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The Orange Box: Half-Life 2: Episode 2 etc. - The Orange Box
And maybe it's the same reason why Episode One is so often underestimated. Yes, it's short. Yes, after a storming start with a superchared gravity gun in the Combine citadel, it seems to step back from Half-Life 2's huge scale. Yes, some chapters seem to be retreading stuff we've already done in Half-Life 2. However, it's still an incredibly strong piece of FPS action and storytelling. The key to it is your computer-controlled companion, Alyx Vance. Some criticised her seeming indestructibility, others her lack of shooting skills, but her importance isn't so much on a gameplay level as on an emotional one: she adds a warmth to the game and makes it a far less lonesome experience than your average hard-guy-against-the-odds FPS. What's more, within its tiny four to six hour running time Episode One fitted in more memorable moments than just about any FPS last year. Remember the sequence with the antlions in the multi-story car park? The terrifying wait for the elevator as the zombies swarm? The super string of shoot-outs in the abandoned hospital? Any good FPS would be proud to have just one of these.
And so we come to Episode Two. In many respects, it's a case of taking what was good about Episode One and applying it to a wider canvas reminiscent of the original Half-Life 2. Alyx returns with her shooting skills upgraded, a new system of pre-rendered physics actions makes for some spectacular destruction, and more of the episode takes place outdoors than in any previous instalment.
The episode begins in the aftermath of the destruction of City 17 and essentially plots Gordon and Alyx's escape to a rebel research base in the mountains. Carrying data stolen from the Citadel in Episode One, the pair are the target of Combine attacks, but they also face peril from Antlions and Zombies en-route.
Now, I'll admit I wasn't entirely swayed by the first third of the game, dominated as it is by a long underground sequence that only occasionally kicks into high gear. However, what follows is so regularly breathtaking that, by the time your six or seven hours are up, you'll be more than satisfied. An initial clutch of wilderness sections, punctuated by vicious attacks from Combine forces - including a new enemy, a junior-sized Strider called the Hunter - are thrilling, but they only set you up for a dazzling final battle where all hell seems to be breaking loose and the odds look bad for humanity. Arguably trumping the final sections of Half-Life 2, it's one of the best bits you'll find in any FPS, partly because, in an era when narrative-led FPS games seem to be channelling the player through tighter and tighter corridors, Valve has had the confidence to give you a wide open space, a huge challenge and just about enough gear to get you through it. It's dazzling stuff. The finale, meanwhile, is one of the most gut-wrenching in recent history.