RPS Advent Game-o-Calendar: December 16th

I have to be honest: I nearly forgot to open today’s window on the RPS-approved Fairtrade advent calendar. Thank f*** Alec reminded me.

Um…

There is no window sixteen. What the hell? Kieron!

It’s okay, we’re professionals… And, yeah. Anyway. Let’s travel through the electronic cardboard portal, and into a fresh kind of Wonderland…

And while you’re reading this, remember that *I* should be eating Chocolate. Om nom Nom NOM? :(

It’s Half-Life 2: Episode Two!

Episode Two will, I think, take up a position of a kind of lost game in the Half-Life cycle. It has some tremendous highs and lows, but, while we were thrilled by Half-Life 2, and intrigued by Episode One, we’re all now gunning for a violent crescendo in Episode 3. Two… well, it’s something of an orphan.

I suppose the crucial thing about this is it’s about travel – not just physical A to B stuff, but in about filling in a sequence of story where things are moving, changing. No more City 17, a much wider world beyond the remit of the first game. Things are opening up, while at the same time staying tightly enclosed within the Half-Life 2 system.

Also it’s a grim a second act where, well, there’s a couple of scares. Valve have been trying to push what they’ve previously achieved with the work on Alyx and the other NPCs. It’s trying to play on our feelings towards them as virtual people: to see how much we can react to things happening to /them/. The opening Alyx sequence was, for me, the less convincing of the two character-driven heart-renders. It was outweighed enormously in emotional mass by that final scene, and overshadowed by the entirely ant-lion sequence. The tunnel section was by turns bewildering and annoying. I found myself losing the thread of the action and one point, and feeling quite unimpressed. I know others shared my feeling that the opening hour of Episode Two really wasn’t up to the same speed as the rest of the game, and I can’t help feeling that even the epic defence against ant-lion hordes wasn’t nearly frenzied enough.

Where the game really opened up was with the car. I could have played this sequence forever: the fight at the transmitter was so pitch-perfect, so tense and vicious that it pretty much confirmed that the game was on track to be another Valve masterpiece. If anything, the driving sequence was too short. I was only just getting into the sheer speed of the vehicle, and its capacity for violence. Alyx’s interaction with it was masterful, too. Hop aboard, lovely lady – I gotta run some dudes right over…

What seems to have divided most people, however, was the final battle. I loved it. It gave me the kind of death-physics explodo-playground that made the best fights in the original game so focused and compelling. It demanded my attention, and I found myself clawing back from the brink of disaster on more than one occasion. And when I did manage to run over a dodging Hunter with the car, well, that was just joy on toast.

Episode Two wasn’t by any stretch my favourite shooter of the year, but it, and Portal, seemed to be two faces of one distinct message: short, intense games really do work. We don’t need a forty hour epic, we need a digestible, comprehensible taste of what videogames are capable of. If one of these was to turn up every year, gradually giving me more this world, and this story, I know I’d buy it every time.

Of course it could all be coming to an end withing a couple of years: Episode Three lies just beyond the horizon. Episode Two’s tantalising talk of an Arctic-bound ship (and the same corporation that is found in Portal) just gives us more reason to expect a final, epic climax. Going through the episode a second time reveals more and more. It’s packed with the thing that makes Valve games so rich: detail.

And – if you’re in the mood for details – how’s about this for something we didn’t all notice first time around.

EDIT: BETTER LATE THAN NEVER!

42 Comments

  1. Janek says:

    I think it’s in one of the wise men’s arse.

  2. Janek says:

    (Or shepherds or whatever the fuck they are. Basically the makers of the calendar have issues and we need an edit function)

  3. Dracko says:

    It’s amazing, isn’t it? Half-Life²: Episode Two is the worst game Valve have ever made, and it’s still absolutely brilliant.

    My bet is still on Gordon ending up in stasis again after Episode Three, while we wait for the third (fourth?) game, where we’ll doubtless be propelled if not some time in the future, in some place completely different. I mean, there’s no way you can get rid of the Combine with just one last episode to go, unless Valve become every other convoluted, piss-pants developer ever.

  4. Pidesco says:

    Half Life games have never been brilliant. Competent, yes, but not brilliant. Railroaded run of the mill FPS, and average AI is not brilliant.

    The Source engine is great, though.

  5. Dracko says:

    Now you’re just being silly.

  6. Harbour Master says:

    ‘Sfunny, I actually Ep 2 better than Ep1. Although playing through a second time, the antlion segment stood out as fairly routine stuff – couldn’t wait to get back outside.

    Superb final battle, but the emotional climax didn’t quite work for me (I felt I was expecting it for some reason). But lots of atmospheric moments stand out – the encounter at the barn, the first real punch-up with hunters, the opening vista of City 17, the ambush where you keep thinking “how the hell are we going to make it out of this” and the unexpected intervention of a certain mystery man at an inopportune time, despite it harkening back to a time where cutscenes cut game flow.

    And on that: losing control at several key points was a superb about-face for Valve here – considering you have complete control during the rest of the experience, it made me feel powerless, precisely the emotional response that was intended.

