There's no denying it; Half-Life 2 is getting old. Three years ago we thought the Source Engine sequel would never look dated, but alongside the Unreal Tournaments and Direct X 10 wonders of modern PC gaming, the old boy's finally starting to look its age.
There's a lot to be said then for the fact that this near-four-year-old tech can waltz in and still show up nearly every Unreal Engine FPS of the last twelve months. The excellent pacing, unbeatable cast of characters and mental physics puzzles still make for a brilliant experience, and Episode Two doesn't disappoint.
That's not to say it's not beautiful; wonderful art design and the odd bit of technical spit-shine ensure that Episode Two - delayed from its original release, in typical Valve fashion, by almost a year - doesn't loose any of its wow factor.
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Dusting yourself off and stepping back into Freeman's HEV suit you'll be dazzled by Two's gorgeous soft shadows, surprised by the fancy water effects, and finally impressed by the fantastic and beautifully animated 'cinematic physics'. It won't push your ninja PC rig, but we're not complaining.
Basically, Episode Two goes about fixing a lot of the niggling complaints we had about Episode One; after the last instalment's location recycle-fest it's great to finally see some new environments in Half-Life 2. The lush, open forests and rocky hills are a far cry from the blocks of City 17, and it's a real joy to get rough in the jungle.
The AI too - arguably the weakest facet of Half-Life 2 - has seen some much-need improvements. Computer opponents in Episode Two seem far more real this time around; their dialogue is far more relevant to your given situation. For example after knocking a cart off a ledge you get "the Freeman is a quick thinker and a quick mover".
There's also a bit of visual touch up going too and that helps in erasing the "AI clones" feel from Episode One. These attentions to details are clear factors of why Episode Two's world feels more alive than ever.
In one section we spied a random conversation between city folk and the country resistance; after a full minute of nattering we left only to find them still bickering later on. "In City 17 we used to wrestle hunters with out bare hands!" screams one. "Yeah right!" belts out the other. As you can imagine, in a linear shooter like this these little scenes goes a long way in building the atmosphere.
As proved in Episode One Alyx is as believable and compelling as AI companions come. Alien race the Vortigaunts, your newest wingmen are an even greater joy to flight alongside, no-doubt aided by the fact that they're not trying to intricately imitate real-life people - something gamers will pick holes out of in seconds.
Anyone who says Half-Life has a rubbish plot needs a slap; we won't spoil any details of Episode Two's intricately thought-out storyline (for fear of Doug Lombardi more than anything else) but the latest instalment features some long-awaited explanations to Half-Life's mysteries. It also features some of the series' most emotional scenes yet.
Not only does the plot finally flesh out one of Half-Life's oldest and unexplored characters, but it also battles with the Vortigaunt. Not only do they look bloody awesome, smashing green electricity through beasties' chests, but unlike other AI partners the big brown guys don't steal your thunder; most of the time their zapping attacks just stun, so you need to work together to finish them off. It's a great partnership.