Half-Life 2: Episode Two opens with a "previously in Half-Life 2 episodes" sort of recap montage that is the game's only real concession to the kind of static, cutscene-driven storytelling that still dominates video games. Certainly, some are of the opinion that the Half-Life series, particularly beginning with Half-Life 2, employs its uncommon brand of contextual narrative and in-game cutscenes as just a more interactive version of the traditional style, but such characterizations sell the developer's efforts short.
With unfortunately few examples of others catching on since Valve started adhering to its own rigid design principles with its first game, the studio still knows how to subtly and seamlessly direct a player's eye through entirely in-game means better than just about anyone else working in the medium. Episode Two reflects the latest in Valve's continuing goal to build on its already top-notch sense of pacing, atmosphere, gameplay variety, and content density--from Valve, it's just what you would expect, at least if you're a Valve fan or have been keeping up with the pre-release coverage, but relative to the pace at which most developers exhibit this kind of growth, it's practically a marvel.
How so? While Episode One took the formula largely established by Half-Life 2 and refined it--regardless of whether you found that evolution an improvement; I did--Episode Two refines it yet again but also introduces a much more dramatic spate of new elements to the mix than did its predecessor.
The game sees a broader range of environments, that in a first for the series leave concrete and steel behind and branch out to the wilderness. In a great touch that speaks to Valve's instinct for thematic cohesion and iconography, a constant visual reminder of the center of the Half-Life 2 mythos is visible in the distance from nearly every outdoor location.
New gameplay vignettes are introduced, bolstering the series' already impressive repertoire. It has to be tough at this point figuring out new physics puzzles, but they are here--and one, conjuring images of a designer wracking his brain for new material, is satisfyingly ridiculous in its abuse of reality. Despite its gravitas, Half-Life has always embraced the less realistic, more video gamey side of things when it comes to puzzle solving, and this game is no exception.
Most crucially, however, is Valve's first stab at taking combat into broader arenas. This is what gives the game such an impressive breadth--there is plenty of Half-Life corridor fighting, and an early underground sequence showcases the Source engine's lighting improvements in a gorgeous fashion, but there are also shootouts in small villages and building clusters. Hunters, Episode Two's new three-legged mini-Striders, add an element of combat nonlinearity new to the series. If you hole up in a house, they might come up through the cellar; if you run outside, one might climb up to the roof to gain a better line of sight.
These encounters feel more replayable than past Half-Life fights. While they don't attempt to match up in scale to franchises like Halo, whose stock and trade is large-scale combat, and they can be played as straighter firefights if you desire, they do represent one of the biggest steps Valve has taken in terms of broadening what is already one of the most impressive and well-executed ranges of gameplay to be found in the entire straight FPS genre.
Episodic sidekick Alyx gets a boost too, with further improvements to her combat AI and range of animation--she'll lay down blind suppressing fire from behind cover if the situation gets too hot, and if she happens to be standing on the driver side of the wonderfully stripped-down muscle car that accompanies you through much of the game, she'll enter by sliding into the passenger seat from the hood.
Deserving of special mention is Episode Two's ending battle, an extremely ambitious capping off of Valve's first foray into open-ended combat, and one of the most frantic and memorable ending battles in any shooter of recent memory.
Also noteworthy is an almost arcade-like automated turret sequence that both introduces yet another kind of gameplay encounter. The two NPCs who drive the sequence strongly highlight the extremely visible contributions of Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw, the Old Man Murray creators currently serving as writers at Valve. ("No offense, Freeman, but things were pretty quiet until you showed up," gripes one of the scene's main characters.) Faliszek is said to have been more involved in Episode Two, and he brings a needed breadth to the game world's inhabitants.
While Marc Laidlaw remains the mastermind of the overriding fiction, Faliszek's contributions turn the supporting cast of "extras" from a Greek chorus of Freeman-worshipping clones to a broad range of personalities encapsulating not just despair and adoration but comic relief, frustration, and a sense of a larger world. The game even pokes fun at the series' relentless "right man in the right place" mentality (or is it "the right man in the wrong place"?); at one point, a Vortigaunt wryly considers aloud how "the Freeman" plans to circumvent the latest "parade of obstacles." Meanwhile, the more operatic elements remain intact, with plot elements such as the G-Man seeing both questions addressed by cryptic answers, and new questions raised.
Just as the gameplay in parts reflects the more open approach to environments, so too does the music. Kelley Bailey's sparse and conservatively-rationed electronic musical accompaniment to the world of Half-Life has always been more impressive and well-used to me than most game music of similar genre, despite that genre being traditionally overused in video games--though it is being displaced by the generic B-grade Hollywood symphonic score.
The music is as well-placed and heart-pumpingly-timed as ever, but it also takes on a more organic quality than it has ever had in a Half-Life game. Along with the move out into more natural environments comes a greater reliance on less-synthesized instruments--or at least the effect of them. With Bailey's somewhat distanced sense of composition and general "Half-Life" sound still in place, the change contributes excellently to an overall sense of evolution in the series as a whole. Longtime series fans are also likely to pick up on some subtle gameplay-to-music linkups that pay subtle homage to past moments.
(As an aside, though nobody would confuse this game's music with the kind of thing generally associated with muscle cars, there is a nice bit of synergy in the hopefully-not-coincidental inclusion of both a snarling, turbo-charged metal steed and the series' most rock-driven soundtrack yet.)
With neither length nor the release frequency of the Half-Life 2 "episodes" being particularly episodic, it has fallen to the narrative and plot elemets in Episode Two to live up to the designator. Episode One took criticism for lacking tangible plot relative to Half-Life 2; whereas Episode One was largely driven by a general sense of urgency, Episode Two is much more practically driven by concrete plot motivations in the style of Half-Life 2.
For better or worse, elements of the game's fiction allow for occasional brief toe-dipping into more static cutscenes. And the game's ending, which surely fits the "episodic" bill better than anything else in either episode yet, is less of the "I wish they didn't end this here" variety as in Episode One and more of the "TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, YOU BASTARDS" kind. You know, in a good way.
In some ways, the subtlety and effectiveness with which Valve grows its design sense presents problems for its own marketability. Many reviews of Episode One glossed over the improvements to pacing and density that the game demonstrated, while placing perhaps undue weight on length, a fairly arbitrary game property that is probably more tied to quality in this industry than it should be.
Episode Two has a better sense of its own marketing, with more "bullet point" improvements than Episode One--new environments! new enemies! more hours of gameplay! and so on, surely to the relief of distributor Electronic Arts, but it never feels as if such inclusions are gratuitous.
On that note, by packing Episode Two with the rest of The Orange Box, Valve has sidestepped many of the inevitable complaints about the latest iteration of its current development model. Certainly, in regards to Episode Two itself, some may still wish for greater length, but at this point the company has turned out a game that is of comparable length to many standalone games--and, for the price of one of those standalone games you get an extremely robust multiplayer offering as well as one another single-player offering that is one of the most inventive around, not to mention two proven single-player games that you can use to convert the unconvinced.
Is there anything negative to say about Episode Two? If you're on board with the kind of thing Valve does, not really. Those turned off by the heavily on-rails nature of the series will find little change here, despite the more open nature of individual battles themselves, and those frustrated by the game's cryptic story and endlessly deus ex machina-driven plot points may still be left wanting. But in a genre where even the best games tend to just pick one thing and do it well, Valve continues to pick more and more things and do them well--and some of them the company still does better than anyone around. Once again, the bar has been raised, and it is impossible not to recommend this game.