Half-Life 2 Episode 2: This Vortal Coil

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Dec 5, 2007

Filed under: Game Reviews 34 comments

Someone commented that my previous post seemed a little nit-picky. That’s a natural part of what I do when I love a game, is to pick it apart and see what worked and what didn’t. Just so nobody gets confused and thinks I have a problem with the game: This was tremendous fun. I want to make it clear that the gripes are a bit of armchair game development on my part. It can’t be helped, really. Anyway, onward…

As you drop into chapter 2, you meet Griggs and Sheckley. I don’t know what these guys are doing down here. The only route to the surface is the broken elevator. I’d assume they lived here with the Vorts, but they seem genuinely surprised to see the Vorts when they show up, and their banter makes it sound like neither one of them has seen Vorts fight before. There doesn’t seem to be any living space nearby, or any sort of food. As far as I can tell, the turrets and tunnels are set up so that they can live here and take care of the turrets and tunnels.

What are you idiots doing here? How did you get here? Where do your supplies come from? Curse Valve software for making Gordon mute so that I cannot ask these all-important questions!

The guys teach the player how to set up the turrets, how to understand the warning lights, and let them know where the supplies are. I took one look at them and figured they would die once the “training” part of the scenario was over. This is what happens to a majority of the NPC’s we run into in other games, including previous episodes of Half-Life. I was glad when they survived. It shows that Valve has a lot of confidence in their AI, that they will let it fight alongside the player for an extended period of time. This is usually a great way to get on the player’s nerves and make them resent their companions. They either impede the player’s work by getting in the way, or they steal all the player’s fun by overshadowing them. But neither happens with Griggs and Sheckley. They are a welcome source of help, and their banter keeps things entertaining between fights.

On the other hand, it really is getting ridiculous how often they re-use this actor’s voice. (John Patrick Lowrie, I think.) These guys have the same two voices you heard at the opening moments of Half-Life 2 (“I didn’t see you get on.”) You know, the voice of 50% of the unnamed NPCs in this series. I’m not saying they should fire the guy, but I think coming up with a couple of new NPC voices would go a long way towards fixing the “attack of the clones” feeling the thing has right now. It’s starting to feel like Oblivion.

Eventually the battle ends and you’re teamed up with a Vortigaunt to journey deep into the antlion nest and get some “extract” from their larvae. Mark Gillespie dubbed this Vort companion “Cecil”. That’s as good a name as any, so I’ll continue the practice. Cecil is a good companion, although not quite as interesting as Alyx or Barney. Still, it’s nice for some variety and a new perspective on the world we inhabit. Again, I curse Gordon’s inability to talk. If I had my way I’d pump the guy for information on our way down. Vorts know a lot about the combine, the advisors, and apparently the G-man as well. Which is a lot more than I can say for the audience.

Cecil refers to the large antlion guarding the larvae as the “Ancient Guardian”? Just how “Ancient” are we talking here? Because Earth was invaded a decade-ish ago, and these things haven’t been here that long.

The guardian chase wasn’t quite the thrill for me that it was for some other players. I got turned around, confused, and was generally unsure of what I was supposed to be doing. More than once I missed a side tunnel or ran out of sprinting ability too soon, which was usually followed by a savage kick in the ass from the guardian. I was glad to get past that.

Speaking of sprinting ability, I see that they finally broke the connection between the flashlight and “sprint” energy. In the commentary it sounds like they agonized over this break in gameplay behavior, but I think I speak for many fans when I say it’s about freakin’ time, Valve. Really, this “feature” has been a running joke for ages. It’s annoying and it makes no sense in the world. Good riddance.

Having recovered the extract, the Vorts have their psychedelic seance and repair the grievous damage done to Alyx. It’s at this point that the G-man appears, and we get to the part of the story that got me to buy Episode 2.

(You see, I’d planned to wait until either the price came down or Episode 3 came out, but as I was reading Wikipedia I saw a screenshot of the G-Man in Black Mesa, and I suddenly had to find out what was revealed. Two hours later I had the game and was staggering out of the train wreckage at the opening of Chapter 1. Yes, despite my endless griping: There are good things about Steam.)

