By John Walker on October 10th, 2007 at 8:02 am.
A New Day
It’s imperative that you play another first-person shooter immediately after finishing Episode Two. Any – it doesn’t matter. Because you need to remind yourself, after the six or so hours, that games aren’t anywhere near this good. Games aren’t so precise, so damn perfectly laid out. Games don’t hide tutorial and training such that you never notice them. Games aren’t built with such ludicrous care that they never leave you lost or frustrated. But Episode 2 is these things with such an air of nonchalance, such a relaxed ease, that it’s vital to remind yourself it isn’t normal. You’ll need perspective.
It’s like a perfectly constructed sentence. You likely don’t notice a perfectly constructed sentence, just won full off mistakes. Errors and niggles stand out, well written text is absorbed. The great book’s structure sits modestly in place, letting its tale sweep you up and carry you somewhere wonderful. Videogames tend to have a nasty habit of reminding you they’re a videogame. We accept this – it’s part of the deal. When it doesn’t happen, it’s only upon reflection that you realise.
It’s also important to note that games aren’t so dramatic, so continuously affecting, so powerful. Games aren’t this funny, this emotive. They don’t make you laugh this loud, or leave you so punched in the stomach, winded with horror. Episode Two deserves hyperbole. Being the best first-person experience thus far created sort of demands it.
Cutely, things began with a “previously on” (short of those words) recap of the events of Episode 1, from Alyx and Gordon’s trip back to the Citadel, then fleeing through City 17, fighting the final Strider, and leaping on the escaping train. Episode 2 picks up immediately after this, their train arrived… somewhere new. And know now that you know nothing more. You might think you do, having watched the trailer that accompanied the end of Episode 1, but believe me, you don’t. It’s safe to say that those clips can be put aside as an anomaly.
So there’s no intention of robbing you of a moment, of a surprise, here. There’s more than enough to celebrate without listing the game’s events in order. Instead here be allusions, discussions of moments without context, and deliberately vague bubbles of excitement. Yes, Alyx is with you for at least some of the episode – but we’re not going to tell you when, or why. You can trust us.
It’s No Picnic
This is a breath of fresh air. After the claustrophobic streets of City 17, Gordon and Alyx are taking a trip to the country. With the code they stole from the Citadel safely in Alyx’s belt, their only priority is to reach the White Forest, the base of operations for Alyx’s father, Eli, and the rest of the Black Mesa team.
Predominantly set outdoors, surrounded by trees and picturesque vistas, it’s this dramatic change of setting that gives Half-Life’s enemies new power. The sight of Striders, Hunters and Advisors crossing a distant bridge, set against a mountain, is horrific – their terrifying danger contrasted by the apparently comforting surroundings. So it’s perhaps expected that the game’s only weaker portion (and this is relative – it’s still designed with a razor-sharp precision) is the only underground section. Exploring twisting Antlion caves, fighting the familiar insectoid enemy, and their new cousins, a toxic-spewing worker-antlion, feels like traditional FPS territory. Which is, you know, great. But not exceptional. It escalates into something wonderful, but the journey there is a little barren, and features the game’s only instance of the crime of repetition.
Which is to say, it’s a distinct improvement upon Episode One. While Ep 1 was such fantastic fun for the majority of its run, it occasionally slid into padded sequences of performing the same task multiple times. Throwing those orbs around with the uber-gravity gun, multiple trudges through the dark road tunnel, and worst, ferrying those refugees across the same dull route four times, all began well, but felt false with repetition. Besides the Antlion blip, Episode Two never makes this mistake. And that’s because Episode Two is always on the move.
A New Ride
The much vaunted new vehicle is a joy. The sheer size of Episode Two’s landscape demands some wheels, and they couldn’t be better. As the new episode’s lead designer, David Speyrer said to us, “The ‘turbo’ button on Half-Life 2’s buggy was basically the ‘make the car crash’ button.” Not so now in the new ride. Driving it is unlike any other vehicle I’ve encountered in a game. It goes so bloody fast, but I never, ever felt like I was losing control. Even with the ludicrously speedy turbo on, you’ll feel like the greatest race driver there ever was. Goodness knows how it achieves it without giving away how it’s cheating, but surely it must be, to let me hurtle about at this breakneck pace without finishing parked in a tree.
Unlike Half-Life 2’s driving section, you won’t be getting that cynical itch when you’re artificially stopped every half mile to complete another mini challenge. I mean, you will get stopped, but it never feels artificial. Like everything in this game, it demonstrates lessons learned from previous chapters, with the game putting something so damned interesting at the side of the road that you’re compelled to brake and investigate, rather than encounter some enormous barrier blocking the road and forcing you to do so. In fact, during one extended driving sequence, you’ll be very welcome to drive past everything you encounter should you wish (read: be daft enough), rather than explore the territory fully. Better than any FPS before, Episode Two disguises its linearity not by presenting you with false choices, but by making the only path on offer the only path you’d ever want to take. Go back and you’ll realise there is only ever one route. But you still picked it.
With each stop you’ll meet members of the resistance, either helpful and alive, or more awkwardly dead and smeared ominously on the walls, as well as the hordes of enemies determined to prevent progress. Which most of all features the formerly shy Hunter.
