Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Half-Life 2: Episode 2 - Steamed!

This is the “middle” episode of the 3 episode saga after Half-Life 2 proper, so you would be forgiven for initially thinking that it would just be "filler" until the third and final episode. However, I wouldn't forgive anyone for thinking it's just filler after they played it. It's just as fresh and rich a gaming experience as HL2 and Episode 1 before it. On today's hardware the game runs more smoothly than ever before; the engine is only now beginning to slightly show it's age, yet it still remains one of the most graphically impressive gaming experiences available today.

Even from playing the first few minutes Episode 2, you realise that you’ve returned to the best gaming experience ever created. Valve's second expansion to the “best game ever” is a perfect example of how to tweak the mechanics and prolong the superbly crafted tale by adding just a few more hours of gameplay for the fraction of the cost of a full game. Indeed there’s almost nothing new about Freeman (you), your abilities or weapons etc. as it takes place only minutes after the end of Episode 1, but you’re in very different environments then you’ve been in for the past several hours of the saga. In Episode 2 you’re in the countryside for the most part, (detouring for a while to investigate the lair of the Ant-Lions) outside the desolate urban area of what now remains of City 17, visiting unused power plants, half destroyed bridges, inoperative train yards, deserted villages and silent logging compounds to name but a few of the varied scenes the action takes place in.

You'll be pleased to know that all the staple Half-Life 2 elements are intact. Perfectly controllable drivable vehicles allowing you traverse some of the greater distances in this expansion, your sidekick Alex still driven by the most advanced artificial intelligence still found today and the trusty zero-point-energy gravity gun which I feel you use more then before as you have to solve some of the most audacious, yet logical physics puzzles you’ve ever faced. The combat is more innovative and perhaps less tactical than previously, partly due to the change in environment and is a most welcome change.

Your enemies have not been idle either, the Ant-Lions have bred a new breed of warrior capable of dealing severe damage with it’s acid mortar-like attack. The Combine have also created a Hunter- a tough, smaller and much faster version of a Strider that looks and moves pretty much like a gorilla and you're forced to employ your heavier weapons against them before they take you down with their exploding tazer bolt weapons.

The voice talent is still top of the line on par with previous installments: Tony Todd replaces Louis Gossett Jnr. as the Vortigaunts which have some of the most hilarious dialog in gaming. Adam Baldwin voices some of the more courageous rebel soldiers and the rebel who gives you your final battle briefing. Robert Guillaume returns as Dr. Vance as does Michelle Forbes as Dr. Judith Mossman, although her appearance is brief, it's obvious that she'll be a major part of Episode 3. Kelly Baily returns with his trademark Half-Life score to lend the final piece to the expansive soundscape.

Because of it's middle episode nature, I obviously can't recommend it for new players to the Half-Life franchise, because it assumes you know what you your doing and why you're doing it, there's a few tips to help you on the way if you've not played Episode 1 since it's time of release, but these disappear quickly and are far less than what you find in the most basic FPS training level - in other words you get right into the action pretty quickly.

I must finally applaud Valve's revolutionary Steam delivery service, which has grown exponentially since I last activated it. While I had expected to play Episode 2 for a year now, time and projects prevented me from doing so until August 29th this year; but once I made the decision to purchase and install the game, it was effortless to obtain. Like Episode 1 and SiN Episodes: Emergence, I was able to install it through Steam in about 3 hours due to Steam's ultra fast servers after Steam takes only €12.69 from your Credit Card (for Episode 2 only). Steam installs with Half-Life 2 or any time you desire for FREE from steampowered.com and now you get far more than Valve's back catalogue. It's easy to see why this is an example of the method from which we will obtain all our entertainment in the not too distant future; games, movies etc. and say goodbye to rows of shelves filled with plastic boxes and optical discs.

Final Verdict: This is exactly what an expansion should be: An extension of the original that stays ever so true to it's origins and borderline becoming a sequel in it's own right with it's innovation.

Colonel Creedon Rating: *****+

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