Half-Life 2 Episode 2: The White Forest

By Shamus Posted Monday Dec 3, 2007

Filed under: Game Reviews 38 comments

I never got around to finishing my thoughts on Half-Life Episode 1. I enjoyed the game, but I wasn’t driven to write a lot about it at the time. Fans of my long, rambling posts and self-indulgent blather will be delighted to hear that this is not the case for my Episode 2 commentary. It weighs in at around 6,000 words and will be split into a number of different posts. I’m not sure why I’m inflicting this on you, except that I feel a need to get this stuff out of my system and this seems to be the most expedient way of doing so. That fact that you’ll likely go blind trying to read it all is indeed regrettable.

One final note is that these posts are going to be rife with spoilers, so use discretion.

The opening of Episode 2 is pretty much what I expected: We wake up in the wreckage of a train without our weapons. I don’t really mind how the game clears the player’s weapons between episodes. It’s understandable to want to start the game with a clean slate, as it were. What I do wish is that they would mix it up a bit. We always get the same weapons in more or less the same order, starting with the pistol and ending with the rocket launcher, working our way up from the weakest to the most powerful. It might be fun to do this a little sideways. Give the player (say) a Combine assault rifle and the pistol, without giving them the machinegun / shotgun first. Experiment with different combinations of weapons and foes, so that we aren’t climbing the same ladder each time.

The first moments are wonderful. Waking up in the twisted railcar is disorienting at first due to the unexpected slope. The metal groaning and creaking all around us creates a sense of danger and a feeling of claustrophobic desperation as we struggle to find our way out of the wreckage.

One thing that bugged me in the opening scene was the change in our apparent position relative to the Citadel. In the final moments of Episode One we were at the same elevation with the Citadel, heading directly away from it. At the opening of Episode Two we’re in the mountains above it, and the tracks are running perpendicular to our former course. The change in direction could be explained by something as simple as the train going around a bend between the two episodes. Perhaps it kept going for a while, until it got to the ruined bridge. But the change in elevation is a bit harder to justify. I know why they did this, but the break in continuity is annoying.

Thanks to the higher elevation, as we exit the train we get a wonderful view of the ruined Citadel and the writhing bolt of portal energy left behind. It looks cool, although when the “Portal Storm” strikes it slows my computer down to a brutal degree. I get about a frame every three seconds until the storm passes. I know Valve was pretty excited about their new particle system in this release. In the case of this particular effect, it looks like the artist was using a ton of alpha-blended polygons with special shader effects applied. Without a way to dynamically adjust particle density, it’s pretty much impossible to make this effect scale for different systems. All graphics cards are sensitive to transparent polygons, but the effect is very pronounced on old cards like mine. (NVidia 6200) Blending a polygon takes a lot longer than just drawing it outright, and it’s very easy to make something that can paralyze older cards without realizing it. Sort of ruins the moment for me, since I can’t move, can’t get a feel for the motion, and the audio is stuttering badly. Boo.

(Thankfully this only happened during cinematic moments in the game, and never during combat. If they start flinging special effects like this around during fights in Episode Three it will make the game unplayable unless I upgrade. Yes, I know I’m due. But new cards keep coming out, they keep getting cheaper, and it never seems like a good time to buy. Plus I’m a cheapskate. And lazy.)

When Alyx contacts White Forest we meet a new character, Dr. Magnusson. He’s rude and self-important, and I figure he’s a bad guy as soon as he appears. So far in the series they have portrayed the bad guys as arrogant jerks (Breen, and to a lesser extent, Mossman) and the good guys as friendly and likeable. (Dr. Vance, Alyx, and Kliener.) This is a bit crude and two-dimensional, so once I see that Dr. Magnusson is actually good guy (much later in the game) it comes as a relief. It turns out he’s not evil, he’s just prickly and difficult. I’m glad, because I really didn’t want to endure a plot point where all the good guys are astounded that the rampaging jerk in their midst is *gasp* a spy!

I avoided spoilers for the game, so I had no idea what was going to happen to Alyx. When the hunter ran her through it was very shocking. Being trapped under the rubble feels a bit contrived (what caused it to fall at that exact moment, exactly?) but only in retrospect. The whole thing happened so fast I didn’t have time to think about it. It’s a wonderfully executed moment.

There are a couple of spots where you can catch glimpses of the hunter before it strikes, but I ended up looking in the wrong direction and missed all of them my first time through the game. This is a constant challenge for Valve, to get the player to look in the right direction when something important is going on. They’re very good at it, but given the chaotic nature of the player’s attention it’s impossible to come up with anything that’s 100% effective short of shooting at them whenever you want them to look.

