"Nearly every sequence takes you by surprise, and keeps you glued to the screen until the action is resolved. There is a helicopter chase. There is also a genuinely horrifying introduction to the Advisor, the only “true” Combine creature we’ve seen so far. Trusty robotic ally Dog has his moment in the sun, only before you finally reach White Forest and come to the realization that the game isn’t over yet – in fact, the most intense, exhilarating, large-scale battle the Half-Life series has ever seen is still just around the bend."
Half-Life 2: Episode Two gets it right. There is very little of the plodding, stalling, and rehashing of old ideas that was found in the previous episode. What tedium this game does contain, Valve more or less gets out of its system early on, and once the adventure truly gets moving, it’s a spectacular experience that single-handedly dethrones everything else we’ve seen from this series so far. If Episode One was a disappointing (albeit still worthwhile) follow-up to one of the greatest FPSs ever created, then this next installment is Valve’s assurance that the series is officially back on the right track.
It begins precisely where Episode One left us hanging – on a train, now wrecked after being flung off its tracks by the eruption of the Citadel’s main reactor. The Citadel itself is gone, as is City 17. In its place is a massive portal that the malicious Combine plan to use to summon backup and reinitiate war on the humans, taking back the planet they won all those years ago. That, it goes without saying, would be bad. A slightly more pressing matter is the army of Combine troops headed off in the direction of White Forest, where all of our old friends are cooking up a way to vanquish the portal before it can be utilized.
But first! The developers forfeit their chance at a good first impression in a wholly unnecessary side route that sucks up a good deal of play time. I don’t want to spoil any details, since much of Episode Two’s appeal is its newfound cinematic majesty, but something happens that forces Gordon Freeman and inseparable companion Alyx to take a detour into a ramshackle old mine teeming with, yep, antlions. This excursion takes up roughly the first two chapters of the game, and feels strained. It’s fine at first, when the novelty of intruding into the very den of the oversized bugs we’ve hunted for so long is still fresh, but it drags on for too long and relies too heavily on recycled design choices. You can bet that at some point, you’ll be stuck waiting for a very slow-moving elevator to reach your level while you struggle to hold off the legions of zombies and antlions that waited for this particular moment to unleash their wrath.
This would sound like cause for concern, as I had a similar complaint about Episode One. Its sequel solves this issue (to some degree) by fusing the staler material with scenarios we haven’t seen before. Trudging through repetitive-looking (if gorgeously rendered) caverns unloading shotgun shells on countless antlions gets old fast, especially taking into account the added hassle that some of them spit poison now. On the other hand, I note one particularly pulse-pounding sequence in which you must obtain the yada-yada from the something-something (I don’t want to ruin anything, and it doesn’t matter anyway) and are forced to delve into the lair of an antlion guardian without killing it. It’d still be happy to kill you, though, and what follows is an intense chase that has you bolting through narrow tunnels in an effort to outrun and outsmart the creature. Fighting alongside a group of vortigaunts is a pleasure as well, and will make you happy they weren’t this powerful when you were fighting them back at Black Mesa.
(I should also note that I utterly despise bugs, which means this whole mine level made me wince, shudder, and jump in my seat more often than 80% of the survival horror games I’ve played. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but either way, I felt it was worth mentioning.)
Your time spent in the mines is likely the segment of Episode Two that will most divide players, but it’s only “too long” when you take into consideration just how short the entire adventure is. (Valve once again stuck to its episodic format, meaning you’ll complete this one in four or five hours.) Once you get back to the surface, you’re rewarded with a rather lovely view of an entire Combine militia crossing a bridge on the horizon – a pleasant reminder that, oh yeah, the Combine are still in this game, too! But before we take care of them, let’s get our obligatory zombie-blasting out of the way, in a segment that feels too much like a failed attempt to recapture the glory of Ravenholm. Once more the stigma of rehashed level design sinks in, and we see the same tricks all over again. If you guessed that at some point in Episode Two, you’ll be greeted with a pool of nuclear waste and will have to rearrange objects with your gravity gun to get across, you win!
By now, I’m probably giving the wrong impression of the game, so let me be clear: The second half of Episode Two is an unparalleled masterpiece of FPS design that eclipses everything else Valve has done as of yet. It’s worth struggling through anything you’re not enjoying when the payoff is this amazing, and even then, the game’s first half contains enough novel moments to make it worth playing, anyway. It’s about halfway through Episode Two before you fight a single Combine soldier, but I didn’t come to this realization until the second time I played through the game, so I must have been having a pretty good time.
The real Episode Two starts when you hop into a sweet stripped-down muscle car and hit the road with Alyx, your destination too far to get to on foot. From this point on, the game successfully captures the novelty of riding around in a vehicle again and feels very much like Highway 17, one of my favorite chapters from Half-Life 2. Your road takes you through the forests surrounding City 17, which means there are now even more places for your enemies to hide and prepare for a surprise ambush. The pacing is perfect: There are just enough eerily quiet moments to make you feel safe, yet just enough bursts of action to keep you on your toes as you realize your next encounter could be just around the corner. And it often is.
Your struggles are made all the more ravaging by the arrival of a new enemy, the Combine hunter. Animated to perfection and emitting a host of creepy squeals (as any good Half-Life villain does), this foe is best thought of as a miniature strider, only a fraction of the size but capable of inspiring just as much fear. We caught a glimpse of a hunter in Episode One and get up close and personal with another one at the beginning of Episode Two. By the time they make their glorious entrance in battle, several facts become evident. They never travel alone, for one thing, and in addition to being fast and powerful, they’re very difficult to take down with conventional weapons (though one in particular works hilariously well). Strategies against them usually revolve around the creative use of your gravity gun, but you should be used to that by now.
Nearly every sequence takes you by surprise, and keeps you glued to the screen until the action is resolved. There is a helicopter chase. There is also a genuinely horrifying introduction to the Advisor, the only “true” Combine creature we’ve seen so far. Trusty robotic ally Dog has his moment in the sun, only before you finally reach White Forest and come to the realization that the game isn’t over yet – in fact, the most intense, exhilarating, large-scale battle the Half-Life series has ever seen is still just around the bend. I certainly don’t want to ruin much about Episode Two’s unbelievable climactic confrontation, but let’s just say you’re not done with the striders yet, and they’ve found bodyguards in our new buddies, the dreaded hunters.
Unlike the last two games in the saga, Episode Two doesn’t end in mid-explosion, but the events that bring about the closing credits are far more rattling, for different reasons. Valve played it smart when it comes to story: Now that we’ve spent three whole games fighting alongside these characters, we’re going to get a little emotionally wrought up when bad things inevitably start happening to them. I fear for what Valve will do our friends in Episode Three… Yet if this stellar installment is any promise of what’s yet to come, I simultaneously can’t wait.
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