The G-Man scene wasn’t quite the revelation I’d hoped, but it was probably the most useful conversation we’ve had with him thus far. I must say that his character is brilliantly rendered, written, and acted. I guess I paid thirty bucks to see this cutscene, and the fact that I didn’t feel ripped off when it was over speaks volumes about the incredible skill wielded by the people at Valve. I still get chills when his voice cuts in.

The G-man makes it clear that he saved Alyx’s life back in Black Mesa. That’s interesting to learn, but how does that fit with his actions at the end of Half-Life 2? It really seemed like he left her to explode at the top of the Citadel, which doesn’t fit with his current attitude towards her. Again, there are possible explanations for this, but the fact that we have this unexplained gap makes me worry that Valve is making this up as they go.


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34 thoughts on “Half-Life 2 Episode 2: This Vortal Coil

  1. Ozy says:

    Well, he might have planned to save Alyx as well before the Vorts came in. Since he had already frozen time, he could have just planned to do so after he saved Gordon.

  2. MintSkittle says:

    I don’t normally play FPS games, but I really enjoy the Half-Life games, and the antlion battle with Griggs and Sheckley was the most fun I’ve had in a while.

    Also, G-man scene:

  3. The way eps1 and 2 link up, and set up ep3, I’m pretty sure they have something planned. I think the Gman is just pissed because the Vorts took control of Gordon and Alyx, and are using them for the Vorts’ own ends. What we see (I think…) is the Gman trying to reassert control…

  4. straechav says:

    Well, like Ozy said, he can pick and plug you out of time, so what says he couldn’t do that to Alyx? Then again, the thing I love about Half Life is the ambiguity. I mean, some people like endless exposition about story, and that everything is told. But I think the theme of Half Life story has somehow ended up being “lack of information”. No one tells you anything, and you never can be sure about anything because you see the story from Gordon’s perspective – and thus unless someone chooses to explain everything you’ll be always in dark about some things.

    And the trouble with explanations, and expositions like this G-man cutscene is: What Makes You So Sure He Ain’t Bullshitting You?

  5. Oleyo says:

    I had a somewhat random thought a few days ago concerning altering time, specifically stopping time (was thinking of Hiro Nakamura from Heroes), and thought it would be fun to relate/discuss:

    Ok, lets say you stop time for the world in general, but you are left to keep moving as normal, wouldn’t light particles/waves freeze in place and stop striking your retina, thus rendering you blind? Or, maybe you would get to see as you “wade” through the particles/waves hanging in space all over the place.

    Sorry if that is off-topic, it was sparked by the mention of time stopping above. :)

  6. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    Indeed,I love HL so much because it makes me think and guess why and how certain things happend.The gman speech did answer(well,partially at least),some of those questions.

    Also,in this part,I love how vorts kick antlion but!

  7. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    Oh,and heres Half life(1 and 2,but no episodes)in 60 seconds(and it sums up gmans speech so well):

  8. @Oleyo: that’s an awesome idea you have there, good to start the morning with a brain tickler :)

  9. Eltanin says:

    When I came across the hole in the floor that clearly seemed to lead to some sort of antlion colony, I hesitated.

    I must admit that I was growing tired of the same 3 enemies with minor variations. Bugs, zombies, soldiers. Other than slightly different weaponry and a different costume, I can’t say that I ever found much difference in the soldiers. The 3 original flavors of zombie were definitely more distinct, but since the preponderance of them have been the standard white-shirt zombie, that was getting old. Fighting the antlions was annoying which made it all the sweeter to get the bug bait to have them fight for you. Really, that was genius as far as I’m concerned.

    The addition of the zombines was nice, but still just a variation on the theme and raised the question for me: why haven’t we seen them before? Suddenly they’re everywhere.

    So I was a bit nervous dropping down into bugtown that I was just going to be fighting wave after wave of antlions. Meh. The acid antlions turned out to be new and interesting and that coupled with the new surroundings provided a welcome relief from the tried-and-true-but-slightly-stale battles that I was expecting. Even when we did get wave after wave of regular antlions, the setup with the various tunnels, the turret guns and the surprisingly effective and hardy Griggs and Sheckley all combined to make the onslaught a very enjoyable experience. It was especially nice to have crate of shotgun ammo.

