Half-Life 2 : Episode 2

"Time, Dr. Freeman? Is it really that time again?" - G-Man

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When you have a property like Half-Life to work with, excellence is the expectation and the real surprise would be if this latest foray into the world of headcrabs, City 17 and Black Mesa weren't outstanding. So, when I say that Half-Life 2: Episode 2 meets expectations, understand precisely how high a compliment that is. A six-hour tour through the caverns and wilderness beyond the now ruined City 17, Episode 2 offers a continued refinement of the Half-Life experience, rarely straying from the successful model the previous games established without seeming redundant. The hazard suit and crowbar are familiar accessories, and it's good to be back in Gordon Freeman's shoes.

As any drama-brat or English Major Starbucks barista would tell you even if you didn't want them to, act 2 of any 3 act structure is historically the most difficult to make compelling for an audience, particularly when act 2 only shows up two years after your audience watched act 1. In most modern trilogies, where it only becomes a trilogy because everyone decides they'd like more money please (see: The Matrix), the connections between the events of part 1 and part 2 seem so disconnected that it seems legitimate to assume the writer of part 2 may not have even watched part 1, so it's something of a treat to feel like this episode meshes so nicely into what is becoming a compelling overarching story. The events of episode 1 are key concepts that move the story of Episode 2 forward, and the immediate difficulties that beset "The Free Man" compound existing struggles rather than simply replacing them or obfuscating them with a rave sex scene. And, if you've forgotten the events that brought Gordon to this metaphorical and literal train wreck that opens the game, you'll be relieved to know that Valve begins the story of Episode 2 with a quick recap; the equivalent of a "˜Previously, on Half-Life 2'.

It's a little hard to talk about this game without going into the whole package of The Orange Box. After all, Half-Life 2 Episode 2, which may be one of the best games of the year, seems that much better when you realize that it comes packaged with Team Fortress 2, which may be one of the best games of the year, Portal, which may be one of the best games of the year and the original Half-Life 2 and episode 1, both of which may have been the best games of their respective years. Oh, and if you preordered it, then you got a free taste of Peggle, which may be - well, you know.

What's remarkable about HL2 and this latest episode, despite it essentially being a glorified expansion pack, aside from the notable level design, the resiliency of the Source Engine, the compelling gameplay and all that other stuff that we increasingly and unfairly take for granted from Valve, is that the combination of solid writing, professional voice acting and top-notch animation gives the player an opportunity to connect with the supporting cast. It is not only possible but entirely probable that you will begin to feel emotionally attached to Alyx, Dr. Vance, Dog and the occasional Vortigaunt; even the occasional throw-away, red-uniform companions, all of whom appear to be voiced by Adam Baldwin, have an authentic quality to them right up to the moment you use them as expendable decoys. Never losing its strength as a relentless action game, Half-Life's episodes continue to infuse the action with a story and characters you don't even realize you care about until the game drives the point home.

Episode 2 also mirrors its predecessors by avoiding the traditional FPS pitfall of simply throwing waves of enemies at the player, or worse creating an environment of successively dimmer rooms filled with increasing numbers of monster-closets from which your foes leap and cavort. Again, like its predecessors, the game develops through what feel like discreet scenes, always changing up the environment and enemies in such a way that you, as a player, are forced to re-evaluate the situation and adapt. Unfortunately, some of those scenes don't feel quite as original as they did in Episode 1, and there are clear call-backs to scenes from the original Half-Life 2, like managing turrets in Nova Prospekt, speeding through ravines in Water Hazard, and bisecting zombies in Ravenholm.

Further, while there are a few notable new enemies in episode 2, most of the faces will be of the familiar variety, including zombies, ant-lions, Combine soldiers and eventually striders. However, the enemy AI seems to have been improved, and the game does a yeoman's job of challenging you through quality rather than overwhelming quantity. And, when the premiere new bad-guys, the Hunters, finally face you down, the action is intense and fun. One could try and dwell on the somewhat regrettable necessity of recycling enemies and environments, but to do so would be a disservice.