  7. Matthew Gallant says:

    I think the “Half Life 3” in the ~7th paragraph is a typo, unless you’re secretly time travellers!

  8. grey_painter says:

    while we were thrilled by Half-Life 3, and intrigued by Episode One

    Damn journos getting all the games well in advance…

  9. johnny cuts says:

    “I know I’ve buy it every time.”

    Methinks Jim has been at the Christmas sherry again.

  10. Mickiscoole says:

    Ep 2 was my favourite game of the Orange box and therefore my favourite game of the year.
    Episode 2 eclipsed Episode 1 in so many ways, I mean that the only story relevation was the vortigaunts, and that was within the first 5 seconds.
    And I just cringe when trying to drive the buggy during Half Life 2.
    The antlion caves were the low point of the game, however low point is relative. It was freaking amazing. Just not as freaking amazing as White forrest inn, or the final battle.

  11. Sir Elderberry says:

    First comment, woot.

    SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS

    Anyway, Ep2 was great. Ep1 disappointed me because of the lack of story. It was like “Ok, so the vorts saved you and the Gman’s mad. Now get out of City 17” and that was really it. Ep2 on the other hand, I felt like I was getting something done. The final battle was amazing and unlike anything else in Half-life so far. Even the antlion caves were interesting, because I liked the background of how antlions lived on Earth. They were a low point, and they were still great. The final scene was just..wrenching, really, with Alyx sobbing and the black screen. Sheer brilliance. It’s an equal of the original HL2 in quality imo.

  12. Dr Snofeld says:

    First comment, woot.

    Ahaha, aha, ha.

  13. Cyberpope says:

    one thing a friend pointed out that bugs me now hes said it. In HL2 eli and Mossman are in Dr Breens office up on high. Then the tower explodes and the credits roll. Episode 1 fires up and suddenly eli is miles away and Mossman is up in the chilly north looking for secret things. How friggin long does it take for a citadel to explode!

  14. Monkfish says:

    If anything, I think Episode One will be the lost game of the Half-Life series. Seeing as Episode One had the unfortunate task of bridging the gap between City 17 and Everywhere Else, it was always going to be hard work to keep the excitement up. It did it very well, but Episode Two eclipses its older brother quite convincingly.

    The G-Man made more of an effort to show his face in Episode Two (and I’m not just talking about the cut-sceney bit), the Vortigaunts also up their game, playing their biggest role since the original Half-Life, and to top it all we get a real idea just how powerful the Combine Advisors are.

    And there’s more. We get to meet Griggs and Stockley, encounter Hunters with their sticky-explody fleschettes, have Eli express his gratitude, get told off about spoiling a microwave casserole 10 years previous, and take the opportunity to transport that bloody gnome into space.

    Then, after all that, there’s an epic battle followed by some of the finest non-cutscene storytelling yet seen in a first person shooter. Definitely not run of the mill, by any stretch of the imagination.

    For me, this, along with Portal and TF2, made October 10th 2007 almost as special as November 16th 2004. Almost.

  15. ohnoabear says:

    I liked Episode 2 rather more than Episode 1, actually. Episode 1 felt like nothing more than a few extra levels from the original thrown together. Episode 2 opened up the environments more, added a few new kinds of encounters, made the car fun to drive and had more narrative per capita than anything in the Half-Life series to date. Yeah, the antlion caves were kind of irritating, but Episode 1 had the elevator battle, which annoyed me even more. I remember reading that they toned it down in a later patch, but the original version was just a pain.

  16. po says:

    And that annoying section in winding tunnels being chased by an antlion guard? You can skip it completely. I didn’t even know about it until my 3rd run through the game. When you get to the jammed fan on the way into that area, don’t smash it and go down the tunnel, just fall down the mine shaft. I thought I’d bought it the first time with that huge drop, but I survived it the 2 times I did it.

  17. malkav11 says:

    The antlion guard pretty much killed any desire I had to return to this. I’ve tried a couple of times, but….eh. I know there’s better stuff past it…it’s not actually *hard*, just confusing, but…so much more interesting stuff to play.

  18. dhex says:

    i found the antlion guard hidey-poo segment pretty easy, really. perhaps i got lucky with my choice of hiding places the first time through?

  19. Turin Turambar says:

    I always thought HL2 was overhyped, good game but not a masterpiece. But both Ep 1 and 2 improves the style of game which began HL2.

  20. Jim Rossignol says:

    Sorry about the typos, I was feeling tired and emotional.

  21. Mike says:

    Didn’t the end section feel a bit like a strange arcade game, Jim? Poor handling, invisible time limit, and strangely artificial open spaces?

  22. Jim Rossignol says:

    I don’t think the time limit was invisible: the walkers were coming in, you had to stop them. Arguably all the ‘arena’ battles in FPS games are strangely artificial, and I think you enjoy them or you don’t. I enjoyed that one.

