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.
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!