Also included with Episode 2 and the latest versions of Steam is what can only be termed a complete and welcome rip-off of all the good things Xbox Live does right. Among this cavalcade of recycled happiness are features that allow for chat, voice, matchmaking and achievements which will feel like a fairly new concept for traditional PC gamers while leaving console gamers to wonder how the hell it has taken someone this long to do this right. The achievements in particular prove, as they have on the Xbox 360, to be completely meaningless and irresistibly compelling. Along with developer commentary, when you finish the game with achievements yet to unlock you may be forgiven for wanting to jump right back in from the start to take instant advantage of the additional content.

While this game meets all the hallmarks of a traditional second act, it doesn't fail to leave the player with some sense of completion. Having already praised Episode 2's ability to move seamlessly from its predecessor on the other end of the narrative spectrum, the game ends with both some sense of closure as well as more than enough questions to keep players anxious for the conclusion to come presumably sometime before 2009. Avoiding what I've come to think of as the Halo 2 syndrome, finishing Episode 2 is less like having the power go out halfway through a movie and more like eating a favorite dish: you'll feel full and satisfied when the credits roll, and yet already daydreaming about the next time you can enjoy the meal.

It's stupidly easy to recommend Half-Life 2: Episode 2, and I feel a little bit like I'm preaching to the choir. Reviewing games that are expected to be excellent and then have the temerity to exactly meet those expectations is, frankly, a little boring. It's hard not to trivialize what an accomplishment keeping the Half-Life 2 ball rolling is, but Valve is a victim of their own consistent success. The best thing one can probably say about this title is simply that it doesn't drop the ball. Half-Life remains as one of, if not _the_ best PC FPS franchise. Episode 2? It's awesome. What did you think it was going to be?

If anything stands out as truly remarkable, and even above my expectations then it's how complete a package The Orange Box is. Between Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Team Fortress 2, Portal and Steam's vastly enhanced functionality, it's hard not to be impressed.

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Comments

Elysium wrote:

If anything stands out as truly remarkable, and even above my expectations then it's how complete a package The Orange Box is. Between Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Team Fortress 2, Portal and Steam's vastly enhanced functionality, it's hard not to be impressed.

i must've missed the memo then. I'm hardly impressed enough to plunk down a 50 for only 6 hours of gameplay (all i want is episode 2). I guess I'll have to wait for the 9.99 bargain bin, like with episode 1.

i could care less about portal, or steam, already have hl2, and ep1, tf2 would be nice, but would only take away valuable LIMITED gaming time from too many other good games.

i could care less about portal, or steam, already have hl2, and ep1, tf2 would be nice, but would only take away valuable LIMITED gaming time from too many other good games.

Sounds like you made a value judgment. No need to be confrontational about it. Your loss on Portal, though.

So, did they add any new weapons yet?

So, what's the score? I had to read through an entire review!

Great write-up for a great game. I 'm only 1/3 through, and already have experienced two intense gameplay/storyline moments. Valve doesn't seem able to do anything wrong!

araczynski wrote:

i must've missed the memo then. I'm hardly impressed enough to plunk down a 50 for only 6 hours of gameplay (all i want is episode 2).

Are you impressed enough to plunk down a 30? No one's forcing you to buy the whole Orange Box, you know.

There should have been a few more hours in Episode 2 imo, its a fun and great game, but with 1½ year spent on "episodic content" the game should be longer.
Its still great though, and Portal is an amazing little game too, the package is well worth it, but how could Episode2 take 1½ year to make? (I guess the answer is it didnt, but they wanted it to be out together with the other games) .

I'm anxiously awaiting my copy of the Orange Box. I finished halflife 2 a year and a half ago. I caught a bit of an Episode 2 gamplay trailer yesterday. It was the first trailer from the Orange Box I had watched and what surprised me the most is how much the sound effects in halflife 2 felt like coming home. From the gunshots, to taking damage, to whacking headcrabs, and firing off items with that physics gun, I can't wait till the box arrives. It's been long enough since I played the original Half life 2, that I will play it again and then move into episodes 1 and 2 which all represent new content to me.

