Sunday 21 October 2007

Two's down, Three to go...

Well, I've literally just finished playing Half-Life 2: Episode Two for the second time through. For the past 4 days I've been completely addicted to this superb game. The single down side being the short length, something which plagued Episode One, but at least this one is a tad longer - but another couple of hours wouldn't hurt.

My only other minor niggle with it would have to be all the running around in underground caves in the first portion of the game, it's good, but perhaps there's a bit too much of it - something which is common in the Half-Life 2 series - too much of certain areas, but at least you're extra-pleased to see new ground once you've moved on.

Anyway, point being, it's a superb game. The graphics are perhaps a tad rusty around the edges now that the current-next-gen has come along, but in other areas the graphics have excelled - the key one being the use of High Dynamic Range lighting. It was obtrusive and sluggish-at-times in Episode One, so in-your-face in fact that it became a bit unrealistic and over-the-top, but thankfully it's been reigned in with Episode Two. Now it's used with subtlety, selection and realism.

The new car - the hot rod - is awesome fun to drive. The new countryside locale is fantastic fun to explore (even though you're a bit train-tracked, which was pretty much the case with the previous installments). But what is on offer along the way is so visually arresting that you wouldn't want to be bothered looking at other things because the scenes set before you are rich in texture and concept; key scenes if you will.

My main cheer for the game, however, has to be down to the story - the script and the performance by the voice actors (and likewise the 'acting' by the computer-generated characters). The key honour going to the character of Alyx Vance, you actually care for this character, which makes the ending all-the-more powerful - a rare feat in videogaming.

It's not often that you actually give a stuff about the characters, but the interplay is so finely tuned it's as if you're watching a movie (although here you're inside one). The quality of voice-acting, as well as how the creators have translated the performances into these CG characters is astonishingly good. If only more games had this much emotional investment and true sense of scale, of drama. It is indeed a true epic, and while Episode One was good (shakey, more-of-the-same, like a tacked-on second ending to the original game...admittedly), Episode Two is affecting. You're invested within the story, you actually care what is going on, rather than barging on to see what shit you can blow up next.

Although that said, when stuff does blow up it's awe-inspiring (the wooden buildings in the final battle with the Striders being the key example). Another enjoyable addition (or tweak) is the extent of puzzle solving throughout the game. It's not mind-breaking, far from it, but rather it's enjoyable and often results in something cool happening.

A bloody triumph, Episode Two is certainly the cream of the videogaming crop right now, and importantly - will stick close with me for a good while before it rightfully takes its place with the other classics of videogame history. Episode Three can't possibly come soon enough!

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