I'll admit it -- my expectations for the next installment of the Half-Life 2 saga* were pretty high. Like everyone else who has ever laid their hands on a Half-Life game, I love the series and I've grown reasonably attached to Alyx, Dog, and the gravity gun.
Yet, as much as I came to love everything about Half-Life 2, I also loathed Valve's "episodic" system; delay after delay after delay, the gap of time between Episode One and Episode Two ended up longer than sixteen months. After such a (relatively) long wait, would Episode Two deliver on everything promised by the episodic format? Would it continue the intense, imaginative, and emotional gameplay started in Half-Life 2 and developed in Episode One?
The short answer? Yes.
The long answer? Hell yes.
Hit the jump for the full review.
*I can't wait until the episodic series is finished and we can stop calling them "the Half-Life 2 episodes." Put together, they are Half-Life 3, for chrissake.
Half-Life 2: Episode Two (PC)
Until Episode Two, I would have never thought that a franchise installment with so many minor or purely cosmetic changes and improvements could make for such a palpably more enjoyable experience than the games which preceded it. Yes -- Episode Two is unquestionably better than Episode One, and if it was longer, it’d be a hell of a lot better than the entirety of Half-Life 2, as well.
Part of the reason Valve wanted to try the episodic format for the sequels to Half-Life 2 dealt with their ability to implement new technology into each successive episode, and Episode Two showcases this quite well. The changes are mostly aesthetic, but the effect they have on the game’s atmosphere, story, and characterizations are pretty difficult to understate. The “cinematic physics” mechanic, for instance, may seem to be nothing more than the Havok engine on a massive scale. However, once you see a steel bridge collapse in a hundred pieces, or when you watch a Strider blow apart a wood cabin into innumerable splinters and planks, you’ll understand just how much more epic, involving, and exciting the series can be. The cinematic physics are just one of the numerous, minute changes made in Episode Two: the lighting systems have been redone (working your way through the Antlion spawning caves is much moodier and visually arresting thanks to the effect your flashlight has on the shadows and environment), the character models have been noticeably improved (Alyx especially), and numerous gameplay tweaks have made the game a great deal more fun.
Por ejemplo, your flashlight and sprint power no longer drain energy from the same source; you can keep your flashlight on and sprint to your heart’s content without worrying about one action draining the other. This means that during a lengthy chase sequence in the underground antlion caves, you don't have to worry about alternating between visibility and movement.
Again, these changes may seem very small when considered individually, but they have a noticeable effect on the gameplay as a whole. Things feel more accessible, more fun, and (in the case of Alyx’s improved expressions and character model) more endearing.
“Endearing” -- not really a word you hear too often in conjunction with first-person shooters. Really, that’s what sets Episode Two apart from other action titles, and, indeed, other Half-Life installments as well; where the majority of FPS objectives tend to revolve around impersonal goals like “kill this dude” or “defend this guy,” more than a few of Episode Two’s major action setpieces revolve around defending characters you actually care about, thus giving the action a greater weight and giving the entire game a much more substantial feel. When you and two other resistance fighters (one of whom is played with perfect comic timing by Adam Baldwin) have to defend four different tunnels from huge crowds of Antlions, the experience -- while almost fiendishly fun in and of itself -- is made even better thanks to the fact that if you fail, you know a wounded character you’ve come to care for will die as a result.
I really can’t overstate how easy it is to connect with the characters on an emotional level: whether you’re meeting up with Eli Vance, hanging out with Alyx, or catching a glimpse of the G-Man when you least expect it, you’ll feel truly involved in the story, thanks to how connected you’ve become to all of these characters, for better or for worse. I literally found myself almost shouting at the screen during certain cinematic scenes. We’re talking characters who were so well-defined, who meant so much to me, that I was nearly yelling at my goddamned monitor when they were put in danger -- Episode Two has truly raised the bar when it comes to characterization and narrative. Hell, even the sole new character, Dr. Magnusson, is irritable and crotchety to the point of being hilarious, but you still sort of like him by the game's end.
But hey, who gives a rat’s ass about character interaction when there’s stuff to be killed, right? Well, thankfully, Episode Two improves upon its predecessors in that area, as well. As with the aesthetics and controls, only minor changes have been made to the overall gameplay. Only two substantial additions have been made to the gameplay: the Magnusson device (if you don’t know its purpose by now, it’s better if you just find out through playing the game), and the new Combine Hunter enemy. Both work wonderfully, but if you’re looking for massive enemy upgrades or dozens of new weapons, then you’re in the wrong place. Hell, Episode Two’s true beauty doesn’t necessarily derive from how it implements new mechanics, but in how it alters the old ones. Episode Two takes our preconceptions of what a typical Half-Life 2 battle should be, and then twists it into something much more original and fun; I can’t go into detail without spoiling some of the best moments of the game for you, but imagine taking out a Combine helicopter… without a rocket launcher.
What really kills me is that the things which make Episode Two so great are the very things I can’t spoil for you: certain things happen to certain characters, and it makes you feel a certain way, but I can’t tell you specifics (though if you’ve seen the trailers for Episode Two, you’ll know that Dog fights a particular sort of enemy all by himself -- and trust me, it’s just as badass as we all thought it would be). The ending, from both a gameplay and narrative perspective, is probably one of the best parts of the game. Without going into too much detail, Gordon is given a new type of weapon, and is put in a large, nonlinear -- yes, nonlinear -- arena where he has to drive around and defeat several gargantuan enemies before they reach a resistance base. I honestly feel that this final battle may be one of the most singularly entertaining sections of gameplay I’ve experienced in a long, long time. I’m going to be replaying the scene over and over throughout the next few weeks.
Now, for the tradeoff: Episode Two is short. Not Portal short, but short nonetheless. I got through the game in about 4 ½ hours my first time through, and while I do have a tendency to work through games pretty quickly, I don’t feel as if I truly rushed myself. Such is the price of episodic gaming: we get some kickass technological updates and some wonderful gameplay setpieces, but, at the end of the day, we’re still talking about less than five hours of playtime after a year of waiting (and probably another year until we get the sequel). Of course, those two years also went toward the development of Team Fortress 2 and Portal, so it’s really quite hard to complain when they’re packaged together for such a reasonable price.
Overall, Episode Two is the most satisfying installment of the Half-Life saga yet, in respects to both story and gameplay. Moving the action from City 17 into the surrounding forest really makes the environment feel fresh and new, the many small gameplay changes immeasurably improve the game’s fun factor, and the plot and characters truly show us what videogames are capable of as a storytelling medium. Yeah, it’s damned short, but there’s never a dull moment and you’ll be replaying some of the major setpieces for weeks to come (not to mention the immense replayability offered by the commentary track). If you’re financially and physically capable of buying Episode Two, and you don’t, I really have to wonder about your state of mind.
Verdict: Buy It!