Half Life 2 Episode 1 was much like the Opposing Force expansion to the original Half Life. Both games were largely similar, but each offered a distinct twist that helped it along. In Opposing Force, it was the concept of playing as a soldier hunting down Gordon Freeman, and the benefits of having a troop of specialized AI soldiers to help you along the way.
In Episode 1, it was the impressive AI of Alyx Vance, which helped you bond with her character as well as giving Valve a chance to create some interesting scenarios for her and Gordon to tackle. Both games also benefited from their incredible set pieces that improved upon most of the things we experienced in the original games. It says a lot when your two expansion packs contain some of the best single player content of the year.
Still, Episode 1 was never intended to be very groundbreaking. Rather it was a distillation of Half Life 2. By taking place entirely in City 17 and expanding more on the story, it took the best parts of Half Life 2 and made them better. It was Valve’s way to address their mistakes and refine their technique. This was fine for Episode 1, as it indeed made for a fantastic 5 or 6 hours of gaming.
For Episode 2 however, we all wanted more, and it seemed Valve felt the same way. Previews indicated that the next episode would take place in the forests outside of City 17, allowing us to explore vast tracts of land in a more dynamic and survivalist game. At least, this is what I remember.
The game we got is far from this concept. Episode 2 feels like the other half of HL2 distilled; that is, the outdoor levels and vehicle missions condensed into a 5-6 hour experience with a few new twists and great set pieces. This works in refining the entirety of the HL2 concept, so that we may see the saga off with something big and bold in Episode 3. But it is also a problem, in that this is still a 2004 era shooter. That it is still worth playing speaks volumes of Valve’s abilities, but it doesn’t hold up as well it used to, and the new concepts are either not very good or not fully implemented. What may be the most surprising thing for most gamers to hear is that Episode 2’s biggest contribution comes from its storytelling, though for us Valve fans this is anything but unexpected.
The new content in Episode 2 is threefold. The first is an area early in the game that seems different from past HL2 fare. It isn’t entirely new however, being based on creatures already seen in the game, and as a result this early chapter is not terribly potent, and is at times frustrating. The second is a new foe called the Hunter, which was perhaps intended to be the creature we most feared in the initial concept for the game, where they might have been predators to hunt and track us down through the forest. Instead they are merely a highly powerful foe that you will dispose of quickly with your best weapons. Given what Episode 2 actually is, there’s not much the Hunters can do other than to cause us some extra trouble, and as such they seem like an squandered opportunity.
Our third item is what you would consider the “big” showcase, a final battle that actually does take place in a wide open location and leaves the player to their own devices. Indeed, this section is intense and enjoyable, but as one small part of the whole show, it simply isn’t enough. You will finish it breathless, and then wish there were several more instances like it. This is the most frustrating addition, as it gives a hint at what Valve might have been shooting for, but that we missed out on in the end.
Then you get to the rest of the content, and it is the same old song. You will encounter all the classic enemies in various set pieces, and drive around to them in a bitchin’ new car. If you know the best way to handle Combine squads or Antlion packs, you won’t find it to be too much trouble. Episode 2 does heat things up by throwing some unprecedented challenges at you (two Antlion queens at once?), but by now we’ve faced these battles so many times that the new challenges do not feel that much more imposing than the lesser ones we faced in HL2.
And so you will go through the motions and have a good time, but by now some of the seams are going to be apparent. You realize now how dumb the Combine are, and how much the graphics have aged, since none of the Half Life 2 installments seem to take full advantage of the many upgrades to the Source engine. Much like the Quake 3 engine survived for so many years, Source is not going to fade away any time soon. But it helps to have some tweaks along the way, and you will need to experience games like Day of Defeat and Team Fortress 2 to see what Valve has done to it.
Half Life 2 and Halo 2 both shipped within days of each other in 2004. Amazingly enough, the same thing happened with Halo 3 and The Orange Box in 2007. Both Valve and Bungie are in the Modern Triumvirate of FPS developers (I would put Epic in the third slot), and it is interesting to see how they’ve both diverged in three years. Bungie went ahead and made a full sequel to their game, improving upon most aspects while leaving the core game intact. Valve did not make a sequel, but instead a few episodes that made improvements while leaving the core game intact. Guess they aren’t so different after all.
In all seriousness, there are some key differences. Halo 3’s campaign is not remarkably different or better than the two that came before it, but Bungie managed to save their asses through the additions of four player co-op and campaign scoring. The game takes on a much less serious note when four players are creating all sorts of hijinks, and the scoring system adds both serious new stipulations to the game, as well as adding a competitive edge, should you wish to accept it (my friends and I shared the kills). Combined with the obviously improved multiplayer, it becomes clear that Bungie wanted to move on and make a better multiuser shooter.
Valve did not add anything similar to co-op or campaign scoring to Episode 2, so in one sense Bungie has one upped them. But Valve’s goals are bigger and broader than anyone else’s. They wish to use Source as a solution to everything. The Orange Box is proof of this; it contains a great new multiplayer game in Team Fortress 2. They hired the Portal team to create an excellent new single player shooter. They took their games outside of the games with the Team Fortress shorts and the Aperture Science website. In short, Valve is as committed as Bungie at refining the shooter, but they are trying to tackle everything at once by using separate games of a single intensified purpose. Each one does one thing very well, and yet each shows a high level of craft and polish.
Of course, all of this means is that Episode 2 specializes in the one thing I left out; storytelling. Content wise it isn’t much more than what we saw in the past two installments, but I argue that it is better here than ever before. Everything about Ep. 2 feels more grim and depressing, and yet some of the characters are the funniest we’ve seen. It is funny as much as it is unnerving; it feels like a group of people who are laughing as they realize they are about to die. Even when you are away from the real action, Episode 2 reminds you of just how high the stakes are this time through its desperate characters, who seem to be holding on thanks to the most minute threads of sanity. More important than this is the fact that Ep. 2 has the power to tug on your emotions. Homeworld is the only game to make me cry. Ep. 2 is the closest anything has gotten since. It got to me, in ways that I forgot games could.
This is where we see the true refinement. Valve doesn’t do anything new with the “digital actors” they established in Half Life 2. They merely take the concept and execute it better than before. This is what NPC’s should be like. The characters in Half Life 2 move and speak and behave like real people. They convince us of a level of humanity that most games could never dream of, because they are too busy looking like Disney animatronics in the middle of a scripted scene. Episode 2 finally delivers the dramatic punch we’re so used to in films, because it gives us characters who act, and when it places you right there in the scene, the punch is that much stronger.
Those who call themselves aficionados of game storytelling would mock me here. They would tell me that Half Life 2 has a miserable story. Valve often puts the story right in our faces, but sometimes we have to pay attention. We have to look for the extra nuggets of exposition, or take notice of the finer details of the environment. It simply isn’t delivered to us on a plate, and its goal is power through simplicity. Some gamers still don’t understand this. They feel that Alyx is a boring character because she doesn’t have a scene by the waterfall where she spills her guts. Never mind that we can tell of both her strengths and insecurities by her actions and interaction with other characters. The villains of Half Life 2, the Combine, are not much different than Halo’s Covenant. But because none of the HL’s have allowed us to face off against god in his three different forms, apparently we have nothing epic.
The problem is quite clear; as long as so many people equate a good story to the number of lines of text they have to read or cut scenes they have to watch, then storytelling in gaming is doomed. That, or we need something where the text actually reads like a novel, and not the script from an anime or a syndicated B-quality sci fi show.
Don’t play The Orange Box just for Episode 2, but do get around to playing it. You can do worse in the shooter genre, and it still has a few surprises up its sleeve.