After about a year and a half of waiting and some delay Valve's continuation of the Half-Life saga is now available either through Steam or at retailers as part of The Orange Box. Looking back, Valve Software really took the gaming world by storm with the release of Half-Life back in 1998, and the story about Gordon Freeman and the Black Mesa complex as well as a great AI resulted in many awards. In 2004 Half-Life 2 was released and just like the previous game it managed to impress with it's catchy gameplay not to mention the Source engine that raised the bar when it came to graphics, physics and animation.
In Half-Life 2 City 17 is in the control of a force known as The Combine and Gordon Freeman is sent in as a part of a rebel-group where his soon-to-be close ally Alyx Vance is also situated. The struggle and mystery of the strange G-Man continues in Episode One, which ends with the destruction of the the City 17 citadel while Alyx and Gordon flees by train.
The action in Episode Two continues exactly where the previous episode left off. Gordon wakes up in the train and is quickly reunited with Alyx - together they set out for White Forrest to deliver vital information to Dr. Kleiner and Alyx' dad Eli. To begin with, Gordon is, as usual, armed with his gravity gun only but gradually his arsenal is improved so he stands a chance against his enemies - that be various bugs such as Antlions to the heavily armed Combine. Unfortunately there are no new weapons to deal damage with (besides a temporary sticky bomb late in the game) but there is, however, a number of new enemies that will cross your path - and some of those are not easy to take down at all. Worth mentioning are the new Hunters which are best described as a mini-strider often attacking in groups. Hunters are very diverse in battle no matter if you take them on in close combat or on distance - they're too fast to run from and has a habit to break through windows and similar in moments where you consider yourself safe. Their intelligence and abilities in combat together with the physical design undoubtedly makes them one of the coolest units in the game.
Episode Two wisely shifts between different challenges, which keeps the player on the edge of the seat all the way through the game. Battles take place in both small areas such as a narrow mine and in big environments with large scale battles, while everything is spiced up with various puzzles to solve as we know them from the previous games. Gordon also gets the opportunity to drive a new vehicle, which is a most welcome reunion we didn't get in Episode One. Another interesting fact are the familiar faces that show up throughout the story - you can of course count on G-Man dropping in, but this time the Vortigaunts plays a bigger role and you even get to fight alongside them in some sequences that really kick ass. The final battle has to be mentioned as well, as it is so intense and well done that you just have to experience it. I'll leave out further details to avoid spoilers, but you can definitely look forward to this battle which takes place after approximately 5 or 6 hours play.
Needless to say, Episode Two is based on the Source engine, and even though the graphics looks a bit outdated at places there's definitely also impressive sequences. Valve has made updates to the engine in regards to Cinematic Physics which basically means when big stuff collapses and the game supports wide open areas better as well. Because of that, you can expect to see some bigger maps than in the previous games.
The sound and AI fits great as well and really creates the wellknown Half-Life mood - credit goes to the voice actors especially, as they once again deliver a convincing effort and manage to bring the characters to life.
Valve really hit the nail on the head with Episode Two, which outperforms the preceeding game in both length and quality. All elements play perfectly together and gives an experience beyond the ordinary, which makes it difficult to wait for Episode Three and the conclusion of the story. The game is awarded a 9 out of 10 score, as it is a great FPS that you should not miss out on.