  23. Ben Hazell says:

    I never had too much problem with the ant-lion guard, and I enjoyed the sense of panic on the run. Just annoyed I couldn’t get all the grubs.
    And I vastly prefered Ep 2 to Ep 1. I played them back to back last month and maybe that changed the experience, but Ep 2 felt far more varied and dramatic. And they really needed to open the action up, I think they’ve started to reach limits with the corridor shooter.

  24. Ben Hazell says:

    Oh, and another tiny question. Does anybody else find the spread of fire on the sub-machinegun irritating. It just seems to spray rounds. Maybe it’s a balance issue, but I wish the player had more control over the spread, the ability to burst fire and a degree of first round precision. I don’t mind it being inaccurate, but I’d rather I had the slim chance to control it, a skill element to firing.

  25. Tom says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the ant lion caves. it was all so beautifully rendered and i never got lost. Ep2 was fantastic all round imo. I think we’ll be seeing Gordan F for many, many more years to come, but i suspect we’ll be seeing the last of the current crop of NPCs in Ep3. Gordon will probably be shunted off to another set of a characters for HL3 or 4 or whatever, so as players we’ll see the whole combine war from a new angle with a new bunch of people etc…
    In the very final Half Life game ever all the groups of NPC’s you’ve had dealings with over the course of the combine war could all come together for the final, epic battle for earth, played out on a huge scale. by the time we get to that game the technology will probably enable this kinda scene… fingers crossed anyways. Citedels blowing up, falling to the earth and disintegrating in slow mo miles away in the back ground, attack copters strafing across the battle field, tanks and other vehicles, thousands of soldiers swarming towards an equally large human force, and right at the front, Portal/Grav gun at the ready… Gordan Freeman.

  26. I_still_love_Okami says:

    @Tom: Half Life3: Finish the Fight!

    Now, where have I heard this before?

  27. Qjuad says:

    Ep2 is definetly my favourite HL game thus far. All muscle, no fat – though if I see another Antlion again I will be a sad panda.

  28. Nuyan says:

    I think it’s my favorite linear first person shooter. I didn’t get bored a single second while playing it and I can’t say that of many shooters.

  29. The_B says:

    So where did the window go? I know, I’m being anal, but it looks weird without it. Plus I think Jim deserves an ON NOM NOM NOM :(

    On a more on topic note, I really liked Episode Two and Episode One, but for entirely different reasons. And I think those that were criticisng the way exposition is done in HL2 probably need to play Ep2 to really understand a lot of the reasons why people like the HL2 story.

  30. Garth says:

    “I always thought HL2 was overhyped, good game but not a masterpiece. But both Ep 1 and 2 improves the style of game which began HL2.”

    This pretty much sums up how I feel.

    I agree with the ant-lion sentiment, and underline/highlight/embolden the request for less rails, more open.

  31. Garth says:

    Dunno how I missed this, but:
    “On a more on topic note, I really liked Episode Two and Episode One, but for entirely different reasons. And I think those that were criticisng the way exposition is done in HL2 probably need to play Ep2 to really understand a lot of the reasons why people like the HL2 story.”

    I’ll skip over the obvious ‘if it took them two expansions to make the story enjoyable…’ argument and just point out that the criticism is generally that it’s good, but not great. And I think that is the perfect description of the Half-Life story.

  32. The_B says:

    I don’t think it’s a case of them taking two episodes to make the story enjoyable, but I think Ep2 makes it a bit more obvious and in your face than the previous two.

  33. Tom says:

    people often talk exposition a lot more with half life than other games, which in itself is a good thing I’m thinking.

  34. danny says:

    Once you get into the open with the car, right after “Under the Radar”, look at Alyx.

    She winks at you, and you just know she’s telling you to put your foot down.

    That one moment made the whole game worthwhile.

  35. Nallen says:

    Serious question to the people who post after every FPS topic saying ‘it’s okay but it’s not great’. If you’ve posted saying you don’t really rate Bioshock, Half-Life 2 and Crysis what the hell does push your buttons?

    I’m going to take a guess and say the responses will be F.E.A.R: G.E.N.E.R.I.C. C.O.R.R.I.D.O.R. or Call of Duty 4: Onrails Warfare. Please prove me wrong.

  36. Stick says:

    danny – oh yes, the wink. That had me practically burst my face with grinning. Darn it. Must replay now.

  37. The_B says:

    I would take offence at using CoD4 as a bad example. As it does do some things very right. Just in a different way to HL2.

  38. danny says:

    stick – actually, i kind of hope she won’t do it if i replay it and go looking for it.

  39. Dr Snofeld says:

    Lots of neat little touches mentioned in the comentary. For example, apparently in the final battle once the Striders reach the buildings they wait to destroy them until you can see them. Which shows some pretty deep thought on Valve’s part. Apart from it looking so cool, it means you don’t suddenly hit a GAME OVER for seemingly no reason.

  40. PleasingFungus says:

    Dr. Snofeld: That behavior actually caused me a bit of grief. I was playing through the battle, trying for the “all buildings saved” achievement, and must have tried a dozen times to drive fast enough to get to a building before the Strider hit it. When I realized that it was waiting for me, I thought about loading an earlier save, but gave up.

    Still neat, though. Snazzy blue death-beam.

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