Half-Life 2 Episode 2: Freeman Pontifex

By Shamus
on Dec 6, 2007
Filed under:
Game Reviews

hl2ep2_freeman_pontifex1.jpg
The opening of this chapter begins with Gordon, Alyx, and Cecil emerging from the mines to a stunning vista of the huge combine force crossing a bridge in the distance. They carry advisors. Cecil tantalizes us with his knowledge of them but doesn’t actually tell us anything.

Alyx’s gradual revival from the near-fatal hunter wound is convincingly portrayed in the next scene. She doesn’t recover instantly, but she also isn’t a limping hindrance as the story moves along. She recovers slowly over the next half hour of gameplay.

While the fight with two guardians at once was pretty thrilling, I was disapointed in the new antlion guardian. She’s just a retextured version of the original guardian, which struck me as a bit lame, particularly since you see the two of them together here. This is supposed to be a different… gender… or type, or whatever, of antlion. It needed a few cosmetic changes to make it fatter, or wider, or have more eyes. Maybe new sounds? Something, at least. The “same enemy, different color” deal was lame ages ago, and this sort of thing is beneath the usually stellar production values of this series.

After the guardian fight we have to climb up the face of a cliff and deal with yet another malfunctioning elevator. As I ascend the cliff, there is a mild tremor and I suddenly start taking damage. I can’t tell why. I find I can barely move. It takes me a few seconds to figure out that the damage was from rocks which fell from above, nailed me on the head, and continued on down the cliff without me ever seeing them. I’m having trouble moving because one of the rocks is stuck. On my head. I get out from under it and head further up, where I get pummeled by rocks again. Next I have to cross some hastily thrown together boards to reach my goal. The moment I step on the first one, it snaps and sends me down twenty feet to where I started. Ouch.

That all could have been scripted a little better, I think.

hl2ep2_freeman_pontifex2.jpg
The meat of this chapter involves navigating a ruined industrial complex. This is one of the most unique areas I’ve explored in a computer game. I can’t think of another situation where you pass through an area with such a mixed set of interior and exterior spaces with open visibility between the two. Some game levels are interior spaces, where walls occlude your view of the rest of the area. Some are outdoor areas, where hills and buildings limit visibility. This one is both, with the wide open spaces letting you see into the indoor ones, which are quite complex. This sort of thing really shows off the finely tuned level-of-detail management of the Source engine. This is a great accomplishment.

It begins with a huge overhead view of the sprawling series of obstacles. This view is actually more interesting the second time through the game. The first time you see it, it’s just a compelling view of rust, decay, and pollution. It’s a dirty, dreary place, realized in wonderful detail. The second time through, you can look out over the complex and and trace the path you’ll be following below.

The gameplay is extremely varied in this portion of the game. They cover just about every sort of encounter you can have with a zombie. You fight large numbers in open spaces. Fight a few in a tight space. In a couple of parts you have to depend on Alyx to cover you with her sniper rifle. Fight them in a sea of corrosive waste, moving from one small foothold to the next where you don’t have a lot of room to move around. Fight them while crouching in a low-ceiling area. Fights in the dark. Fights involving traps. Fights with guns. Fights with explosives. I was glad that the zombie encounters mostly ended after this, because I think they exhausted the possibilities here.

(A minor pet peeve about the zombies in general: Why are they all wearing white shirts? In the original Half-Life zombies were supposed to be scientists under control of headcrabs, thus the white labcoat. In Half-Life 2 they have retained the same look, despite the face that nobody in the game anywhere owns any clothing like this. Zombies really should wear those blue denim uniforms issued to citizens, which was the most common clothing for civilians in the first game. Making some zombies female might be an alarming touch as well, but in any case it would be nice if zombies actually looked like zombified members of the general population.)

