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Gaming Evolution
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Gaming Evolution
Gaming Evolution
Published by: Electronic Arts
Developed by: Valve / Nuclear Monkey Software
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Players: 1
Rated: T (Teen)
Release Date: October 9, 2007
Screenshots: Link
Amazon: Buy Now!
Written By: Christian H.

Almost ten years ago, the world was first introduced to Gordon Freeman in the original Half-Life. Freeman, a researcher at the Black Mesa Research Facility, found himself as mankind’s only hope when an experiment in teleportation goes just about as wrong as an experiment in teleportation can go, and opens up a portal to a mysterious dimension called Xen. Gordon battled aliens and the U.S. military on his way to Xen where he put an end to the alien mastermind and sealed the portal once and for all, only to be abducted by the mysterious “G-Man” and placed into a form of stasis. In Half-Life 2, Gordon was awakened from his stasis, and found himself dropped back onto an Earth conquered by an invading alien force known as the Combine. Thrust into the role of revolutionary figure-head, Gordon led the enslaved human race in a fierce resistance against their oppressors, only to find himself facing imminent death at the moment of victory.

Episode One began as Gordon woke up in the rubble of the Combine Citadel which he had just destroyed, once again plucked out of reality by the enigmatic G-Man, but this time saved by Vortigaunt benefactors, alien allies of the human resistance. Trapped in a city about to be destroyed, Gordon and his friend and ally Alyx Vance had to escape the city, all the while being hunted by the bitter and vengeful Combine. Episode One ended as our heroes escaped City 17 on board a train, only to find themselves caught in the shock-wave caused by the exploding Citadel.

Episode Two picks up right where Episode One left off. As Gordon, you find yourself in the wreckage of the train. After reuniting with Alyx, the two of you have to continue your journey away from the city, to the resistance headquarters located out in the wild White Forest.

It was Valve’s intention to show off new forms of play and technology with each Half-Life 2 episode. Episode One was all about NPC interaction, as the player worked together with Alyx to fight Combine soldiers and solve puzzles. Alyx came to be one of the most beloved characters in gaming, thanks in large part to her believable character and complex A.I. Having accomplished that goal, Valve’s intention with Episode Two is to create more open environments, and encourage the player to think more for him/herself in large arenas, as opposed to being led through narrow streets and corri-dors.

Different areas of the game now are more like inter-connected arenas, or play-grounds, complete with various set-pieces and points of interest. One thing that Valve has done with the Half-Life games is effectively create the illusion of one, long, conti-guous environment. Gordon is never “warped” from point a to point b (well, unless it’s part of the plot). Each “level” connects to the next through a brief loading screen, and all the different environments are connected, creating the feeling that the player is on a journey. This comes through better than ever in Episode Two, as a fairly large majority of the game is spent with the car, which is featured in prominence, as a secondary ob-jective of Valve’s was to showcase the use of a vehicle. The vastness of the new envi-ronments effectively conveys the feeling of being on a long sort of road trip, and by the time you come to your destination, if feels like you’ve made a very long journey (and you have).

The A.I. has also been worked over to function better in these open environ-ments. Combine forces effectively use fences, trees, and rocks for cover and use al-most SWAT-like tactics to infiltrate buildings. The new car also comes in handy in these situations. It’s a perfectly viable strategy to jump in the car and just charge at your enemies, forcing them to flee as you run them down, or just distract them enough so Alyx can take them out.

New to Episode Two are the Hunter synth enemies. Younger cousins of the larger, three-legged, Strider walkers, the Hunters are a very different enemy than any-thing Gordon has faced up to this point. Large and heavy, but extremely agile, the Hunters gallop through the environment with the heavy gait of a gorilla. Hunters excel at melee combat, using their speed to get up close to the player and deliver powerful kicks, but are also capable of firing exploding flachettes -- darts that stick to their target and detonate after a few seconds. In a stunning showcase of A.I., Hunters are also re-lentless and extremely challenging in large numbers. They will charge through doors and walls, surrounding the player, effectively working together as some distract the player by firing their darts while others get up close. They will weave in and out of empty buildings in an effort to get close and ambush the player, and run into buildings or behind walls to avoid being hit by the car. The Hunters are also different in how they are meant to be fought. The gravity gun has always been a unique and viable weapon for Gordon, but for the Hunters it’s the best weapon. Hunters are extremely resistant to bullets and are more susceptible to explosions or concussions. Therefore, the hunters present a new challenge to the player, as it is best to attack them with thrown objects or by hitting them with the car -- hard to do when they gallop around so unpredictably, but not so hard as to be irritating or frustrating.

Many faces return to Episode Two, including all of those whom you have come to know over the past two games, and even introduces a few new ones, such as the self-important Dr. Magnussion and his lab-coated Vortigaunt protege. Conspicuously absent, however, is Barney Calhoun, who isn’t even mentioned over the course of Episode Two.

One of the most interesting new characters is a particular Vortigaunt whom Gor-don meets early in his adventure. Not content to simply deliver a new technology and rest on it, Valve returns to their well to further play with the companion mechanic from Episode One. While Alyx once again accompanies Gordon for much of the game, she is for a time replaced with this new Vortigaunt companion. Completely different from Alyx in his attacks and behavior, the Vortigaunt fights with an electrical beam and excels in hand-to-hand combat, while also specializing in stunning enemies for the player to finish off. The Vortigaunt fights savagely, but speaks softly softly and acts as a guide as the player traverses the ant-lion tunnels beneath the forest. This change of pace from Alyx is both interesting and refreshing, as it allows the player to experience something new; fighting with a non-human ally who is, in some ways, more capable than Gordon himself.

One thing that the Half-Life franchise has always delivered in spades is great, jaw-dropping moments. Episode Two is no exception. From the “biggest physics puz-zle yet” -- a wrecked bridge that needs to be manipulated like a see-saw with the weight of wrecked cars -- to witnessing a Combine army as it marches towards the resistance’s headquarters, and knowing that you’re probably going to encounter them along the way, Episode Two manages to deliver one spectacle after another.

One of the most obvious places where Episode Two stands out from its prede-cessors is in the art design. The wilderness that borders City 17 is unlike anything seen in the franchise thus far. The alleyways of the city and black, sterile corridors of the Citadel are nowhere to be found, instead replaced by trees, country roads, wooden barns, resistance outposts, tiny villages, and a seemingly endless network of ant-lion tunnels and mines. But the new scenery achieves more than just new stuff to look at. The dominance of nature and recognizable human dwellings, combined with the lack of Combine technology and the sight of the ruined Citadel in the distance really convey the sense that, thanks to Gordon’s actions in the Half-Life 2 and Episode One, the resistance is winning its war against the Combine. The Combine can no longer rely on its force-fields and walls of an indeterminate black steel-like material, but are instead forced to make do with whatever the environment has to offer - just like the resistance has had to do all along.

Episode Two may have taken much longer to be released than initially promised, but as you play through the game it becomes abundantly clear as to why. It is, at times, a very different game from Half-Life 2 and Episode One. New environments, new enemies, new allies, revamped graphics and A.I., and arguably the best and most cinematic Half-Life experience yet, Episode Two is easily worth your money, whether you buy it alone for $29.99 or a part of The Orange Box.


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