Hunting The Hunter
Oh, the Hunters. This is a new level for FPS combat. They are terrifying. Eight feet tall, they’ll at first seem positively cute compared to the building-high Striders, right up until one of them… wait, oh shit no!, three of them attack you. They are fast, like ninjas are fast. Their scuttling movement lets them charge at you, pinning you down and slicing at your face with their vicious blades. At range, they fire a volley of blue darts that stick into the surfaces around you (or indeed in you), pause, and then explode. That moment between firing and detonating is one of utter, blissful fear. Perhaps one spots you hiding behind a cupboard through a broken window. It fires, you realise, and then in blind panic you bolt out of hiding and into the dangerous open, only to find that its buddy was sneaking in through the front door of your supposed safe-house, and frankly, you’re going to die now. Thanks to their remarkable AI, any of these battles can be replayed over and over with different results, their tactics adapting to yours.
Old enemy-friends are of course here too, with familiar lacks-of-faces like the Head Crabs, Zombines and of course, Striders, as well as the Combine army forces. And everything feels different out in the woods. It’s a bit like seeing your teacher in the supermarket – you can’t believe they’re there, they’re actually real, and not confined to this one section of your life. It makes them seem more real, and with that, far more threatening.
And of course, the Advisors. This vast, gelatinous beings have existed on the sidelines so far, and their presence in Episode Two is not to be discussed. But as you’ll have guessed from Episode One’s teasing, they’re important. And they’re very, very frightening. Psychic attacks are only one of the ways they’ll mess with your day, and again, without the confines of the Citadel’s tight corridors, they’re one hell of a lot more ominous.
There’s been an impressive overhaul of the Source engine, not only to adapt it to presenting wide-open outdoor areas, but to give everything a richer vibrancy. The textures are vastly improved, the ground now looking to have substance, rather than like a carefully painted ice rink. The new-look Vortigaunts are fantastic, leathery and surprisingly vicious. It’s all enough to make the forests and open country believable, without obliterating your machine’s processing.
This is once more boosted by the best facial animation you’ll have ever seen, providing a delicacy of emotion that bears comparison with Pixar. As Alyx raises an ironic eyebrow, or Eli frowns in concern, you fall further in love with these people. Combined with stellar voice acting, Episode Two blows away the competition with not only its stunningly designed first-person action, but with its compelling narrative.
Like never before in the series, the story takes a role of such prime importance. Both Half-Life 2 and Episode One have been criticised for asking too many questions, and offering little in the way of substantial answers. We’ve been teased long enough, and this time out, while you’re not going to walk away with a pocket full of knowledge, you’ll definitely feel a sense of satisfaction. Not only from the advancing of the story, but the sheer emotional weight of the events.
Episode Two is funny. It’s funny like Half-Life hasn’t been since the original game, and funnier than anything has been since Psychonauts. While Alyx scored all the wins in Episode One, with her Zombine joke, and that wonderful moment of growling when your torch ran out (oh yes, the torch! It’s been fixed! As Alyx commented last episode, Gordon really needs a better one, and now it lasts for ages, and recharges almost instantly), this time others get to join in with the comedy. Alyx still has some golden lines, but the real belly laughs come from Magnusson, the other scientist from those Black Mesa corridors. He provides a refreshing angle on events, being a cantankerous old bastard who isn’t the least bit impressed by Gordon’s antics. It’s so nice to have at least someone not saying, “Oh Gordon, you’re so magnificent, thank God you’re here! We’d all be dead without you!”
It’s this comedy that allows the contrasting events to be that much more poignant. While before you’ll likely have cared very much about Alyx, you might not have attached the same emotional significance to your endeavours. Escaping the city felt selfish in its motivations, and while you had purpose, it was hard not to perceive it as running away. Now you’re running toward, and you feel vital. The people you’re fighting for are there, in front of you, and rather than acting as their messiah, you are working alongside them, your besuited input invaluable, but dependent upon their support. Without the elated highs (there’s one moment in particular that lets you finally, finally relax for a few moments and enjoy people’s company), the times between wouldn’t carry such impact.
This is a game where characters rest their tired heads on their palms. Where they bend double with exhaustion, or crouch on their knees in troubled thought. It’s a story where people excitedly hug when they meet, or scrunch up their eyes in joyful tears. A cup of tea makes things easier, and difficult decisions only come after a swollen pregnant pause. This emotional honesty creates a depth of reality, giving characters an illusion of corporeal form and tangible complexity. They’re people.
Valve make games in a very particular way, and it’s really time for other developers to start taking notice. Play-testing their development every week throughout the entire process, every tiny element is streamlined in response to how players play. The result is a game that understands you better than you could imagine, predicting your moves such that it can surprise you, play tricks on you, or knock you backward off your feet in shock. It’s a game in which you are constantly riding the crest of a wave, but never crashing cruelly into the sand. There’s a constant momentum, propelling you forward through its stunning narrative such that you’re never once left wandering, wondering where the next door is, or what that button might have done. Your heels are on fire, and there’s a carrot tantalisingly in front of you, as you eagerly make progress. Its pauses are calculated, a puzzling challenge letting you catch your breath after a ferocious chase, but for no longer than you need.
This, despite its relative brevity, is the pinnacle of the linear FPS. It’s the target for all other games to aim toward, until they hit their own glass ceilings. It’s the game you must play now, once through for magnificence, the second time to listen to the commentaries to learn quite the degree to which you were being unknowingly manipulated by its laser-precision design.
It’s the game that hopefully has finished unlocking by the time you’re done reading this, and now you’re ready to play. Enjoy. Because you’re going to.
Don’t forget to see our verdict on box brethren, Portal. And check out our Half-Life 2 Episode Two Screenshot Gallery.
Please note, don’t post any spoilers in the comments thread below. Anything even vaguely spoilery will disappear – there will be plenty of time for discussing it all once everyone’s had a chance to experience it for themselves.