Half Life 2: Episode Two begins right where Episode 1 left off. The Citadel has come crashing to the ground, City 17 is in ruins, and your train out of dodge has derailed. You awake to find Alyx outside, thankful you’re alive. She helps you out using the Gravity Gun, and thus begins your mission.
Host to a data card that the Combine desperately wants and needs, Alyx and Gordon must rush to White Forest, the resistance’s new base in the wake of City 17’s destruction. The game follows Gordon and Alyx as they make their way across the countryside that surrounds City 17 and to White Forest, where Doctor’s Vance, Kleiner, and Magnusson are waiting for their arrival with the data, which is needed to launch a missile that will close the Combine portal, leaving the Combine trapped on earth without reinforcements.
The story is fantastic. The characters are well known by now, as is the struggle, and never does that struggle seem more important than in the final hours of the game, when the portal can be seen looming in the dark sky and striders are flooding the forest towards the resistance base and the missile silos.
The story is excellent, but, the journey to get to White Forest begins a little too slowly. After leaving the train we are treated to a stunning view of City 17 and the outdoor environment of Episode 2. However, the game quickly leads you underground, into Antlion nests where you feel confined and frankly, a bit bored. Antlions just aren’t fun. And tight spaces aren’t a whole lot of fun either when there beckons an entire world of forest and mountains above.
Nonetheless, Episode 2 throws you into the outdoors after about an hour and a half of crawling in Antlion tunnels, and you rarely venture back in. The huge difference in this game is the size of the environment. You are surrounded by wilderness, small towns, farmhouses and lone radio towers. There are rivers and stunning mountains rising in the distance. It’s liberating and it creates a feeling that the Half Life world is truly real. While playing, I was left with a very certain impression that the world had been abandoned with the Combine invasion fifteen years earlier. Everything was falling apart, buildings left to rot, and it was overwhelmingly awe-inspiring to see the world as a place where humans had been shepherded into ghettos and where the Combine used the earth as a mine, taking natural resources over time.
One of the main questions surrounding the game was the introduction of a new enemy: the hunter, which is a difficult foe in the different gaming environment. Episode 2, however, also introduces three more enemies as well: an acid-spitting Antlion, an Antlion guardian, and the Combine Advisor. While serviceable enemies, the Hunter steals the show. A vicious, fast-moving, and deadly adversary that stands about eight feet tall; the Hunter seems to travel in packs and it shoots electrical bolts that stick to surfaces and explode, zapping health and energy. It is a welcome addition the Half Life story, and I expect that we’ll see more of it in Episode 3.
The lighting and other graphical qualities are fantastic, and even though better graphics can be found across current-gen consoles, Valve enlisted such incredible art direction that the Source Engine’s age is barely showing. The environments look wonderful, the spaces feel appropriately vast, and the character models still look amazingly realistic. They display emotions on a level I’ve never seen before in a game, and I still don’t think any graphical engines model human characters so well.
Sound use is excellent in Episode 2. The music kicks in at the right moments and serves to inspire fear, excitement, or manic abandon. The weapons sound appropriately tuned, and the voice acting is fantastic as usual. And of course, the screaming of headcrab zombies is utterly terrifying and spine-tingle inducing.
There was some criticism of the length of Episode 1, and that has been rectified in Episode 2. Episode 2 offers a range of diversity that is unrivaled in gaming and is quite long. From the driving segments to the use of the Gravity Gun, to physics puzzles to shotgun diplomacy to huge battles from underground lairs to shaking valleys full of striders, Episode 2 is amazing. It is roughly six hours long, and it is well worth the journey (and the price).
Episode 2 isn’t perfect. Though the opening sections of the game make the eventual arrival in the forest seem incredibly liberating, they are a bit of a slog and they make it tough to begin the adventure. And though the story is enthralling, I still want to know more about the G Man and the seven hour war. Looking beyond those minor faults, Episode 2 is at least every bit as strong a Half Life experience as the game’s that came before it and has me excited for the final episode. No other game offers such a diverse, fantastic, and entertaining variety of puzzles, strategy, excitement, and story. Episode 2 is well worth adding to your game collection.
Final Score: 93%
+ Great gameplay – Opening section of game is a bit slow
+ Wonderful art direction – Story could still use some insight
+ Pulse poundingly exciting