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Half-Life 2: Episode Two

Half-Life 2: Episode Two is a first-person shooter set in a post-apocalyptic future, developed and published in 2007 by Valve Corporation as part of “The Orange Box”, a game package containing five different games at once. It is the second part of a trilogy that together continues the story the of Half-Life 2 (the first part of that trilogy is, huge surprise, Half-Life 2: Episode One).

In this game, you’ll pick up the gravity gun of Gordon Freeman, scientist-turned hero, and try to bring an important piece of data from some place to another one, all the while dodging enemies who’ll want you to stop doing right that and helping friends in need. The idea behind this is that the data will stop the evil alien overlords, who have taken over the world and who were pretty pissed off thanks to your actions in the previous games, from calling for reinforcements. Accompanying you is Alyx Vance, Gordon’s partner and near-girlfriend, who is the one that actually has that piece of data.

As both of you are environmentally friendly, or try to be, the story starts with you two trying to make exactly that journey by train, when you’ll suddenly notice how important bridge maintenance is in a world where laws of physics can get bent easily.

Trains

The very first thing you'll see, after a recap of Episode One and the words "Half-Life 2: Episode Two" is, in fact, the inside of a train.

As a matter of fact, I started this website only because of a glaring error in a trailer for this game. Sure, years of abuse made me ripe for the decision, but that trailer was the tipping point. So obviously, I was rather nervous when playing the game.

One thing first: That error has been corrected, sort of. In one scene, there was a clearly american diesel locomotive to be seen, in a game that is set in a former Soviet Republic. This is, actually, significant, since the Soviet Union and all that came later use a different gauge from the rest of the world, including the USA (but oddly enough not Finland), so the locomotive couldn’t work there. Also, it had freight car trucks, i.e. it couldn’t have moved anyway.

At the beginning

Valve likes to start every Half Life game with a train, or end it with one, or have one in the middle or something like that. This time, you start in a destroyed train which fell off a bridge. How you came to be in that train is a little unclear, as it’s clearly a different one from the one you entered at the end of Episode One. You will quickly learn that whoever built this train forgot something important: Doors. You can leave the cars at the end to get to other cars, but there is no apparent way to leave the train, short of going to the end and removing the last door. Which is, of course, exactly what you are going to do.

To a degree, I'm actually looking forward to the point where I can tell my grandchildren "When I was your age, trains in video games didn't even have doors!"

Once you get outside, you will see that the train has a passing similarity with the one at the end of Episode One, but nothing more. Whether that matters much is doubtful, as the train certainly looks much better now. Continuing your road, you will see that someone put more thought into railroads than ever before. The level of detail is far higher, and you will notice that the couplings are made to look like actual russian couplings, not just the normal dark lump of metal you see even in railroad simulators.

I don't know about you, but for me, there is nothing more beautiful than a railroad coupling well done.

Soon enoguh, the bridge will get destroyed even more, and you will have to find a way out. The best such way is by using a partly abandoned mine, and, as such mines customarily have, there’s a narrow gauge railroad.

The mining carts

The carts are beautifully designed, with lots of attention to detail. Similarily, the rails and sleepers have actual profile instead of being just rectangular. Compare this to Half Life 2, where rails were lucky if they got to be 3D at all and sleepers had no damn chance.

However, when you take a closer look, you’ll find a lot of oddities. For example, tell me how the carts are going to dump their contents.

They have some complicated mechanics and a metal plate at the end

The complicated mechanism underneath looks as if the idea was that you turn the dumper ninety degrees, and then dump it backwards. While this is odd and won’t automate very well, it is certainly a possible way. However, the large metal plate at the end prevents everything from turning in any direction, making the rest completely pointless.

Also, they cannot couple, so you’d have to push every single one by hand. Compare all this to how a real mining cart looks like (this one belonging to the Rammelsbergmuseum Goslar. If you are in the area, it sure pays to visit it!)

The basic frame is longer and acts as a buffer system. To couple, there are hooks so you can connect them with chains. Instead of a complicated turning mechanism, the basin is mounted at the ends and can be turned to either side, allowing for automated unloading.

Sure makes a whole lot more sense.

Track layout is a similar issue. Sure, the tracks look nice, and yes, they tend to be that crooked in real life. But nobody would ever built them at the summit like they did here.

The tracks aren't actually connected, and if even if they were, the transition from grade to flat is abrupt, with an extreme angle.

One just cannot move mine carts, or in fact anything with wheels and a significant mass, over such a construction. I’m not entirely certain why the people at Valve didn’t see that, as it should be obvious with common sense.

Also, there is exactly one single curve in all of the mine railroad tracks you’ll ever meet, but that one is just wrong.

It's radius is less than two meters.

Mine railroads are slow operations, to be certain, where speeds of 20 kph are regarded as very high and out of the reach of many locomotives used. But that is just too small, especially as it requires very long and narrow coupling arrangements if you ever wanted to move a train through.

