Half-Life 2 Episode 2: Riding Shotgun

By Shamus
on Dec 7, 2007
Filed under:
Game Reviews

hl2ep2_riding_shotgun1.jpg
The chapter begins with the player and Alyx traveling on the open road in their newly-acquired muscle car, heading for the White Forest base to meet up with the rest of the resistance.

I love driving the car, although the road is too serpentine to be able to hold the accelerator down, assuming you don’t want to be fighting for control and clipping the occasional rock or tree. You have to “flutter” it, tapping the gas a second at a time as you go. Ugh. In real life Alyx and Gordon would most likely be puking after a mile or so of that. Makes me wish for an analog throttle.

I love how vehicles in these games allow you to steer and look around independently. It’s nice to begin looking left before you start turning left, instead of having your eyes locked in a forward-looking position. It makes the vehicle easier to use and allows you to drive the car the way you would in real life. This gives driving an incredible degree of realism, and makes it more satisfying to drive than doing so in games which are expressly designed for driving. (Although, it makes me wish for analog steering. I realize there isn’t really any way to have analog throttle, steering, and looking in any existing control scheme, but that doesn’t stop me from wishing for it.)

Our first stop along the way is the radio tower. Alyx decides to send a message ahead to White Forest base and let them know the Combine are coming. We have to search the abandoned buildings to get the power back on and send our message. This is another thing I love about this series: Other games would tuck a few foes into these buildings and call it a day, but instead Valve lets the player explore the space first. Quiet exploration is nice and lets us take in the scene visually instead of blasting our way through it, but it also helps to build some tension.

And in the basement of the power station we finally encounter an interesting plug puzzle. Plugs have been a feature of the game since Half-Life 2, but the “puzzles” have always been mind-numbingly simple. You either: 1) Plug in the thing that needs power or 2) Unplug the thing you want to turn off. Not exactly a source of mental stimulation, there. A Rubik’s Cube this ain’t.

But here we have a honest-to-goodness puzzle. Like a lot of the best puzzles in the game it’s not long or difficult, but it’s a real puzzle and provides a nice break in the fighting that satisfies my puzzle drive.

Once completed, we’re ambushed by hunters. Here Alyx’s character really shines. Last time she faced one it nearly killed her. (Actually, given the things the Vorts said, it sounds like it did kill her.) Now she has to face them again. We’ve never seen her this frightened before. She’s terrified and angry over her last encounter with one. She starts off in a mild panic, but as she realizes the fight is inevitable she masters her fear and readies herself for the battle. As you bring down the first one you can hear the relief in her voice. We can beat these things. It’s a real turning point for her and wonderfully acted. There are many big-budget movies that fail to handle moments like this with as much finesse.

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It really is shocking how much better Valve is at creating characters than everyone else. It’s been a few years since Half-Life 2, and still nobody else is really anywhere near them in terms of having lifelike, believable NPC’s that can accompany the player and perform in a dynamic situation. Everyone else has to stop the action for a cutscene, and even then their characters usually aren’t as expressive or as well acted as Alyx Vance. It’s amazing how far ahead they are.

The hunters are interesting foes. They are pretty good at flushing you out and flanking you. They are probably the most interesting foe so far.

We put down the hunters, send our message to White Forest, and then hit the road.

The encounter with the advisor is pretty interesting, although, like most encounters with these guys, it satisfies our visual curiosity without actually telling us anything. Once the advisor flees and we blast our way out of the farmhouse, we find ourselves driving for our lives while a helicopter runs us down.

I wish that somewhere along the trip we had a nice stretch where we could really work the car up to top speed and enjoy a bit of driving on the open road. Most of the trip is spent on navigating winding dirt roads and hairpin cutbacks, or dodging wrecked vehicles. The only place where we could really push it is during this helicopter chase, and here you have to keep swerving and changing speed to avoid bombs.

We reach the outpost and stop to fight the chopper. It took me an embarrassing amount of time to figure out what I was supposed to do. I saw other rebels had rocket launchers (which never seemed to hurt the chopper, for some reason) and I thought I was supposed to get one for myself. Did I miss it? Is there one lying around here that I’ve overlooked? Am I supposed to wait for one of these idiots to snuff it so I can have his? Once I figured it out it was one of those forehead-slapping moments.

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

From the Archives:

  1. Lanthanide says:

    I kept looking for a crate of rockets. Once I worked out there was none, I realised why all of these mines were sitting around for so long before they exploded – all previous mines of these types in the other games had exploded after a much shorter delay.

  2. João says:

    one game that really surprised me on the positive side with it’s atmosphere and NPCs was Call of Duty 4. Although very short and perhaps simplistic in story, the single-player campaign felt immersive, well-acted and timed. I really enjoyed that game.

  3. yd says:

    That chopper seemed to be really hardened against the rockets. I played a second time with full cheats and unloaded a tonne of rockets onto the thing before it came down.

