Half-Life 2: Episode Two Review
Pentium M 2GHz CPU
2GB DDR2 RAM
GeForce Go 7800GTX
DX8 Video Card
A gamer with an irrational feeling of entitlement might find it easy to rag on Half-Life 2 Episode Two. They might start off by complaining that it took two years for Valve Software to put together five hours of gameplay with a bunch of characters and gameplay ideas they recycled from previous games. Others would complain that it's been almost three years since Half-Life 2 has been released and that this game, which amounts to a stand-alone expansion pack, hasn't changed with the times. Still others would look at Episode Two's $30 price tag separately - not as part of the $50 Orange Box package that Valve Software really wants you to buy this game in - and sum up their complaint by saying that it's too little, too late, and at too high a price.
Sure, you could look at it all these ways, but if you step back a little and consider that the Orange Box is innovation in gaming on a rather new level, one that includes three separate, excellent games that start out similar but all play quite bit differently, I think you'll find that there's a ton of fun and originality in the whole package. That being said, I'm going to assume that if this review compels you to buy Half-Life 2 Episode Two, that you're buying it in the Orange Box along with the other games it includes.
So let's get onto the game. Episode Two picks up minutes after the previous game left off; Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance are traveling out of City 17, escaping their alien oppressors called the Combine, and still admiring their handiwork in blowing up the top half of the Combine's headquarters, the Citadel. Alyx has intercepted some kind of strange data transmission from the enemy forces and it's not long before she realizes that this data could be the key to saving the human race (again). You play as the voiceless Gordon Freeman in an attempt to get this data to the right places and try to save Earth from further doom. While you'll spend most of the game with Alyx, there are a few twists here and there and maybe a different companion or two. Either way, you're rarely alone in your adventures on the way from City 17 to the human base called White Forest.
Episode Two starts you off easy with some decent storytelling and a re-introduction to the important characters since the previous episode. You'll start off with your signature weapon, the Gravity Gun, a device that lets you grab, move, and throw objects at high speeds. Before you get too far, though, you'll quickly be reunited with the many great weapons of Half-Life 2, and after a rather frustratingly long section in an Eastern European mine against zombies and a few variants of the Antlion and Headcrab aliens, you'll start to really get into the good stuff that made Valve's classic FPS franchise so great. With a good mix of gunplay, light puzzles, and new but somewhat familiar cinematic moments, you'll feel right at home with Episode Two.
Maybe you'll feel a little too familiar with everything, and you can't help but wonder if Half-Life 3 could have been halfway done instead of these two expansions that seem to have taken Valve, in total, three years to make. And maybe they are quietly working on the true sequel, but there's really not much point dwelling on that. It's better to ignore what could have been, or what still might be, and just sit down and enjoy Episode Two for what it is: a very solid first-person game with some moments of great humor and emotion amongst some frantic action, bits of horror, and an excellent, mysterious sci-fi storyline.
It's not all old hat, though, as there are new enemies, a new explosive weapon, and a sweet new ride you'll get to use for a chunk of the game. Well, it's sweet if you like the idea of dredging up skeleton of a muscle car out of a junkyard and getting the old baby running again - this thing's got half a body on it and the engine is exposed, so don't expect too much. What you will like, however, is the sound of this thing. Few games outside of the racing genre are able to get this right, but with the engine sitting out in the open just a few feet in front of you, you'll find that this thing is loud and proud. It fits in perfectly with the Half-Life world too, where the humans still left alive are only just scraping by with the bare essentials, always under the threat of a massive assault by the Combine, the walking dead, or the Antlions.
And that's where Episode Two is probably at its best, as a slightly different look at a post-apocalyptic world where the oppressors are still here, down but not out, and humanity is clinging on to the last strands of survival. It comes through in the excellent voice acting, much of which really does poke fun at Freeman's situation and the staples of the Half-Life series like simple physics puzzles and that magical ability to make it through any situation, no matter how ridiculous. It was only after the game poked fun at itself a few times that I was able to loosen up and enjoy Episode Two much more; of course, getting out of those damnable mines and out into the fresh air for more than two minutes really helped, too.
From a graphics perspective, it seems like Valve has tweaked their lighting and shadow system to be more realistic without just blinding you every time you go from the dark to the light and vice versa. It's more subtle, yet more artistic, and does more than just go nearly pitch black or shine a super-bright light into your eyes. New special effects are in here, too, although the game only uses them sparingly and at the right moments. Finally, some great characters, including the G-Man, Eli Vance, and Dr. Kleiner (and more!) all return in excellent form, seemingly as human-like as ever. The downside is that the minimum requirements have increased somewhat with this episode, but most gamers still won't have too much of a problem with them - they're far more forgiving than many first-person PC games in the last year.
On its own, Episode Two might not seem like much for its price tag, but as part of the Orange Box package, it becomes an excellent value that's packaged alongside two very different first-person games. Everything in here is top-notch, and while I have a hard time agreeing with the notion that Episode Two is really that innovative or new, the games it comes packaged with in the Orange Boxmost certainly are. Play this one once or twice to enjoy another solid Valve single-player experience, then move on to Portal and Team Fortress 2 to find the real depth.