This is the third installment where they have tantalized us with the sniper rifle without letting us have one. There are a lot of good reasons not to let the player have it, though:

  1. The Half-Life gameplay doesn’t really lend itself to sniper rifle action.
  2. The sniper rifle looks cool, but considering how slow the projectile is (you can actually see it moving, and dodge it at a distance) it would actually be a real trick to use on moving targets.
  3. The game already has a sniper-style weapon – the crossbow – and adding another would be redundant.
  4. Mounting the sniper rifle so that it is used in a fixed location would take a lot of the fun out of it, as it would basically make for a “shooting range” section of the game. Giving a mobile one to Gordon would mean adding a new weapon to his already (ahem) weighty collection.
  5. To avoid inflating the arsenal with a redundant weapon they would most likely drop the crossbow for an episode and replace it with the sniper rifle, since the two are functionally the same. This would, of course, lead to endless carping from the fans about “balance” issues and whining from the fans of the crossbow.
  6. A new weapon means new ammo. It might be kind of odd if Gordon suddenly starts seeing new ammunition pop up. Why haven’t I come across this stuff before? Didn’t all those other sniper rifles in previous games require ammo?

These are all good points, but I’d like to offer a quick counter-point:

  1. It looks awesome and I want one!

Actually, I’m sure there are better ways for Valve to spend development time. Assuming they don’t mind breaking my heart.

The section culminates with the acquisition of a muscle car, a massive physics puzzle and a thrilling stunt. The bridge falls apart to the point where it loses its connection on with either side, so that the whole thing pivots on the central support, turning it into a huge seesaw. In retrospect I suppose this involves a good bit of engineering shenanigans. Players with a civil engineering background might guffaw at this bit, but it worked well enough for me to be tremendous fun.

hl2ep2_freeman_pontifex3.jpg
I’ll echo what others have observed before: What is a 1970’s American muscle car doing in Eastern Europe? How do they keep this thing running? Just finding tools compatible with the non-metric parts would be a challenge, not to mention replacement parts, which I’m sure were hard to come by before the alien apocalypse.

But we’re not supposed to worry about that. What is important here is that we now have a roaring turbo-charged yellow chariot of fuel-injected awesome. The rumble of the engine is perfect, and I find it difficult to pry my finger off the accelerator once I hear that sound. Hitting turbo produces a raw visceral thrill that never seems to fade, no matter how often I use it. This car is far and away the most fun vehicle to operate in the series. It’s a great reward for crawling through the filthy, toxic, zombie-infested sludge below.

Cecil mentions that he’s going to regroup with the other Vorts and hunt advisors. Now would be an excellent time for Gordon to ask about them. I’d love to know how they plan to hunt these things, since the advisors are traveling in vehicles, the Vorts are on foot, and each advisor is surrounded by an army of soldiers, striders, and gunships. Yeah, great plan Cecil. Let us know how that works out for you.

Boy do I wish I could make Gordon talk.

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20424 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.

From the Archives:

  1. MintSkittle says:

    I’ve got a couple of reasons why zombies wear white. Either headcrab possessed people go out of their way to find a nice white shirt to bloody up, or the resistance all wear a second layer of clothes for when they get headcrabbed.

    Also, Concerned:
    http://www.hlcomic.com/index.php?date=2005-12-19

  2. Dev Null says:

    What is a 1970’s American muscle car doing in Eastern Europe?

    HL2 is set in Europe? Really? Why does everyone talk with an American accent then? I always assumed it was in the US, what with the Black Mesa Alumni Society popping up all over the place, but I guess noone ever told me that.

  3. straechav says:

    DEV_NULL: Well, unless you have a lot of Eastern European architecture in US, and use a lot of Cyrillic characters in your writing, smattering of Swedish text, and some Finnish logos & items here and there, I’d say it is located in Eastern Europe. The exact place, as seen from my (short) list of noteworthy things, is rather vague.

    Regarding the 1970’s muscle car… well, I live in Finland, and we’re between Russia and Sweden, as eastern as you can get without being part of Russia. Admittedly we’re not certainly one of “eastern european” countries that people generally refer to – but it’s still noteworthy to mention that there’s quite a lot of 1970’s (and earlier) American car’s here.

    There’s a lot of custom car shops here, and even more in Sweden where the laws for modifying care are looser, so I don’t find it quite so difficult to imagine there would be 1970’s muscle car. It’s a small society, really. We have “American Car Show” once a year, as well.

    Shit, I see at least one muscle car once a day in summer.