    The scene with the G-man exemplified what Episode 2 was all about for me: getting on with it. Episode 1 was trying to tell the story of Gordon getting out of the city and transitioning into the next phase of the game. As such, I didn’t really care for it. It was too much like the original game and where it differed, it was too much like Doom 3. But now Episode 2 has the room to expand a little and throw some new enemies and a different feel into the mix. Getting a little more of the story and new mysteries to marvel at from the G-man was just the thing, I thought.

  10. Fieari says:

    I get the feeling that episodes 1, 2, and 3 were all originally planned to be part of the HL2 story itself, but the episodes were cut off simply because they needed to release HL2 before people started rioting in the street. I can get behind that. Furthermore, if they hadn’t done it this way, the parts we know as the episodes wouldn’t have been nearly as good. After all, think of the driving sequence in HL2, and then think of the driving sequence in Ep2. Which is more fun? Episode 2 is more fun because of the feedback from HL2.

    Yeah, they could have playtested it more, but that would have DELAYED the game more.

    Why do I think the three episodes were originally to be part of HL2? Simply because of the Borealis. Anyone that was following the development of HL2 will remember how much they were talking about the Borealis… how they got a tour of this boat and mapped it out in painstakingly great detail, how they were in good relations with the sailors on the boat, etc, etc, etc. Well, when I got to play HL2 for the first time, I kept waiting for the boat… but it never showed up!

    3 episodes later, and there it is.

    Speaking of things in the previews that never showed up… anyone else want to see the hydra?

  11. Eltanin says:

    By the way, thanks for that link Daemian. It was hilarious.

  12. Ryan says:

    Cecil refers to the large antlion guarding the larvae as the “Ancient Guardian”? Just how “Ancient” are we talking here? Because Earth was invaded a decade-ish ago, and these things haven't been here that long.

    Most timelines I’ve seen (including this excellent one) guess at a timeframe of about 15-20 years between the end of Half-Life and the beginning of Half-Life 2. And who’s to say the Guardian didn’t come over from Xen or wherever it was as an adult?

  13. Lanthanide says:

    Ryan – that website has several flaws, some of them quite glaring. The guy basically made a lot of the details up and presents them as facts instead of theories.

    The people in the forums over at halflife2.net have managed to dig up a lot of small tidbits and facts about the universe from many diverse sources (like emails, interviews, offhand comments by NPCs etc) that directly contradict a lot of the details on that website. Valve have looked at the site and commented that it is good overall, but that there are some errors in it. One of the big ones has to do with what he says about the Nihilanth and the combine (IIRC he says the Nihilanth is combine? – I’m at work right now and don’t have time to read it).

    The whole storyline of Half Life 2 has generally really annoyed me. It is utterly rediculous that we’ve been in status for a decade or so, and we suddenly turn up in City 17 and everyone is just like “oh, ok, lets go kill combine”. Despite the fact that Barney hasn’t seen you in 10 years, he doesn’t tell you anything about how he managed to survive the 7 hour war, how things have been for the last couple of years or anything. Same goes for all the other characters.

    Now can you imagine that you went through some great world-changing event (Nazi Germany, or the bomb in Hiroshima) and then 10 years later meet up with a group of old friends in substantially different surroundings. Do you think you’d immediately just get to business and not discuss how things had been for you? Apparently Valve thinks so.

  14. MadTinkerer says:

    My hypothesis about where Gordon has been is that he was somehow stuck in Aperture Science Labs for most of the time. He’s the one who left those markers for Chell.

    That opens up a whole bunch of cans of worms, though… :)

  15. Daemian_Lucifer says:


    I think they planned it to be HL3 actually,but decided(fortunatelly)to polish the old engine and use it for expansions(episodes)instead of creating a new one for HL3.


    Gordon can hardly be viewed as a human anymore.Whos to say what such an outdimensional stasis does to a person,and even if he was just in stasis,or was experimented on by the gman.I know that I dont look at him as a human being now.


    Imagining gordon writing “there is no cake” is so hillarious!

