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Half-Life 2: Episode Two (PC) artwork

Half-Life 2: Episode Two (PC) review


"Did it really have to end that way?"


The Half Life franchise is known for the technical advancements that are hallmarks of its progression. Half Life 2, on the other hand, may be better known for its technical hurdles. More than improvements, the Valve team changed gameplay mechanics to literally suit the player better.

How much trouble would it be to retcon that stupid flashlight?

Ahem. Why don’t we address the story. Gordon Freeman is back again, having just split open the Combine Citadel with little more than good ol' monkey wrenching. It is how he does things, no grandiose plans necessitated. We’re stranded some distance in the mountains, where the train we were riding has derailed. Alyx serves as companion and protector, this time, since we’ve managed to misplace all of our gear.

Except for the gravity gun. Boy is it useful, but only because it’s all we have for a while. Our attention is drawn to the steely shards of the Citadel on the horizon, from which an azure beam lances out into the sky. There’s a little drama, some impressive collapsing of a train bridge and we’re soon on our way. Valve’s physics engine carries Half Life 2: Episode Two very well, but it’s not center stage this time.

We’re treated to Triple A grade cinematic events that took the industry by storm. It may be par for the First Person Shooter course to knock down a building during play in 2016, but large scale presentations of this tech were Valve’s innovative turf. There’s no question that Episode Two is still impressive, and very engaging. This time more questions are asked, and some are answered in rather short order.

Let’s not forget the emotional tension. Episode Two is hard to play. We’ve spent dozens of hours becoming acquainted with these people, we’ve saved their lives, we’ve watched them fight the Combine and die. The emotional rapport Episode One spent so much time building up pays off in Episode Two, and Valve demonstrates its awareness of this by placing Alyx in near death circumstances.

It’s horrifying, and strikes me right where I live. I’ve got a noble streak a mile wide, you see, so I’m all about getting the job done for her. Spoilers? As I’ve said before, knowing is not the same as experiencing, but I do intend to tread carefully, especially near the end. It just feels wrong to tip that bucket, even though I just did.

I want to talk graphics before we move on, because Episode Two is the most appealing of the lot. While HL2 benefited from an overhaul, Valve would have to redesign the entire game for there to be any appreciable improvement here. Basically, it’s real pretty. Brand spanking new shaders, trialed and tested in Lost Coast - which I’ll cover next - add the essential organic feel to the opening sections of the game.

Pulsing egg sacks hang from walls, as do chittering grubs which you can gleefully crush for health pellets. In fact, an achievement encourages a grub hunt for all for the glowy beasties all over the underground caverns. You’ll even have to husband your ammo carefully, as some are quite out of reach and require deft aim. Episode Two has, by this point, realized Valve’s vision of a fully cinematic action thriller.

The story and universe of Half Life 2is so robust that it continues to inspire comics, games, and storytelling efforts the world over. There are fan built games that pro-and-epilogue HL2 available for purchase or free download on Steam. Beware that they vary in quality, however.

Episode Two places heavy emphasis on companions, because no sooner than Alyx is down than we are joined by a gruff Vortigant, voiced by Louis Gosset Jr. whose energy manipulation and sarcastic insight are effective tools of entertainment and characterization. That is, I liked him right away, and was disappointed to leave him behind.

Then again, Valve knew that too, because ... you know ... that car. The one without a roof or doors that looks like a cross between a Chevy Nova and a Dodge Charger. The badnasty growlmiser beast of awesome that I didn’t know I wanted in the first installment. I’m glossing over from really great action and events at this point, and I’d like to cover them. So here goes.

Combat woke up, bared its meat rending fangs and razor sharp wit in front of our unexpected faces. Before we trundle in over our heads, though, we meet zombies and zombines, and Alyx does the shooting. Then she’s, well, you know ... and we’re finally able to lay our hands on a pistol and shotgun. Our new Vort ally is stuck behind a gate some of the time, or waiting for an elevator, so we’re left to our own devices.

There are new glowing, Acidlions to confront that lob scathing neurotoxin from a distance. Also, the usual Antlions, but they take a back seat to their clever, ducking, jumping and hiding superiors. Easy to spot, but hard to target in smooth walled corridors of organic design. Environments are masterfully crafted with a story to tell, but with less to say, this time.

Seasoned players are cautioned to stay on their toes and make wise use of the clutter. Explosive gas cans and barrels provide some thoughtful entertainment, almost putting gunplay on the back burner. The game is yours to win, and the only true penalty is death, so, go to it. Smart arrangements of hazards will have you looking before you leap and stopping when you hear the snarling hiss of a startled Acidlion.