Can't wait.

I am upset it isn't twice the length of episode 1 like many have advertised. I am still enjoying it though.

It's good to mention that the 360 version is largely identical to the PC version. Naturally the graphics aren't as crisp on a TV as they are on a PC monitor. The controls work just fine, I didn't notice any "consolization" of the game in any way, no changes to the AI, level design, player movement, aiming (I didn't notice any autolock, maybe a tiny bit of auto-aim), nothing really different at all. Not much different than if you connected a 360 controller to your PC and played it that way.

The 360 version is supposed to have a few enhancements (better player models for main characters, motion blur, etc). I will check for those when my 360 copy arrives.

I have both PC and Xbox 360 versions, but am still playing through Episode 1. I'm at about the same level of completion in both (first encounter with Antlion miniboss). I haven't noticed any differences at all between the two. I recall seeing motion blur, but I don't remember in which version. I'd expect to see it in both, since my PC has an ATI card (X1950 Pro).

I'll be happy to compare and post more the next time I have a chance to play both.

For reference, the PC monitor is a 4:3 20" with 1600x1200 native res, and the TV is a 16:9 30" with 1366x768 native res.

Hans

P.S. Damn this Orange Box! It's keeping me from finishing Halo 3 on Legendary... which in turn is keeping me from completing BioShock for a fourth (fifth?) time harvesting all the Little Sisters... Wonderful problems to have, no?

Irongut wrote:

...what surprised me the most is how much the sound effects in halflife 2 felt like coming home.

I feel the same way when I fire up the Half-Life games. No other game or series has affected me like that. For me the various sounds are so iconic. When I heard the suit's Geiger counter go off in this latest episode, a big grin appeared on my face. The weapon sounds are instantly recognizable, as are many of the voice actors and other sound effects. The Halo games have many familiar sounds throughout, but they don't give me that warm fuzzy feeling that Half-Life does. I don't know if that was intentional or not, but it works wonderfully in my case.

I love how the games still seem to have the consistent goal of making you feel as if you're in your own action movie. What makes this work for me is the perfect choices they make in where to put music. All the games have these memorable moments in particular that stand out because of the awesome action music that starts at just the right time. In HL1 it was your first firefight with the soldiers. In HL2 it was the beach assault on Nova Prospekt right after you gain control of the antlions. In Ep1 it was when you and Alyx mow down zombies with shotguns in the hospital. So far in Ep2 it's been the final part of the turret vs. antlion battle when the Vortigaunts show up. I love the more traditional scores from many games such as Elder Scrolls and Halo, but Half-Life's sparingly placed techno beats are unique and add so much to the game.

So overall I guess a big part of what makes Half-Life such a favorite of mine is the audio experience. You can tell that they've spent a lot of time on that portion of the game.

araczynski wrote:

i could care less about portal, or steam, already have hl2, and ep1, tf2 would be nice, but would only take away valuable LIMITED gaming time from too many other good games.

I have to say, I wasn't pleased with this either back when it all got announced, but here's the thing. I was into the idea of TF2, and it turns out to be one of my favorite games in ages, and will fill my multiplayer niche for months at least, if not longer. Portal I truly had no intention of even playing, and I would have been horribly misguided. It's one of the most unique and compelling gameplay experiences I've had in years and (yes, I'm going there) - I think the storytelling rivals Bioshock, in an entirely different, unexpected, funny, and terribly creepy way. I haven't even cracked Episode 2 yet, and I feel like I've WAY gotten my moneys worth.

Don't miss the developer commentary walkthrough when you replay portal. You will.

i must've missed the memo then. I'm hardly impressed enough to plunk down a 50 for only 6 hours of gameplay (all i want is episode 2). I guess I'll have to wait for the 9.99 bargain bin, like with episode 1.

i could care less about portal, or steam, already have hl2, and ep1, tf2 would be nice, but would only take away valuable LIMITED gaming time from too many other good games.