When the Vort shows up to help take Alyx to safety, I’m sort of surprised by how odd he looks. In previous games Vorts have been very wrinkled. In this game they are smooth, almost to the point of being glossy. Did the Vorts seize a truckload of Combine moisturizer or something?

The game separates the player from the Vort and Alyx by sending you down a falling elevator. I realize that given the destruction and decay of this world elevator failure is inevitable, but Gordon seems to fall victim to this a lot. It’s almost as if he inhabits a world where he must endure many one-way trips into deep, obstacle-filled locations that require puzzle solving and combat to escape.

The infamous crowbar lures the player into the broken lift. It’s kind of odd. I know the crowbar is Gordon’s signature weapon, but with the gravity gun it’s obsolete. There’s nothing the crowbar can do that the grav gun can’t do better. I have yet to use the crowbar on purpose in either of the two expansion episodes. The only time I see it is when I’m in a mad panic to bring up the gravity gun and I click once too many times.

Encountering the antlion grubs for the first time was very unsettling for me. I hate bugs. Most players enjoy squishing these things, and I’ve even heard people refer to them as “cute”. Not me. I avoided touching them whenever I could. (I didn’t even realize they dropped health… pellet… things the first time through the game.) I wasted a lot of ammo shooting them from a distance. I didn’t know if they were dangerous or not, and I didn’t want to find out the hard way.

The acid antlions are very interesting, both as foes and as a justification for the hive-like tunnels we have to navigate. In experimenting with the AI, it looks like they evade your crosshairs. I found that they liked to dodge when I aimed at them (even when I wasn’t shooting) and so it was often better to let them make their move and then nail them. I really wish they had a different sound when flying. I don’t know why, but it bugged me that they sounded just like regular antlions. The same sound at a different pitch would have been just fine, but using the exact same sound seemed odd somehow. I don’t know why. I’ve never dealt with five-foot flying insects in real life, so it’s not like I know how they should sound.

Onto part two: Half-Life 2 Episode 2: This Vortal Coil.


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38 thoughts on “Half-Life 2 Episode 2: The White Forest

  1. Zereth says:

    Huh, weird. I was staring right at the hunter every time it showed up in the opening first time I played. Kinda irritating when asked if I heard anything when I actually SAW it, but have no way of communicating with Alyx.

    Maybe I’ve started subconsciously analyzing FPS level design and guessing where the level builders are going to put things.

  2. Rob says:

    I never saw the hunter the first time through. I found it freakier than if I had seen it because I kept hearing it and couldn’t find it. I knew something bad was going to happen but still was shocked and horrified when it did!

    BTW, really looking forward to this series oh HL2:ep2. It’s funny how when I played the game everything made perfect sense but looking at it again there are so many things that are there just for the “coolness” factor. I guess that’s a tribute to Valve. They get to keep all the VG standards (health kits, etc) and have some cool gameplay elements without making you feel like it’s all contrived.

    Actually, my only beef with the game is something non-immersive. I want to be able to skip the dialog. Second time through I found myself very impatiently waiting for some character to finish their dialog. Boo. :)

  3. Eltanin says:

    Hooray! I’ve been waiting patiently for this series of articles to begin. I managed to get my homework done (finishing episode 2) before the start too!

    My experience with the first hunter was exactly perfect. I kept catching a moving shape at the edge of the screen, but I was never fast enough to see what the damn thing was.

    As for the grubs, I inadvertently squished a couple as I walked by in the beginning, but I spent a lot of time avoiding them. Not out of any sense of disgust, but out of some sort of misplaced desire not to harm the ecosystem. Then when I was traveling with the Vort later and he made a comment something like “Ah, I see that you too appreciate the delightful sound of crushing grubs” that I realized it was probably ok for me to set aside my concern for the environment here. Finally I realized that there’s an “achievement” for squishing all the bugs and I started going nuts. Gordon Freeman turned into some sort of mad winemaker intent on squishing all the alien grapes to get their juices.

  4. straechav says:

    A lot of nitpicking in this post, I hope despite how it sounds at the moment, you enjoyed the episode. To me it was easily strongest of all three, and the tricks to remove weapons and such aren’t boring to me, as it’s a gameplay mechanic and I tend to automatically separate in my mind the mechanics from the story.

    As for the hunter, I saw it every time it appeared, and I thought it was rather obvious – a bit too obvious, I actually wondered how Alyx could even miss that two meter tall hunk of metal on top of building against clear sky – human peripheral vision is drawn to movement, after all.

