RPS Verdict: Half-Life 2 Episode Two

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.

Byebye City 17

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.

This is our stop

Welcome Back

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.

Hey, let's go right.

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.

Shotgun!

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.

Uh. Oh.

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.

Standing this close to them is terrifying

Ooh, Sourcey

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.

Queen of the ironic glance

Emotions

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!”

He's not so pleased to see 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.

Don't recognise this fellow

Climax

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.

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55 Comments »

  1. drunkymonkey says:

    It’s a shame, then, that I don’t have it yet.

    Nice review.

  2. Watcher95 says:

    It’s been out for only a few minutes and people alread whining that they can’t play it. Nice..

  3. Andrew Doull says:

    I’m glad to see for a change a review on a site without a ‘score out of 10′ mechanism.

  4. Watcher95 says:

    From TFA:

    “You likely don’t notice a perfectly constructed sentence, just won full off mistakes. ”

    Irony? I love it!

  5. nukarmer says:

    you guys rock! i love reading what you write you as much as i love playing what you write about. and boy am i happy that SHE’s justified the wait.

  6. Dan says:

    Wow. Extremely well written John. Thanks for brightening up my morning!

  7. Betsy Duncan-Smith says:

    Your WORDS mean nothing to me.

    Where’s the arbitrary and meaningless NUMBER by which games may only be judged? HMMM?

  8. Lh'owon says:

    Beautiful review. Thanks a lot.

  9. fattakin says:

    An excellent review. Gets the interest levels up and you’re right, Valve do make engrossing games that are always giant steps ahead of the competition. Shame i opted for the retail version i have to wait a week. Will half heartedly try and finish bioshock!

  10. Del Boy says:

    Jesus, is that a screenshot at the top?

    Colour me impressed!!

  11. John Walker says:

    Yup – that’s a screenshot. Took it myself : )

  12. Alec Meer says:

    It’s rather more evidently just a big flat bitmap when you see it in person. A big flat pretty bitmap, mind.

  13. Monkfish says:

    Really enjoyed reading the review – not many games can stir one to write with such passion, but pretty much anything Valve has had a hand in always brings it out.

    I’ve spent a quick half-an-hour exploring the game, and just in that short time I can see just how right Valve has got it (again!). The atmosphere of the Half-Life universe really is second to none.

    I’ll be jumping in to play the game properly later on this evening – it deserves my undivided attention…

  14. Betsy Duncan-Smith says:

    It’s rather more evidently just a big flat bitmap when you see it in person. A big flat pretty bitmap, mind.

    Tish and fipsy. Source skyboxes have never been pre-rendered. Those kind of shenanigans went out with ID Tech 3.

  15. Gulag says:

    I have but one question. Will these magnificent games run on the same rig that ran the original HL2 and EP1?

    I’m currently running TF2 without any problems, but obviously the lo-fi texturing and coding for multiplayer might have an effect on what the minimum required specs. Will I get away with the same for the other parts of the Orange Box?

    For the record my rig is a 3 Gig P4, a faithful old ATI Radeon 9800 Pro, and 2 Gigs of DDR 1 Ram.

  16. Ryan says:

    I nearly jumped out of my chair and gave myself a high-five of SHEER JOY reading about the fixed flashlight. Not just that it was an irritatingly artificial game mechanic that made the (otherwise fun and innovative) “Lowlife” chapter far harder than it needed to be toward the end, but also the fact that Valve care enough about their game to follow through on not just a player concern but a throwaway joke from Episode 1. If it gets “repaired” in-game by Kleiner instead of just being a default feature I will be doubly impressed.

  17. John Walker says:

    I’m no expert, and I suggest you check the system specs on Steam, but that sounds like it should work to me.

  18. kebtralqywpy says:

    “Episode Two deserves hyperbole.”

    I haven’t played the game yet, but nothing deserves this level of hyperbole, and I’m a confirmed Half-Life fanatic. After reading this review I felt compelled to have an industrial sized vat of ChapStick delivered to the Valve offices, to relieve the painful hickeys you’ve left on their backsides.

  19. Andrew says:

    Just finished Episode 2. That was brilliant, and by far the best, slickest Half-Life game yet. The finale/ending was epic and affecting. Great all round.

    Now on to Portal. Ooh, yes. Portal.

  20. steve says:

    “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.”

    If every developer had an unlimited budget and an unlimited amount of time for development, perhaps they could learn something from Valve. It’s not like very developer wouldn’t do this if they could.

    Games provide an interesting contrast to other entertainment; most people would never say the above thing about music, for example. That would typically lead to calling it “fussy,” or “over produced” or something else pithy; tossed off and loose are typically a good thing for most recordings.

