Half-Life 2 was for me a little bit of a letdown. It was an epic game of grand scope with superlative storytelling, and I did think it was one of the best first-person shooters I'd ever played. But I couldn't help but be a bit bothered by the game's stubborn adherence to rather dated genre clichés-one man carrying a small arsenal, breaking open crates to find bullets and medicine, and the contrived placement of various weapons, exploding barrels, and magical crates of infinite ammo. So when the episodic content was announced, I was sincerely hoping that Valve would use it as an opportunity to improve the game by playing on its strengths and getting away from some of the contrivances that hold the series back from being a true masterpiece.
Episode One, however, was not that game. Not only did the exploding barrels and randomly scattered ammo crates make an unwelcome re-appearance, but the game eschewed most of the large-scale set pieces of the original, settling on dark, claustrophobic corridors littered with lumbering headcrab zombies and physics puzzles that seemed mostly recycled from the original game. Half-Life is at its best with large set pieces, tight scripting, smart enemies and big scary cyborgs; conversely, it's at its worst when it devolves into a run-and-gun corridor shooter filled with lumbering zombies. A total lack of new enemies and weapons also hurt the game, and while it was a decent five-hour diversion, I finished the game wishing Valve had aimed higher.
So it was with a bit of apprehension that I approached Half-Life 2: Episode Two. Again I had high hopes for the game, but I was afraid that Valve would again merely ride the series out on its established conventions rather than make substantive improvements. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded, and Episode Two has exceeded my expectations in nearly every respect.
Continuing the story right from the end of Episode One, Episode Two finds Gordon and Alyx in the wreckage of the train on which they had narrowly escaped from City 17 as the Citadel's reactor exploded, leveling the entire city. The Combine are now trying to open another massive inter-dimensional portal that will spell certain doom for all of Earth, and Gordon must make his way to a rebel base where survivors are planning an attack that will destroy the portal before it's too late.
Unfortunately, the game starts off with a whimper. The first act felt far too much like Episode One, as Gordon makes his way through a massive antlion nest that is-big surprise -also infested with headcrab zombies. The repetitive attack patterns of the antlions and the slow predictability of the headcrab zombies would have rendered the first act of the game a complete wash were it not for a handful of tightly-scripted battles and some good storytelling saving the day. I spent the first hour or two of the game wondering when the real action was going to start, and feeling like the game was destined to end up much like Episode One.
Once Gordon escapes this bug-filled, zombie-infested underground labyrinth however, the game takes a stark turn for the better, weaving through one exciting gameplay sequence after another as it builds toward an epic finale that kept me on the edge of my seat and ended the story with a cliffhanger that was satisfying while perfectly setting the stage for Episode Three. The game expands on the Half-Life mythology far more effectively than Episode One did, providing great character development and intriguing insights into the complex web of Gordon's past, and even granting some insights into the influence of the perpetually mysterious G-Man. Gordon and Alyx seem to be growing closer (proving that if you want women to like you, don't say anything!), and we witness some dramatic moments that have genuine emotional weight to them.
The action is one clever battle sequence after the next, as Gordon and Alyx are pursued by the Combine through the alien-infested countryside. While Gordon still carries enough ammo to supply a small battalion and the game still stubbornly clings to the dated crate-smashing cliché, most of its other contrivances are either gone or expertly hidden. From battles with the new Combine Hunters to the grand spectacle of the final battle against an army of Striders assaulting the Resistance outpost, Episode Two has a truly epic energy brought to life with a stunning use of physics and masterful scripting. Encounters with the Striders and the Combine Advisors are genuinely tense, and executed with remarkable visual flair. The Half-Life series has always excelled by using expertly crafted storytelling to briskly move the player from one battle sequence to the next, rarely falling on recycled gameplay and always presenting players with unique new challenges; Episode Two is no exception, as it propels players through a brilliant narration encompassing numerous unique battle scenarios that require players to use their wits as well as their trigger finger.
Despite its lackluster first act, Episode Two ends up showing more of the kind of progressive gameplay I have been wanting to see from the series. A few dated clichés remain, but the remainder of the game is so tautly scripted and uniquely challenging that I almost forgot how ridiculous it is to be finding crates full of bullets in radioactive swamps. There are still no new weapons and only a few new enemies, but between the brisk pacing and character-driven storytelling, Valve has given me only higher hopes for Episode Three.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language
Parents need not be overly concerned; while not intended for children, the game is not gratuitously violent or profane; it's mostly on par with any PG-13 action movie. Parents may even find the story and characters substantive enough to enjoy the game with their kids.
PC gamers may purchase the game either standalone or as part of the five-game Orange Box compilation; Xbox 360 gamers do not have the luxury of purchasing it standalone, but the Orange Box is a phenomenal value with Half-Life 2, Episodes One and Two, Portal, and Team Fortress all for $60. An added incentive for PC
Episode Two is a must-have for first-person shooter fans and fans of Half-Life. It has everything that is great about the genre and the series, and very little of what is not. It's especially a visually excellent game that will look great on a high-definition TV or a high-end gaming
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers may miss out on some useful positional audio cues such as enemy chatter and gun fire, but as with all Steam games, closed captioning is available. Subtitles are available for all dialogue, and are distinguished between characters with italicized font.