  4. lightpagoda says:

    I think I died a few times before I realized the trick was the mines. My first reaction is to shoot enemies, not hurl things at them.

  5. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    While listening to the commentary,I heard that the radio tower was desined so that the players would first go to the radio,then to the generator building.Yet in my first go,I went straight towards the generator building.Im guessing my tought process is a bit different than the rest.And there was a nice “Lets see what we just turned on” after my exploration.

    And yes,it was an excelent bit of acting when the hunters arived.Although there are other games that have so lifelike characters(starcraft,baldurs gate,planescape,HoMM),but this is the only FPS I know that has them(I dont count thief and deus ex becuase,though they do have excelent stories and main characters,NPCs arent as good as in HL).

    The advisor scene was also great and pretty scary.Those things are mean bunch of creatures.Probably the original combine.And you just know that at one point you will fight them.But how when a hurt young advisor completelly paralizes you?Ugh!

    The chopper fight was a refreshing one.But as I remember,while crawling under the train you do stumble on one of the mines,and getting it away from you is easiest with the GG,so it was pretty obvious to me.But,like stated earlier,I do have a weird tought process.

    Btw,dont forget to comment on the combine chasing that head crab in the next part*wink*.

  6. Dev Null says:

    Heh. I missed the trick with the chopper for an embarrassingly long time too. In fact, I wasn’t sure I was meant to fight it at all (because there was no convenient box full of rockets – everyone knows theres always a box of rockets when you have to fight a chopper) and kept looking for a way to run away from it.

    On a side note, I played the Lost Coast last night, because it came free with the Orange Box. Its weird. I assume this was some sort of demo for the HL2 engine? While so much of the rest of Valves work seems so complete and seamless, my natural inclination to try to get places I shouldn’t be had me behind the backdrop scenery or falling off the edge of the world about a dozen times in this short little game. Still fun; lacks polish.

  7. Arvid says:

    Lost Coast is a technology demonstrator. Most specifically for the new lighting effects. It was the first time anyone did HDR lighting.

  8. Phlux says:

    You can do analog looking, steering and accelerating using a gamepad pretty easily.

    Left analog stick:

    up: accelerate
    down: brake
    left: turn left
    right: turn right

    Right analog stick does your looking around.

    Right trigger does your turbo charge

    Left trigger is E-brake

    The rest of the buttons should at this point be dedicated to novelty horn sounds.

    The next time I play through this game I’m going to hook up an xbox360 controller to it for the driving sequences.

  9. Gahaz says:

    I hit on the chopper solution pretty fast. I’m an ammo pack rat in these games and if i can use the GG to kill I’ll always use it. So as soon as I saw the mines hit the ground and start beeping I started flinging em at it. Don’t know why I never want to use my ammunition, usually I will finish these episodes with near full loads on most of my equipment. If I find secondary ammo for the smg I’ll pick it up with the GG and throw em, same goes for the secondary for the combine rifle. Ha, I have beaten many combine to death with a box of handgun ammo.

  10. RudeMorgue says:

    After playing HL2 Deathmatch a million times, I knew right away that picking up the mines and throwing them would be the thing to do. Picking up grenades and throwing them with the Grav Gun is a skill you really only pick up playing Deathmatch.

    I had a renewed appreciation for the NPCs in Half-Life 2 after playing Bioshock (Haters: It was a gift, I swear!)

    Not only do you never personally interact with anybody except enemy mobs in the course of the game, the only person you do have any sort of sympathy for inevitably turns out to be an asshole.

    I guess you might have sympathy for the Little Sisters or Tennenbaum, but the LSs don’t have names and Tennenbaum is never seen except on the opposite side of a glass wall (and she’s pretty much a “reformed” female version of Josef Mengele anyway, which kind of ruins any chance the character might grow on you.)

  11. RudeMorgue says:

    AHHH! I put a “Spoiler” warning before the last two paragraphs of my post, but I guess putting it between right and left carets made it look like HTML and it disappeared.

    Sorry to anyone who found it irritating.

  12. gattsuru says:

    I realize there isn’t really any way to have analog throttle, steering, and looking in any existing control scheme, but that doesn’t stop me from wishing for it.

    Of all things, a mecha game called Heavy Gear and its sequel, Heavy Gear II, got something fairly close to that. Throttle-based acceleration (with more conventional WASD movement for fine positioning), turning that maps to a joystick or steering wheel easily, and mouselook that allows you to look whatever direction you want while you move another.
    The game had a driving simulator in its bones, and you can tell.

    It was too much of a cult classic to really stick, but you can find Windows copies on Amazon or eBay pretty cheap these days, and there’s a (legal!) free Linux port floating about.