    I found the Vortigaunt’s comments in the tunnels hilarious, especially as they are close to breaking the fourth wall with the comments of puzzles that Gordon excels, and exploring holes.

  5. Ben says:

    Alas, I can’t read it, because I suffer an irrecoverable game crash whenever I try to progress to the next level, after the Antlion Hive. I still haven’t found any solutions, but I’m trying.

  6. Gahaz says:

    The vorts we are seeing in this episode are “younger”. They are the vorts that are on the front lines, doing something instead of just hanging back charging things and fixing equipment. In their early ages they carry a larger charge that they can use for combat, along with being quicker and more agile. These are the fresh faced, strapping young aliens that have been recruited by Uncle Kliener.

  7. Aquatopia says:

    Just a little pointer to give: the grav gun is always mapped to the ‘G’ key. This might be only for episode 2; I don’t remember. Either way I learned about it far too late to get into the habit of using it instead of pressin’ ‘1’.

  8. Phlux says:


    You might try a website where they stash savegames. You could load up somebody else’s save for right after that spot. That’s worked for me in similar situations.

    As for episode 2. I thought it was pretty great. I felt like the plot in Half Life 2 was kind of confusing. I didn’t really get what was going on a lot of the time.

    This worked fine in Half LIfe 1. You were a guy in a lab, and then everything goes to hell. Nobody knows anything more than you do, minus a few scientists who have some theories about where these things came from. In half life 2, you can tell there’s a rich universe of potent fiction, but nobody will tell you about it in game, which is kind of infuriating.

    The episodes have Alyx to walk you through this stuff, which I think makes them better story-wise. Action and gameplay-wise the HL2 games are all about equally great, which I think is intentional, because they want you to have a consistent experience.

  9. Shamus says:

    Ben: They put out a “patch” that caused a crash right in that spot, then fixed it several days later. The crash happened right after the guardian chased you into a hole, you broke some boards and fell down. As you walk down the corridor – boom.

    It should be fixed now, if that was what was going wrong for you.

  10. Once I figured out that I was destroying future generations of antlions, I couldn’t squish the grubs often enough. Killing future antlions and getting extra health? Sold…

  11. Althanis says:

    I am afraid of every bug ever made, so going through the small tunnels squishing the grubs manually was very uncomfortable for me. When I went back and played to get every grub for the achievement, I bound my numberpad keys to provide ammo and health and I just used the grenade from the SMG to blow those little buggers up from a good safe distance. ‘Twas tons ‘o fun! =)

  12. Ben Finkel says:

    One thing I thought about for the end of HL2:Ep1 was that it was very dream-like, as if the destruction of the Citadel was an abstracted memory in Gordon’s mind. Sure, the rails twisted and turned and climbed into hills, but Gordon doesn’t remember. He was concentrating on cool booms and spheres of light.


  13. yd says:

    I’m with Eltanin on this one:

    “As for the grubs, I inadvertently squished a couple as I walked by in the beginning, but I spent a lot of time avoiding them. Not out of any sense of disgust, but out of some sort of misplaced desire not to harm the ecosystem.”

    I just felt it was wrong to squish them. It wasn’t until I saw the achievement that I realized it was encouraged.

    The commentary mentions placing clues about the health pellets to encourage people to squish them. I missed those hints, too. No mention of the good alignment people missing them. For me, squishing a poor defenseless bug is just not something I (Gordon) would do.

  14. yd says:

    Shamus, stop apologizing for every post. We’re obviously reading them because they are interesting. :)

  15. Dev Null says:

    because I really didn't want to endure a plot point where all the good guys are astounded that the rampaging jerk in their midst is *gasp* a spy!

    You forgot the word _again_. I too was relieved that they didn’t have him turn out to be evil, particularly because it would have been the second time in the same series. Sure, part of the appeal of FPS is a lovely simple blackhat – whitehat world where you get to shoot anyone who annoys you on sight, but its a little 1 dimensional for it to be consistent throughout. Besides, I’ve known real people equally annoying and pompous, and I never shot any of them.

    I avoided the grubs, not because I was trying to be ecologically sound, nor because they creeped me out; I was worried about waking up momma. (There’s a quote from one of the guys in the tunnels much later that implies this might actually be true, but I assumed it was just window dressing by then. Its not like Valve is going to let you sneak through without shooting anything.)

