Half-Life 2: Episode Two

  • Released on May 26, 2010
  • By Valve for PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Mac

Half-Life 2: Episode Two review
A Return to Quality


Half Life 2 was as masterpiece in the industry, where as the first title in the episodic sequels that followed was ‘good’ at its absolute best. The series present an interesting debate; part of what made Half Life 2 so groundbreaking was the insane blend of so many different situations, environments and gameplay elements in a single game, not to mention superb presentation and unmatched atmosphere. You need a long title in order to achieve this, so a four hour episode just won’t cut it. Half Life 2: Episode One proved this and hammer it home even more so, yes there were going to be issues with an ‘episode’ styled title but Episode One had issues that went beyond that. From the fact you never felt like you made any progress until the end of the title, to the repetition and boredom presented by a single environment and no variation in either setting or gameplay. So the question is now, how does Episode Two compare?

Following on from the end of Episode One, Gordon finds himself waking up in the now wrecked remains of the train that crashed following the explosion of the Citadel. Alyx finds you and hands you the Gravity Gun and from there you witness a portal open up above the remains of the Combine’s base of operations, leaving you to explore the immediate area. You and Alyx come across a small building and get in touch with the White Forest resistance base, and inform Eli, Dr. Kleiner and the head of the base Dr. Magnusson (A character some may remember from the original Half Life) of the data packet Alyx downloaded back at the Citadel. After a brief conversational exchange you and Alyx make your way to a nearby set of abandoned buildings and find yourselves ambushed by one of the new enemies introduced in Episode Two; a Hunter. The Combine synth buries you under a great deal of rubble and proceeds to impale Alyx and leaves to inform the Combine whilst you pass out. Gordon awakens to the sight of a Vortigaunt healing Alyx whom reveals that they must meet with his kin if there is to be any hope of saving her, and the two of you set off to your destination, kicking the game into motion.

The storyline of Episode Two is a vast improvement over the first episode game, aside from the sense of actual progress you feel as you proceed there’s also the benefit of a much larger cast, the interactions with many of which are well written and weave together a cast of characters you’re unlikely to forget. The story itself is also amazingly well done, Episode Two actually seems like a proper ‘episode’ in the tale of Half Life 2 as opposed to a slowly progressing set-up for something else, and the ending is simply superb. The plot does feature its inconsistencies such as Alyx’ sudden knowledge of Advisors which she seemed to lack in the previous two games, and Dr. Magnusson’s unexplained return but on the whole the story is a brilliant addition to the series and it keeps you at the edge of your seat throughout.

Alien be stealin my whore!

Graphically Episode Two doesn’t really seem like an improvement over Half Life 2, especially in terms of art direction. The engine itself may well have been enhanced but the returning character models don’t look any better than those in the previous titles from my point of view. Not to say that such is bad thing considering the Source engine enables some pretty impressive graphics regardless of age, and the art direction isn’t a step-down as much as it suffers from the lack of variety Half Life 2 had, which is unavoidable in a game roughly 6-7 hours shorter.

Moving on to the audio Episode Two once again provides a superb soundtrack that enhances the mood of any situation in the game. From the intense action sections to the moody and eerie tunnels of the Antlion Caves you’ll find that the soundtrack is as good as ever. The sound of the weapons and enemies is no better or worse than the previous games although no improvement was really needed, and the talented voice cast bring the characters to life once again. I would like to particularly highlight the performance of the changed voice actor(s?) in the case of the Vortigaunt, their Half Life 2 voice was great but the new talent in simply superb, and it gives them a much more likeable feel whilst also enhancing the mystery and intellect o their character. John Alyward’s performance as Doctor Magnusson is also fantastic, and he really stands out in the quality of the voice acting present, no man would be better suited to the role. The cast as a whole is certainly good though, and they all perform their roles impressively.

The giant catterpillar won't hurt you... promise.

As for the gameplay the core mechanics of Half Life 2 return, although the puzzle elements are almost completely abolished aside from the very first two chapters of the game, which is unfortunate considering they were a fun and challenging element in the games, and they added a nice contrast to the faster paced action sections. Speaking of which you’ll find that the combat in Episode Two is definitely back to the standard Half Life 2 set, whether you be gunning down Combine, Antlions or Headcrab Zombies you’ll be enjoying yourself. The level design also feels back to standard, with some chapters been claustrophobic where as others offer more open-space settings and the way you go between these is as seamless as ever.

The variety in the gameplay itself is also back to top-form; one chapter has you scouring about the Antlion hive defending yourself against the familiar insects and a new variation of them that spit acid, blending the creepy tense atmosphere of the dark area with the enclosed spaces amazingly well. Then you find yourself finding a small refuge inside the heart of the caverns and face a whole swarm of Antlions coming through four tunnel using turrets to gun down the bugs with the help of two resistance members. Then just as you think the scene can’t get more epic the Vortigaunt arrive and you find yourself taking on a good fifty or more Antlions alongside the lightning-spewing aliens whilst epic music plays in the background. You and one of the Vortigaunt must then journey deep into the hive but you find yourselves separate and been hunted down by the Antlion Guardian, the equivalent to the insect species queen. You’re forced to dive in and out of small tunnels as you flee the giant Antlion, with no way of fighting back against the beast. The vehicle sections also make a return although the Muscle Car serves as little more than a ride through nice scenery than an epic gameplay mechanic like the vehicles in Half Life 2 did, although admittedly I did great enjoy the one chapter you’re racing away from a helicopter, swerving around crashed trains as it attempts to bomb you. You’ll also find that the game likes to throw intense action sections at you a fair deal throughout the experience; I can recall at least three sections where I found myself in immense fights, often completely taking me off guard whilst still been epic. This is also helped by the introduction of the Hunters, whom boast rather intelligent AI and a surprising challenge in combat, especially considering they always hunt in packs. The other enemies portray the typical contrast they did before, and it offers some unique and fun ways of combating different foes depending on your environment and what it is you’re fighting.

Gordon always wanted a car with which he could feel the wind running through his hair. This wasn't quite what he envisioned.

The game isn’t all brilliance though, along with the lack of puzzles you’ll also find a lack of horror sections throughout Episode Two. Half Life 2 sported Ravenholm, which was simply one of the most atmospheric and terrifying experiences ever created, where as Episode One had pitch black car-parks filled with hordes of Headcrab Zombies, and a rather unnerving hospital area. Episode Two pretty much sports nothing along the lines but the Antlion Hive with is little more than mildly eerie in comparison, which is unfortunate since said sections were among the highlights of the previous titles. The vehicles sections of Episode Two are also rather unimpressive as I’ve already mentioned, and the Muscle Car feels harder to control than any of the previous vehicles in the games. The frustrating loading times also make a return, hampering the otherwise incredible immersion and really annoying you at points. They were the only real fault in Half Life 2, and they’ve plagued bother the episodes since, it really makes me wish Valve can fix it in the next HL2 game, but it’s a minor gripe to achieve superb quality gaming experiences.

Overall Episode Two is definitely a good 20 steps back on track after Episode One, it certainly isn’t without fault but from the moment you find yourself fighting alongside the Vortigaunt to the epic confrontation with a whole group of Striders as you defend White Forest, Episode Two manages to capture the essence of Half Life 2 and convey it perfectly in an episodic format. The game also introduces Steam Achievements to the series, offering 22 different achievements which adds a fair bit of challenge and replay value to the title, if that the cost of potentially making giving you a phobia of gnomes.

One day... you will come to understand the pain I have.

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