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Half-Life 2: Episode Two

Review by Steerpike
November 2007

Steerpike Is Wise and Prescient

I warned that Valve Software would have to stumble, that its parade of amazingness couldn’t be endlessly self-sustaining. Valve has outdone itself again and again, to the point where gamers expect more than it can possibly deliver. And I’m sorry to report that it’s finally hit the wall. Half-Life 2: Episode Two, this second of three planned modular epilogues to the events of 2004’s Half-Life 2, is a very important installment. It is The Goblet of Fire of the Half-Life story cycle, revealing many crucial points that act as the fulcrum of the narrative. As such, I wish it had been the best so far, but it ain’t.

To be fair, Episode Two is pretty good. Had it come from any other developer or been part of any other franchise, I’d offer more muted complaints. But Valve spent a staggering 18 months producing these three hours, as long as some developers take to build a full game. Their strategy of endless tuning and polishing kept us waiting more than a year longer than we were supposed to. And the result just isn’t up to Valve’s usual standards.

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Bear with me or jump ahead: I’m gonna try and recap the story as briefly and cogently as I can, because the plot is pretty thick by this juncture. It’s also frustratingly opaque; Half-Life’s fiction is a confusing and awkward puree, so I’ll also have to do a little speculation here to fill in gaps.

In 1998, Half-Life introduced us to Gordon Freeman, a physicist employed by the Black Mesa Research Institute, studying teleportation and alternate dimensions for the government. During an experiment, a dimensional rift opened, and strange aliens from a world called Xen came pouring through. The army deployed troops to exterminate the aliens and everyone at Black Mesa, all in the interest of deniability. Gordon had to fight his way through and transfer to Xen to stop the invasion. He then found himself confronted by the G-Man, a mysterious, ostensibly human specter with outlandish powers. The G-Man gave Gordon the say-no-and-die choice of joining ... some sort of organization, involved with something, responsible for ... stuff. Then he put Gordon into stasis to wait for an assignment, and our hero missed the next 15 years.

Turns out the whole thing was a case of mistaken identity. Xen, it seems, was already under occupation by a much more sinister and dangerous alien force called the Combine. When the rift opened, the Vortigaunts of Xen mistook us for the Combine and launched a counterattack. Their confusion was understandable, since Combine aliens are rarely seen, operating from the shadows and relying on quislings, collaborators, and war machines to do their fighting. Once everything was cleared up, we were all friends.

Unfortunately, the rift that opened the path to Xen also ignited a cascade of dimensional tunnels leading straight to—you guessed it—the Combine homeworld. And if the Xen invasion was bad, it was nothing compared to the fury of the Combine’s assault. By the time the G-Man calls Gordon back to service in Half-Life 2, humanity is inches from extinction, survivors packed into eastern European containment cities while the Combine rapes the planet. Gordon’s arrival in one of these pens, the gloomy and decaying City-17, marked a turning point for the human resistance. The movement is led by some of Gordon’s Black Mesa friends: Doctors Eli Vance and Isaac Kleiner, trying to blind the Combine with science; Barney Calhoun, former Black Mesa security guard and Gordon’s drinking buddy; and Alyx Vance, Eli’s daughter, who matured from pigtailed kid to twenty-something mechanic/babe/ninja/gunfighter during Gordon’s time in stasis, conveniently eliminating the age difference between them.

Half-Life 2 dealt with Gordon not being in the right place at the right time and spending two days without food or rest racing from crisis to crisis. There was a betrayal and an insurgence, ample parallels to the Iraq war, lots of bullets, and by the end Gordon managed to cripple the Combine’s teleport network and defeat their puppet government. In Episode One, Gordon and Alyx must escape City-17 before the Combine’s energy source explodes. After a harrowing few hours—during which Gordon still gets nothing to eat, no opportunity to sleep, and no chance to change and shower—they make it to the train station and choo-choo out of there just in the nick, but then, naturally, their train crashes and they’re lost in the wilderness. Thus begins Episode Two.

After this much Half-Life, I realize that the entire structure is based on accidental objectives. It’s never “stop the invasion;” that’s happenstance. Your job is always “we gotta get there before they get there!” or “we gotta get out of here!” or “we gotta get in there!” or “we gotta get across that!” When you think about it, there’s an amusing holy-crap reactionary flavor to the Half-Life series.

