Despite the recommendations of my family and primary care physician, this past week I have spent a sad majority of my free time playing Valve’s newest release The Orange Box to the extent that it has started to effect my health and mental well being. Since I’ve already reviewed Team Fortress 2, this time around I will be sharing my opinions on the most recent episode in the Half-Life 2 series.
Unlike the beginning of the previous two games in the series, Episode Two begins without any intrusion by the G-Man and for once you start a game in the Half-Life series with a good idea of what is going on (assuming you completed Episode One.) You start off right where Episode One left off; you are in the train that you boarded to escape the city, but the explosion of the citadel has derailed it. After Alex helps to get you out of the train with the assistance of the gravity gun, you see the destruction which the citadel’s explosion has caused to City 17 and the surrounding area.
The first portion of the game takes place in Antlion-infested caves underground. After Alex is severely wounded by a Hunter, one of the new enemies in the game, you are dispatched by the Vortigaunts to retrieve some Antlion larva, which will help to revive Alex. At this point in the game there is a battle that resembles one that occurred in Half-Life 2, where you must strategically place turrets and hopper mines to take out enemies which approach you from multiple angles (in Half-Life 2 the enemies were Combine forces, while in Episode Two they are Antlions.) This was a fun portion of the game but it was nowhere near as epic as the original one in Half-Life 2.
Most of the game you will be traveling through the forest with this car as your transport.
After you make your way through the caves and retrieve the larva, you and Alex escape to the surface and acquire a car which serves as your main transportation for the better part of the game. This vehicle controls similar to the buggy from Half-Life 2 only without the attached gun and with a little more usefulness later on. As you make your way to a base where rebels are hiding in order to deliver a message stolen from the Combine, you have your first battle with the Hunters. Hunters resemble mini-Striders, and are able to quickly move around and ambush you. They can also charge you similar to the larger Antlion guards, and can shoot explosive barbs as well, which cause damage on contact but also explode after a few seconds.
Later on, there is a battle that is easily one of the best to occur in all of the Half-Life series. Towards the end of the game, you are sent out to take care of Striders and Hunters which are approaching the base. Dr. Magnusson, a new character in the game, has created a device which he has humbly called the “Magnusson Device” (aka “Strider Buster,”) a sticky bomb which you shoot with the gravity gun. Once you attach it to the upper body of a strider, you can shoot it with another weapon, causing it to explode and completely destroy the Strider. This makes a much more efficient way to dispose of Striders, as generally they require several rockets to take down. During this battle, you drive around in the car, retrieving Strider Busters from teleporters located throughout the forest, trying to stop the Striders so that they cannot attack the base. This becomes trickier as the battle goes on, because Striders can destroy buildings if you do not take them out fast enough, which means you can no longer retrieve the Strider Buster from that building. This means you have to drive around the map in order to find the teleporters, and then drive back to the Strider, hopefully taking it down without wasting the Strider Buster you just retrieved. Also, more Hunters appear as the battle goes on, and since they are more agile then the Striders they generally need to be killed first so you can focus on the Strider.
The Magnusson Device being deployed on a strider.
After you defeat all the Striders, the rest of the game is just a set up for Episode Three. I will not go into specifics as the end of the game contains one of the more pivotal plot occurrences of the series, but I will say this: Episode Two contains some of the best character development in any video game I have ever played. The cryptic foreshadowing and plot developments that occur at the end are easily on par with any award-winning movie. In this area, Valve proves once again that they are the kings of storytelling in video games, especially where in most other games bad story and characters are excused because the gameplay “makes up for it,” according to the fans and video game media. The Half-Life series (particularly Half-Life 2 on) has consistently provided stellar gameplay balanced with realistic characters which don’t make you laugh at the horrible voice acting or dialogue.
Just as it began, Episode Two ends with the only “real” ending in the Half-Life series. In Half-Life 1 and 2, you are plucked out by the G-Man and placed into stasis, leaving more questions than answers about the game. At the end of Episode One, you are engulfed by the light caused from the citadel explosion when the game ends abruptly. The end of Episode Two is an actual ending, simply leaving you at a point where you know Episode Three will immediately pick up from. Despite the abrupt and violent ending of Episode Two, it seems like the best one so far for the reasons I have already mentioned. Think of “The Empire Strikes Back” with a less optimistic ending. At the end of that movie, it felt complete as it’s own story, but there was also an excitement present for when the story would be concluded in the third movie.
All this being said, this game is short. I understand that the whole episodic game structure has enabled Valve to deliver content quicker and more efficiently, allowing them to focus on specific elements, but I was able to beat both Episode One and Two in less than a day (although this just may reflect my impending descent into insanity and my inhuman obsession with video games.) So far I’ve seen the completion time for Episode Two quoted at around six hours. I can definitely say it didn’t take me that long.
Despite this, I recommend that anyone who hasn’t gotten into the Half-Life series already to do so immediately. If you purchase The Orange Box, you get every game in the Half-Life 2 series (HL2, Episode One, and Episode Two,) along with the universally popular Portal and Team Fortress 2. For the price of $49.95, you get five games in total, which all games combined will easily bring you 30+ hours of gameplay. The previously mentioned combination of gameplay and storytelling will keep you coming back to these games for years to come.
Running over an enemy is still the most rewarding way to dispose of them.