  16. RudeMorgue says:

    According to the commentary, squishing antlion grubs in the earlier areas in the beta brought attacks by antlions. They found out that beta testers were so afraid to squish the grubs that they weren’t picking up the health during the antlion guardian chase, where it’s almost essential to get the health boosts, so they took the whole attack mechanic out.

    If you watched any of the prerelease footage, the vort you’re with says “forbear, freeman!” in alarm every time the player smashes a grub.

  17. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    I noticed the discontinuity about the train and the tracks,but then I explained to myself that the explosion was so intense that it blew the train to the mountains.Luckilly,you and alyx are almost unhurt.Whats harder for me to explain though is how alyx survived.I mean,you had your miracle suit and it got completelly draind of its power in order for you to survive with minor scratches(-25 health),yet alyx seems perfectly healthy.But the g-mans comments can kind of explain this,and the fact that alyx was out of the train when you were trapped inside.

    As for the grubs,I got freaked out by them the first time.A lucky hit of the crowbar and increase in health,however,explained the things for me.

    Crowbar is excelent when fighting zombies and conserving your ammo.Although,HL2 has more ammo than HL1,so this is not necessary,but old habbits die hard.Plus,its easier to make your way through obstacles when running from something(for example,the antlion guard) with crowbar than with GG,which has lower rate of fire.

    The scene with the hunter,and those with advisors were also pretty tense and I enjoyed them very much.

  18. Ross says:

    Regarding the order of getting weapons; one of the many things I liked about System Shock was that you picked up a really meaty weapon (the magpulse?) and one magazine of ammo for it about fifteen minutes into the game. Those eight (I think – it’s been a while) shots then had to last you for the next few hours as there was no more ammo until quite late in the game. Whenever you found yourself in a nasty fight you had the option of pulling out the big gun, but you didn’t want to do that too often in case the ninth fight proved the hardest.
    I’d like to see Half-Life 2 Episode x do that, maybe give you a fully ammo’d RPG or crossbow early on with no resupply for a few hours and let you worry about how wisely you’re using it. As a notorious ammo miser I’d likely never fire a shot until I was standing next to the reloads but it would still be a nice touch.
    Now that I think about it didn’t the original, non-episode Half-Life 2 do almost that with the glowy bouncy happy fun ball o’ doom the pulse rifle can shoot? I’m sure I picked up one just after Ravenholm and didn’t see any more until the end of Entanglement.

  19. Jim says:

    I’ve played through Episode two at least 4 times and I’ve never once noticed the hunter until I’m at least inside the shack (it runs by in the hallway and you can catch a glimpse there).

    As for the

    @5 Ben: If the other suggestions don’t help I would also try adding “-dxlevel 81” to the Launch options of the game. I have massive crash issues with TF2 and Ep2 without it, and the graphic quality hit isn’t very dramatic (in my opinion).

  20. Rich says:

    “Encountering the antlion grubs for the first time was very unsettling for me. I hate bugs.”

    Heck yeah. I particularly hate grubs of any kind. “Reality” shows that have “eat the disgusting insect” contests make me want to vomit. I don’t watch them to begin with, but the girlfriend likes Survivor and they usually have one of those now and then. I leave the room.

    The first time I saw a grub in HL2:E2, I actually shuddered.

  21. Ben says:

    8+9: Thanks for the suggestions! Sadly, it was neither of those spots: it was while you’re riding the elevator to the chapter change after acquiring the essence. I’ll look for a save game, thanks!

  22. nehumanuscrede says:

    Heh. .

    I liked the Antlions myself. I personally thought they were
    one of the most memorable parts of HL2. Every guardian I
    whacked in the following episodes, I was rooting around it’s
    corpse hoping for a pheromone pod to play with again.

    Was disappointed to never find one :(

  23. ShadowDragon8685 says:

    I missed most of the Hunter’s intros in that first scene, then when I’m in the shack and staring at a dead rebel – WOAH! GYAH! ALYX, EYES AND EARS! BIG UGLY AROUND!

    At least, that’s what I would have shouted, if I could have put words into the goatee’d mouth of one Dr. Gordon Freeman.

    As to why the building collapses at just that moment, at first I thought it was contrived – on my most recent play-through, I realized that the hunter actually takes a swing at Gordon from above and hits the building.

    As far as the grubs… By the time of Episode 2, I *hated* antlions. I despise the things, and I as a player, and Dr. Gordon Freeman, as my Avatar, honestly wished to exterminate their entire species. That’s why I squished every damn one I could get to, to exterminate that hive.

