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Half-Life 2: Episode Two

  • Released on Jun 26, 2013
  • By Valve for PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Mac, Linux
8.4

Half-Life 2: Episode Two review
One Free Man Continues The Fight

Summary:

The first episode addon to Half-Life 2 proved to be quite a success, building upon the framework of the original game while delivering new if somewhat short new content. Episode 2 likewise picks up where Episode 1 left off, allowing us to follow Gordon's adventures for a bit longer while Valve decide if they're ever going to even mention Episode 3 again. As before, Episode 2 is a direct follow on and therefore the game and this review may end up spoiling elements of the earlier games in the series.

So Gordon and Aylx managed to escape City 17 in a highly dramatic fashion, with the resulting explosion of the citadel derailing their train. Of course, the pair survive but find themselves some distance from the rebel base and no chance of continuing by train. This part of the story focuses on Gordon's and Alyx's journey to the rebel base.

Other factions in the game take on a much stronger role in this game. The Vortiguants show us just how kickass they can be, especially in one segment where they directly join forces with you to fight off enemy beasts, providing some humour as they wryly remark on the circumstances. It gives them some wonderful depth that previously was more hinted at than anything. Likewise, we learn more about the Ambassadors of the Combine and the sheer terror they can strike into the rebels. It's also nice to see the Combine in general outside of the confines of City 17, giving them more room to show off military tactics.

The rebels get a stronger showing here too. Previously their resistance seemed more instinctful but here they appear a lot more organised, partly because we're starting to see what drives them and the backbone of their alliance that gives them the means to fight against the Combine. Key rebel players like Dr Vance and Dr Green also establish themselves in this universe. The G-Man makes his own return too, indicating he hasn't quite given up on Gordon yet with some mysterious warnings.

Aside from a few sequences in the game most of this story plays out while players still have full control of Gordon, giving you the freedom to look around and try different things while characters chat and work out what to do. Environmental obstacles at times will stop you from going too far before the game is ready though. Bear in mind that Episode 2 makes no effort to explain what happened prior to it so you better have played the original and Episode 1 first.

Naturally the game looks pretty good. Even though it is working off the framework of the original game, the change in location makes environments look fresh and interesting as you end up exploring a beast filled set of mine tunnels or driving across rough roads in the wide open. Going to such places really helps drive it home how far the Combine's influence reaches as these areas have clearly suffered decay and destruction due to them. Some impressive tricks are used to great effect too, like one scene has a Combine squad on the move in the distance that you can stand there and appreciate or you can witness the light show of the citadel from a safe distance.

The different people you meet ingame look pretty good too, along similar lines of the 32 bit era of video games. Animation of them is still great, watching as they move around to execute attack patterns, making use of cover or beasts scuttling along the ground to ensnare their prey. The new additions to the game also results in some fantastic visual treats. I dare anyone to say there were not in awe in watching the vortiguants fight with their impressive acrobatics.

Playing with the setting turned down to low helps my “not really optimised for gaming” PC to keep things moving at a nice pace while still having a very good field of vision (those distance events are still perfectly viewable). There's some fog to deal with but nothing that interferes with things drastically.
Music still could do with some tweaking. It seems to have improved with a few set pieces making battles against the Combine forces all that more interesting, but for the most part if asked about the actual tracks I wouldn't really be able to recall how most of them went. Voices of the cast, on the other hand, still strike as wonderfully as before. The eternal mute Gordon is backed up by a fantastic cast of characters that give life to the events as they discuss rebel plans, argue about decisions and remarks on the current circumstances.

Much like Episode 1 the game opts not to drag its feet too much at the start. As Gordon and Alyx recover from the train crash the pacing is kept slow and gentle for a little while as you take in the enormity of what has transpired so far but things do pick up and you find yourself back in action once again.
Gameplay seems to stick itself into a middle ground between the former two entries. You're not partnered up with allies quite as often as in Ep1 but definitely moreso than the original game. This time Alyx isn't your only buddy as you end up travelling with a vortiguant for one section. These two characters are quite intelligent and competent, providing the player with some visible backup that doesn't involve “stand there and let the player do everything”. At the same time, they aren't going to clear each entire area for you. It's nice to have as opposed to the usual one man army all the time (even though the odds are still stacked against you for challenge). Hearing their banter as you travel with them not only provides some depth to them so they don't just feel like AI bots but also sometimes serves to push the player in the right direction, providing hints that help things along.

In terms of the enemy resistance you'll face a lot here to test your skills. The more human of these - that being the Combine soldiers - behave in ways that make sense and provide challenge. They will make use of terrain to take cover from your shots and move in formations to try and get a better sight on you. There are also quite a few less human enemies to deal with, like those pesky antlions that burst out of nowhere and swarm all over in an instinct driven manner. Episode 2 adds a few new ones to the ever growing collection too, like hunter machines that are highly destructive and up the ante quite a bit. It's worth noting that this instalment brings boss battles back up in scale, and while competing with the grand scale of the original HL2's final showdown is difficult these set pieces certainly serve as suitable encounters.

The weapons on offer are pretty much the same as in Episode 1. The antlion bait is still gone but we still get provided with a nice variety. There are the more traditional guns like the standard handgun for those moments where you want to conserve the more useful ammo. Then there is the now iconic gravity gun that you can use to pick up and fling objects around to your heart's content as well as dealing with puzzles and obstacles. Even now the novelty of that hasn't worn off, even though in most combat situations you'll likely rely more on other weapons. One new sort of weapon system involves that gun though and provides a rather interesting challenge, but since it exists in the end game I'll leave that for you to discover.

In terms of controls we have that slight niggle where the game doesn't seem to natively acknowledge the existence of analogue sticks on a joypad, requiring the use of a third party keymapper program to get it to work right. Fortunately, keyboard and mouse controls suffer no problems and the entire system is built to accommodate aspects like quick changing weapons and aiming is done well, especially as the player can tune the sensitivity to their desired level.

The enemies and battles prove to be satisfyingly difficult, as mis-stepping into a hail of bullets will result in a lot lighter health gauge. You can pick up health and armour to replenish your gauges as you go along but it's structured in such a way that recklessly diving into a situation is rather ill-advised. However, the game also provides an extremely generous checkpoint system, where the game not only auto saves at regular intervals but also allows the player to custom save their exact state at any time and reload as needed. So failing to notice that attack chopper until it's blasted you to pieces need not result in a 15 minute re-run of the last section. Challenge without frustration and I am grateful for it.

We've finally gone beyond the confines of City 17, and while you now find out the whole world is in a disastrous mess as well this does provide a chance to showcase scenery that feels different to the original setting. You have to contend with things like dank underground tunnels infested with hostile creatures and wide open landscapes with crumbled rock and abandoned houses scattered about. Pathways to the next destination can take on many forms too, including more traditional literal paths or makeshift ones. It allows for a sense of immersion and exploration.

Episode 2 opts to be a little less linear than the former game, especially in the more open environments where you have the option to ignore the road and go diving down the hillside instead or finding yourself in a large building and having enemy forces enter from multiple locations. A couple of times I wasn't sure how to trigger the next event but nothing that would leave me incredibly frustrated so it's all good. In terms of play time Episode 2 provides a decent amount of gaming that obviously is shorter than the original HL2 game (since it is just an episode).

So the result is another fantastic entry into the Half Life 2 saga. There isn't anything truly groundbreaking in here, but anyone who enjoyed the original game will love Episode 2 just as much. Now all we need is for Valve to decide to do something with Episode 3 and life will be complete.

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