Whereas Episode 1 could rightly come under fire for its reluctance to stray from the formula founded in Half Life 2, the latest installment deserves no such criticism. Episode 2 retires from the confines of City 17 and hurtles the two protagonists (Alyx and Gordon) on the trail to White Forest. However it’s certainly not the profound, poignant, and exhilarating narrative that strikes first.
Visually Half Life 2 excelled beyond the realms of anything established beforehand. The character animations felt lifelike, the environments animated. From the fragile sway of a long forsaken swing to the bone-fracturing crumple of a corpse accelerated toward a wall; the pragmatic mouth movements of vocalising characters and the rusted metal braiding a faithful crowbar, the game was visually stunning. Episode 2 casts aside it’s awe-inspiring prequel and fashions it’s own brand of visual nirvana. The game is set primarily in the underground mines habituated by swarms of Ant Lions, and the sprawling jade forests neighboring City 17. The expansive forests with their shimmering streams, soaring pines and the smoldering remnants of City 17 painted across the horizon look astounding. The characters have also received visual tweaks, appearing and interacting far more realistically with their surroundings. From the dingy mines to the smoke trails deviating from the ruins of City 17, the enhanced visuals add to the monumental atmosphere carved from the narrative.
The visuals aren’t the only aspect of the game to get a renovation out of Episode 2. The narrative, which became moderately stagnant throughout Episode 1, is hurled forward at lightening pace. This is unquestionably the most evocative, character driven chapter in the entire Half Life story with the lives and fates of all those involved, and the entire resistance, relentlessly threatened. Furthermore new scientific personality Dr Matheson provides a comical lacing to an otherwise despairing narrative, whilst the return of the Vortigons and the G-Man make for further interesting plot-advances. It’s simply one of the most immersive games of the year and a country mile ahead of any other conventional, shallow FPS plot.
True to Half Life 2, the gameplay is the accustomed fusion of frantic gunplay, vast set pieces, and linear vehicle sections. The player is regularly thrown into battles against towering foes including the familiar Striders, in addition to an assortment of enemies new to Episode 2. Most noticeable is the synthetic Hunter, a swift and tough enhancement to the Combine army. The Hunter does a good job of bridging the gap between the weaker human factions of the Combine and the immense Striders and gunships that form the huge battles later on. Again much like its predecessor, a significant portion of the game is spent behind the wheel of a rusted, crumbling car. The vehicle section adds a welcome break from the fast-paced action on foot and paves the way for the huge finale fought amidst the foliage of White Forest.
Episode 2 embraces everything that made Half Life 2 and Episode 1 incredible games and crafts something even better. Visually arresting from the offset and far vaster in its environments, the latest episode in the Half Life 2 story is perhaps the best. Regardless of a six hour campaign not a moment is wasted, the game rarely yields from its frantic nature and the inclusion of new Combine opponents, locations, and characters enhances the emotional narrative whilst taking the fight outside of City 17 revitalises the gameplay. This is the most involving, moving, and thrilling installment in the entire Half Life franchise, and I haven’t even referred to Aperture Science or the phenomenal final moments that redefine cliffhanger ending.