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Half-Life 2 being a very allegorical game, it doesn’t take much 'tween-line reading to recognize its statements about autocracy, imperialism, and invasions done right and wrong. Only now, long after Gordon Freeman’s arrival in City-17, does the enemy put in an appearance. The mysterious aliens of the Combine, who sundered Earth’s military in seven hours, who spun a fascist web around the globe, who herded humans into ghettos to rot, who erected energy fields suppressing arousal and preventing pregnancy, who drugged the water to dim memories of the past, who hideously altered and enslaved those that resisted, whose secret police arrested and tortured at will, have until now existed behind the curtain. We didn’t need to see them because they didn’t need to be there; they’re that good at what they do. The Combine overlords planned and directed every speck of the enterprise, from invasion to occupation to extermination, every t crossed, every i dotted, nothing forgotten, nothing missed, every action a perfect symmetry of conquest. The fact is you have to admire the Combine. Their trains run on time.

The most amazing thing about you-as-Gordon is that your often-reactive behavior has left them reeling to this degree. Until now, we were only ever afforded a glimpse of them. That changes in Episode Two, when the masterminds of the invasion, the deadly Combine Advisors, take matters into their own tentacles and personally attempt to crush the human resistance embodied by Gordon Freeman. Their appearance underlines how dangerous Gordon has become, and the price he pays for attracting their attention is very high.

You Are the Awesomest

In Episode Two, the resistance must deploy a satellite that’ll prevent the Advisors from setting up a new teleport network. The Combine has sent everything it’s got against the hidden launch facility; it’s a race against time first to get there and then to put the satellite into orbit before the enemy, mighty even in its disoriented and diminished state, can locate and smash the base. The frantic flavor is definitely there, especially at the end when the Combine unleashes a horde of Striders, their colossal ambulatory weapons platforms, and the only thing standing between them and the launch pad is ... you. Sadly, though, aside from Alyx and Gordon, most characters appear only briefly, and one—Barney, one of my favorites—isn’t there at all.

Alyx is one of the few game characters in whom you develop a true long-term emotional stake, thanks as usual to Broadway star Merle Dandridge’s compelling voice work. Dandridge seems to truly enjoy playing this part and does her job very well, but even she can’t overcome the often rough, shamefully videogame nature of Episode Two’s clumsy and adolescent dialogue.

Look, I get that Gordon is good at stuff and Alyx has a crush on him. Assuming Gordon likes girls, which we can’t know since he doesn’t speak, I’m betting he shares her feelings. Alyx needs to wash her hair, but other than that she’s cool, fun to be around, smart, witty, available, and totally bangin’ hawt. It’s obvious that she cares very much for him. But Episode Two is an embarrassing tirade of “Oh God, Gordon, you’re amazing!” and “That was incredible, Gordon!” and “I couldn’t have done it without you, Gordon!”

Cheerleaderish bullshit is beneath Valve’s writers—who have myriad opportunities to explore a character and go instead for bombastic hero worship that trivializes the implied romance. Dandridge has saved them from themselves in the past, but this time the sad vapidity of the script overwhelms even her skill and enthusiasm. She still gets her moments: a pitch-perfect reaction to the broken hooptie of a car you’re forced to ride in. The flirtiness and dorky humor. The mortified shriek when her dad notes that the Combine’s anti-sex field is down, so she and Gordon had better get busy because he wants grandchildren. Even the heart-stopping gasp of pain when she suffers a terrible injury, when you wonder through a curtain of blood whether maybe Valve was crazy-brave enough to kill this character we’ve come to care so much for.

Valve might consider actually doing something explorative with Alyx. I want her to come into focus: product of an interracial marriage, forced young into a leadership role in humanity’s last desperate struggle; liked by everyone yet obviously lonely; infinitely courageous and genuinely kind but also suspicious, overprotective, and occasionally catty. It’ll be annoying if all of that gets ignored to ratchet the clumsy sexual tension. Sure, the romantic connection is important, but not so much that it should overshadow development of the most relevant, intriguing, and well-played female character in gaming history.

Episode Two quietly reveals plot points integral to the upcoming Episode Three and, beyond that, the final installment of the Half-Life trilogy. It also introduces a new twist: before it was destroyed, Black Mesa had competition in the form of Aperture Science Laboratories, which also appears in Orange Box co-resident Portal. Some old Aperture technology has turned up, technology that’d help against the Combine. Despite the (valid) concerns of some characters regarding its use, Gordon and Alyx will be off to collect it in Episode Three, and the Portal narrative will be integrated into the Half-Life universe.