You’ll meet mining railroads later, but they all share the same defects.

Outside the mine

You will then leave the mountain and find the mine’s over-ground infrastructure. As usual, it has mostly fallen in disrepair, but there is still one locomotive and two hopper cars around.

Due to some destroyed tunnels, none of these vehicles will ever move away anymore, which is a pity.

I’m not certain whether any of this is correct. Maybe it is, maybe not, but all of it has a certain american feel to it, and since this is still set in eastern europe, probably something that used to be the soviet union, it seems wrong.

Whoever built the mine certainly had some bad ideas. For example, that mine will only ever deliver wagons that are half full (or half empty).

The opening that will fill the hoppers can only reach one half of the car, and there is a wall right behind the car, preventing it from moving any further.

That opening will never ever reach the other half of the car. Maybe it’s used only for customers who demand half a car load.

Road Trip

I’d say “You’ll find a conveniently placed car”, but frankly, that car is anything but conveniently placed. However, it is a two seater, has a V8, and for an american car with most of it’s parts open, it’s quite an impressive vehicle.

As you go around, admiring the scenery, killing enemies and dodging helicopters, you will, as is usual at these times, follow a railroad line for a long time. That line is probably the worst railroad in the game (and, incidentally, the last one of any interesting size).

All you will find there are wagons, standing around in sometimes smaller groups, but no locomotives

The problem with it is that it’s not soviet, it’s american. The cars have AAR Reporting Marks (special numbers used to identify cars and locomotives in North America), have english lettering like “phosphoric acid” and have a very distinct american look. Also, they have distinctly different couplings than everything else in the game.

The couplings are really wide and flat, and seem to better fit for opening really huge bottles instead of holding trains together.

It’s not only odd that the couplings are different, what’s really odd is that they are not even american. Frankly, I have no idea who uses these couplings, but whoever does gets my full pity.

Last but not least, those cars aren’t new. In fact, they aren’t even current. As we germans (and other NEM countries) tend to say in those cases, they are Epoch II, which means the time between the ends of the two world wars. If you asked me to be more specific, I’d say the 1920s, but I don’t really feel safe with anything but Epoch II. Half Life 2, however, is clearly set in Epoch VI (which isn’t defined yet, but is guaranteed to be some time in the future, as now is currently Epoch V) or later, so it really doesn’t fit. But hey, maybe the mysterious entities that control Gordon Freeman’s fate decided that they care only about their collection of railroads being fun, and not about cleanly seperated Epochs. Frankly, that’s how I operate my model railroad (and, to be honest, I also use two different coupling systems, one of which isn’t prototypical at all). But maybe I’m drifting a little of course here.

If all of that isn’t mean enough for you, take a careful look at the rails.

They are only flat textures.

Yes, even tough they bothered to give the mine cart rails a correct outline, those ones are still flat 2D, with a little reflection thrown in to make you not notice. Well, nice try, but it didn’t work here, folks.

Later on, you will see the new old american cars coupled with the standard green russian cars you know since Half Life 2, and also parts of a Combine (that’s this game’s evil alien overloards) Razor Train coupled with those green standard cars. I was actually quite convinced that this wasn’t possible, since the cars of the Razor Train seem to follow a Talgo-like concept, where each car has only two wheels and has end without wheels resting on the wheels of the next car. But maybe I got that part wrong.

Later

While trains return in some form, they aren’t important anymore, and will generally follow the american style. You will notice a new rail-based vehicle, though, which is completely fictional and looks more or less plausible. I don’t want to spoil the fun for you yet, though.

Other Transportation

An important part of every game is crates. Without crates, a game cannot be taken seriously at all.

Let’s get the worst thing away with: Yes, there are crates, and lots of them. Did I already mention that I hate crates? I think I did, and it’s possible that you do, too.

Something that’s been bothering me for quite some time is making an even larger appearance here: Yellow signs.

These signs consist of actually two signs positioned as a triangle pointing upwards, so you'll see it from both sides. It will invariably have a downwards pointing arrow.

I’ve been following these signs. They first appeared in the water levels of Half Life 2, just as signs. Now they not only appear in railroad contexts, they even get used as buffer stops. I fully expect that by the time Half-Life 2: Episode Three rolls around, you will have to shoot them to progress, and the epic boss battle of Half-Life 2: Episode Four (or will that be Half Life 3: Episode One?) is likely going to be against a much larger version of these signs.

The basic complement of cars remains the same, but there is a new one for you to drive.

It appears to be an ancient Dodge Charger, with some panels removed so that you can see the engine directly.

This one is a two-seater, drives reasonably well, is fast enough for what is needed here and can be modified to hold important stuff. I’m told some americans like this kind of car. Well, I’m more an italian car guy myself. Alfa Romeo FTW!

