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Half-Life 2, Episodes One and Two on Game and Player

Half-Life 2, Episodes One and Two

Michael Ubaldi  //  October 30, 2007

If reselling Half-Life 2 three years later were a bet of Valve Corporation's, Valve makes smart bets.


ven ten years ago, the plot of Half-Life was already a Nineties convention: a) scientific insouciance opens passage to another dimension; b) horrible things meant to stay over there begin arriving here; c) violations and mutations of humans occur, the very few survivors fighting their way through and out. Valve Corporation's telling of that same old story, however, was exciting. Unique gameplay — the protagonist a bespectacled, taciturn, crowbar-wielding theoretical physicist, Gordon Freeman — sealed an accepted submission for one the most applauded and purchased shooter titles.

The first game was followed by three reenactments of it, each from the point of view of others trapped in the continuum-breaching, experimental complex, Black Mesa. Half-Life 2, released in 2004 on PC and in 2005 on the Xbox, begins some two decades after the fortunate endings of the first chapters. Tragically, man's space-time gateway was wide enough for a pan-universal empire, known as the Combine, to invade Earth and establish a totalitarian tour de force. Earth is stripped, scarred, polluted, dilapidated and populated by just two classes, oppressors and oppressed — a kind of planet-wide North Korea.

The family Vance: Eli, Alyx, Dog.
Unseen powers — their legate an omnipresent, would-be Slavic host of The Twilight Zone — place Gordon Freeman in a bleak City 17, inconspicuous to the enemy. At first, of course. Freeman noisily escapes the capital city before reentering, at the head of an insurrection, to storm a mile-high, otherworldly spire called the Citadel. That journey is over 15 hours long, dramatic and varied — adding to the crowbar a second iconic weapon, the kinetic "Gravity Gun" — and Half-Life 2 has earned Valve a second round of accolades.

Extra-game atmospherics in this month's re-release are prominent. Half-Life 2, leading title on The Orange Box, is the opening screen's default selection. To one of composer Kelly Bailey's more anthemic jungle tracks, a montage from the game starts up with the unctuous "Welcome to City 17!" from Earth's arch-quisling, Dr. Wallace Breen. If Half-Life 2 is chosen, the game's sub-menu will idle on a real-time, ground-level observation of the square outside City 17's train station. Combine scanner-droids float about while Civil Protection metrocops walk their rounds and, in uniform basso, communicate with a dispatcher in Valve's painstakingly written Newspeak dialect. The scene will continue indefinitely until a player loads or begins a session. Silence to this point would have been fine, so all this is lagniappe — early, strong signs of real value in The Orange Box.

Episode One and Episode Two are by design extensions of the sequel's story and system. Together the episodes total about two-thirds of Half-Life 2's play time. Gameplay additions are mostly minor, two proportional and incremental but notable. Alyx Vance, daughter of Freeman's fellow scientist Eli Vance, equally pedantic and Valkyrian — a nerd's dream girl — rises from the supporting role she played for Half-Life 2 to an AI-controlled partner through the balance of both Episode One and Episode Two. She is at once hardnosed and lighthearted, her integration into the narrative a welcome drawing of attention away from Freeman's peculiar muteness.

The second addition is a set of puzzles that bring Valve's game engine closer to virtual reality, where objects and structures act as they should. A weak suspension of disbelief, encouraged by the artificial boundaries and laws of video games, may delay some players' grasp of the physical concepts underlying solutions to problems. Once one realizes that Half-Life's surroundings are amenable to mass and momentum, the response of this world to manipulation impresses.

Each of the two episodes delivers sights and thrills as touted in promotional media, though with uneven results. Gordon and Alyx, in Episode One, are forced to explore the Citadel while the alien cynosure, caught in an explosion Freeman caused at the end of Half-Life 2, is collapsing. Valve chose not to tell but to show, giving players a firsthand look at what happens when technology beyond understanding is damaged beyond repair. Episode Two features a Resistance car straight from the vehicle lot of The Rockford Files. It's a throaty hulk of an auto, but Valve took such cues from realism that the engine block obstructs forward vision, making drives frustrating when they should be exciting. Earlier in the episode, Freeman infiltrates an insect-ridden subterrane, forty-five minutes of play ranging between ghoulish and gruesome. Mercifully, Episode Two is invested with gallows' humor — the voice-acting of Firefly star Adam Baldwin appropriate and elevating.

Half-Life 2, while strictly linear, has appealed over the last three years in such a way as to make periodic replays as worthwhile as the first experience; so the introduction of Achievement Points for the Xbox 360 release motivates a follow-up tour even more. Valve has distributed awards cleverly, combining milestones with gameplay feats that are fairly easy to perform — made easier with the addition of a hotkey for the Gravity Gun, showcased by implication but buried, in the original Xbox port, under an awkward weapon-swapping menu.

You've seen this tableau?
You'll see it again — while you play.
Valve may have got a little carried away with daring its customers, maybe traversing the line at which begins hazing. One achievement comes from using nothing but the Gravity Gun during a dusk flight through Ravenholm, a town flush with zombies and anecdotally the game's least favorite level. Another, in Episode Two, involves the transport of — you are reading this right — a plastic garden gnome for the better part of four hours.

As ever, the Xbox 360 can't support the modifications responsible for hours of dabbling. It will be computer users who create emergent styles of play or even independent works of the caliber of Christopher Livingston's graphic-novel parody, Concerned. And with Half-Life sold not alone but in a bundle, the shape and trajectory of a promised Episode Three are uncertain. Still, Valve Corporation works in strange ways. The Orange Box itself was to be met variously. There were those who had played Half-Life 2 on computer, so already owned Episode One and a few other tie-ins; those who played Half-Life 2 on the Xbox a year after the PC release; and those who were buying for the first time. A limited release, called the The Black Box, was cancelled. If that were because Valve bet that people wanted its work so much they would pay for whatever came off the damned shelf — well, Valve takes all.

Half-Life 2, Episodes One and Two



Valve Corporation


Valve Corporation

NA Release

October 9, 2007


Play Mode

ESRB Rating

In Favor

  • Still one of the best FPS series
  • Inventive, yet consistent
  • Fresh format for re-release


  • Long and intense; can weary
  • 360 version lacks PC's extras

G&P Rating

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