Review by Mayhemm

"A great Half-Life installment that, unfortunately, came a year too late."

In July of 2006, I finished playing Half-Life 2: Episode One wanting more. The game successfully expanded on the excellence of Half-Life 2's story and gameplay by adding new technologies like higher-polygon models, HDR lighting, and developer's commentary while boosting character development. It was not without flaws, though, and one of the biggest was its short length. But we were told "Hey, don't worry! It's only an episode. The next one will be out soon." After finishing Episode One, we were even treated to a kick-ass trailer for Episode Two, which was due out by year's end. Sweet!

Well, Q4 2006 came and went. In fact, all of 2007 nearly came and went before we could finally return to the Half-Life universe. Now, I believe that games should be released when they're done and not before, but this doesn't mean time stands still while the developers finish up. It is for this reason that I can't help but be underwhelmed by Episode Two. I will try to avoid serious spoilers in my discussion of that feeling.

The Source Engine is starting to show it's age. Valve did manage to tweak it even further for Episode Two by further increasing the animation and polygon count on the models and utilizing "cinematic" physics effects. It has never looked better, but it is essentially a 3-year old engine. After almost 18 months of waiting, I was expecting more than seeing a bridge/building collapse realistically; and even that we saw in the trailer at the end of Episode One!

Even worse is the fact that some things have taken a step back. The Vortigaunts' skin looks smooth and textureless. Also, the ragdoll_collide console command that prevented corpses from blending into one another now causes weird physics anomalies that can inhibit progress so it must be disabled. There is much blending in Episode Two.

After crawling through the lush, dense jungle of games like Crysis, and even Far Cry, I couldn't help but be disappointed with Episode Two's forests. A flat landscape littered with a few trees and rocks just doesn't have the appeal it did even a few months ago.

The gameplay hasn't changed either. There are simple, physics-based puzzles to be solved with the gravity gun. Headcrabs are abundant as ever. Combine choppers still manage to hold an incredible amount of those f*cking roller bombs and like to shoot you in the back while you're driving. And the vast majority of headcrab victims still appear to be scientists from Black Mesa (seriously, Valve, would it kill you guys to vary your basic zombie models a bit). Oh, and why can't Gordon lean! I hate getting popped in the head because I have to shuffle my whole Hazard-suited orange butt around the corner. Give me corner-peeking instead of Xbox360 controller compatibility any day.

Episode Two adds two new enemies; Hunters and Acid Lions, which are nice additions but don't really possess much for AI and can get annoying to fight because they both like to snipe at you from a distance. If you count the Advisors I guess they would be a third new enemy but, as I'll get into later, they're all setup with no payoff.

There is only a single new weapon....well...it's more of a tool than a weapon. Magnusson Devices are alarm-clocks-from-hell that you can attach to Striders with the gravity gun, then detonate with any other weapon. However, since you can't put them down to fight other enemies without them collapsing, and they're only used in one small section of the game's finale, I'd hardly call them an important addition.

The Valve team seemed to run out of places to take Gordon and Alyx in this installment as there are several situations where you are just dumped into an area and forced to perform a repetitive task for a while. This usually involves battling wave after steadily increasing wave of enemies, as they storm your position via several paths, with the aid of special props(Turrets/Vortigaunts for Ant-Lions and Magnusson Devices for Striders). But I guess this isn't much different than HL2's scene in Nova Prospekt or EP1's "waiting-for-the-elevator" section.

I guess the real highlight of EP2 is its story; which takes several leaps forward in this installment and fits in nicely with the established Half-Life universe. Unfortunately, there is only about 20 minutes of real plot development in the whole game and some of it is marred by illogical actions designed only to put the player into a certain situation. "Don't kill the Guardian, or the Extract will be ruined!" That particular example provided an interesting gameplay experience but at the expense of narrative logic.

The climax of Episode Two rivals that of Halo 2 for all-time cruelest cliffhanger. I won't go into too much detail in case you have yet to experience it, but the human resistance suffers a great loss. When the cinematic ends, you expect to be able to fight a climactic battle and avenge this loss, but instead the screen goes blank and the credits roll. Now, the climactic battles in HL2 and EP1 aren't exactly anything to write home about either; it's more about the journey than the destination. But to have NO CLIMACTIC BATTLE AT ALL?! Cruel, I say! There wasn't even a trailer for Episode Three! Nothing to drool over for the next year or so.

Judging by what you've read so far, you may think I hate Half-Life 2: Episode Two, but that is far from the truth. Episode Two carries on the spirit of Half-Life 2 and has the same great gameplay. It's almost EXACTLY the same, but great nonetheless. I've already played through it twice, and I'll probably do it twice more before I put it down. The sad part about Episode Two is that it's just been outclassed by games developed during that pesky 18-month delay; games like Bioshock, Call of Duty 4, Crysis, Oblivion, and Supreme Commander. It's even largely outclassed by fellow Orange Box games Portal and TF2. If Episode Two had been released a year ago, most of my arguments wouldn't have mattered because we'd all still have been on that Half-Life high. Too little, too late, Valve. Here's hoping for Episode Three.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 01/16/08

Game Release: Half-Life 2: Episode Two (US, 10/10/07)


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