  4. Zukhramm says:

    I allways thought Dr. Breen chose to model his new world in an eastern European style. And switch alfabet.

    Oh, and I think I died two times before realizing there were rocks falling on my head.

  5. Phlux says:

    The bit about the setting being Eastern Europe always bugged me, but I let it slide because it provides a great backdrop for the game. I figure there must have been some sort of mass exodus from the ruined populations of the world, into the few surviving population centers like City 17…at which point all of the russians and europeans died, leaving Americans in charge.

    The car was a mixed bag for me. I agree it’s by far the best vehicle we’ve had yet in the series, but at the same time I HATE driving cars with my keyboard. If I had the wireless receiver for my PC, I probably would have hooked up my xbox 360 controller for those sequences. Even better would have been a steering wheel.

    The driving is great, and the scripting for those sequences were flawless, but the lack of nuanced steering controls was maddening.

  6. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    The rocks fell on you?How?I never once got hit by them at that point.

    As for the antlion guards,the commentary says his skin was changed so that you know that its the guard from the hive you outran,but its the same type as the rest.

    The setting always bugged me as well.One solution is that most parts of earth were completelly destroyed and are uninhabitable,so the remaining populace was relocated to cities(read:concentration camps)like the one HL2 is taking place in.That would (at least partially) explain the mixture of alphabets and languages.

    The zombies with white shirts bugged me as well,but my guess is that they became a classic and werent changed because of that.Although you can find dead zombies wearing denim(the ones that have their head crabs blow/sawed/whatever off).

  7. Shamus says:

    I agree that it’s odd that everyone has American accents (and one PARTICULAR accent at that) but I’ve always sort of glossed over this as a tech / budget limitation rather than an actual depiction of how the world is. In HL1, every security guard looked like Barney. They weren’t SUPPOSED to be clones, but they couldn’t depict a proper variety.

    I imagine accents are the same way. The citizens SHOULD sound like a mix of people from all over the world, but they chose not to attempt to depict that. The Black Mesa Alumni should have American accents, but people like Grigori should have all kinds of accents. They should have a variety, the same way there is a variety of alphabets used throughout the game.

    It would really be wonderful if they did. I’d love it if they had a few citizen voice palettes that they drew from. It would add a great deal of flavor to City 17 and help drive home the point that the place is made up of people from all over the world, the last shreds of humanity. They wouldn’t need a lot, but just one French accent, one German, one Russian, etc.

  8. Zukhramm says:

    And the car, better than the old car, but the Airboat is still the ultimate veichle.

  9. Scott says:

    I think it would be worthwhile to have access to a mounted sniper rifle at some point. Imagine how challenging (and rewarding) it would have been had ‘Cecil’ and Gordon switched places. I would love to have a go with keeping zombies from tearing up a group of resistance from a half mile away (or at least having the option to.)
    I wonder if there are mods out that let you take a crack at it…

  10. Ozy says:

    To reiterate the proliferation of American cars, finding one in Europe is entirely believable. Consider also that, even though they would be comparatively rare, people salvaging vehicles are going to have an extreme bias towards such vehicles, and so will, given the choice of one car from a set of 1,000 sedans and a ’65 Mustang or what have you, it’s going to be the Mustang they end up salvaging and bringing with them.

    As another example, you might think that finding a similar vehicle in Japan would stretch credibility, but it does not. Classic American muscle cars are highly in demand in Japan, so there would be plenty around for somebody looking for one.

    It does occasionally happen that being realistic can break suspension of disbelief, the world being as strange as it is.

  11. Jeff says:

    I figure there must have been some sort of mass exodus from the ruined populations of the world, into the few surviving population centers like City 17…at which point all of the russians and europeans died, leaving Americans in charge.
    This is hilarious, since ‘disease’ immediately comes to mind. Europeans go to America, infect the locals, become the Americans. Americans go back to Europe, and the Europeans die off… hehehe.

  12. MintSkittle says:

    11 Jeff:
    December 6th, 2007 at 8:51 pm
    This is hilarious, since ‘disease’ immediately comes to mind. Europeans go to America, infect the locals, become the Americans. Americans go back to Europe, and the Europeans die off… hehehe.

