The Orange Box: Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (PC)
With the latest installment in the Half-Life saga, Valve demonstrates its commitment to episodic content. This isn't necessarily a good thing. After delivering a compelling narrative experience with Half-Life and Half-Life 2, now it seems to be coasting, eschewing any real storytelling in favor of drawing everything out. It's as if Valve was desperate for material, so it worked up some scenes that got cut from the original game, or remade ones that didn't. The G-Man is still just a tease, the Combine is as mysterious as it has been all along, and none of the characters are developed in any meaningful way. It's the marriage of unfulfilling episodic television (paging 'X-Files' and 'Lost') with unambitious game design. Heaven forbid that any secrets be revealed in Episode One or Episode Two, because then there would be no reason for gamers to buy Episode Three.
Episode One started the trend by conveniently ignoring the implications of the ending of Half-Life 2, which dealt a blow to Earth's alien invaders, but at a price to our heroes. For all intents and purposes, it looked as if Valve actually had the guts to kill a main character. No such luck, it turns out, as she'll be needed in later episodes. So when our heroine, Alyx, is imperiled in Episode Two, we know better. Fool us once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool us -- we can't get fooled again. Abruptly throwing us a Benson-shaped bone at the end of the game doesn't count.
As with Episode One, very little actually happens in Episode Two to further the story. What drove Half-Life 2 -- the unfolding of a world you helped break -- is nowhere in evidence in these follow-up episodes. Nothing new is being revealed, and instead you're just playing shooter set pieces that don't come together the way better shooters do. In this regard, the Half-Life 2 episodes have a lot in common with Halo 3: "Here's what we did before. Now here's us doing it again. Keep loving us. Thanks!"
The character development consists of introducing a new uptight administrator, showing more of Dr. Kleiner's fumbling, and another boatload of coy looks from Alyx, complete with a jarring moment in which her father makes a rather lewd suggestion. You wisely remain silent.
At least the set pieces are well done. The Vortigaunts are finally given their due here, truly busting loose from the collars they wore when they were introduced in the first Half-Life. There's a wonderful defensive action holding out against swarms of ant lions with two wisecracking companions helping you out. Loveable robot companion Dog gets a great moment in the spotlight before going conveniently missing for the endgame. And the final mission is, well, ambitious. Someone at Valve clearly loves those tripods.
But you've seen most of this already. It's disappointing that there's precious little in terms of new assets. You're running and gunning through the same rusted out remnants of civilization, past the same ruined cars, into the same tunnels, over the same scaffolding, down the same canyons, with the same guns, fighting the same enemies. There are precious few additions. A new cavern area is unfortunately a dull slog made no more exciting by jumping bugs. When Episode Two enters a forest, it's like a long overdue vacation to someplace new. A short-lived vacation, because then you're in the same old underground labs, but a vacation nonetheless.
It all gets tedious long before it's over. By the time your buggy (which is a muscle car this time) is fitted with a radar display to help you find supply caches, there's a crushing sense of futility. This is what Valve expects you to do for the next hour of Half-Life 2: Episode Two? Drive along a single road, stopping the car every now and then to get out and look for ammo and health kits, which you'll invariably expend during the fights along the way? Why not just drive straight through? Valve has no answer to this question.
To its credit, Valve has included a developer's commentary that lets us peer into the process of making Episode Two. It's a fascinating addition, inspired by the folks at Starbreeze, which introduced the idea with its Chronicles of Riddick game. Here's hoping more developers do this. You get a sense not only for how the levels are carefully built, but also for how the player experience is carefully controlled. In fact, it's almost better not to listen to the commentary, which clearly demonstrates what a confined, linear, and claustrophobic shooter this is. Given that games like Crysis and Medal of Honor: Airborne are breaking out of this type of design, and given how well Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and BioShock are adapting to it, Episode Two feels like 2004 all over again.
This is particularly disappointing since there are people at Valve doing awesome work, infusing the developer's games with clever narratives and sharp style. But those guys are apparently working on Portal and Team Fortress 2. For now, the Half-Life franchise feels like something built from Valve's b-side material.
This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.