After the success of the main game, Valve embarked upon an experiment in episodic gaming, the first portion of which I’ve already reviewed. The second was the keystone in the Orange Box release, and having played it, it’s clear to see why it featured so prominently. The immersion and pacing that made the previous Half-Life titles so singular continues to fire on all cylinders, and while it’s still somewhat short it’s no less satisfying to play than the previous episode.

Courtesy Valve
If this Strider could speak, it’d likely say “OH SHI-“

Half-Life 2 Episode 2 begins literally where the first episode left us, in the wreckage of a train leaving City 17. Gordon and Alyx are now outside the city limits, in the wilderness surrounding the metropolis where they spent most of the last 2 games. The core of the Citadel, having reached critical mass at the end of Episode 1, is now channeling power into an ominous ‘superportal’ hovering over the city. The data that allows the aperture to remain open is crucial to preventing a further invasion by the villainous Combine, and Alyx has a copy of that data. To halt the Combine war effort and give humanity a chance, Gordon and Alyx must get the data to the old missile complex known as White Forest, where Black Mesa scientists may have finally gotten an edge on the Combine war machine.

While Episode 1 focused on character development, the second installment takes on the themes of exploration and free-form battles. From crawling through the squick-inducing tunnels of the antlion hive to driving at entirely unsafe speeds through the forest in the Muscle Car, Episode 2 expands the world of Half-Life 2 far beyond City 17’s limits. There are some moments of tranquility amongst the chaos of war, and when battles break out there is no one correct way to proceed. Setting traps, rushing in headlong and luring enemies into sniper-friendly locations are all viable options. Antlion workers appear for the first time, giving the insectoid race some long-range support, and then there are the Hunters.

Big Dog
Courtesy Valve
Is the Hunter a portent of things to come?

The battle involving both Hunters and Striders working together makes for a pulse-pounding experience, as the player rushes from one hotspot to the next to prevent the Combine from destroying all of the effort made by the Resistance to mount a reasonable counter-offensive, to say nothing of Gordon’s friends. It’s easily the most ambitious battle sequence Half-Life has featured in any of its titles, and it rivals any of the similar sequences of games in the Halo and Gears of War franchises in terms of scale, pacing, tactics and consequences.

The best part of Half-Life 2 Episode 2, for me at least, are little things that expanded upon the story and added to that sense of immersion. The vortigaunts play a major role in the episode’s events, we get the sense that humanity is definitely no longer taking the Combine occupation laying down and there is the triumphant return of D0g. It would have been even better if we knew what happened to Barney Calhoun following his escape from City 17 with his fellow Resistance members, or if Episode 2 had not ended as it did when it did. Which is not to say the ending is bad – it’s actually pretty phenomenal. I just hope Valve will forgive us for throwing controllers and screaming in frustration because that’s how it ended and we’re still waiting for Episode 3???

Courtesy Valve
Good d0g.

As an aside: Is it just me, or did using a crossbow and a vintage muscle car make anybody else feel like Willem Dafoe in Daybreakers?

Stuff I Liked: Valve’s creativity is still center-stage, with the dialog, the area design, the intelligence of enemies, the Magnusson Devices, killing Hunters with their own flechettes… I could go on.
Stuff I Loved: Half-Life 2 and its episodes has some of the strongest characterization I’ve ever seen in a first-person shooter. I want to play more of these games, or just play the Orange Box titles over again, just to spend more time around them. Even the new guy, Magnusson, has an interesting personality, though it borders on the insufferable at times.

Bottom Line: What do you mean, you don’t own The Orange Box yet? Here, let me illustrate my point a bit more clearly, I just need to find my crowbar…

Orange Box Reviews: 60% complete.