    Later I figure that we’d need them, if only for the Exxxxxxx-tract…. Meh. Anyway, I love HL2:Ep2, and I’m glad you do, too. :)

  24. K says:

    You more or write the same, word by word, as the Artist whose youtube Game reviews you linked a couple days ago. :) And you are both absolutely perfectly right.

    And considering guns and HL2: I really dislike the HL2 weapons. The Assault rifle just sucks, is that inaccurate, the pistol and shotgun alone are a bit pathetic. The pulse rifle is what the assault rifle should be, all other weapons heavily rely on ammo crates. You never use the Rocketlauncher when there are no crates around, except probably in the last fight against hunters, but again, there you get ammo refills.

  25. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    “And considering guns and HL2: I really dislike the HL2 weapons. The Assault rifle just sucks, is that inaccurate, the pistol and shotgun alone are a bit pathetic. The pulse rifle is what the assault rifle should be, all other weapons heavily rely on ammo crates. You never use the Rocketlauncher when there are no crates around, except probably in the last fight against hunters, but again, there you get ammo refills.”

    Well,the assault rifle is an old weapon,10+ years in use,not reproduced,not maintained properly.Pulse rifle,on the other hand,is an elite combine weapon and,as such,should be superior.Its like comparing a mint new BMW with a 10 year old never-seen-a-garage volkswagen.

    As for the rocket launcher,I agree.But thats the most useless weapon of almost all FPS-es that have lots of corridors and (for you at least) fatal damage from such weapons.

    Shotgun is ok though.Actually,I used it almost through the entire episode 2.

  26. Dovienya says:

    Shotgun, pathetic?

    Methinks you’ve never experienced the joy of alt-fire shotgunning an antlion guard in the face and then watching it die in about ten seconds.

  27. David says:

    Ben, I had the same problem. Do you by any chance have 512 megs of ram? If so… and I hate to say this, but the only way I could get the game to work was to “disable” steam entirely… give that a shot.

  28. The thing that peeves me about HL2 and the episodes is that suddenly the Fish & Game Commission has gotten to his weapons, and someone’s stolen most of his pockets. The shotgun that used to have an eight-shot clip now only holds six shots. You used to be able to carry five submachine gun grenades and five rockets. Now it’s only three of each. That’s annoying.

  29. Oh, and the crossbow used to be semiautomatic and now it’s bolt-action.

  30. Quadir says:

    It’s interesting that you’re making a lot of the same remarks the fan commentary did, which I think shows strength in the storytelling. Curious though, did you write all this before listening to it?

  31. Shamus says:

    Quadir: I wrote this after hearing the commentary, although I played through before. These are things that came to mind as I was playing. Inasmuch as they each what Mark Gillespie has said, I guess we seem to think a lot alike.

  32. Johan says:

    “what caused it to fall at that exact moment, exactly”
    Didn't it shoot it little fletchets at your shack at that moment? Or do I misremember?

  33. tepholman says:

    Something I noticed was when the Advisor picks you up when you first see it, some weird effect thing happens to the world, but what is really weird was the game suddenly looked 60% more real. I don’t know whether this was intended or not, but I’d like to play a whole game with this on and see what it’s like.

  34. Simply Simon says:

    I managed to see the hunter in the house just before it attacked. I heard the sounds it made before I went in and thought “Abandoned town, mysterious sounds, some kind of build up to something… alright, bring on the poison-headcrab zombies already” And to then manage to have the camera centred on it in the house, and watch it quickly run off-screen scared the crap out of me.

  35. Huzi says:

    I am facing a problem with HL2:Episode2. The game just hangs on jumping into the water from above just before you go into the antlion grubs tunnel for the very first time. I also discovered that the game always hang when ever Freeman gets completely submerged in water.
    Is anyone else facing this issue… What is the fix?

  36. AG says:

    Hey there, on a 5-year old post. You mention the ‘getting weapons back’ thing, so I just want to point to one little moment in Doom 3 – where, after you return from hell (IIRC), the first weapon you find is the chaingun. It’s the only weapon you have for a while, and you have to use it… against SPIDERS.

    I really loved they did that. Some devs can pack their games with little funny moments like that.

    And it’s one reason why I really dislike most modern games, including those by Valve (except the Portal series). Everything has to be so tight, overseen a billion times by X committees, nothing can be put in just for the lulz. (Except when you make a funny reference to Call of Duty. You can always get away with that.)

    Anyway just one for the archives.

  37. Olivier FAURE says:

    Thankfully this only happened during cinematic moments in the game, and never during combat. If they start flinging special effects like this around during fights in Episode Three it will make the game unplayable unless I upgrade.



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