Ah, and this is the episode that’s good. Let’s think about why. Combat is a bit more mixed up, there’s far fewer combine which is always a tremendous thing. There’s opportunities to breathe, to drive, to take in the magnificent scenery, and the game just feels like it’s at a much better pace than the previous episode. Not necessarily faster, but there is more care taken into making it flow.
The important thing is that, at times, Valve have delineated slightly from their infinitely long corridor design. You spend a while driving this overpowered go-kart along a winding mountain path and as you do, you pass by abandoned buildings, resistance caches, odd-looking sheds… you don’t have to visit all of them to finish the game, and because of that I found myself exploring and investigating with much more enthusiasm. Levels also felt a bit more compact and connected, quite often you could see where you needed to get to from the very start and it’d take fifteen minutes to traverse that distance. Still a bit too dependent on the “defend the base” set piece, which are never quite thrilling or long enough to make me feel it was worthwhile (with perhaps the exception of the final battle).
Secondly, the characters have finally escaped the shackles of the original Half Life. Yes, in 1998 I imagine it was pretty impressive that there was a security guard called Barney, I’m not doubting this, but he is about as dull as it’s possible for a human to be. They’d started to get somewhere decent with Kleiner and Dog, but Episode 2 is where actual memorable characters appear. Doctor Magnusson is excellent, bristling with pomposity and intellect, but my favourite is the Vortigant who travels with you through some mines. Yes in theory he is spouting the same dull platitudes as Alyx, but it’s done with so much wit and quality that it doesn’t matter. When he congratulated me for retrieving ammo boxes from a runaway mine cart, when a group of Vorts were talking to me and echoing each other’s commands, I was genuinely grinning. I can appreciate Alyx and Eli add some kind of heart to the game but this is me we’re talking about. I want a companion to ease the boring bits of the game, not wallow around in misery.
Lastly, much of the early game is spent in a mine pissing off Antlions, and I think the best thing added to the game is these little grubs that you can see above. They don’t attack you but if you shoot them, jump on them or brush into them in any way at all, they instantly die with an anguished wail and give you back 1 health. When I walked over the first one I was mortified, but it was like I couldn’t stop. I’d be fighting some kind of acid-spitting ant, take a step back and hear a crunch and a wail. Oh god not another one. Valve positioned drops just above them, hid them behind corners, and did everything they possibly could to get you to stamp the little beasts. In the end, broken, demoralised, I stampeded every one I could find. Now that’s level design.
4 stars, 5 and a half hours spent.