First Impressions: I see you shiver with antici... pation!
Episode One left us in the midst of chaos. Gordon and Alyx had worked their way through, under, and across City 17, fighting off hordes of Combine troops, headcrabs and a powerful new enemy called the ?Zombine? in order to get back into the Citadel and intercept a Combine transmission. The transmission was so important that the Combine was willing to sacrifice the Citadel in order to send it. In fact, at the end of Episode One, the Citadel crumbles down into a flaming heap of metal and ash, creating a shockwave so powerful that it derails the train speeding Gordon and Alyx away from City 17. The fate of the heroes and the world is unknown: the Combine sent the transmission, the destruction of the Citadel created a superportal in the sky, and Alyx hangs on for dear life as she clutches at a piece of wreckage suspended high above a rocky canyon.
Episode One also left us itching to play Episode Two. It ramped up the excitement level by teaming Gordon with Alyx for most of the game. The two had to cooperate in order to overcome many of the challenges. It improved on Half-Life 2's graphics by adding impressive high dynamic range lighting effects and a detailed facial animation system. It added a DVD-style commentary system that allowed players to hear the developers talk about what went into making the game. It increased the game's challenges by bettering enemy AI to give them new behaviors. However, Episode One prompted a lot of players to question Valve's episodic gaming strategy. The game was short, offering five missions that most players finished in less than six hours. And here we are, a year after the release of the first installment, waiting for Episode Two with no official launch date announced.
Still, that doesn't stop the dyed in the wool Half-Life fans from jonesing for their next fix behind the gravity gun. When it does finally hit stores, we won't see it in the traditional episodic format. Episode Two will come packaged with two other independent games, Portal and Team Fortress 2, and it will be known as The Orange Box. Episode Two, by the way, should be about two hours longer than Episode One. Oh, and the package will launch simultaneously on PC, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3. The Orange Box will be a huge value for anyone looking to get into Half-Life next-gen console play, since it bundles all of the new content with both Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One. On the one hand, it's a dream setup: the things that marathon gaming sessions are made of. On the other hand, it'll force some players to buy content they may not want.
Story-wise, Episode Two looks like it's really going to deliver. It should pick up right where the last installment left off, with both Gordon and Alyx's lives hanging in the balance. Anyone who waited through the credits of Episode One saw a teaser for the upcoming release which showed a Vortigaunt carrying the body of a gravely injured Alyx Vance, saying ?This is more than anyone can bear. But we will persevere.? Valve has announced that a major character will die in Episode Two, but refuses to say who we will be losing. Likewise, Valve promises not only a return of the G-Man, but that he will reveal some important secrets about his nature, including some kind of connection to Alyx.
The plot and play will center around Gordon's attempt to get the information contained in that transmission to the resistance fighters and scientists. It seems like the resistance will have moved their base of operations far from City 17, into an abandoned missile bunker, and getting the information there will be essential to stopping the Combine. The resistance is upping the stakes in this one, or as Eli Vance says, ?We're done running. This is our chance to take back our world. We're not going to lose it a second time.? They've taken the fight out into the forests and fields, and we should see large-scale battles between the Combine and the resistance, but the Combine won't exactly be a pushover, even after suffering the losses of the earlier games.
In addition to the familiar Combine troops, Overwatch elite and Striders, we'll see at least one new enemy, the Hunter. The Hunter is a three-legged mechanical beast from Hell about the height of a man. It's solidly built, quick, and heavily armed. Its primary job will be to make life difficult for resistance soldiers by supporting Striders in the attack. While the Striders blast away with their heavy cannons, the Hunters will flush out hidden troops and help defend against individuals with rocket launchers.
Of course, Gordon will have a few new tricks up his sleeve, including what's being called a ?Strider buster.? It's a sticky, soccer ball sized device that Gordon will throw with the gravity gun. When it adheres to a Strider, it will start drawing power from the machine?the longer it's attached, the more power it will draw. Once it's charged, Gordon can shoot it with any weapon, including a pistol, and detonate it to destroy the Strider.
The battles should play out a bit differently from the combat in the earlier games. The move from city to forest will give the battles a larger scale and give Gordon more room to maneuver. Valve is using this by allowing the player more freedom to plan attacks and solve problems in different ways. Most of the combat in the earlier games had pretty much one solution and one path to glory, but in Episode Two, many of the situations will be open-ended, requiring Gordon to choose between multiple courses of action and allowing for multiple solutions. ?Open-ended? is the buzzword here, as opposed to the evil-sounding (and no longer fashionable) ?scripted? and ?linear.?
These larger areas will require Gordon to cover a whole lot more ground than he did in Episode One, so he'll be getting his driver's license back. There will likely be some sort of vehicular combat, since one of the featured vehicles, the hand-made ?Hybrid,? will allow for a passenger/gunner to keep the fight going while on the move. Valve promises that this vehicle will have some power under the hood, as opposed to the souped-up sewing machine engine that moved the buggy in Half-Life 2. It's supposed to use the same control scheme as the buggy, so it should be a blast to maneuver through the hilly, wooded landscapes Episode Two will contain.
As already mentioned, Half-Life 2: Episode Two will include two other games, Portal and Team Fortress 2. Portal is an experimental puzzle game set in a previously unseen part of the Half-Life universe. Its main claim to fame is the Portal gun, which (as its name suggests), allows the player to create dynamic portals between any visible locations on the map. There can be only two portals on the map at any time, and a character who walks into one will emerge from the other. It looks like the gameplay will involve using the portals creatively to negotiate obstacles and avoid gun turrets and the like. The identity of the main character has yet to be revealed, but Valve has confirmed both that the character will make an appearance in a future Half-Life release and that playing this game will give players more background on the Half-Life world. Interestingly enough, Portal began as a class project for a group of students at the DigiPen institute. Valve saw the game, liked it, and hired the students practically on the spot.
Team Fortress 2, meanwhile, has a longer history. Gamers interested in strategic, team-based gameplay will know that Team Fortress began its life as a mod for Quake Arena before its mod team was hired by Valve. The core of the gameplay of Team Fortress 2 is its first-person, on-line multiplayer action and its class system. Players have the choice between nine different classes, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the ?Heavy? moves slow, but carries a powerful weapon and can take plenty of damage. The ?Engineer? isn't focused on offensive combat, instead he can build structures like turrets that can help fight off the enemy. The ?Spy? has stealth abilities that can help him sneak up on enemies and kill them silently. Other classes include the Pyro, the Medic and the Soldier, and more may be included in future patches. The class system means that the most successful strategies will rely on players working together to combine the strengths of the classes while minimizing their weaknesses. The upcoming release will maintain this team-based play while introducing a whole new look, not to mention a bit of humor. Team Fortress Classic featured gritty, realistic visuals, but TF2 will change all that to use a cartoonish look that complements the over-the-top action in the game. It's a bold move in a world of shooters that strive for photo-realistic visuals and punish any game that achieves anything less. Cartoonish certainly doesn't mean plain, though. Screenshots and videos released so far look close to what viewers are used to from recent Hollywood computer-animated movies. Team Fortress 2 will have the same detailed graphics and physics technologies featured in Episode Two.