Saturday, 2 May 2009

Where's the Forest?

I'm constantly amazed at how much the Half Life 2 series has come on in the three games. The Half Life 2 was a lengthy game chronicling Gordon Freeman on his travels through and around City 17. It was hailed as ground breaking and was much loved by everyone. And, despite many elements of genius, I didn't like it. Episode 1 was the next installment which took the genius parts and squeezed them together to produce a superb game. And I liked it. And now we have Episode 2, which is another one of Episode 1.

HL2E2 continues the trends set in HL2E1. The level design is superb - tight and winding corridor sections explode into wide open forests / toxic bogs / warehouse rooms and all are filled with details and interesting people to meet. And crawling with monsters too, naturally. The progression through the levels, whilst still as linear as the other games, now loops around. You frequently spend some time enjoying some plot exposition in one area, then are sent off down a tunnel to do your violence-thing before being brought back to the open area for some more discussion. This may have present in previous HL games, but it seems far more pronounced this time around and has the effect of making the surroundings feel a more integral part of the game, rather than just somewhere to talk to people and shoot things.

Aside from the clever level design, the set pieces continue to be excellent. Way back in the mists of time, when he reviewed HL2E2, Yahtzee commented that the set pieces in the HL2 saga are repeating themselves. Whilst this is true, they are also very obviously evolving - both in content and in how they are woven into the narrative. In HL2E1 moments like the zombie shoot whilst waiting for the lift were exciting and frantic, but also contrived as it became clear that the developers wanted to put that set piece in at that time and so forced the world to accept it. In HL2E2, events of the game flow seamlessly into the set pieces so you end up in your vast shoot-out situations without realising it and the game is all the better for that. The pieces are cleverer too - usually there is a violent, ammo-expensive way through them but if you think about what is going on around you and pay attention to the terrain you can usually find something to interact with which makes your life much more easy.

The vastly improved storytelling in HL2E1 returns, with the characters continuing to gain emotional depth. One of the major plot hooks early on is Alyx getting injured, forcing you to go into the depths of an antlion hive to find the egg extract you need to make a cure for her and it was at that point I realised how much I have come to care about the characters in this story, as I found myself getting genuinely angry with circumstances and determined to blast my way through to the end and rescue the girl as quickly as possible. So out of the window went exploring, replaced with naked rage and a massive stack of shotgun ammo as I ran the hive leaving a trail of destruction in my wake. This emotional involvement with the game continues all the way through, right up to the emotionally charged ending and is the best part of the entire game - quite a feat when you consider how much else is excellent. I regularly found myself shouting at characters on screen, or talking to Alyx whilst we explored a ruined building which I choose to take as a good sign, rather than the more likely explanation that I am going mad.

With the emotional involvement in the characters, it seemed strange for Valve to introduce a new bloke, Dr Magnusson, who takes centre stage in Team Crazy Scientist. It is suggested that he and Freeman know each other from back in Black Mesa, but that is never really confirmed. It's a little jarring to have a new face in the familiar crowd, but he's added reasonably well and is characterised quickly - although his character is irritating and shouty. Like all the HL2 NPCs, you can't shoot him which is a shame in this case. After getting an itchy trigger finger for much of the initial scenes with him, I went off and was partaking in an interesting and deep moment with Eli and Alyx when he barged in and demanded we went and did something useful. At that point I actually spun round and shot him in the face with my shotgun - another sign of being emotionally invested in the game I suppose. I do wonder why they made the chap a scientist though - he acts like the petty tyrants Hollywood habitually use for military officers, and I can't help feeling his role would have been more convincing if he was a General fighting against the Combine.

Oh, and for the first time the plot started to reveal a bit of what was going on behind the scenes and hinted that one day all the strange events might actually be explained. Which was encouraging.

So what else has changed? Well, certain annoyances from earlier in the series have been fixed - the driving section is short and not too horrible for instance - and some small variations to the FPS formula have been made. Traditionally in these games you start with the crappy little pistol and gradually find ammo for the bigger and better guns. In HL2E2 you pretty much start out with the shotgun and that is your main weapon for two thirds of the game. It's not a big thing, but it's nice to be using a weapon with some punch and finding plenty of ammo for it - aside from the "you have no ammo" forced sections where you have to be ultra-careful and use the gravity gun a lot.

The final thing to mention about the game is the sense of humour. I found HL2 mostly lacking in any humour, then HL2E1 added a lot in as the characters became interesting. HL2E2 pushes the humour again - a wonderfully dry sense of humour which sees the various NPCs quipping realistically and some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. The Vortigaunt who wanders round with you for a while is particularly hilarious, taking everything you do very seriously but obviously being unimpressed. "The Freeman leaves no path untrod. What did you expect to find down there?" he asks deadpan after you climb out of a pit you fell in. But there are also moments of minor slapstick, such as when Alyx climbs up into a loft to fix a machine, which you, unseen, plug in and she thinks she's done something unusual to make it work. This sense of humour can be seen in the Achievements too - something which has probably been in all the HL2 series, but is particularly funny this time round. Basically it's a scorecard for performing certain tasks in the game - and this card is public on your Steam profile. The harder tasks include saving all the buildings in the strider battle (undertake it if you hate yourself) but the more interesting and bizarre tasks include carrying a garden gnome from the beginning of the game to the end - you can see more about that one on Tom Francis's blog (he from PC Gamer UK).

Half Life 2 Episode 2 is excellent. A thoroughly enjoyable experience, and I can't wait for the next episode.