Version tested: Xbox 360
Episode Two kicks off with Gordon Freeman climbing out of the twisted metal of a smoking train wreck. Is that a metaphor for Episode One? It's been both fun and slightly disappointing to rib Valve for the way in which its bold episodic experiment 'hit the buffers' as soon as it began in May of last year. 'Fun' in that it's oh-so-typical of Valve to be so far off with its release date predictions for the follow-up again that you can't help but give them a cheeky wink every time a new date emerges. It's disappointing because, well, we really wanted to believe that they could do what no other FPS developer had ever done and turn out three episodes of a triple-A game in the space of a year, as was the original plan.
But when, over Tacos, you hear Robin Walker's admission that the reason Episode Two slipped was simply because "it wasn't good enough", delaying it was clearly the right thing to do.
Maybe, deep down, the reaction to Episode One was just as significant in the decision to move the goal-posts. "Too short!" said some people. "Too constrained!" said others. "Not epic enough!" said another made up person. For the first time in the company's history it released a headline product with an average review score outside of the '90s, and its own online stat tracking system on Steam found that a worrying proportion of its devoted audience switched off long before the end. For a game as short as Episode One, that's a slap in the face.
This Vortal Coil
Episode Two is the product of a developer that wants to make damned sure you see this one all the way to its frantic conclusion. Clocking in at a fat-free seven hours, it's about 50 per cent longer than the first one, i.e. not far short of the kind of gameplay hours offered by several full-priced offerings recently. You certainly won't feel short-changed - and wouldn't even if it were being sold separately. After the claustrophobic confines that characterised your escape from City 17, this feels like a dramatic release, underlined no end by the menacing vistas and spectacular 'Portal storms' that threaten all sorts of unspoken havoc in the near future.
Climbing out of the wreckage, your journey picks up precisely where Episode One left off. Emerging from the twisted carriage, you're quickly reunited with your faithful partner Alyx, who seems to have - perhaps predictably - escaped entirely unscathed from what appears to be a pretty devastating collision. With an all-important code in Alyx's possession, she knows all-too-well that the Combine forces are tracking them and will be on their tail in a matter of minutes if they don't push on to the White Forest. And so it begins again in familiar fashion. She hands you the faithful gravity gun and you head underground and set about your silent extermination of anything that gets in your way.
As with Episode One, it's quite clear that consistency has been rigorously adhered to. Despite it being almost three years since Half-Life 2's release, there's nothing jarringly new that would make it feel out of place with its parent game. So, yes, it's all very familiar: the same beloved weapons load-out, roughly the same set of enemies, and a series of memorable, tense situations and set-pieces to deal with. This is obviously a good and a bad thing in many ways. Good in that Half-Life 2 was a landmark 10/10 classic, and one that has withstood the rigours of next-gen technological progress (it was, after all, one of the first truly next-gen games). In my book, anything that expands and progresses those adventures and its excellent storyline is very much a positive thing.
On the other hand, by being so tethered to the look and feel of the Half-Life 2 story and universe, that familiarity doesn't exactly breed contempt in Episode Two, but there's a persistent lack of the 'wow' factor which infused almost every minute of the parent game. We've flinched at the approaching leap of a headcrab. We've set fire to headcrab zombies. We've sliced them in two with saw-blades. We've whipped grenades from the mitts of 'Zombines' and chucked them back in their twisted faces. We've sat goggle-eyed at the majesty of the War of the Worlds-esque Striders as they suck the very matter out of existence. We've admired the advances of co-op AI and the effortless expressiveness in the facial animation of Alyx, Eli, Magnusson, the G-Man, et al. And all of this is true in Episode Two. It's still utterly brilliant, but you can't escape that this is still very much more of the same. The mechanics are still all there, just as they should be, but if you approach Episode Two expecting some sort of magical new world, then you'll come away disappointed. This isn't the new next-gen or anything, but a refinement and steady progression of one of the best first-person shooters ever made.
The real thrill of Episode Two comes, therefore, not from dramatic new gameplay concepts or originality (that's Portal's job) but from fleshing out the game's storyline - its twists, turns, and surprises. But without completely ruining it for everyone considering playing it, discussion of key events would utterly destroy a significant reason for playing it, which kind of makes writing a review of the game a slightly tricky ask. On that level, what I will suggest is that that few - if any - people will be disappointed. There are several absolutely shocking events which amply demonstrate how integral storytelling is to playing a Half-Life game.