  21. ndef says:

    Trackback: http://softcore-gamer.com/blog/2007/10/happy-orange-day.html

    “…Maybe more than anything else, this spoiler-free review of Episode Two by John Walker over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun has got me itching to find out what I’ve been missing all these years. Whether or not you’re a Half-Life fan, I’d recommend you check out the article, which heaps all sorts of eloquent praise on the game. John was impressed by its style and polish, among other things. “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.” I’m always impressed by this sort of attention to level design, which is perhaps the keystone to creating an effective narrative experience in a linear game. By definition, linearity limits a player’s ability to make choices, which can severely decrease the player’s sense of agency. Designing a linear game that doesn’t feel linear is an impressive feat, and it allows the game effective use of the entire range of agency-based emotions, from pride to helplessness to regret…”

  22. Cradok says:

    “I haven’t played the game yet, but nothing deserves this level of hyperbole”

    I have, and it does. It really, really does. Valve are genius in every way.

  23. Gulag says:

    My aging machine has not failed me, so I spent (nearly) all of last night immersed in Portal and Ep2. Wow.

    BTW, any advice on placating a very annoyed girlfriend? Not sure what the problem is, something about being ignored…?

  24. John Walker says:

    Involve her. Ask her to play Portal with you.

  25. Jim Rossignol says:

    Get a megaphone and make incoherent noises until she stops speaking.

  26. simonkaye says:

    “What pit would be complete without a free man climbing out of it”… So I suppose that makes Episode 2 the second game (that I know of) to reference Ayn Rand. I think.

    Also, Advisors scare the crap out of me.

  27. just_finished_okami says:

    get yourself a new girlfriend. maybe?

  28. Bobsy says:

    Worst moment: getting to the end and finding there wasn’t a trailer for episode 3. Curses.

  29. schizoslayer says:

    Just finished it and cor.

    I didn’t like Half Life 2 but EP1 was great and this was just… well it’s a work of art.

    Valve put more thought into a four hour episode of a game than most developers put into a 40 hour epic.

    What upsets me though is knowing they might take this long again to followup on that ending.

  30. Peanut says:

    I played through Ep2 and Portal no problems on an XP2500/9600XT/512mb RAM. If it will run on my shitbox, it will run on whatever hardware you’ve got.

  31. simonkaye says:

    Has anybody else run into some of those traditional steam-based stability issues, then?

  32. Ryan says:

    This is astonishingly good so far, but “Our Mutual Friend” is kicking my ass. Why, oh why, oh WHY don’t the rebels put radar beacons on the fucking Magnusson dispensers?

  33. David says:

    Ryan – they do, there should be little magnusson icons on your radar in grey I think. Failing that all the buildings left standing will have dispensers in them.

  34. Ryan says:

    Yup, just went back and checked it out. Turns out I’m other colorblind or actively brain-damaged, but they’re there in light blue.

    The buildings were never much of a problem, but finding the free-standing dispensers scattered around near the base after dropships start ferrying in multiple striders gets really taxing really fast.

  35. Jeremy says:

    “BTW, any advice on placating a very annoyed girlfriend? Not sure what the problem is, something about being ignored…?”

    I asked mine to give Portal a shot. I don’t think she’s hardly ever used a computer before. But she loved it, even says next time she comes round she wants to play again. I might be the one getting neglected soon…

  36. tcolberg says:

    I understand their use of the pre-rendered backdrop seen in the top screenshot, it wouldn’t have been as complex if it were in real 3d. Then again, it has plenty of particle effects and other special effects to still look fantastic, far better than some of the jarring pre-rendered scenes that appear in Halo 3 (which I loved).

  37. Kadayi says:

    If you go to commentary mode then you’ll get an explanation about the backdrop scene. It’s principally there simply to show you what damage you’ve caused the combine through your actions in HL2 and EP1. As your adventures in City 17 are effectively over and certainly for EP2 your not going back there, that it’s an image render rather than a 3D one is fairly insignificant to be brutally honest and merely the delight of old women and nitpickers, whom are never satisfied.

  38. Juror #9 says:

    Well, finally a place i can get a review of a game that doesn’t have a mess of ads and gobbledigook all over the place. Thank you “ROCKPAPERSHOTGUN”. John for the first time at the site and your article on EP2 as a first read i’m completely impressed. Now for the game. Abience, story line, character development and environmental manipulation and immersion. There is so much more to say but i can’t. Valve has once again came through with another monster. As John stated above, this game lets your environment breath enough for the player to catch thier breath but only for the correct amount of time. Any less would chuck you into frustration any more time would make you wonder what’s going on. The most challenging parts: Advisor sequences ( in the hive and out) and the Strider end sequence…Can’t wait to get my hands on those hunter weapon systems.

    Take care eveyone..

    Is there a portal review here yet?

  39. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    Yes.

  40. Carl Vitullo says:

    ALYX DIES PAGE 596

  41. Bhazor says:

    THE G MAN IS YOUR FATHER