One of the most notable games to break cover at the recent Leipzig Games Convention was Half-Life 2: Episode Two. Developer Valve chose the event to demo the middle chunk of its foray into episodic gaming - by means of a satisfyingly meaty video showing various gameplay aspects of the game.
But before we drill down into the nitty-gritty, let's examine some salient facts. Firstly, Half-Life 2: Episode Two isn't just going to consist of Half-Life 2: Episode Two. As well as the eponymous episode, the bundle (available as boxed copy or a single, presumably massive, Steam download) will also contain the multiplayer-only shooter Team Fortress 2 and the bizarre mini-game Portal, which evolved from a tech-demo into a self-contained entity. The package will arrive in the first quarter of 2007, for Xbox 360 and PS3 as well as PC.
As is its wont, Valve has shoe-horned some new technology into its Source engine especially for Episode Two. Namely, what it calls a "cinematic physics" engine - which it illustrated by showing a huge bridge buckling and collapsing under an explosive assault - a reworked particle system, a new foliage system and uprated shadow-mapping, allowing, for example, a flashlight to cast a more accurate shadow.
When it came to revealing the general thrust of Episode Two's storyline, Valve proved less reticent than expected. In general, according to a spokesman, you are: "Dealing with the consequences of what you did in Episode One - when you destroyed the citadel, you exposed a new hierarchy in the Combine. Also, the G-Man features prominently - he has a relationship with Alex this time, not just Gordon."
Valve head honcho Gabe Newell exposed further details of Episode Two's storyline: "The overall progression of the three episodes is that the G-Man is losing control of you. In Half-Life he made you; in Half-Life 2, he used you for his own purposes, which are still mysterious to you; and now he's starting to lose control.
"At the same point that he's losing control, you've come to the attention of other forces: the Combine hierarchy is now saying: "We thought that Earth was under our thumb, and this one person is being such a pain in the ass for us. So we're going to have to pay more attention to this person." Newell also revealed that Dog plays a much more prominent role in Episode Two than in any previous Half-Life 2 game.
One radical difference between Episode Two and its predecessors is the environment: the game largely takes place in open countryside and forests, in and through which the Combine pursue you, so you spend much of the game in vehicles, although the demo suggested that you will probably make frequent stops at abandoned houses to stock up on health packs and ammo. It's not all outside, though: the demo began in a labyrinthine cave complex, liberally infested with giant spider-webs.
And just because the game takes place in wide-open spaces, don't expect that to equate to a lack of enemies - Valve ramped up the particle and weapons engines to accommodate unprecedented amounts of Striders and their Combine ilk.
The demo didn't go into much detail about new weapons, although it did suggest weapons may often be in short supply, as considerable use was made of the Gravity Gun. However, we did see one new weapon, the Strider Buster: a sort of magnetic mine which you can attach to Striders' backs, and then explode by shooting it.
TEAM FORTRESS 2
If initial impressions are anything to go by, Team Fortress 2 stands a chance of stealing the status as everyone's favourite multiplayer PC game from Counter-Strike. The first thing you notice about it is its outrageous graphical style - sort of 3D meets cel animation in a 1950s, Max Fleischer manner.