I'm not entirely sold on this episodic content business, but as long as they keep up the pace and release Episode 3 in about a year, and with some decent extras like they did with the Orange Box I can live with it.
When big name developers like Valve tackle episodic content it's also a lot easier to swallow. I suppose I am more against the inevitable episodic content coming from lower budget studios just looking to boost their available capital by releasing half finished games as "Episode 1".
Back on topic though, Half-Life 2: Episode 2 certainly does not fit into the category of half finished.
It gets you into the action right from the start which is a nice change from Episode 1 where one of my main complaints was how bland the beginning of the game was (can I have a real gun yet please?). While you still start off, as usual with only your gravity gun, you quickly fill out your arsenal with the usual array of weapons.
Unlike E1, a lot of E2 takes place out in the open. Trees, mountains, and giant expanses of land all around. It's not really the Source engine's forte to render massive outdoor areas, but it's done quite well. The graphics definitely are starting to show their age, but not so much that it detracts from the game in any major fashion.
After a brief refresher video of what happened in E1, you start E2 right where you left off and in no time you're on your way to White Forest, the main base of the resistance and the final destination for the data packet that the combine have been hunting you so relentlessly to retrieve.
As always you are guided/narrated by the ever present Alex Vance whose voice acting and AI are pretty much as natural as it's going to get. She is rarely in the way, and usually helpful and informative, and I still get a kick out of shining the flashlight in her eyes. The shotgun she ended E1 with seems to have been turned into a rapid fire pistol during the course of the train crash somehow as well.
You plod your way through the same tried and true formula fighting random bad guys on a fairly linear path with Alex at your side until you come to one of the following: Locked Gate, Gate with No Power, Barricaded Door or toxic waste at which point you have to separate from Alex and take the long way around to open the door for her like a real gentleman. While the frequency of these and the - "How are we going to get through?" - Solve a puzzle with the gravity gun - sequences gets a little bit amusing, it really never gets frustrating which is a testament to the excellent level design. These repetitive obstacles could have easily gotten annoying but they are varied enough that they remain enjoyable.
Throughout your travels there are various plot devices that keep you interested in the story, and even a few pretty shocking moments and scripted events that really give it that "interactive movie" kind of feel. At one point you are teamed up with a Vortigon whose comments remind me ever so slightly of the dry humor that I had become accustomed to after playing through Portal. While normally I expect to cringe and sigh at jokes in video games, I found myself chuckling slightly while chopping up zombies which was a nice change.
I don't want to spoil too much so wont go into a lot of detail, but I feel the need to comment on the driving portion of the game. Unlike in HL2, there is not just a driving section and then you're back on your feet. Once you get the vehicle it becomes a part of how you play and is usually accessible to you for the most part. The vehicle control is spot on, exactly as it was in the original HL2. I particularly enjoyed how they successfully merged the driving and running down zombies with hoping out of the car to investigate run down buildings and get into fire fights or solve puzzles.
Towards the end of the game though, the one glaring problem I have with episode 2 becomes more obvious. Up until the end you have been blissfully playing along and enjoying every minute of it. The pacing, the cut scenes, everything is exactly where it should be and leaves you in a constant transition from a state of relief to suspense to panic and back again and that is what I love about Half-Life, however, I can't help but realize that as the game draws to a close that I really didn't see anything new.
Killing Head Crabs, Zombies, Storm Troopers, Striders etc. is all good fun, but I think the game really could have been improved with the inclusion of one or two big boss mobs that haven't already made an appearance in the Half-Life universe to truly keep things fresh. It would have taken the game that one little step further than E1 to make it really feel like the series was building to an ultimate conclusion.
If you are a fan of the series, or have yet to play any of the Half-Life games I highly recommend starting from Half-Life 2 and playing through them all in order. While the story doesn't have a huge impact on your choices while playing, it does help to immerse you in your role as the indestructible Gordon Freeman.
All in all, despite the lack of truly new enemies and encounters it is still a fantastic first person shooter and a more than adequate sequel to Episode 1. I, along with many others am already eagerly awaiting the arrival of Episode 3.