The episode ends ... adequately, with the much-ballyhooed Death of a Major Character they’ve been talking about for like eight months. I won’t give it away, but if you’ve followed the Half-Life saga this far, simple reductive reasoning will pare the candidate list to two. Of them, only one’s death would have much impact on the other characters. In general, though, the storyline is nothing more than okay. Too many major characters are absent, and too little happens, for this episode to feel right as the revelation it’s obviously supposed to be.

Spit and Polish and Polish and Polish and Polish

Apparently, the Source engine got a significant graphical facelift for Episode Two, but to be honest I don’t really see it. This hardly matters, since Source still looks outstanding and remains competitive after all these years. The human models—Alyx in particular—haven’t stood the test of time quite as well. An Uncanny Valley effect has crept in, which is a little off-putting but not a serious complaint. All in all, the game looks wonderful and returned very high frame rates with maxed visuals, even on my aging PC.

Valve is all about level design, and Episode Two surprisingly fails to shine. The levels are nicely put together, but they lack the humming perfection of Valve’s usual work. While some reviews have complained that Episode Two is “more of the same” (in the sense that it’s not innovative, it just continues the Half-Life style), that’s not what bothers me. I love the Half-Life style. My issue with the levels—particularly the early ones—is that they’re bland and unimaginative. There are also instances where the game’s trademark physics and environmental puzzles don’t function they way they have in the past, leading to frustration when you try solutions that should work, only to have them fail.

A good portion of Episode Two is a driving game, and these later levels are better than the ones you must endure early on. People have a love-or-hate relationship with vehicles in Half-Life, but the driving is pretty well-done here. The fact that you can’t see your own hands while driving or holding objects is an issue; “body awareness” in first-person shooters is soon going to be a requirement if a game’s to be taken seriously. You’re still an armless, legless floating camera in Episode Two, something that’s especially disorienting when you’re behind the wheel.

For all that I have complaints about the design, I did enjoy playing Episode Two. It doesn’t introduce much aside from a new enemy (the bigger-than-a-breadbox-but-smaller-than-a-Strider Hunter drone), but it also doesn’t fix anything that wasn’t broken. The result is an enjoyable few hours I can’t help but feel could have been better.

And Now We Wait

I’m torn on the rating to give Episode Two; our middle-of-the-road score is too harsh for a game that I did have a good time with, but a Thumb Up seems a bit complimentary of something that simply doesn’t live up to its predecessors. Taken as part of the Orange Box, Episode Two becomes much more worthwhile, since you’ll also get the original Half-Life 2 and Episode One, not to mention the incomparable Portal and Team Fortress 2. With that in mind—and also recalling my own remark that it’s unfair to expect the world from Valve every time—I’ll go ahead with a guarded Thumb Up.

Valve, whose support of episodic gameplay sparked the development of the trend, has totally failed to deliver in a timely enough manner to make the model succeed. Realistically, I assume it’ll be Christmas of '08 before Episode Three arrives, by which time the Source engine won’t be able to compete with DirectX 10 codebases and will probably be retired. The actual sequel to Half-Life 2 will not, I suspect, appear until 2011 or later. Remember that six years passed between the original Half-Life and its sequel.

I love Half-Life, and I do so unabashedly. I love the story, nonsensical and clumsy though it is; I love the characters, mute or unexplored though they are; I love the gameplay, which ... well, which, aside from a few hiccups in this episode, is borderline perfect and always has been. So while I’m disappointed this episode doesn’t surpass its predecessors, that’s asking an awful lot. Overall, what you get in Episode Two is worth it, especially considered in the context of the larger whole. For the first time in its history, Valve has produced other than a superlative product. That’s more disorienting than disappointing, as though the sky had suddenly changed color or cats started speaking. I don’t dislike Episode Two. I just wish I liked it more. The End

 

The Verdict

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The Lowdown

Developer: Valve
Publisher: Valve
Release Date: October 2007

Available for: Windows Xbox 360 Playstation 3

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System Requirements

1.7 GHz processor (P4 3 GHz or better recommended)
512 MB RAM (1 GB recommended)
DirectX 8 level graphics card (DirectX 9 level recommended)
Windows Vista/XP/2000
Mouse
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Internet connection

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