    I agree about Valve, though. They’ve figured out how to tell stories in a FPS that most other shops haven’t really picked up on yet. Bioware’s close, but they’re still obsessed with the audio notepad, which works well but just doesn’t match up to a good actor.

  13. Shamus says:

    Rude: No worries. I added a spoiler tag for you.

  14. Ryan says:

    I think the key thing that clued me in on the proper way to fight the helicopter was seeing the mines hit the ground and realizing this was the first time we’d ever been confronted with them while in possession of the Gravity Gun. Without the airboat’s pulse rifle or a rocket launcher, it seemed like the most logical way to do things. And certainly being confronted with a ticking (okay, well, beeping) mine while crawling under the train car helped kick in that AAGH GOD GET IT AWAY FROM ME reflex and sent me scurrying for the “G” key.

    I was kind of surprised you didn’t have more to say about the Advisor encounter- sure, it’s not overly informative, but it felt like one of the best horror sequences in a game in ages. There’s nothing the Lovecraft fan in me loves more than the old trope of There’s Something Horrible In The Barn, and seeing it this well executed was a treat. Even though you know it must be around somewhere, slowly exploring the abandoned farmhouse nearby and suddenly getting hit with the Advisor’s first mind blast can be a hell of a jolt.

  15. RPharazon says:

    I’ve only played the Xbox 360 Episode 2 demo, so far. They don’t sell it in Mexico and Steam hates me. Getting the 360 version is the only way to go…

    Anyways, the first thing I immediately noticed was that there was a Gravity Gun button. I found that to be really handy (for the future, as the first level only has the grav gun) and I found that the Alyx getting killed part was MUCH earlier than anticipated, when I saw the little complex at the end of that tunnel.

    Anyways, I don’t remember you commenting on the brief pre-rendered Episode 1 synopsis at the beginning of the game. I thought it was just a Demo-only feature, but I saw a topic concerning it on Kotaku. I’d love to know what you thought of that.

    Or simply point me back to the first post if I’m a bumbling plot-forgetting fool. >_>

  16. Avatar says:

    Can I just say Shamus, your review of this, chapter by chapter, is a really awesome read even though I’ve played it through.

  17. Elethiomel says:

    On the subject of looking around and driving at the same time and analog controls:

    When I played Mafia, I was overjoyed to learn that it had separate control setups for vehicles and foot traffic. This let me use my steering wheel and pedals to control the vehicles, and WASD and my mouse to run around. It also let me do simultaneous analog throttle, steering, and looking around. This neccessitated steering with only my left hand and setting the game to auto gearing so my right hand was free to use the mouse, but the amount of control and spatial awareness it afforded me was completely worth it.

  18. Ryan says:

    Was I the only one a bit bothered by the fact that Gordon Freeman can apparently spin his head around 360 degrees while driving? OUT, FOUL DEMON, THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU

  19. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    See,I told you he wasnt human anymore.

    Oh,and am I the only one who can steer with wasd keys without a problem?I can do it in racing games as well.

  20. MintSkittle says:

    I didn’t have any problems wasd driving. And I imagine Gordon would have more sense than to simply floor it all the time. I wonder if you had a wheel and pedal setup if you could configure the game to use it for the driving sequences.

  21. Ryan says:

    Screw that, what about using a wheel and pedal setup not only for the driving sequences, but for the entire rest of the game? Now there’s a project!

  22. Joshua says:

    It took me a bit to figure out the helicopter, but when I saw people offering me medkits, and nary a rocket to be seen, I eventually got the hint.

    I’m also surprised that you didn’t mention anything about the Advisor. One of my favorite things in the game up to this point.

    The Hunter attack was intense. At first, I was like “What do you expect ME to do”, since I think most experiences with robotic foes up to that point required either rockets, grenades, or a vehicle gun or something. Alyx going into high-gear and starting the combat blasting was a high point, as it really convinces you that maybe you CAN actually do this. I felt the same sense of elation that she did when the combat was over.

  23. Simply Simon says:

    In the chase scene with the helicopter I actually managed to get lost. Right after you are jumped on by that zombie you are to turn 180 degrees and go back in a corridor to the left (from the viewpoint of you just having turned around) from where you came. I did not realise that they were different, so I walked around in that spot and wondered what to do for several minutes.

  24. sebcw1204 says:

    i know this is horribly late but there IS a way to have analog velocity on a PC, it’s forehead slapping easy; make the forward button INCREASE THE TOP SPEED, and the backward button DECREASE TOP SPEED. if the increase is incremental enough, you can have very smooth acceleration control. this is done in a horseback game called mount and blade, if you tap the forward button, you get marginal increase of velocity, but if you hold it down the horse ramps up the speed. letting go causes the horse to gradually slow down. this was implemented in a game older than half life two. it’s probably too much to hope that you will read this because of this post’s age, but i had to say it. any time somebody tells me something is “impossible”, i have to speak up.

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