we were in the middle of a conversation? button. Honestly.
If Episode Two was meant to recapture our imaginations and make us fall madly in love with the Half-Life universe again after a frankly brand-damaging hiatus, it's failed. If it was meant to extend the experience of Half-Life 2 and Episode One with a bit more of the same good stuff, then it's quite naturally succeeded. I can't overstate that Episode Two contains some of the series' greatest moments, and that it's still every bit as charming as its predecessors, but it's so similar to Half-Life 2 that despite what Valve might believe, we're really left wanting something a bit fresher. If Valve are going to go down this route of episodic gaming (something that seems increasingly unlikely) we need snappier releases and far stronger plotlines too. Episode Three won't have TF2 and Portal to keep it afloat.
Saying that. Episode Two ends, unexpectedly, with one of Half-Life's most thrilling scenes, setting up wonderfully for the next act which promises to be a good 'un. Let's just hope we won't have to wait another year and a half to play it.
Download Half-Life 2: Episode Two
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Oh, Half-Life! With your blowy-uppy endings, it's tempting to think that Valve introduced episodic delivery as an excuse to hurl climactic bangs at us twice a year. Episode One ended with the siziest explosion yet with psychic blasts, sheared metal screaming past willy-nilly and a troubling fade to white.
We know it's good storytelling style to hold information back, but we're very impatient. What's next? What's with the Vortigaunts and G-Man? Will you and Alyx get in trouble for fare-dodging on the City 17 express? Well, here's what we know. Wave goodbye to the East European neoclassicism of City 17, turn around and wink a cheery what-ho to the forests and landscapes of, well, the East European countryside. Estonia was a particular reference point, with real-life mines and missile silos being incorporated in the design. Half-Life 2 wasn't without variety, but this is a whole new terrain.
Episode Two looks set to recreate the kind of expansive feel of the Highway 17 level in HL2, but with the organisation of human forces, it'll feel more like a battleground than the lonely clifftops of Highway 17s coastal path. Valve claims you'll cover as much physical distance in Episode Two as in the entirety of HL2. even with the reduced episodic play-time of six hours-ish. There's a brand new vehicle - though it was built by a couple of old men and it looks like something out of Mad Max -and you can also look forward to a new weapon, designed to bring down the leggy tripodic sods that speared you in the Follow Freeman chapter. Strider Busters (working name) are sticky mines that - once attached to a Strider - will drain their energy, making them easier to destroy with other weapons.
But Valve gives with one hand, and takes away with the other. They're also wheeling in a new enemy, the Hunter. Beefier-looking mini-striders that walk in formation with their big brothers, and wipe out your Strider Busters. Hunters stand at around 8ft tall. Valve are bigging up the emotional expression of the Hunters - which don't really have faces, as much as cameras. These emotions presumably include 'ouch', anger' and where'd he go?, but if Valve can make us care about a robotic dog with a steel daisy for a head, we'll give them the benefit of the doubt for now.
Strategy and puzzles are also at the forefront with more and larger physics puzzles, and less rigidly linear routes to a goal. So, Episode Two. A new environment, bigger, more strategic and puzzly with new things to sling breeze blocks at And can we expect a bunch of trees to blow up at the end? We should damn well hope so.
What We Wouldn't (give to have Episode 2 begin with a grunting previously in Half-Life' intro, before diving headfirst into an audio-visual montage of exposition. We sort of need it now that Valve have left Episode 2 waiting on the sidelines for this long, otherwise we might resort to writing Eli Vance = Black' on a post-it note just to recall who's who.
If such a montage did exist, it would include the following: Alyx stealing an important plot-related data packet from the Combine. Mossman's panicked Arctic-base message. Kleiner's urging you to flee City 17, and your final trip aboard the northbound train out of said city, calling at an Eastern European-style countryside and fields full of unhappy Striders and Hunters.
Episode Two marks the Half-Life series' departure into the great outdoors. It also marks the point at which the thoroughly downtrodden human race has begun to revel in its post-apocalyptic squalor. Ladies and gents, the rebels have built the most stylish mode of transportation this side of Mad Max - the retro-fitted muscle car. Oh yeah, the Combine wish they could assimilate something this cool. The motor will feature throughout a vast swathe of the episode, allowing NPCs to tag along with Gordon on his madcap adventure.
Sound Of Silence
For the particular section of the game I played, it was Alyx parked in the passenger seat. She grunts when driven too fast around a corner, but remains eerily mute when deliberately ploughed into a stream, and then into a rock. You'd lose a whole 10hp, while she remains annoyingly unfazed. Aside from frequent attempts to kill your lovely sidekick, Episode Two offers pleasingly large chunks of terrain in which to careen, allowing a certain degree of freedom but eventually funnelling you towards your objective - in this case, a radio tower atop some high ground.
Once there (it's not a difficult drive), Alyx exits and tries successfully to be as discreet and unimposing as possible. Episode Two carries on its forerunner's tradition of providing you with companions that stay out of your way and require no real guidance, while still being useful in an R-Type satellite gun-pod kind of way. The lady piped up only to say that power must be restored to the radio tower, thanks to the Combine's energy-conscious habit of switching everything off before they leave.
One Crystal Maze-inspired puzzle later, and with the electricity now flowing, I encountered a Hunter for the first time. Now up until this point, I believed Hunters to be terrifying bio-mechanical tri-pedal predators, stopping at nothing to destroy you and your trendy vehicle, possibly before teabagginq your corpse as the screen faded to red. Neither tree nor wall nor retro-fitted muscle car would stand in their slender-legged way.
Well, that's mostly accurate actually (though your car will plough right through the buggers), except they're not as evil as they look. They're puppies. Big, friendly-eyed Labradors. The first qlimpse of one as it peered through a window had Alyx urging me to hide, but that Hunter really looked like a dog who wanted to be where you were, Ixit couldn't guite get there so instead decided to gaze at you longingly. It looked sad. Poor Hunter.
Pretty soon after this, the Hunter was firing its sticky, explosive ordnance at me. Glowing blue darts fire in sets of threes, sticking to the surfaces around my hiding spot and exploding shortly thereafter. This sort of weapon forces you to keep moving - and the Hunter takes some be.iting before it finally swoons. This is still Half-Life 2, but it's a slujntly different sport now. It presents old enemies in a new light forces you to deal with them using new techniques. Whether you're interested or not doesn't really matter either, as on release it will be helplessly sellotaped to the ineffably fantastic Team Fortress 2, along with Portal. And that's good news for Valve, as you could venture the opinion that with tapering interest in all things Half-Life 2. many people wouldn't grab this were it not sharing a box with something everybody will want to play. You'd swear Valve had planned it that way, the swines.