Half-Life 2: Episode Two has the unfortunate designation of being the awkward middle child between Half-Life 2: Episode One and the conclusion of the arc in Episode Three. Yet, while Episode One added little to the story of Gordon Freeman and the human resistance to the alien Combine, Episode II not only is more ambitious with its level design, but more riveting in its plot. (Spoilers below.)
Having escaped City 17 with Alyx Vance, Gordon Freeman must make his way to the resistance base in White Forest in order to deliver a message downloaded in Episode I. While making their way there, Dr. Freeman and Alyx confront a deadly new type of enemy, one that nearly costs Alyx her life. The game also contains many revelations (and new questions) about the mysterious G-Man who quietly seems to be manipulating the events that unfold around Freeman.
The new enemy, called a “Hunter” is an aggressive creature that fires explosive darts in addition to charging the player, thus presenting new challenges. Hunters must be hidden from and only attacked when an opportunity arises. You stand still and you’ll die. The levels reflect the need to hide, and the pursuit of cover is a new wrinkle in the typical combat associated with the Half-Life series.
Yet, while Valve is adept at remixing terrain to create new puzzles and let you further explore a world you’ve already seen, there’s very little new to see or do in Episode Two initially. Instead of a dune buggy or an airboat, this time you drive around you drive a car (with Alyx riding shotgun). You’ll explore more mines, get in more firefights in abandoned houses, and hop around more industrial wasteland while avoiding zombies and head crabs.
Sure, you get to explore the ant lion caves, but that’s not exactly something we were clamouring for (and frankly, the hive-like caves aren’t particularly earth shattering in terms of level design). No, instead Episode Two relies on plot and character development—qualities missing in Episode 1. Alyx once again proves to be extremely useful in combat situations, but when she’s nearly killed by a Hunter, the tone of the game and the personality of the character changes. After recovering, she’s slow to move and quieter. Later she acts more frightened and angry when confronted by Combine forces. She, her father, and their relationship to the mysterious G-Man also get some interest revelations and all three grow as characters. Freeman doesn’t, of course, so it’s awkward watching the other characters and their rich dialogue try to make up for a walking stiff like the good doctor.
What I most enjoyed about Episode Two was some of the smaller things. When you get to White Forest, seeing how your fellow resistance members interact is a real hoot. During a sergeant’s lecture on how to use a rocket launcher, there’s a great exchange where a radio operator explains that he’s an expert with a similar rocket launcher— a rocket launcher that the sergeant says doesn’t exist. They bicker for a while and it helps flush out some of the characters and people that you’re fighting the war with.
Your fellow resistance members are vibrant and interesting, but your scientific contemporaries are less so. One new element that infuriated me was the inclusion of yet another Black Mesa scientist in the main cast. Dr. Magnusson is introduced in Episode Two and everyone acts they’ve all known him about him for years. But like Cousin Oliver in the Brady Bunch, he completely changes the relationships with the other characters and the entire cast seems pushed to the margins by this new, retconned character. He’s an obnoxious asshole too, and you’re not sure why you have to put up with him: he hasn’t proven himself to you, you haven’t spent nearly the entire game trying to rescue him, and you have no emotional connection to him.
His inclusion seems lazy on the part of Valve—you mean to tell me there’s no other scientist/leaders/military commanders left in the world aside from theoretical physicists from one research facility? And the best you could come up with is someone who hogs the spotlight in every scene? Can we let the Combine have him already?
Priggishness aside, Magnusson serves as an essential part of the plot. He and the others are able to build a rocket that they plan on launching to close the portal that exists between our and the Combine’s dimension. By protecting the rocket in time for its launch, you preserve a chance to close the portal.
The climactic battle is actually something the developers got really right. Instead of another “grab a rocket launcher and kill the enemy” segment, you have an entire open battlefield to defend. Striders, escorted by Hunters, come in from all directions in an attempt to attack the resistance’s base and prevent a rocket launch. In order to dispatch the invading forces, you’ll need to employ conventional run-and-gun tactics against the Hunters and then launch sticky bomb “Magnusson” devices at the bigger Striders. Your car, outfitted with a holder for the sticky bombs, as well as the weapon caches sprinkled throughout the level, provides a frenetic driving/running/shooting experience that is difficult but extremely fun. While you’re still a one-man army, your fellow resistance members will occasionally provide cannon fodder and actual help against your enemies.
The AI continues to impress on both sides of the divide: the Hunters will prioritise your sticky bombs as targets so you need to kill them first before taking on the Striders. Meanwhile, the resistance members will yell and flee when the Striders take out the Saw Mill or other structures they’ve been hiding in. They’ll provide actual support too: at one point a Hunter had a bead on me until an ally took it out with an RPG.
Completing the game is as rewarding as it should be. The rocket works, the portal is sealed, and you have a new mission ahead of you with what looks to be a completely original environment. The tragic twist at the end also provides some emotional weight to the game, reminding players of the severity and direness of their fight. In short, Episode Two not only enriches the story and provides some genuine highlights to the series, but also makes you want to keep playing. That’s a success in my book.