For those who don't already know, I absolutely adore the Half-Life universe, and I believe whole-heartedly that Half-Life 2 is the best game I've ever played (though titles like The Legend of Zelda, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and System Shock 2 are close runners up). You may recall that I also really liked Half-Life 2: Episode One (looking back on my review of that particular title, I can say that two of my three bad points, "Too Expensive?" and "Stuttering," are no longer valid in my book; my judgment was clouded on the former and updates have corrected the latter). So what is it that draws me so closely to this gaming franchise? In a word: storytelling. I'll be posting more on this particular topic soon, but suffice it to say that few games (if any) have affected me as deeply as the Half-Life series.
Episode Two is most definitely the Empire Strikes Back of this series. In my review of Episode One, I speculated that this might be the case, and it turns out that that theory was right. Be warned that this episode is very dark. It has been known since the release of Episode One that a primary character is killed through the course of events, and that is indeed the case. I'll say no more except that the particular moment is the heaviest blow I've ever experienced in a game. My upcoming post on the use of storytelling will delve a little deeper into this (without spoilers, of course).
I have played through Episode Two twice, and I'm nearly halfway through my third play-through, this time with the always entertaining developer's commentary turned on. As such, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of the game, and so I present to you the following thoughts.
Allow me to first highlight what's new (or changed) in Episode Two:
- Particle System
- One of the first graphical changes you'll notice is the new particle system. This new feature adds some interesting effects, which get used in a number of places. Keep your eye out for the tweaked blood and gore when shooting an enemy (especially the ant-lions).
- Cinematic Physics System
- Used in several places throughout the game, the new cinematic physics system is really great. There are a few really dramatic sequences where large structures crumble quite realistically. You'll find a high-level description of how they implemented this system in the developer commentary, which I found very interesting.
- Dynamic (and Decoupled) Flashlight
- A new lighting system has been implemented, which allows Gordon's flashlight to cast realistic, dynamic shadows in the game world. This small tweak adds a lot of depth to the rendering engine. One oddity is that the flashlight no longer drains the HEV suit's main power source. Instead, the flashlight now has its own dedicated battery. While this is a welcome change (and one that should have been implemented all along), it breaks the continuity in the game's universe. The developer commentary mentions this break in continuity, and their justification for the change is understandable.
- The Hunter, a brand new enemy which we caught a glimpse of in Episode One, is fully introduced in Episode Two. I won't spoil any of their encounters, but allow me to say that these guys are very tough (a welcome change). They play a large part in the last climactic battle, and are a potential source of frustration due to their difficulty.
- Combine Advisors
- We briefly met the Combine Advisors in both Half-Life 2 (where we saw them on several computer screens) and in Episode One (where we see them in strange pods). They are more fully fleshed out in Episode Two and are horrific creatures. As you might expect, they play a pivotal role in the story.
- Enemy Variants
- There are a few variations of enemies that we've seen before. The fast zombies now appear in a new "upper torso-only" form, where they pull themselves along the ground using their arms. Three brand new ant-lion variants are present: ant-lion grubs, an ant-lion worker (which spits a nasty acid ball that causes a surprising amount of damage), and the powerful ant-lion guardian. I also noted that a few of the Combine soldiers have updated uniforms, though they are otherwise identical to the existing soldiers.
- The Magnusson Device
- Gordon doesn't get access to this new device until the very end of the game. I'll only state that it's very handy in taking down those nasty Striders.
- Other Small Changes
- A host of other tweaks can be found scattered through the game. Fire effects have been updated (though I'm not sure they look any better). The quick-info reticle is now enabled by default and cannot be disabled. Subtitles now match up a little better with the actual speech rate. And I'm sure there are others I've forgotten to mention.
So what did I like in Episode Two?
- As I've already stated, the storyline in the Half-Life series is what makes each game so enjoyable, and Episode Two does not disappoint. Some answers to questions raised in Episode One are supplied, but new mysteries are also introduced. The G-Man makes a very formidable appearance which really creeped me out. If there's only one scene that's worth watching though, it's the final one. Never before have I been so moved. This is by far the best running storyline in any game to date.
- Non-Stop Action
- In another similarity to Empire Strikes Back, there is no rest for our heroes in this episode. Tension is held high from the first moment you enter the game all the way through to the powerful ending sequence. This "only one-step-ahead" kind of gameplay is genius, pure and simple.
- The Source engine is still, in my opinion, one of the best looking game engines around. Eye candy has been improved in this release, along with lots of very subtle changes that you're not likely to see at first, though the developer commentary sheds some light on these seemingly hidden items. Although it doesn't run as smoothly as Episode One, the visuals are as good as ever.
- New Locales
- Episode Two takes place in a number of brand new locales, which have never before been seen in previous Half-Life titles. This refreshing change is very welcome, after having spent so much time in City 17. On the whole, these new locales are much more expansive than we have seen in previous titles. However, the new driving levels feel a little claustrophobic when compared to the "Highway 17" chapter of Half-Life 2.
- New Vehicle
- A brand new vehicle is added in this episode, and it's a blast to drive. The controls feel a little too sensitive to me (as compared to the buggy from Half-Life 2), but I really had a fun time driving through the countryside with Alyx riding shotgun.
- Ties to Portal
- Though it's not crystal clear at this point, I'm willing to bet that the events in Portal (which I recently reviewed) will affect what happens in Episode Three. There are some very interesting ties between the two games, as is alluded to in the transmission sent by Judith Mossman. I'm excited to see what will develop here.
- Episode Two includes a number of achievements, just as most XBox 360 games do. This is an interesting concept, and adds a little replayability.
There are a few minor things that I disliked about Episode Two, none of which really impacted my overall impression.
- Relatively Short
- As with Episode One, this outing is a short affair. I completed the game in about six hours, short of the eight to ten that Valve mentioned earlier in the development life-cycle. The fact that I can't get enough of this universe doesn't help matters. Had it been 12 or 15 hours long, I might have still complained. :P
- Surprisingly Easy
- I was a little disappointed with how easy the game felt. That's not to say that there aren't a few difficult moments; being chased by the ant-lion guardian is particularly nerve-wracking, as is the final battle. According to the developer commentary, it sounds like a number of areas and puzzles were simplified due to playtesters being unable to make forward progress. I don't know where they found their playtesters, but they must not play games very often. One piece of commentary mentioned that a particular tester unknowingly walked in a small loop in one level for literally 30 minutes, trying to figure out where to go. That kind of idiocy indicates to me that Valve isn't putting much effort into finding good people to test their products. I'll gladly volunteer for a test position, and I'll do a much better job! :-D
- Flawed Collision Detection
- I'm not sure what changed in this arena, but the collision detection in Episode Two seems much weaker than in Episode One. There are a few places where I saw objects clip through world geometry, breaking the realism. Maybe a future update will fix this.
- Decreased Gravity Gun Accuracy
- The gravity gun doesn't feel as accurate as it was previously. During the course of Episode Two, I often found myself picking up a piece of debris instead of the item my crosshair was pointing at. Again, hopefully an update will correct this.
Wow. Episode Two is by far the best episode in this trilogy. It's going to take Valve a lot of work to surpass the level of excellence they've set here, but if anyone can do it, I know they can. I'm guessing that it will be some time before Episode Three sees the light of day, but I can already assure you that I will be preordering the minute it becomes available. If you haven't picked up Episode Two as a part of The Orange Box, make sure you do so; you will not be disappointed.