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Half-Life 2: Episode Two Preview

publisher: EA
developer: Valve Software
genre: Shooters

PIV 1200, 256MB RAM
ESRB rating: M

release date: Oct 10, 07
» All About Half-Life 2: Episode Two on ActionTrip

Back in 1998, when we first caught sight of Black Mesa and its hospitable white-suited research staff, we took a step into a whole new world. The original Half-Life not only introduced innovations in terms of technology, design and in-game story-telling, but also made a tremendous impact on gaming in general. What ensued quickly after that was the highly addictive multiplayer shooter Counter-Strike, which we can safely regard as another huge leap forward. CS soon became one of the world's most popular video games and to this day remains one of the strongest multiplayer franchises out there.

It took the boys at Valve another six years (and about 40 million bucks) to come up with a dignified Half-Life sequel, which, let's face it, ended up being a phenomenon of its own. Half-Life 2, apart from offering a thrilling plot, inspiring new characters and truly unique gameplay, also gave us the Source engine - a technology rapidly snatched by other development teams, which, in turn, brought about titles like Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, SiN: Episodes and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. (All of which made awful use of the technology. - Ed)

Valve eventually appeased a sea of fans by releasing a long-awaited HL2 add-on, entitled Half-Life 2: Episode One. Instead of concentrating so much on the duration of the experience, the developers wanted to reel you in deeper into the story (even though certain portions of the tale have yet to be unmasked). The expansion also focused more on team-oriented gameplay, making players rely on the assistance of NPCs. To be honest, my initial impressions of Episode One evoked the feeling of a rather evasive narrative - corresponding to the somewhat disappointing conclusion of Half-Life 2, which frustratingly left things unsaid and many issues unresolved. Mind you, we're facing a universe that's just beginning to grow, as its creators are gradually unraveling more and more details on the general back-story and the intricate world players are engulfed in. Conveniently, the first episode ends in such a way that you can't wait to find out what happens next. Enter Half-Life 2: Episode Two - the subsequent chapter that continues the adventures of Gordon Freeman, Alyx Vance and other characters crucial to the plot.

By the way, Alyx isn't the only NPC that gets to enjoy the company of unvoiced protagonist Mr. Freeman. While you charge through combine and Strider infested sceneries, you can expect support from an unpretentious Vortigaunt. Next to the most welcomed ability of charging up Gordon's full-body hazard suit, this Vortigaunt companion features impressive AI behavior and possess a few useful moves that allow him to take on several enemies at once.

The first major step forward after HL2: Episode One is that Gordon and the gang finally get to leave the boundaries of Eastern European-style City 17. This move effectively leads the way towards more open-ended gameplay than what we've seen in the previous episode. We're looking at huge sections such as forests and farmlands; basically, your average countryside. In addition to that, the level design team threw in a bunch of cool underground areas, some of which appear to be Antlion breeding lairs. To make things worse for our hero, nesting deep beneath the surface, are massive spider-like creatures that weave dense webs. Their favorite pastime happens to be hatching unpleasant looking maggots that give off a distinctive fluorescent light.

One of the things sorely missed in Episode One was the presence of vehicles (which, you have to admit, were a lot of fun in Half-Life 2). So, once again, Gordon will be getting behind the steering wheel of buggies and similar transports.

Throughout the entire project it's plain enough what Valve is aspiring to. Each and every game environment was designed to let players improvise as they fight against an overwhelming opposing force. As before, the gravity gun is one of the central points of gameplay and may very well be your only salvation in tight situations. Once more, you'll be able to hurl objects at enemies - ranging from rusty axes and rocks, to old tires. Gameplay footage from Episode Two has demonstrated one of Gordon's nifty moves, as he stops a grenade in mid air with the gravity gun and quickly hurls it back at the unsuspecting foe. The gravity gun can also be used to pick up sticky detonating devices that can be tossed at Striders. As they stick on the Strider's body, Gordon can set them off with an accurate shot.

This time around, players will come up against a completely new foe, a.k.a. the Hunter. As key designers on the game have explained recently, their goal was to create an entity that's in some ways similar to the Strider (except, of course, they differ a lot in stature). Hunters are synthetic creatures, extremely deadly and show great skill and intelligence in combat, especially if they outnumber their enemies (i.e. poor old Gordon Freeman). One of the official movies displays Gordon as he fights against a group of Hunters that can easily outwit humans in battle. Often moving in packs, Hunters appear to use a variety of tactics and are quite capable of sniffing out their prey and sensing a trap.

Aside from tweaking and enhancing important gameplay elements, the development team is striving to make technical improvements with each episode. HL2: Episode Two includes shadow-mapping support, perked up particle systems, new foliage, multicore processor support, and what was hailed as real-time "cinematic physics" - courtesy of former WETA employee, Gray Horsfield, who was involved with special effects in movies like the Contact, The Frighteners and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The so-called cinematic physics were showcased via a skillfully animated sequence of an enraged Strider that fires mercilessly into a decrepit old structure. The building collapses, setting off an absolutely mouth-watering chain of collision and damage effects. The lighting system has also been worked on and fine-tuned by the lads at Valve, allowing for a more convincing in-game atmosphere altogether. I must say that before Episode One was released, all that talk about visual improvements didn't seem like it would bring any particularly rewarding changes to HL2. As it turns out, the addition of HDR lighting really paid off, as well as the inclusion of enhanced reflections and other elements.

We were also happy to hear Doug Lombardi mention that this new episode will most probably present a slightly lengthier experience than HL2: Episode One. Not that it's going to be as long as HL2 (duh!), but it may end up offering a few additional hours of gameplay (or so we hope - at this point, not even the developers are certain as to how much hours of gameplay we are looking at exactly).

Another important thing you should be aware of is that Valve and EA are targeting this summer to release the Half-Life 2: Episode Two package, complete with the intriguing new project, Portal, and the much-anticipated multiplayer game, Team Fortress 2. On a quick note, TF 2 allows up to 32 players and features a variety of different character classes for players to choose from. There's quite a lot to expect from Portal as well. This potentially innovative project is evidently part of Valve's effort to experiment with cool new weapons that leave exactly the sort of impact on the gameplay as the ever-present gravity gun. The game is about solving puzzles in real-time with a handy new device that opens portals in any part of the game environment - you can pass through a gateway on one side of the level and exit on the far side. Next to that, it's quite a unique way of being able to manipulate with objects and physics in general. Think of the possibilities if they decide to include this feature in upcoming editions of Half-Life.

Creating a compelling and original universe is, in itself, a great challenge. Keeping things fresh and dynamic is a whole other ball game, but thankfully, that is something Valve is exceedingly good at. With Episode One they have shown it is possible to reinvigorate a cool concept with subtle, but very effective and well-placed changes. The gameplay basics of Half-Life 2 were left intact and that seems pretty much to be the defining characteristic of Episode Two, except, of course, you can also look forward to new areas, new weapons, new vehicles and even more improvements in the visual department.

When it comes down to it, we honestly have a lot of faith in this one (or "two" rather). Half-Life 2: Episode Two, without a doubt, is in the very top of our 2007 wish list.



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