What’s New?

The first thing to say about Episode Two, other than how utterly fantastic the story is (something we can’t really get into), is that there have been a number of small tweaks to the game between the episodes.

The heads-up display was the first thing I noticed had changed, though nothing is ever said about why and exactly how the HEV Suit gives Gordon a HUD without a helmet. Oh, and yes I’m sure he’s not wearing a helmet because crafty gamers can spot cameos of Gordon in the original expansion packs for Half-Life 2, sans visor.

Anyway, the HUD has changed in a number of subtle ways, some of which are added as the game progresses. The torch icon is now different than it was before, for example, and looks like a little torch in the bottom-centre of the screen. When the torch is flicked on a set of bars appear underneath it to chart power, which is slightly different to the way the icon looked in previous games.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two What's New? Half-Life 2: Episode Two What's New?
Click to enlarge

Now, the HUD may seem to be a largely uninteresting place to start a review for a game as utterly thrilling as Episode Two, but the fact is that you’ve all probably played Half-Life 2 and/or Episode One before and you’re already familiar with what is now the benchmark set up of weapons and gameplay.

There are some more interesting elements which have been tweaked and changed too though, so don’t despair.

The most prominent new feature is the console-style unlockables which can be accessed from the main menu. Achievements can now be unlocked just like on the Xbox 360 and the game will keep track of your progress. Some of these awards are fairly boring, charting little more than the fact that you have finished a level. Other’s bring a more competitive edge to the game by issuing certain missions or parameters – such as stealing so many grenades from a charging zombie with your physics gun, which unlocks an achievement called ‘HotPotat0wned’.

When I first saw the unlockables section, I have to admit I was a bit worried and I didn’t think it bode very well for the game. Surely it was indicative of the game being dumbed down for the console market or being needlessly jazzed up to make the game more interesting? I'll come straight out and say, no, this simply isn't the case.

Although the achievements and unlockables could have this effect in theory, the reality is that they don’t and Episode Two is just as clever and as witty as ever. There are layers and layers of in-jokes amongst the stark, often powerfully bleak tragedy of this future world at war – with all of the above sandwiched between equal slices of palpable tensions and finger-bleeding gameplay.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two What's New? Half-Life 2: Episode Two What's New?
Click to enlarge

Episode Two also brings a new weapon to the game – The Magnusson Device or Strider Buster. Named after one of the new characters, whose identity we won’t go into other than to say that he’s a good guy, the device is a type of sticky bomb used to destroy Striders.

Using a Strider Buster is fairly simple, but the effects are particularly brilliant to watch. Introduced towards the end of the game, players have to use the grav gun to throw the bombs on to the hull of a Strider, then shoot it to detonate it. The ensuing explosion is a little icky, with Strider guts flying everywhere and whiffs of yellow smoke pouring out.

A handful of new enemies make an appearance too – new Acid Antlions with range attacks, as well as the Hunter Striders glimpsed at in the previous episode. The Hunters are a particularly tough enemy who take a lot of firepower to take down and they like to hunt alongside the larger Striders, making it difficult to use Strider Busters unless they are destroyed. In a possible nod to the Half-Life of the console world, the Hunter's main attack is similar to the needler from Halo, with dozens of rounds clinging to a surface before they detonate a few seconds later.

Still, the great thing about Episode Two is that, for everything which has changed, two things have stayed the same. Valve are clearly a developer who know what they’re doing and have left a great portion of the games brilliance intact.
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