So far I've plunked down $50 for over 25 hours of gameplay, and that's just getting started. If I could only have one game to play the rest of this year, it would probably be Team Fortress 2. (or maybe Rock Band) But, I understand you have to make the call based on what appeals to you.

With the quality level and amount of polish on all the games that ship with the Orange Box I'm more than happy to plunk down the $45 (hell I'd even get the 360 version at $60) it cost me for the whole package, even if I thought the other games were all throw-aways and trust me, trust the majority on this one, the rest of the Orange Box package are anything but throw-aways. I'm happy to support a developer that polishes the hell out of their game and then throws in 4 other games just for the hell of it.

I'm drinking the koolaid with you guys on this one. I could not buy another game until the end of the year and I'd be okay. I'm not going to do that, but I feel full and sated with what I've gotten so far, and I haven't even opened Episode 2 yet. I'm playing/replaying HL2 and Ep1 before I start Ep2.

Asz wrote:

I'm happy to support a developer that polishes the hell out of their game and then throws in 4 other games just for the hell of it.

I'm giving Valve a ton of credit - this a great product and I will recommend it to my gamer friends without hesitation. I'll nitpick and say that they're not throwing 4 games in for the hell of it though. There are 5 products in the box: HL2, Ep1, Ep2, TF2, and Portal.
3 of those are new, 2 were released years ago. I fully support Valve's decision to include HL2 and Ep1 - I think it's a great decision and I hope other companies follow suit. One of the hardest things to do with a series is bring in new converts. You tend to work with a core audience who are loyal to the series, but inevitably many lose interest along the way or become disenchanted. The barrier to entry gets raised for anyone new to the series: the original games don't look as good as their modern counterparts and at some point the amount of content to get through is frankly intimidating.

Developers should be looking to remove as many of those intimidating barriers as possible, and Valve has done a good job of it. They're not asking you to hunt down a used copy on ebay or pirate. The graphics have been updated. For anyone who fell off the wagon along the way, (e.g. after HL1) all the content they missed is included.

And finally it's all in one box - mentally it's easier to swallow a single $45 or $60 purchase than it is to hunt down 5 purchases of $9-12 each.

I'm projecting here, but I think Valve has a sense of their place in gaming history without letting it get to their heads. This is a good precedent to set, and a way to preserve and celebrate their previous work.

I've not only bought the Orange Box, I've bought it three times (once on Steam, two copies on 360 for my wife and I to play TF2 together - at least until we build a second game-worthy PC ).

I rarely replay games - I'm just now playing my favorite game ever, System Shock 2, for the second time - but I have every intention of finishing Episode Two on PC and then launching into HL2 and the two episodes on the 360, probably with developer commentary this time around.

Right now, my biggest disappointment with Episode Two is that Xfire doesn't recognize it yet, thus not counting my hours (even though Steam is doing it, that's not enough!)

I swore, after Episode One, that I wouldn't bother with the next installment -- it just seemed like too little value for the money. But I caved and pre-ordered the Orange Box on Steam. Have I been surprised!

I have yet to launch Episode 2 yet because I'm too busy savouring the rest of the package in TF2 and Portal. Replaying for achievements and the commentary is absolutely the bomb. I can't wait that when I finally get my fill of the "filler" content that I'll be digging into Half-Life again. Great review and kudos to Valve again!

I'm beginning to believe that you have to have played through the original Half-Life to be as ga-ga over all the sequels as you folks seem to be. I started the series with Half-Life 2 and was thoroughly underwhelmed. Maybe it just takes a while to get going? After I played through to the part where you drive some airboat around and have to solve puzzles to navigate waterways, I just put it down.

I got The Orange Box for TF2 and Portal, and maybe I'll give Half-Life 2 another go, but I still don't see what all the fuss is about, really. I'm not trying to be that guy who says "your favorite game sucks". I just wish I could see what you and others see--all my friends who call me crazy for not loving it.