Over the past ten or more years, Valve has crafted and invested so much into creating this believable world, with this rich back-story and quality cast that it's now become every bit as important as the gameplay you're wrapped up in. As a fan of the series, if you've played through Half-Life, Opposing Force, Blue Shift, and both previous parts of Half-Life 2, you've unwittingly built up a conscious knowledge of where everyone fits in to a story that never strays into nerdy territory. If anything the inherent gameplay familiarity means Episode Two's storyline is now pushed front and centre when you're running through the six chapters. You care what happens. It matters. You don't mind that you're shooting the same guns, or nailing the same enemies. In a genre where the storyline can often feel like a tacked-on afterthought to link together some maps, Valve's ability to frame the action with such subtle cinematic panache is still leading the way in interactive storytelling, so it's important to emphasis what Episode Two really represents to its fans.
Our Mutual Fiend
You could also justifiably interpret all of this as making excuses for Valve churning out more of the same, but that's definitely not the case. Broken down into a series of mini, linear combat encounters (which is, after all, what most of the gameplay boils down to), it's hard not to admire that, either. Each set-piece, whether you're duking it out in a narrow corridor or caning it across a wide expanse with a gunship in hot pursuit, feels like Valve sat down on every single occasion and asked themselves "is this fun?" There's barely a single moment in the entire game where you'll feel bored, unchallenged or maddeningly overstreched. It's pitched perfect right the way through, always testing you - sometimes to the limit - but never stacking things up so as to feel unfair or outside of you capabilities.
It's also important to stress that Episode Two does introduce new enemies, hugely varied environments and, eventually, new gameplay elements when the time is right - and all feel in-keeping with what you'd expect from Valve. First up, you'll encounter the projectile-vomiting Acid Antlions, which come armed with a devastatingly accurate attack that keeps you pinned down, desperately waiting for the right moment to poke out and return a few well-placed grenades.
And just when you might suspect familiarity might be creeping back in, you're sent down some sort of bio-organic nest, deep in the bowels of the Earth on a daring raid to retrieve an egg sample. Not only does it contrast hugely with any Half-Life environment since, perhaps, Xen, you'll feel positively slimy running through its inter-weaving tunnel complex. From underground mine shafts and lift-repair puzzles, you'll escape the claustrophobic netherworld to the complete opposite. On a mission to retrieve a working vehicle, suddenly you'll feel liberated and enjoy the wind in your hair. But learning the lessons of the past, such sections never outstay their welcome, as each chapter clocks in at about an hour. If Valve had have felt particularly brave, it could have easily released each individual chapter at monthly intervals and, bingo, episodic gaming. Such is the density of entertainment and contrast between each segment, it would have worked, too.
Under The Radar
The last chapter, in particular, sees Valve really upping the ante, saving some of the best ideas it has ever had for a monumental climax that's as brutally entertaining as any first-person shooter level you'll have come across. Frantic, testing, and jaw droppingly well-choreographed, it's knife-edge stuff as you're tested to the absolute limit in an against-the-odds, all-or-nothing fight to the death. Perversely scripted, it continually fools you into thinking you're nearly there....before unleashing another, even more testing wave upon you. Again, without wishing to spoil the surprise element, the hub-like level structure offers a refreshing degree of freedom to develop your own strategy in the fight against the united efforts of the Combine forces. And then, just when you think the whole thing's over, it unleashes probably the best climax that the series has offered to date. So many unanswered questions...what a cliffhanger. This is clearly what episodic gaming needs to do - leave you desperate for more and yet fully sated for the time being.
Hopefully we won't have that much longer to wait for Episode Three. In what's now set-up to be an incredible climax to a truly landmark sequence of releases from Valve, Episode Two leaves us in no doubt that is Valve back to its very best, feeling like a happy medium between the mind-blowing excess of its parent game and its somewhat compact Episode One offspring. While initially lacking in gameplay novelty or many truly 'new' elements that fans always hanker for, it more than makes up for this with its consistently engaging narrative tricks, refined set-pieces and a staggering climax. Even as a standalone release at full price, you'd be hard-pressed to give Episode Two less than a 9, but within the confines of the incredible value Orange Box, it's simply an essential game that any shooter fan needs to play - but from start to finish this time please...
9 / 10