  16. Avatar says:

    Prepare for unforseen consequences.

  17. Lanthanide says:

    Daemian – I don’t see what that has to do with anything that I wrote. Gordon being inhuman is irrelevant – Barney and everyone else is still human, and they would still be interested in sharing their experience with Gordon. Unless, of course, they are in on the entire thing and know exactly what happened to Gordon during that time, and are being told to keep him in the dark/treat him like they last saw him yesterday on purpose. But there’s nothing to suggest that that is the case.

    Either way, Valve haven’t done a good job handling the human element in HL2 IMO.

  18. Ozy says:

    Assume for a moment that they would want to do all that. When during the game would they have been able to do?

  19. Lanthanide says:

    There were plenty of opportunities. The point is that they never even started talking about it, only to be interrupted by some event. They just didn’t do it full stop.

  20. straechav says:

    Lathanide, I think you’re ranting a bit beside the point. There is some odd things about people just accepting Gordon’s presence, but because Gordon doesn’t talk this severely limits the kind of storytelling you can do. It could be that Gordon explained/lied that he came from Xen, but the teleport was “delayed” and took this long or something. There’s hundreds of exlpanations which work for the situation.

    It also could be – which is a strong possiblity listening to some of the unused audio within the game data – that the Rebels already KNEW about Gordon’s predicament. For example Dr. Kleiner exclaiming he expected more warning could be taken that he knew there was a possiblity of Gordon appearing.

    And we know now, beyond any doubt, that Eli knew about G-man, as well – which makes it fairly easy to believe he could have informed the rest of rebels. Let’s not forget that Gordon is “for sale” for the highest bidder.

  21. Daemian_Lucifer says:


    The commentaries do explain why this is.They had some long expositions in original HL2 as well as in episodes,but those were cut short,or completelly removed because many testeres were bored by this,and they did plan the game for as wide audience as possible.So we have enough exposition for us story lovers to play the game,but not so much for linear killers to get bored.

    But the human element did improve a bit in the episodes.

    Also,none of them knew where gordon was the past decade,so they could as well think that he knows everything but was just in hiding somewhere.

    Plus,if after a decade you saw someone again,as young and vital as they were then,while you became old and scarred by a long oppression,what would you think about such a person(if you would still consider them a person,that is)?

  22. Shamus says:

    All of this debate on the nature of Gordon Freeman sort of drives home what I was saying about the seires: The writers have left us with a collection of disjointed questions and mysteries that permiate the Half-Life 2 gameworld, and the fans must resort to speculation and debate because there is a craving for answers that just aren’t there.

    We like stories to make sense. Having ONE mystery in a story is fine. But having everything be constantly mysterious is just frustrating. It makes the world feel sort of arbitrary.

    The story does stop for dialog once in a while, and wherever it does we always get MORE mystery, instead of revelation. This is building a certain frustration among fans, as we wonder if they are going anywhere with this, or if it’s all just a bunch of random nonsense to fill the space between firefights.

  23. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    Well,some of us enjoy such speculations.

    Besides,I think its much closer to real life when you know only some facts and the rest you can only guess.Rarelly will you be feed all the data you really need,and much less the miscelanious data(like a minute to minute report of the 7hours war,for example,or the detailed life of antlions).

  24. straechav says:

    My impression from the story, Shamus, is that it’s not just random. There seems to be a certain weight to the dialog. I mean, I can spot shit just like anyone – and a Matrix is a good example of story that is full of shit. It doesn’t really carry the weight, especially in the dialog. But Half Life does (at least for me).

    That said, I enjoy the speculation and the mystery. I am frankly rather bored of the Hollywood habit of explaining everything until there’s no mystery left. And like Daemian_Lucifer says, it’s much more closer to reality.

    The amount of speculation in this world about political assasinations, secret societis and everything is enough to drive one nuts if researching about it but… here’s The Point:

    We Will Never Know For Sure.

    That’s real life for you.

  25. Shamus says:

    I agree that HL2 isn’t a bunch of babble like the Matrix, and I’ll give them credit for saying more with less in HL2, and when that do have a mystery it’s something interesting, and not just a bunch of bong-hit Philosophy 101 wanking.

