Monday, October 13, 2008

The Orange Box: Half-Life 2 - Episode Two (Xbox 360) Review

Last fall, Valve Software released The Orange Box to the PC, Xbox 360, and later the PlayStation 3 to critical acclaim, quickly earning top scores across the board rating it as one of the best titles on all the above platforms.

While that itself is an excellent achievement, the thing about The Orange Box is that it’s a compilation of games, not one game unto itself. For that reason, I personally can not justify reviewing The Orange Box itself, as it’s simply not a fair assessment when compared to other titles that truly are one game only. Thus, I will be reviewing the different titles of The Orange Box individually, rating them on their own merits.

Despite the huge success of Portal, The big ticket item of The Orange Box is the most recent installment to the Half-Life franchise, Half-Life 2: Episode Two.

Having escaped from City 17, Gordon and Alyx must now race to White Forest where the rebels have a key base set up, and warn of a pending Combine counter attack. The ruins of the Citadel have also begun to form a massive portal, which would allow for another Combine invasion, and the hope is that the scientists at White Forest can find a way to stop this as well.

Now, I played through Half-Life 2: Episode Two in chunks, playing roughly half the game when I rented The Orange Box late last June, and then I played some more levels prior to the release of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (Xbox 360), and most of the remaining levels about three weeks or so ago, with the final battle being completed this past week.

So why did it take me so long? Well, in truth, Half-Life 2: Episode Two never really grabbed me in the way a great game should. The beginning is certainly alright, and I loved the massive battles with the Antlions and the new Acid Antlion Worker, and the game has a lot of Zombies, which I loved. Despite it's flaws and my gripes about the series, the Half-Life 2 franchise generally does have above average gameplay, with a healthy mix of mundane to brilliant puzzles mixed in with solid shooting action. This is demonstrated very well in Half-Life 2: Episode Two's first half as you begin to fight your way through to White Forest and ultimately raid an Ant Lion hive for story reasons I can't go into, but once you get that damn car near the game's half-way mark, well, it's pretty much all downhill from there as the car becomes integral to the game's progression.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, Valve can not design a proper vehicle. Period. So many times when I needed to quickly turn and zoom ahead, the car would still be going in reverse when I moved the Left Stick forward, or it would turn in the wrong direction, etc. This made handling it an exercise in frustration over what should have been a simple matter of movement, much like the Airboat in Half-Life 2. I cursed and swore over the game's final battle for situations like this, and I had to set the game down for a week simply to cool off; I was that angry!

Absolutely horrible, and the subsequent interspersed sections on foot simply weren't exhilerating enough to really grip me or excite me enough to fanatically play onwards, and the feeling of a solid game that was well designed from the first half was completely and utterly lost.

Once you reach the base at White Forest, things started to pick up with several sequences very reminicent of the orginal Half-Life (except that the Combine Soliders are the same low quality opponents they always were), but then you're tossed back into the car for the game's final battle, and the last hope of salvaging Half-Life 2: Episode Two for me was completely crushed.

The Hunters, however, where quite a nice challenge. Finally seeing fit to gift us with a real new monster, Valve did do a good job with them. They are very durable, fast, and deadly, and , their AI was actually advanced enough to try and get out of the way if I went to ram them with the car. They still weren't the best at it, but at least they tried, which is a huge leap forward for Valve's circa 2000 proprietary AI technology!

You also get some kind of a new, situational specific weapon in Half-Life 2: Episode Two: The Matheson Bomb! They're actually fairly neat, but story specific, so I don't want to ruin it for you.

And speaking of story, you finally get a little bit of exposition. I know! I actually dropped my Controller in shock as Valve finally provided an actual little bit of story to their bland franchise, and put a few points in perspective. Granted, what they did reveal wasn't anything overlly mamoth and was still a little vague, and it should have been done three years earlier with the release of Half-Life 2, but I suppose it's better late than never. Don't worry though, Valve tosses in a whole lot of new vague BS to completetly tip the scales into obscurity once again.

So, there you have it. Half-Life 2: Episode Two is a mixed bag, with a solid if traditional introduction that entertains, only to be lost with a poorly designed second half. Many are going to disagree with me, but I still don't see what all the fuss over Valve is. They constanly prove themselves to be very overrated in my eyes, deliverying titles that could have been such much more but constantly fall short due to their own design decisions.

Still, Half-Life 2: Episode Two is above average when compared to the crowded shooter camp, and at the current cost of $29.99 for The Orange Box, there's enough bang for your buck in there to be worth the cost of admission. Just be prepared to be annoyed as well.

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