    Except that the Americans aren’t bringing their disease ridden blankets with them, but are being provided by the Combine. They regulate everything else, so it doesn’t seem far fetched that they’d do that too.

  13. Gahaz says:

    I would just like to say that Valve was always careful to kinda of give a skew of location. They never really mention were game two happens, just some basic architecture and a conglomerate of languages and recognizable images. I think they want it to come across as a place you may have been to, a landscape you can relate to in someway, no matter where your from.

  14. Chris Arndt says:

    “The rumble of the engine is perfect, and I find it difficult to pry my finger off the accelerator once I hear that sound. Hitting turbo produces a raw visceral thrill that never seems to fade, no matter how often I use it.”

    This drives me to ask: what do you think of those Steering Wheel control gadgets they sell for PC?

  15. ShadowDragon8685 says:

    Umm, I feel obliged to point out that Father Gregori does have an Eastern European accent.

  16. RudeMorgue says:

    If you’ve played through Ep 2, you know that the G-Man hasn’t just been talking to Gordon, so it’s not really a stretch to find a lot of Black Mesa folks in what would seem like an unlikely proximity to one another.

    (Not to mention the fact that Barney just happened to know you were on that train in the beginning of HL2.)

    As far as English speakers with American accents go, I’m inclined to believe that the native population of Eastern Europe was almost totally wiped out by the Combine during the Seven Hour War. The very sparse population you meet are all transportees, forced to relocate here by the Combine, presumably from North America.

    The only people you meet with non-American accents are Father Grigori, who obviously has the survival skills to be a holdover from the original Eastern Europeans, and Odessa Cubbage, who is a proven liar (an NPC mentions that Cubbage has taken credit for shooting down the gunship at Little Odessa), so he’s probably just an American putting on airs.

  17. It makes perfect sense to me that they’d have shipped people from America (from all over the world, really) to Eastern Europe. For one thing, this is “City 17.” A name that implies one, there are at least 17 of these cities, but also two, there are few enough of them that they can refer to them by number and have people still be able to remember which one is which.

    As we see in our explorations outside of the city in HL2, Ep 1 and 2, everywhere outside city limits is deserted save for a few scattered Resistance outposts. Since the introduction of alien fauna through the portal (most notably the antlions, but also the headcrabs, houndeyes, and bullsquid—we don’t see the latter two in the HL2 series, but we know that Dr. Vance had his leg taken off by a bullsquid while infiltrating one of the Cities according to backstory), the world has become a too dangerous place for humanity to live outside the walls where the Combine forces can keep the critters at bay. (And probably a huge percentage of the population was killed in the War, too.)

    Also, moving people all over the place is a key way to dilute national identity (aka patriotism), a major motivator for resistance and rebellions. Turn people into citizens of nameless Cities and they’re no longer “Americans” or “Russians.”

    And moving people around a lot, not letting them settle in any one place for too long, keeps them disoriented and less likely to cause trouble. You saw it in the train station at the beginning of HL2. None of those transferees had the gumption to do much more than grumble about the unfairness of things.

    So yes, it makes sense to me that a lot of Americans would have ended up in Eastern Europe.

  18. Mephane says:

    “What is important here is that we now have a roaring turbo-charged yellow chariot of fuel-injected awesome.”

    I do not only quote this for truth, but also for the statement itself being the best piece of unwillingly produced poetry I’ve seen so far. :)

  19. Gordon_Freemans_love_child says:

    I only wish the car could be driven via the mouse instead of the keys. Oh it appears to be a 69 Dodge Charger. I want one just like the one in the game, stripped down and eveything.

  20. Siji says:

    The car steered like a drunk cow, and i was glad to be rid of it. Same for the… boat? Whatever, the watercraft. Just throwing in my 2p

  21. Bek359 says:

    Actually, there is a key difference between the two big antlions. The green one is green because it’s covered in neurotoxin, and if it touches you, you take poison damage, similar to the acid antlions’ spray or the poison headcrab’s bite (although this doesn’t take you down to 1HP). So, there is more of a difference than a simple pallete swap.

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