Comparison report: I've played all five games on both PC and Xbox 360, looking for differences. There aren't many to speak of. Playability is the same on both, and visual quality seems about the same. I suppose if I wanted to run both at the same time and do an A/B comparison I could spot some differences, but that just emphasizes how minor those differences are.

The only significant differences I could see between the PC and Xbox 360 versions were in framerate, loading time, motion blur, and gamepad support.

Motion Blur: All five games on Xbox 360 had motion blur, while on PC the two older games have not been updated to support it.

Framerate: I've been getting occasional hesitations on the PC games, probably as a result of not shutting down enough of the other running programs and services. It does point up the ease-of-use difference between the platforms. Don't have to worry about system management on a console (with minor exceptions I won't get into here)

Loading time: The PC versions take far longer to load - even though they're entirely on HD.

Gamepad support: On PC only the three new games properly support the gamepad.

Hans

BadKen wrote:

I'm beginning to believe that you have to have played through the original Half-Life to be as ga-ga over all the sequels as you folks seem to be. I started the series with Half-Life 2 and was thoroughly underwhelmed. Maybe it just takes a while to get going? After I played through to the part where you drive some airboat around and have to solve puzzles to navigate waterways, I just put it down.

I didnt play Half-Life until years after it came out (didnt care much about shooters back then, and I still dont), thought it was a nice game when I finally played it, but not exactly concentrated imbaness in a bottle. Less than a year ago or so I even bothered to buy HL2.

Half-life 2 was great though. I like the settings, I like the fact that you arent just fighting endless hordes of enemies (Hello Doom3, to compare with a shooter from the same time period), even though the puzzle solving might become a bit too much once in a while.
Then add the Gravity gun, which pretty much makes the game what it is, and its hard not to be in love.
On top of the good gameplay, the production quality in pretty much anything Valve is throwing out just seems incredible high, from sound, music, the graphics obviously, rarely encountering anything that might just resemble a bug, the immersive environment, very polished etc. Which is something that deserves credit.

Not personally liking a game is a different matter, and isnt that happening for everyone. I have never been able to see why CS got so popular, I think Oblivion was a damn huge disappointment though I loved Morrowind, and while I cant come up with other popular games i never understood right now, Im sure there are countless of them.

Still, Episode 2 is simply too short.

I picked up the Orange Box when it first came available through Steam. I'm still hopelessly stuck in the World of Warcraft but I've managed to peel myself away a few times to try some TF2 and revisit HL2. I used to be allright in a FPS but I've noticed that I have definitely lost any measure of skill I once had. Warcraft has just completely dominated my gaming universe for so long that it's incredibly hard to change the way I play.

I have to agree though, The Orange Box is pretty much the best deal I've seen in a very long time. Team Fortress 2 is awesome (despite how much I suck at it). I look forward to stepping into the shoes of Freeman again and finding new ways to pwn things through the wonders of gravity manipulation.

BadKen wrote:

I'm beginning to believe that you have to have played through the original Half-Life to be as ga-ga over all the sequels as you folks seem to be. I started the series with Half-Life 2 and was thoroughly underwhelmed. Maybe it just takes a while to get going? After I played through to the part where you drive some airboat around and have to solve puzzles to navigate waterways, I just put it down.

Half Life was one of three FPS games I remember fondly (with Deux Ex and Bioshock). In all three instances, the draw was something other than "more enemies, and now their BIGGER!" For me, the giant plant in the silo that I couldn't kill with my weapons was the point I officially fell in love with the game. As iconic as they are, I never liked Doom, Quake, or any of their derivatives. It's not that I'm no good at FPS games (the usual gripe), I just don't like most of them. Half Life was different. Perhaps this is a byproduct of being predominately a turn based strategy guy.

At the risk of my gamer card, I have never played Half Life 2 or Ep1. That largely made the Orange Box an "offer I couldn't refuse" as I can't imagine it not lasting me the rest of the year. I am counting on HL2 to be very similar to the first one, and folks tell me that it is. Now if it would just finish downloading!!! Argh!!!

