Oct 9, 2007
It's surreal that Valve are still churning out more Half-Life 2, three years on. As beautifully crafted as Episode One was, it did tread on a lot of its parent's toes. Episode Two certainly doesn't do that. It turbos away from them at 90 miles an hour in a customised Dodge Charger, with Alyx riding shotgun.
We won't spoil any details, but Ep2 is what happens after you and Alyx break free of City 17 once and for all. The setting for most of your previous adventures is nothing more than a smouldering scar on Episode Two's skyline and the Citadel looks like a long-finished game of girder-Jenga. Because of that, and because you spend a lot of time driving a car that could have swerved straight off the set of a post-apocalyptic Dukes of Hazzard, Ep2 feels wild, dangerous and cool.
Your time - a little under five hours - is diced into refreshingly different sections. Valve still do pacing better than anyone. They break fights with puzzles, driving with combat, solitude with friendly faces and claustrophobic tunnel-running with epic, sweeping vistas of naturalistic landscape.
Towering conifers bristle gently in the breeze, casting soft shadows across winding mountain paths. Each toothy vortigaunt's big peering eye glints glassily, a perfect ruby sunk into finely wrinkled brown skin. Even the shotgun is newly beautiful, gleaming ominously in the sun with a convincingly weighty gunmetal sheen. We get to see the pine-covered rocky land of this nameless nation, and it conforms to no established game-environment stereotype. It resembles only the real world - some proud, cold country we feel sure we've been to - and it has that authentic real-world grubbiness that only Valve have figured out how to recreate.
The combat explodes across this soothing canvas with a brilliantly messy splat. Something clever involving particle physics has allowed Valve to make thick black blood, lurid yellow goo and something a lot like vomit spray repulsively from your victims with every cracking impact. The new poisonous Worker Antlions burst like bioluminescent bombs; injured Hunters drool a sticky slurry of their own innards from where their mouth should be; and when the vortigaunts fight... Jesus God. The trailers released last year showed nothing of this - some consolation for those of us who spoiled big chunks of the game for ourselves by watching them.
The three-legged Hunter creatures are the highlight of the fighting: Velociraptors to the Strider's T-Rex. They're the perfect size for Gordon-killing: compact enough to chase you indoors but hefty enough to take the shotgun blast that awaits them there. More importantly, they're bright enough to do so when you least expect it. Valve have trained them to deduce where you're heading and get there first by a different route, and the effect is alarming.
The sense of threat is a prevailing and escalating theme of Episode Two, and it extends to the plot. You and your friends are trapped, maimed and violated in ways that are distressing on a really visceral level, and it's properly gruesome to watch. The blood-soaked tone gives the story a force that makes it the darkest and most exhilarating chapter yet. It's Half-Life's Empire Strikes Back - and it even has a less snowy analogue to the Battle of Hoth.
Episode Two is, needless to say, so polished that it hurts to look directly at it in sunlight - so our only criticisms are pretty feeble. The first is that it's slightly too easy, right to the end. We wouldn't mind if Hard mode only increased the damage you took. But it also reduces the damage you deal, and that renders almost all the game's weapons meek and unsatisfying. Speaking of which, we still haven't had a single new gun since the end of Half-Life 2. That game never went nine hours without introducing several new weapons, so where are our shiny new deathsticks? The armament is the only part of the Half-Life formula that's starting to go stale.
Episode One seems dismally small and boring by comparison, however much we loved it at the time. But the one edge it does retain over the second is Alyx: she's not quite as charming here. There are a few really wonderful character moments with her, and one superb performance from actress Merle Dandridge, but nothing quite as heart-meltingly cute as Episode One's Zombine joke. To be fair, that's only because the grim plot mostly keeps her in her less convincing emotional states.
Half-Life 2's critics groan about its linearity, and its fans groan about how long it is between episodes. But the series shrugs off both complaints when you start seeing it for what it is: a series of playable movies. Better than anyone, Valve make cinema that you're a part of - and they do it at about the same rate Warner Bros churn out new Harry Potter films.
We know some gamers love a sandbox but it always baffles us when that love seems to preclude the enjoyment of anything else. Do these people storm out of cinemas when they realise their popcorn munching isn't controlling the actors? Are there really people who can't enjoy a gorgeous, hurtling ride like this? We cannot wait for Episode three.