Half-Life 2: Episode Two PC Review

With the likes of Halo 3 and Bioshock fighting to top GOTY lists in a few months it really is not that much of a stretch to think that Episode Two could beat both of them for top spot. Sure, all three are vastly different takes on the FPS genre, and Halo’s multiplayer keeps it in a class of it own, but when you just take each title’s main campaign into consideration, Valve seems to have outclassed the competition in terms of storytelling, atmosphere, and sheer entertainment. Without a doubt, the game is an amazing step up from the slightly restrictive and limiting nature of Episode One. Yes, it is still the good old Half Life 2 formula on show, but it is that well-worn blueprint refined to near gaming perfection.

The game itself is basically split into two distinct parts, with the first selection of chapters taking place in tight underground Antlion invested caverns. Then as you go on the remaining levels open up the rest of the world, showcasing wide open flora filled environments, showing that the ageing Source engine is still highly capable at cobbling together some quite impressive visuals. Both sections see you accompanied by different co-op buddies, which is a nice upgrade of one of the most impressive mechanics that debuted in Episode One. As a result of the different characters on show, and the vastly differing environments, the game easily manages to keep feeling varied over its 7+ hour run. Also, the co-op buddies seem to make even better tactical decisions than ever before, and always seem to target the correct enemy should you find yourself in a tad of trouble.

Speaking of enemies, the game introduces two brand new ones into the fray. One being an evolved version of the Antlions that now spit acid, and the other been a brand new addition to the Combine forces called Hunters. Now, I may be bordering of superlative in saying this, but I honestly think the Hunters are the greatest enemy seen in any game in recent years. Firstly, they are introduced in the best way imaginable, and because of this there is always a distinct air of dread when you meet them further down the line. Furthermore, they are not overused, and seem to only appear in around five distinct events in the game, albeit five highly memorable events. Also, they animate superbly, soak up bullets, and are just so menacing you can’t help but love every encounter with them.

As for the rest, yes, for the most part, you are shooting the same guns at pretty much the same flock enemies all over again, but somehow you don’t feel limited because of this. Why? Well that is probably a question only Valve’s collective developing smarts can answer, but it is evident that loads hard work gone into every nook and cranny of the game to give us one of the best first-person experiences yet. Everything about the game just feels right, and it is expertly paced, starting of in Valve’s typical, now almost trademark style. Following that, each of the preceding levels never seems to outstay their welcome, quickly changing before you come close to getting bored. What’s more, all of the game’s set pieces seem to come off very well, with each one topping the last until the sheer vastness and excitement of games raging climax threatens to overwhelm you.

The puzzles are also better than ever, and even include the return of the see-saw brainteaser from HL2, although on a much, much larger scale. Also, we even have a vehicle section this time round, and a great one at that, which was sorely absent from the last episode. At times the game is just so good you really have to wonder if Valve can top this with Episode Three. They have not only set the bar high, they have gone and propelled it with the Gravity Gun a few thousand feet into the air. However, with an ending that is more emotionally destructive than the earth shaking destruction of previous finales they have certainly set some fantastic groundwork to end their trilogy.

When all is said and done Episode Two is exactly what we all wanted Episode One to be, and there is an almighty huge cherry on top to boot. That’s the best way I have to sum Valve’s latest effort up. Right from the first minute of play it seems set on the advancement of the franchise. Not only does it push the gameplay of the Half Life series forward, but the narrative advances more in the first ten minutes than during the whole course of Episode One. I can’t say there is anything truly revolutionary on show in the game, but regardless what is on show is so well put together it just does not matter. Personally, my time with the game brought back great memories of my first romp through Half Life 2 back in 2004, which at the very least cannot be considered a bad thing. All in all, Episode Two alone is enough to make The Orange Box a must buy for any discerning FPS loving gamer, so with everything else included it is almost a steal, and stupidly good value for money.

So good it could even get Gordon Freeman all talkative with excitement.

9.5 out of 10

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