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