Review – Half-Life 2: Episodes 1 and 2

What is it with Valve and antlions? Is there some massive spec sheet somewhere, pages jammed full of details outlining every aspect of antlion existence, that is the pride of some designer’s life? Is the next major Valve product going to be a side-story where you play an up and coming Vortigaunt antlion husbandry expert?

I guess what I really want to know is why in the hell did both Half-Life 2: Episodes 1 AND 2 include hours of hot, steamy, antlion action? If you’re not stuffing antlion holes with cars, you’re crushing their grubs underfoot in a massive hive complex. It seems like at every turn during your escape from City 17 and trip to White Forest, you’re knee deep in chittering carapaces, desperate for a can of Raid.

While it may be difficult to judge HL2:E1&2 as a game almost five years after its release, I can say with great certitude that it’s probably the best insect slaughter simulator since SimAnt, so if you’re in the mood for a good old fashioned bug hunt, read on.

Released in 2004, Half-Life 2 is still widely considered to be one of the best games ever made. At the time, it represented massive advances in animation quality and enemy AI, introducing the widely used Source engine that would go on to power Left4Dead and Team Fortress 2. It continued the story of Gordon Freeman, the mute protagonist of Half-Life and his attempts to set things right after unwittingly destroying the world. Taking place twenty years after the original, it introduces a dystopian future ruled by the mysterious alien Combine, with Gordon’s former coworkers from the Black Mesa research base leading a resistance organization. And there are crowbars, so many crowbars.

Beyond just expanding on the original game’s emphasis on narrative, HL2 really played with the idea of what a FPS game could do. The introduction of the “gravity gun” played heavily off the Source engine’s then amazing physics, allowing players to manipulate the world around them like never before. Oh the crates you could stack! Coupled with the ability to make large outdoor maps (compared to Doom 3’s pretty but cramped corridors) HL2 represented a paradigm shift in gaming towards expansive cinematic experiences.

Episode 1 starts off immediately after the ending of HL2, with Gordon and Alyx atop the rapidly exploding Combine Citadel. Breen has been dispatched and the slug-like Advisors are fleeing the facility for the portal to their homeworld. Without giving too much away, you’ll find yourself rushing through both City 17 and the nearby wilderness in an attempt to prevent the Combine from tearing open an even bigger portal, ensuring the complete destruction of the human race. If you’re a fan of the ongoing Half-Life (or, to a certain degree, Portal) story, then you’ve got to play both games. Significant things occur that set the stage for whatever is coming next in the series. Just be ready for one of the worst cliffhanger endings of all time, especially considering it’s been around five years since Episode 2 came out and there’s still been nary a peep regarding the once-promised Episode 3.

In many ways, Episode 1 and 2 both represent natural progressions of the gameplay pioneered in HL2. For the first few hours of E1 you aren’t even given a gun, forced to rely solely on your gravity gun and the help of Alyx to escape the Citadel and work your way through City 17. You’ll throw explosive barrels at enemies, block antlion pits with cars, and chuck a few buzzsaw blades, but the clear focus is on ways to expand the physics puzzles. There’s even an achievement for only using a single bullet (to unlock a door of all things.)

Even back when HL2 came out, once the wow factor of throwing a plastic egg crate across the room wore off, the repetitive and often confusing physics challenges served more to irritate than inspire. Just like in the original game, both Episode 1 and 2 will force you to roam around an area finding very specific weighted objects to counter-balance a beam or prevent an elevator from moving too quickly. Episode 2 takes this and runs with it, replacing buckets with cars at one point. It’s still annoying and it still detracts from the otherwise tight and enjoyable gunplay against Combine troopers.

Another place where Episodes 1 and 2 expand on HL2 is the use of vehicles and larger outdoor spaces. Almost half of E2 takes place in a sprawling wooded area crawling with zombies and Combine forces. It’s paced out almost exactly like the infamous hovercraft sequence from HL2, with various gated stopping points requiring your attention before moving on. Where E2 shows progress is the sheer level of detail that the level contains. Even now, few can compete with Valve’s ability to craft a seamless and beautiful skybox.

Valve’s animators and story-tellers do some amazing work in Episode 2 as well, effortlessly crafting character using slight movements and simple touches. The way Alyx looks at Gordon with a combination of trust and concern completely transforms the tendency for NPCs in most games to stare dead-eyed at the main character. Even the visually indistinguishable Vortigaunts are given character through mannerisms and speech patterns. It’s this attention to detail that has allowed Valve to transcend into cult status, and it’s here in full force.

Episodes 1 and 2 are like Half-life 2 cranked up to 11. The storytelling and characters are tight, the pitched gun battles against the Combine are as hectic as ever, and there are more zombies and antlions than you can shake a crowbar at. At the same time, there are even larger piles of things to be moved from place to place, the vehicle segments are even more padded, and you’ve still got to babysit annoying resistance fighters. E1&2 are Valve at their best and their worst all in one 10-hour package. If you’re willing to hang in there through some slow points, you’ll be rewarded with a powerful ending and just that much more time with some of the best developed characters around.

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