Half-Life 2: Episode Two
Just when I honestly thought that Valve couldn’t do anything more to enhance the Half-Life universe, they go in and add Garden Gnomes, just to show that they have a sense of humor in addition to their immense talent at creating compelling, entertaining video games.
Let me elaborate. In one of the first areas in Episode Two, when you awaken from the giant explosion that closed the first chapter in this episodic trilogy, you encounter a Garden Gnome. This tiny statue can be flung at your enemies and used as a lethal projectile in your never-ending quest to defeat the Combine and free humanity, but he is also a great representative of the new achievements system that Valve has added into the game. Should you take the effort to carry this little guy throughout the game, you unlock an achievement and you’ll be left with a warm, fuzzy feeling in your heart and an accomplishment few will bother to complete.
Carrying the Gnome through the game is completely optional and you’ll still have an excellent time with Episode Two if you completely choose to ignore this diminutive addition. Episode Two continues the story of Gordon Freeman, Alex Vance, and their efforts to destroy the Combine that have enslaved humanity. And, seemingly as always, Valve has once again delivered an amazing adventure that will keep players on edge until its lack of conclusion.
Valve has done an amazing job with making Episode Two feel unique and fresh. As the third Half-Life 2 adventure, Valve ran the risk of running the game into the ground, but a few fresh additions have really made the game feel substantially different. The first major improvement is the achievements, perhaps a left-over from the simultaneous release of the Orange Box on both the PC and the Xbox 360. For whatever reason it was included, it’s a great addition. There are dozens of addictive achievements to complete, from the previously mentioned Garden Gnome achievement to the more typical, such as killing a certain number of enemies with projectiles hurled from the Gravity Gun.
The second major addition, and perhaps the most substantial, is the outdoor environments. While most of the previous Half-Life adventures have been spent crawling through cramped corridors, mine shafts, caves, and crowded city streets, you’ll spend most of your time in Episode Two wandering through the fields and forests surrounding City 17. This shift definitely adds a new dimension to the gameplay. The whole world literally feels at your fingertips and the panoramic view of the destroyed City 17 in the distance really relays the gravity of the situation to you as you play. When playing previous Half-Life adventures, it was easy to just look at the world as just being Black Mesa or just encompassing City 17. It also allows you to appreciate the world that exists beyond City 17.
Beyond the aesthetics, the outdoors environment allows for some really open battles. While I don’t want to spoil anything, I will say that the final battle in this game is one of the best, most challenging fights I’ve ever experienced. Shortly after Gordon arrives at a rebel base, the Combine launch an offensive against his location and send nearly a dozen Striders in to destroy the base. As if 30 foot tall robots weren’t enough, you also need to contend with about 20 Hunters, which are smaller, more agile robots that are protecting the Striders. Naturally, these robots have unlimited ammunition and nearly impenetrable armor. Oh, and did I mention that this battle takes place over a sprawling battlefield and you need to drive from one corner to the next and then back again to stop the assault? I’ve been playing video games for a long, long time, and only a few games have ever managed to make me feel desperation or a sense of urgency while I played. This particular scene stands as one of those moments, and maybe one of the best examples I could ever come up with.
It’s stuff like this that shows why Valve is such a premier developer. Not only do they have a sense of humor, but they take the game very seriously, too and crafted a nearly perfect second adventure. Expansion packs generally aren’t up the same caliber as the original, but Episode Two breaks that unwritten rule into a million pieces. Everything has been improved upon and the few complaints I had with Episode One seem to have been dealt with. Not only has the length of the game been extended to about 6 hours your first time through (which is as good as the recently released Call of Duty 4), but the graphics engine has also been enhanced and looks absolutely fantastic, despite being several years old. Even the music has been improved upon, with many of the many battles being accompanied by intense rock music, which really adds to the experience.
I do have some issues with the game, don’t get me wrong. I think it is bad business to make PC players re-buy the original Half-Life 2 and Episode One as part of the Orange Box package instead of allowing them to simply buy Episode Two, as they should be able to. And the delay between Episodes One and Two was far too long. But after playing the finished product and greatly enjoying it, I can’t really complain. The game is just too good to be angry about these problems. Episode Two is an absolute must-purchase for any FPS fan. It’s an amazing experience from beginning to end. I truly cannot think of a way to improve this game.