Half-Life 2 Episode Two offers relentless action scenes, improved graphics, a great cinematic feel and an engrossing story that intrinsically ties to previous titles in the series.
Half-Life 2 is simply one of the best first-person shooters ever created and arguably, there hasn’t been anything quite like it since its release in 2004. Valve had set the bar so high with that title that a significantly improved sequel was pretty much impossible and even though Episode 1 was a remarkable game, it wasn’t as good as the previous entry in the series. The latest episode in the Half-Life franchise doesn’t necessarily intend to be the best one, but it definitely offers relentless action scenes, improved graphics, a great cinematic feel and an engrossing story that intrinsically ties to previous titles.
Episode Two’s story picks up right where Episode One left off, as Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance escaped City 17 on a train just before the core of the main citadel explodes. After that happens, the massive explosion causes a spiraling portal to appear on top of the destroyed city and it’s Gordon Freeman’s duty to try to reach the base of the resistance, in a placed known as the White Forest, as he has valuable information that may help the scientists to develop a way to close the dangerous portal. The story is simply superb and is masterfully told through various sequences, the first one being a pre-rendered cutscene which summarizes all the important events that have happened during precious episodes, so all those who have played them but can’t remember some important events, will be able to catch up in a few minutes.
The campaign is immensely satisfying, mainly because the game encourages the player to constantly try new things, so once a specific ability, mechanic or weapon has been mastered, something new comes up, changing all the conceptions already established. Additionally, not only is the plot gripping, but also highly emotional and every single event or line of dialogue is charged with deep feelings and emotions. Most of the times, the characters have something meaningful to say that adds to the story or complements the atmosphere quite well. These are not soulless puppets that keep talking but don’t say anything; they react naturally to their environment and to the events that develop around them in authentic and realistic ways. The story is really touching and rarely stagnates, mainly because the way in which it’s told works so well. The game exudes a cinematic feel that is perfectly complemented by the first-person perspective, creating an even more immersive experience. The only elements that break that perfect balance are the few loading points that are scattered at different points in the game, but this is a necessary issue that doesn’t represent a huge problem. Even the breathtaking scripted scenes work extremely well and one of the main reasons why this happens is because the game rarely forces the player to watch them. Most of these sections are tightly scripted and paced, but the player is given the freedom to either admire them or turn around and do something else if he or she wants to.
Moreover, the invigorating action starts gaining momentum since the introductory scene at the very beginning and keeps building intensity until it reaches unexpected levels of emotional poignancy towards the end. The climax is superb, but sadly the game ends in yet another inconclusive cliffhanger precisely placed there so as to leave us wanting for more. But apart from the engaging story, Episode Two includes a few innovations that add even more variety and one of the best ones is the possibility of driving a car. The old Ford Charger is a blast to drive and not only is it helpful to get you places that are far from you, but also as a valuable strategy to avoid certain enemies or to defeat some bosses. Furthermore and apart from the useful gravity gun, the game introduces a new weapon to the already varied arsenal: the Magnusson Device. This new weapon is also exciting to use and adds another layer of strategy to certain fights and I’m pretty sure that it’ll be featured more prominently in the inevitable follow-up, as in Episode Two is only used almost at the end.
Overall, there are a few reasons why Episode Two feels a little bit better than Episode One: the former features little to no backtracking at all so almost never is the player required to go back to previously visited places. This effectively removes tedium as you are constantly discovering new environments. Also, Episode Two goes back to the formula which encouraged players to solve multiple physics-based puzzles, something that worked very well in Half-Life 2. In addition, all the elements that made previous games in the series so good were left untouched, including turret sequences, great AI characters, incomparable level design, new enemies and refreshingly unique environments like lush forests, underground passages or gloomy caves.
Episode Two looks amazing as the graphics engine has been improved dramatically. Some might say that at this point the Source engine may be a little antiquated and is showing its age, but the game definitely looks good even after so long. Facial expressions still stand out as one of the engine’s best features and the characters convey emotions through the use of this technology, making them lifelike, realistic and adding a new layer of authenticity. Voice acting is also fantastic as the same cast is present and the dialogue is extremely well written. In terms of length, the game is about six hours long but the fact that it incorporates achievements makes it highly replayable as it’s quite difficult to get all of them on the first playthrough.
In the end, Half-Life 2 Episode 2 is a great game. It adds new elements that complement extremely well with all the others that were present in previous entries in the series. The plot is emotionally gripping, the campaign is immensely satisfying, the relentless action keeps the story flowing, making sure that it never stagnates, the feeling and emotions of most secondary characters are explored more deeply, backtracking has been pretty much eradicated and new weapons and vehicles have been added. There are some minor flaws though, including this episode’s short length and the fact that it leaves so many vital questions unanswered. Still, no fan of the series should miss the game.