This is also the first Half Life 2 game to feature a normal helicopter, in this case, a Mil Mi 8.

Dialog suggests that you will use the helicopter to fly to wherever Half Life 2 Episode 3 is set. It is not mentioned whether you will actually fly it yourself, though.

I know nowhere near enough to start helicoptersingames.com, but from what little I do know, that helicopter looks correct.

The Game

Notice: As always, what I say in this section is not reflected in the final rating.

Unlike Episode One, which was just more of Half Life 2, this one can really be seen as the first part of a new game (even though it’s only the second. Bah). It’s not so much the big things (for example, weapon selection remains practically the same), as the small details that count. The HUD now is slightly more useful, making it more obvious what ammunition goes with what weapon, for example. Also, the flash light and sprinting now have two different batteries, probably because of the train crash at the beginning. Then, there is a new explosive gas container, and so on. It did not turn in a completely new game over night, but you’ll notice that it gets updated.

It's only small details, such as the flashlight symbol in the middle of the HUD now. By the way, you can also use this to tell real screenshots from promotion screenshots done earlier, which don't have that symbol yet.

Story

This game’s story is great. So great, in fact, that I can’t talk about it at all, because I might spoil it for you. So you’ll just have to take my word for it. However, no matter what you heard before, it’s still no Dreamfall, and while the story is great, it’s not novel-length. Finally, before the release, it has been said that playing this game will make you understand better where Portal, another game from the same package, is set. Well, it won’t. It is referenced, but the explanation never goes beyond anything you learn if you closely look in Portal.

What you will notice is that secondary characters get better all the time. Early in the game, you’ll have to defend an underground outpost against incoming monster insects, together with two people that would have been just plain normal guys in Half Life 2, completely expandable. Here, they are fleshed out characters that keep mocking each other and show real shock and awe when they see what the… Well, as I said, can’t say too much if I don’t want to spoil it. However, even their two turrets you’ll use have different paint schemes, showing you that this was set up by real humans. You will meet other humans later on, too, and nearly all of them are full characters in their own right, people you will start to care about pretty soon.

It's too bad that the two guys didn't get their own faces, instead using the same ones you already know very well from the previous games

For a part of the game, you will travel with a Vortigaunt (the good aliens, also enslaved). That guy is my favorite character of all of Half Life so far, giving me not quite helpful but very spot-on comments about the level design, how Gordon Freeman (your character) is great at solving difficult puzzles and similar. If anything in the game will make you laugh, this guy will.

At the end of the game, there will still be lots you don’t understand, but the way it looks, you are heading to a rather difficult decision. It’ll be interesting to see whether you, the player, will be able to actually make this decision for the first time, or will be forced to make it in a particular way to finish the game anyway, as this and all previous Half Life 2 games did.

Graphics and Technology

Half Life 2 worked well. Episode 1 had problems. Episode 2 pushed my computer over the edge (For your reference, I hope to have a new computer when Episode 3 hits). It will hang at very inopportune times (such as, right at the beginning, before you even see where you are, and right at the end, before the credits). It also has a few sections where you are not in control, and that rely heavily on graphic effects that annoy the hell out of my machine, giving me low (as in, one per second) FPS.

Graphically, on my settings, the game remained more or less where it was. I’m told the high end moved even higher, giving much better graphics than all before. That’s certainly nice for the ones who have the right computer for this sort of thing. Other than that, I can’t really complain, can I?

Playing

There is a point when you are forced to leave your car near a railway line, and I was hoping for a brief moment that we’d continue by stealing a train. Sadly, there is no such luck, so for the most part, playing is as before. However, this one certainly took inspiration from Battlefield, as far as vehicles go. Your car has a much more important role here than it ever did before here, and they experimented with making in-game interfaces working, such as a radar in the vehicle. I think that worked out rather well.

Just like Episode Two, you will start with only the gravity gun. However, this time it won't be supercharged and you'll get more weapons long before you face the first enemy

Your trusty gravity gun has been getting more and more importance over time. A new type of enemy, the Hunter, is best defeated using thrown objects, and a new weapon is basically an explosive you’ll have to throw at certain enemies with the gravity gun.

Finally, scale increased a lot. Buildings will fall to pieces completely here, and the old feeling of “They can’t really expect me to do this… wait, it worked!” will also return in a much larger scale, as you’ll manipulate ever larger objects directly and indirectly.

Result

It’s hard to put a number on this game. They clearly put much more thought into all of this than they did for Half Life 2 (and Episode One), but there are still some errors that are really grave, such as the american cars and the passenger cars without doors, not to forget all that mine nonsense. Still, I think the state is much better, especially the graphics are much better, so I decided to give this game the beloved “somewhat good” rating. I realize it’s odd to say that I invented this rating only for this game, when this is a launch review, but it really never was part of my original plan until I played the game.