How about that Antlion tower defense section? The story and situation are expertly interwoven, and thus we’re inclined to take part without hesitation. The first time I played this I believe I died no less than five times trying to figure out the best method. Granted my skills weren’t up to the new par, but that is to be expected. You’ll be glad its over because Vortigants killing Antlions is frankly epic.

Oh, and then there’s the Guardian. We’ve faced the sort before, but this time our enemy has home turf advantage. Naturally, we’re tasked not to kill the creature; so we’ll be scrambling through narrow tunnels with the suit chirping at us and saying “User death is imminent.” That’s true, but we’ve got Quicksave and conveniently placed health packs.

We get to take our revenge later, and after doing that we are witness to another large scale demonstration of Valve’s cinematic prowess. Then we get the car, the Vortigant leaves us, and Alyx rides passenger side on our way to White Forest. What spoilers? She says at the beginning of the game that’s where we need to go.

Seriously.

For me, everything mounts up and unravels in a heart rending moment at the end of the game. It’s not spoilerific to say we have to defend the missile silo; we have a weapon, they want to destroy it. Running around inside White Forest is even fun, if a little stunted. We get to take revenge on the instrument of Alyx’s wounding, and that is every bit as satisfying as you expect it to be.

But, this is where the crux of the series’ problems lay.

Anyone who plays Half Life 2 does it, at first, for the curiosity. In my review, I mentioned that many of the questions we ask are answered during the course of play. Others, however, linger with the purpose of having us pick up the thread in the next installment. While the storytelling persists and retains its narrative force, the technical execution of the Episodes bodes disaster. Half Life 2 utilizes the conveyance of episodic story arcs, and was cut short at Episode Two by the team’s inability to accomplish their goal.

When I met the final objective in White Forest, then proceeded to the end I was left haunted. After witnessing another death, I couldn’t possibly imagine continuing. What were we going to do? As a part of the rebellion, I had spent three games fighting for this cause, and now ... there was no answer. Rather, Valve doesn’t have one. If there’s one thing you may have noticed from this retrospective, is that it is intensely personal.

I’ve read enough books to see this happen before. It’s not hard to understand when a mainsteam television book adaptation takes liberties because they are certain the audience just isn’t going to stick around for a drastic upset in cast or change of focus. The painful irony is that PC gaming’s most influential franchise has such a demand for a sequel because of the emotional resonance of its characters and story. Unfortunately, the bar is set so high now that to receive what we ask for could ruin all of our expectations, and sully our hopes.

Why hasn’t there been a sequel? At the technical level alone, Half Life 2 was such an advancement over its predecessor that it makes good business sense for Valve to push out ports on viable platforms, rather than try to recapture a once in an lifetime achievement. Half Life did not enrapture us, it merely raised the bar. HL2 sent that bar skyrocketing into zeitgeist, from whence it may never return.

They have demonstrated poor judgment before, and this may be another of those instances, but as it stands now I am glad that these games exist. To be able to share an experience with so many is nothing but a pleasure. I offer my sincere gratitude to Valve for caring for this franchise. May it continue to inspire creative minds for years to come.

The Good News
This is the one we were waiting for. It has everything; tense, thought provoking and reflex testing combat. Deeply affecting emotion driven storytelling; unforgettable characters; one badnasty boss-hog car. Top notch vocal performances and fantastically detailed first person stage play scenes. Character animations still look really, dang, good. The soundtrack is sparing, but it is an effective mood seeding component, without being intrusive. Graphics are nice. Real nice, and almost hold up to current standards, especially when you’re underground.

The Bad News
The same can’t be said, above ground. Overland textures retain their aged, somewhat dreary appearance, and lighting effects are noticeably dated. Action is varied, puzzles are interesting, and the game is three times longer and larger feeling than Episode One, which is as good as it is bad. You travel nearly as much as you do in Half Life 2. I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that these two Episodes would have been a happy couple, but due to the nature of Valve’s development process, that would never have happened. Then there’s the ending, which is genuinely wrenching and sorrowful.

Recommendation
I don’t have to say it. Having read this far you know if you want in, but be warned that this particular cliffhanger doesn’t have another Episode or sequel. The complexities of Half Life’s storylines seemed to infest its development, leaving us with an empty chest and aching head. For as many times as I’ve completed Half Life 2, I’ve just completed Episode Two just twice. The first is the one you play every year, or every couple of years, but this one. Maybe just once and never again.

I’m going to review Lost Coast, and may start digging into the outer reaches of related, Valve acknowledged titles, as well. Minerva: Metastasis was a literal job application become a love-it-or-hate-it debatable worth examining. How many other tales of this quality exist on Steam? Why not find out?

5/5

hastypixels's avatar
Community review by hastypixels (December 11, 2016)

Once upon a time Asteroids was all he ever needed. Over twenty years later poor optimization still ceases to faze him. Remember kids: bandwidth isn't the answer. Fun is.

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