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Half-Life 2: Episode Two (PC) artwork

Half-Life 2: Episode Two (PC) review


"Just in case the conclusion to the Half-Life story doesnít come into fruition whatsoever, it has at least quit while itís ahead here. Much of the action that made Half-Life 2 enjoyable has been condensed into an intense adventure."



The complete silence on the conclusion to the Half-Life series is surely sleepwalking itself as one of gamingsí greatest gags. Following the genre-defining Half-Life 2 , the decision by Valve to dripfeed the 2004 gameís aftermath over three episodic increments was intended to keep waiting times down. All went well for the first two instalments, but fans are still waiting for the promised third nearly six years later. But donít forget, Half-Life and its sequel stand as some of the greatest games of all-time and have overseen one of PC gamingís most vibrant modding communities, as well as fore fronting digital distribution for the platform. Valveís track record on the platform certainly presents enough reasons to be patient.

The series most recent outing is Half-Life 2: Episode Two , picking up from Gordon Freemanís escape from City 17 following its destruction. As he wakes up in a crashed train he and his sidekick Alyx Vance are urged to make way to White Forest. Although many preparations are in place to destroy the sky portal responsible for the alien invasion causing havoc on the planet, Freeman possesses important data to finalise the Resistance movements rocket launch. However there is much to negotiate en-route to reunite with Alyx's father Dr Eli Vance, Dr Kleiner and the less than charming Dr Magnusson, all key leaders of the covert network. Underground mineshafts, an antlion colony and the rural environments encompassing the city await the scientists, together with alien and headcrab ambushes in the build-up to an enthralling finish.

The emphasis on forested environments provides a welcome contrast to Half-Life 2: Episode One ís dark confined corridors. The mines do have to be contended with at the beginning though, and waves of antlions have to be repelled with Vortigaunts at their base. Thankfully, better visibility makes these enjoyable again. Eventually the action sees daylight and relives many of Half-Life 2 ís fun moments. The buggy returns with some upgrades, as do arena battles that range from a zombie-laden swamp to blooded showdowns with gigantic Striders; itís the most open-ended battle yet. Novel use of the gravity gun is often encouraged to beat enemies. Using it to throw sharp objects to slice multiple zombies is outright entertaining, but on other occasions hauling explosive canisters or custom-made bombs is a necessary part of the action.

As a result this is a significantly more enjoyable experience than Episode One, which often came across as a mere transition in the plot. However it did lay some important technical groundwork. The Source graphics engine oversaw dynamic lighting upgrades and it also introduced computer-controlled assistance from Alyx Vance. Her backup is used to great effect here, attacking onslaughts of enemies intelligently and adapting to Freemanís play, but without automating the action against large enemies. No new weapons join the roster, but hunter robots prove a taxing addition to the alien Combine force. The three-legged 2.4m scouts are flexible enough to follow Freeman even into buildings, and take several shotgun blasts to kill it without accelerating the buggy into one. The most difficult time to beat them is when they collectively work with other enemies, not an infrequent occurrence.

There are few noteworthy changes to the formula otherwise, but in this case it really doesnít matter. Episode Two is everything an incremental game should be, re-imagining some of Half-Life 2 ís memorable parts and putting them in into one fun package. Few would take more than eight hours to complete this, but thatís more like a full game than the episode it purports to be. Constant surprises fuel the action; less populated mazes and puzzles are littered with headcrabs and antlions when experimenting with the gravity gun and moving boxes, and interruptions on a highway buggy cruise unexpectedly lead to blooded battles. A few houses on a dirt track may look innocent, but upon the sight of a Combine forcefield there is every reason to be suspicious. A barrage of combine and hunters can appear with little notice and can take multiple attempts to perish, even down to trying to avoid a recurring explosion in a cramped building.

No Half-Life adventure is complete without fine-tuning the overall atmosphere, and it certainly doesnít disappoint here. Convincing sound effects add a natural vibe to the experience, and real-time character scenes are excellently animated and voiced. There are only a few music tracks; coolly composed electrobeats are smoothly placed in to supplement the action. Sadly there is no doubt Source has ailed aesthetically, with short draw distances and lighting effects looking matte by modern standards. Ostentatious physics exercises are no longer impressive, but the visuals are still robust, attempting a realistic tone without being entirely true to life, with accentuated lighting and colour palettes. Considering Dota 2 and Portal 2 use the engine that originated from 2004, it speaks volumes when it still has use eight years later.

Just in case the conclusion to the Half-Life story doesnít come into fruition whatsoever, it has at least quit while itís ahead here. Much of the action that made Half-Life 2 enjoyable has been condensed into an intense adventure. The difficulty is adjustable so even novice players can enjoy a good blast and not get punished. The action is smooth flowing, the enemies are challenging and taking an enemy down is downright satisfying. Not many games can beat this for entertainment value, and although its core linearity may come across as archaic, few open-world games better this. The blend of quiet moments and large-scale surprise ambushes has been tuned perfectly. But will fans get to play a game like this again? Since this, new names and sequels have emerged from Valve. Whether the conclusion is the promised third episode or an all-new Half-Life 3 , make sure itís good if itís going to take this long.

Rating: 9/10

bigcj34's avatar
Community review by bigcj34 (June 21, 2013)

Cormac Murray is a freelance contributor for HG and is a fanboy of Sega and older Sony consoles. For modern games though he pledges allegiance to the PC Master Race, by virtue of a MacBook running Windows.

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