    As for “realism”… Gordon Freeman can’t even ask someone what day of the week it is. Here is a central frustration to the story, and that is that Freeman is like a child. Everyone around him seems to know what the flaming crap is going on but him. The Vorts seem to know all about Advisors. Vance knows about the GMan. But we’re mute and so we can’t ask.

    Having something be a mystery because NOBODY around us knows, and we must all puzzle through it together can be facinating. Having something be a mystery because nobody around us will take twenty seconds to give us The Big Picture is not just unrealistic, it’s frustrating.

    I get into this more in the final post in this series, but my feeling is that the Mystery now is okay, as long as we can make SOME sense of it when the tale is over.

  26. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    Actually gordon acts like a true soldier.When a soldier is given a task to blow up an enemy factory,he sure isnt going to ask who build it,when,in what architectional style and for what purpose,but whats the floor layout and where are the guards,and this is what we are told in HL2(well,sometimes we are told this,when it is known).

    Of course,it is weird for a physicist to act like a proffesional soldier,but like I said:Who knows what happend to him in that stasis.

  27. Neil says:

    I think there’s something seriously wrong with Gordon and he has no actual will of his own. From “Through this door, Dr. Freeman!” to “Push the button, Gordon” (ha!) to “You make your way down through that incredibly dangerous zombie-filled area and bring back a car, we’ll wait here”, all he ever does since Black Mesa is to follow the orders of every random person he meets on the street.

    Did Dr. Breen ever just say “Give yourself up, Freeman”? Probably would have worked.

  28. Adamantyr says:


    A nice insider joke for episode 3 would be someone saying “Gordon, would you kindly…”

  29. Ryan says:

    You’re right- I did some more digging around, and where I had assumed that a lot of the details in the timeline I linked came from “Raising the Bar” (which I haven’t managed to find a copy of yet), they’re definitely just shoved in to reinforce the guy’s pet theories. Annoying.

    Regarding Gordon’s muteness- it rarely annoys me, just because Valve are so careful not to have huge gaps in the conversation where it feels like I should be responding. The vortigaunts’ reticence on the subject of Advisors was the first time I found it truly limiting and irritating. Not only is it a clear indication that the Vorts know a great deal more than Freeman, or indeed the rest of humanity, about the Advisors/Shu’ulathoi/whatever they should be called, but there is clearly more than enough time to talk about it. This is in contrast to the stuff with Dr. Vance and the G-Man, which felt much more natural- I can understand him not wanting to talk about it in front of his daughter, especially after learning that the G-Man has begun (or continued?) to mess with her as he does Gordon, and possibly Vance himself.

  30. Ever read “Perdido Street Station” by China Mieville? Theres a character of sorts in it, known as the weaver. It is a giant spider thing that lives mostly in another dimension that is one giant weave, the strins being made up of our world, everything about it is a string in this interdimensional tapestry. And the weaver, all it does is move around in our world doing whatever it can to make the “world-weave” more beautiful. These actions often make absolutely no sense, as when the weaver resces the main charecter and his companions but then chops off one of their ears. I’m not saying that the “we cant understand his motives” answer would be an acceptable justification for everything the g-man does, god no. But maybe it’s something like that, that’s all I’m thinking . It’s one explanation for his shifting alliances and all that.

  31. Simply Simon says:

    Griggs and Sheckleys voices are used all the time? I didn’t notice that. Of cource, I never seem to notice anything..

    And in the fight with the antlion giant I hadn’t heard that I wasn’t supposed to harm it, so I wasted the majority of my ammunition on it before it was killable.

  32. karln says:

    So, um, why /does/ it make more sense that the sprinting mechanism and the flashlight should run off separate power reserves? If I’m not sprinting, why can’t the suit divert power from the sprint engine or whatever it has to the flashlight? Really bugs me when I play E2.

  33. SolkaTruesilver says:

    In retrospect, I’m sure you’re glad you didn’t waited until Episode 3 came out to buy this game, right Shamus? :-D

    (wrote in June 2012, with no idea when or even if Episode 3/HL3 will ever exist)

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