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Tag Archives: Episode Three

I remember all my experiences with Half-Life 2. Borrowing £5 from my friend so I could buy the PC Gamer special edition with the uber early preview of it, then again for the review issue a couple of years later. I must have read each of those more times than people have this blog (which tbh isn’t that hard). Then release day, and being only 15 at the time I didn’t have enough money to buy it. Sucks to be me. Christmas comes round and we’re staying up near Scotland with family when lo and behold, my Grandma has been tipped off by my parents and bought it for me for christmas! So a week later when we  get back home I put the DVD into my PC to find out that we DON’T ACTUALLY HAVE A DVD DRIVE in it. A week of moaning later and my dad turns up with one which I install into the computer and away we go. After waiting several hours for our dial up modem to update steam, unlock half life, and update half life, I start to play. A week later a resounding “HOLY FUCKING SHIT” was heard around the house as I completed the game for the first time.

Dog battling a strider in Episode 2

A year later I had completed Half-Life 2 far more times than I care to count, encompassing each of the difficulty levels, and most recently in my exam procrastination sessions over the last week I have just once again completed the whole series so far.

Half-Life 2 to me defines the genre of fps. It is perfection, polished to a sparkly sheen. And yet it is much more than that as well, it is one of the most involving stories ever to grace the fps, no the pc gaming platform. Over the years this has been the topic of much discussion and an argument both for and against the storytelling ability of games. As the mute hero Gordon Freeman you are placed into a world with no understanding of what has gone on and are provided with little explanation even as the game progresses, with the storytelling appearing to take a backseat to the explosions and shooting. Yet why did I feel the need to swear so loudly at the ending? Because somewhere along the way, valve have sneaked in a story that sucked me in without me even realising.

So what was it? The groundbreaking facial animations betraying the characters emotions despite their brave personas? The little snippets of information gleaned from Dr Breens announcements about the combine administration, or the newspaper clippings and photographs in the Black Mesa East lab accompanied by Eli Vance’s brief descriptions of each? To be honest, I can’t really say. Many of the elements of the game which provoke these reactions aren’t even that obvious, and come in the form of the scenery. A boarded up house with a hole in the wall and Combine patrol outside is filled with mattresses and portable cooking equipment tells the tale of people who have tried to escape. The desolate and ruined Nova Prospekt filled with massive combine prisons and technology. The citadel boaring  almost as deep into the ground as it extends above it, why? These unmentioned and seemingly unimportant details are what brings the storytelling ability of Half-Life 2 to the level of modern ‘pioneers’ of the gaming storytelling uprising. And don’t forget G-man, appearing throughout the game, observing, and in some cases potentially assisting, your progress.

It's even creepier when you know the story

This is taken even further in the sequals. Episode One adds new dimensions to the characters. Barney goes from being the clean cut hero soldier, to beaten up and desperate, taking all the help he can get. Alyx too reveals a more fragile side, no longer able to constantly be the strong and unflinching character she is initially portrayed to be in the face of the Stalkers.

If you thought this was good however, you’ve seen nothing until you’ve seen Episode Two. This is where the ambient storytelling through scenery and snippets of information that Valve had previously adopted takes a back seat in favour of a more structured and compelling approach, with the first third of the game being a race to help the Vortigaunts save the life of a mortally wounded Alyx. Not only this but the game even adds more layers to the original Half Life, taking the passing references made in HL2 and creating whole plotlines around the events, ranging from massive revelations, to a certain microwaveable casserole. The fact that you are accompanied by Alyx for the majority of Episodes One and Two also provides Valve with an easy route to the emotional strings of gamers, as well as making the segments of the game where you are left to perform tasks alone much more tense.

Enough with the story though, this is an FPS, there’s GAMEPLAY to be had! And none of the HL2 games fail to impress here. The scripted combat scenes equal the storytelling scenes in terms of orchestration and effect, offering some truly epic moments, especially when Dog is involved. The enemies are varied and each provide a different challenge. Fighting the combine can be fast paced and adrenalin fuelled but encounters with headcrab zombies require a more persistent approach and some clever conservation of ammo, especially in Ravenholm. However this is all mixed up with the involvement of the antlions which first provide a jumpy, twitchy, test of your reactions but later become the most deadly weapon in your arsenal. The attack on Nova Prospekt with the antlions is probably my favourite section of the whole game.

This mix of scripted action with straight combat only improves through the episodes, with episode 2 making some quite drastic changes to the game in terms of appearance and playability. The constant polishing of the source engine by Valve means that episode 2 looks old but by no means outdated, with some truly epic visuals dotted throughout the game. Every time I play I still find myself amazed by the character models, with their incredibly well designed facial expressions and actions. Combined with the brilliantly talented voice acting this provokes a really strong emotional reaction to the twists and turns of the story. I am seriously looking forward to episode 3.

Combine soldiers battling antlions in Nova Prospekt

The only thing that has disappointed me with the Half Life 2 series has been the range of weaponry. The original Half Life offered out an impressive spread of various standard and futuristic weapons, with the add-ons only expanding on these. Half Life 2 on the other hand has a stripped down and basic selection which in some ways suits the games style, but it does feel somewhat lacking when you realise you have every weapon the game has to offer about half way through.

If I had to, I would say episode 2 is the strongest of the series, being the newest and released 3 after HL2 Valve have had a lot of time to perfect their formula, and I can only see it getting better. If you haven’t played this series, then you are seriously missing out.

Here’s a machinima music video I came across not long after playing HL2 for the first time.

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