Very impressed with HL2Ep2. It's easily the best and most compelling Half-Life experience since the original game.

And, even though some aspects of the Source engine look a little dated, this was the first game that I've played in a long time that had graphics and special effects that really made me take notice and think, "Wow, that's really cool."

It's an odd contrast to the Unreal demo, which looked amazing in the still screenshots but somehow uninspiring in motion.

araczynski wrote:

I guess I'll have to wait for the 9.99 bargain bin, like with episode 1.

Dude, your going to be waiting a long time for that and miss some great GWJ online fun in the mean time!

araczynski wrote:

i could care less about portal, or steam, already have hl2, and ep1, tf2 would be nice, but would only take away valuable LIMITED gaming time from too many other good games.

I know how you feel, I work 14 hours+ a day, baby on the way, so my own gaming time tends to be something I try not to waste. I was really waiting for TF2 with the other bits being nice to haves - then I played Portal ... wow - hard to sum up in words just how good the game makes you feel when you complete it. If you're going to wait for the bargain bin, make sure you keep an eye out in there for Portal; its a pure gem.

*Legion* wrote:

Right now, my biggest disappointment with Episode Two is that Xfire doesn't recognize it yet, thus not counting my hours (even though Steam is doing it, that's not enough!)

My brother! Another who obsesses about hour counting! I beat Episode 2 last night and after playing through the entire Half-Life series and all its expansions to date, all I have to say it this: Bungie, your games are good but THIS is how you write a story-driven FPS!

Parallax Abstraction wrote:

I beat Episode 2 last night and after playing through the entire Half-Life series and all its expansions to date, all I have to say it this: Bungie, your games are good but THIS is how you write a story-driven FPS!

I remember having the same thought after playing HL2 and Halo 2 within a few weeks of each other, and it still holds true. Not that I didn't really enjoy Halo 3, but yeah.

BadKen wrote:

I'm beginning to believe that you have to have played through the original Half-Life to be as ga-ga over all the sequels as you folks seem to be. I started the series with Half-Life 2 and was thoroughly underwhelmed. Maybe it just takes a while to get going? After I played through to the part where you drive some airboat around and have to solve puzzles to navigate waterways, I just put it down.

You know, I am replaying Half-Life 2, and came to realize that the game doesn't actually get any good until Ravenholme, and doesn't really start blowing your mind until the dune buggy/Highway 17 stuff. The whole beginning is just a bit too claustraphobic - Route Kanal and Water Hazard pretty much keep you trapped in pits constantly. It seems like it's a common Half-life technique - lock the player in tiny spaces, and when they get outside, have some enormous and intense set piece trigger, complete with heart attack inducing electronica.

I say, keep on trucking through Water Hazard and hopefully the atmosphere in Ravenholme and the pure fun of Highway 17 will draw you in.

7inchsplit wrote:
BadKen wrote:

I'm beginning to believe that you have to have played through the original Half-Life to be as ga-ga over all the sequels as you folks seem to be. I started the series with Half-Life 2 and was thoroughly underwhelmed. Maybe it just takes a while to get going? After I played through to the part where you drive some airboat around and have to solve puzzles to navigate waterways, I just put it down.

You know, I am replaying Half-Life 2, and came to realize that the game doesn't actually get any good until Ravenholme, and doesn't really start blowing your mind until the dune buggy/Highway 17 stuff. The whole beginning is just a bit too claustraphobic - Route Kanal and Water Hazard pretty much keep you trapped in pits constantly. It seems like it's a common Half-life technique - lock the player in tiny spaces, and when they get outside, have some enormous and intense set piece trigger, complete with heart attack inducing electronica.

I say, keep on trucking through Water Hazard and hopefully the atmosphere in Ravenholme and the pure fun of Highway 17 will draw you in.

To be fair, the first time I played HL2 I was in enough awe for the first few levels just because of how pretty it was. The expanding maps as I got more used to the game is part of what kept things fresh.