More of the good of Half Life 2 fun, but its age begins to show
Half Life: Episode Two was released in 2007, almost three years after the original Half Life 2 and marks the thus far last entry into the Half Life series and probably the end of Valves try to move the game into an episodic format. The gameplay is mostly the same as in the two previous entries in the series and continues to follow the route of the linear first person shooter.
After a short cutscene, giving an overview about what happened in the last game, Episode Two starts out exactly where the last game has ended. The big explosion has derailed and destroyed the train and the first job is to get out of the rubble once again. After reacquiring the gravity gun, Alyx and Gordon try to make their way to the rebel base. The story unlike the previous episodes, takes a few interesting twist and turns and has a greater sense of purpose and goals. Alyx is again the companion for most of the game, but a small part of the game a Vortigaunt will be there to help.
The scenarios in Episode Two also makes a change for the better, while the beginning will be spend in a rather ugly mine, much of the later parts plays completely outdoors in bright daylight. The vehicle sections also make a return, so much of the later game will be spend driving around in those lush outdoor forest environments.
Combat in Episode Two also feels quite different, as it is a lot more intense then the combat in Episode One. A lot of time will be spend fighting well equipped Combines instead of the rather slow and weak zombies of the previous game. The game also introduces a new enemy type, the Hunter, which are essentially mini-Strider that take a good many hits to take down. Fights against regular Striders and airships are present as well.
Overall I enjoyed Episode Two a lot more then Episode One. While the game is still mostly build around the exact same gameplay known from the original Half Life 2, by then three year old, it does at least provide new environments and a reasonable story to make the journey interesting, something completely absent in Episode One. The more intense and difficult fighting is a welcome change. In a few sections the game also goes over into a base defense game, which removes the simplicity and predictability of the otherwise linear combat. The game can at times get a little chaotic and frustrating, but it pays of in a much more entertaining experience.
That said, the game isn't without problems, three years after the original game one might expect a little more then just five hours of more of the same, but that's pretty much was this game provides. The story still doesn't really go anywhere and mostly just cleans up some stuff left open in the previous games. My personal pet peeves with the Half Life 2 series are also all still present. The headcrabs still look like roasted chicken and the zombies just look like dudes with a paper bag over their head, not something that is remotely scary, just something that looks funny and odd. Gordon still is a bodyless camera that doesn't interact with its environment and will for example glide straight through Alyx when he wants to get into the car from the wrong side. The NPCs are also all rather flat and one sided as they seem to be doing nothing beside admiring Gordon whenever he walks by.
The gravity gun also still feels just the same, grabbing objects works reasonably fine, but having grabbed objects collide with the environment just feels glitchy. One could certainly do a better job then just having the physics engine glitch around in those situations. Another big, still unsolved issue, is that grabbing objects block your view, which makes aiming at enemies much harder then it should be and most of the time its a bit of a game of luck. A little change in perspective or how Gordon holds objects could go a long way.
Driving cars around also doesn't feel great. The steering is overly sensitive and it is way to easy to accidentally get off the road and ram into a tree or rubble pile at the side of the road that will make the car do all kinds of weird stuff. Driving is also badly adapted to the gamepad, as acceleration and steering will be done both with the left stick, instead of having acceleration on the triggers like in almost any other game. This adds some more wobbliness to the already not so great driving mechanics.
In the end, it is a fun game that provides more of the good parts of Half Life 2 in a new setting with a reasonably interesting story to take you along and in turn is much more enjoyable then Episode One. It doesn't reinvent the wheel and maybe at this time it should have tried a little harder do to something new, but it's still fun enough for what it is.