Funny To A Point – Half-Life 2: Episode 3 Review
Half-Life fans have been begging/cursing Valve for the next chapter in Gordon Freeman's adventure for a decade, and now it's finally out in the wild. While it's fair to say that the late-night release took everyone by surprise, I immediately recognized and resigned myself to the solemn duty that lay before me: to play through and critique the final chapter of gaming's most legendary series.
Reviewing Half-Life 2: Episode 3 is not a task I take lightly, and to be honest, I'm a little shocked by the reaction of virtually every other games journalist out there. I mean, it's only been a week since Episode 3 came out, and it seems like everyone else has moved on already! Even worse, not a single outlet has reviewed it yet. What's up with that?! I assume it's because other outlets are doing their due diligence, and either still playing or processing this amazing journey before posting their reviews, to which I say, "been there, done that!"
For the past seven days, I have been completely consumed by Episode 3. I eat Episode 3. I sleep Episode 3. I wake up on a bed of Episode 3 and shower with Episode 3, then go out to my car and drive to Episode 3. I Episode 3 all day long, and then my wife calls me and says, "Hey, can you swing by Episode 3 on the way home and pick up a carton of Episode 3?" To which I say, "What? I just Episode 3'd one on Tuesday! How are we already Episode 3? Fine, I'll Episode 3 you at Episode 3 o'clock."
Anything less would be a disservice to not only one of gaming's biggest franchises, but also to the best damn readers who check out this column every (other) week. So without further ado, here's my totally official Half-Life 2: Episode 3 review, which I'm sure won't cause Joe to have a heart attack when he sees it go up on the site.
Half-Life 2: Episode 3 Review
They Should Have Sent A Poet
Finish Gordan Freeman's fight against the invading Combine forces by any means necessary.
Some of Episode 3's visuals looked a little blurry, but I'm pretty sure that was just the tears in my eyes.
I'll be humming Alyx's surprise Headcrab Rap for days, which is both a blessing and a curse.
After this long, Valve could've required me to play Episode 3 with my feet and I wouldn't complain.
I have seen beyond the bounds of infinity and drawn down daemons from the stars.
Few cliffhangers have resonated more deeply with gamers than Half-Life 2: Episode 2 – if not for the dramatic death of Alyx's father Eli Vance, then for the ten long years fans have waited to see what happens next. Just like the survivors of the human resistance living under the tyrannical boot of the occupying Combine forces, many gamers gave up hope over the years, resigning themselves to a dreary fate where Gordon Freeman doesn't show up one last time to save the day.
What those gamers foolishly forgot, however, is that it's precisely in those moments where all hope seems lost that heroes tend to appear. For us, that moment came on the evening of August 24, when Half-Life 2: Episode 3 launched out of nowhere, quickly taking the gaming industry by storm. As with all daring resistance movements, Episode 3 is imperfect – even messy and heavy-handed at times – but will nevertheless go down in history for the Herculean effort it is.
Half-Life 3 picks up shortly after the events of Episode 2's dramatic ending, but opts for an understated and somber opening instead of an action-packed set-piece moment; Gordon, Alyx, and a small group of resistance members are holding a funeral for Eli, as they recover from their latest deadly run-in with the Combine. The touching burial scene reintroduces a few key characters, including Eli's assistant Dr. Judith Mossman, and instantly revitalizes the bond players had with Alyx, as she grapples with being both a mourning daughter and a determined resistance leader. The scene also answers one of Half-Life's age-old canonical questions, revealing that Gordon can indeed talk! However, when he gets up to give his eulogy for Eli, he instantly begins sobbing, after which it's implied that he's too grief-stricken to talk for the rest of the episode. It's a clumsy explanation to be sure, but players will undoubtedly love the fan service.
After the funeral, Gordon and company turn their attention to finding the Borealis, an Aperture Science research vessel discovered in Episode 2, which may hold the key to stopping the Combine. Alyx is hellbent on blowing the ship up as her father instructed, but Dr. Mossman argues that it should be preserved for the resistance. A future conflict between the two is clearly foreshadowed in their tone and body language, but for some reason the game drives it home with a blaring "dun-dun-DUN!" audio cue that was so loud I jumped out of my seat. Seriously, I know Valve hasn't been developing a lot of games lately, but I didn't expect them to be that rusty.
I'll be using concept art instead of screen shots in this review to avoid any potential spoilers.
Our heroes set out to the Borealis via helicopter, but like all video game helicopters, it promptly explodes, stranding the crew in a massive, open-world snow level. The change of scenery is refreshing for the series, even if it's not really clear why there are platoons of zombified Combine soldiers wandering around the arctic tundra. The setting also delivers one of the standout set-piece moments from the episode: a colossal firefight against Combine zombie troops on a sprawling frozen lake. Using Gordon's trusty gravity gun to break the ice while trying not to fall through yourself is super intense, and takes the series' physics simulation to a whole new level. Frustration set in after my third or fourth retry (seriously, Gordon's HEV suit can't protect him from a little ice water?!), but all in all, it's a remarkable sequence.
Sneaking through the ensuing Combine installation is also riveting, and proves that stealth gameplay is also right at home within Half-Life's framework. The horror elements brought back fond memories of slinking through Ravenholm (though you'd think Combine scientists would take better care of their labs), mixed with some clear vibes and homages to The Thing. I also liked how experimental Valve gets with the gameplay – though using Gordon's new gravity boots to shift planes during combat made me a bit nauseous.
Well okay, just one – this battle was crazy!
Valve breaks up the stealth sequence in the Combine installation with a surprising cameo: the alien-conspiring super villain, Dr. Wallace Breen. Not only did the former head of Black Mesa survive the explosive finale of Half-Life 2, but his consciousness was transferred into the body of a giant slug! Seeing the once-hated villain reduced to a grotesque prisoner (both literally as a hostage of the Combine, and figuratively in his slimy, undulating host body) leads to one of the most interesting narrative moments in Episode 3: After doing everything he can to help Gordon and Alyx find the Borealis, Breen begs them to end his life – a choice that's left up to you.
This decision was more emotionally impactful to me than any narrative choice in a Telltale game – I always wanted the chance to kill Breen, but I never thought I'd be compelled to do it as an act of mercy! Making you feel compassion for a loathed enemy is truly a remarkable storytelling moment, though it is slightly undermined by the way Gordon dispatches him: On the way out of the lab, Gordon turns off the air vent, causing the room to slowly fill up with Breen's own poisonous farts. It's a strange decision on Valve's part, but I guess you work with what you've got.
Gordon and his crew then board the Borealis, which may go down in history as the craziest level in a video game ever. As Breen reveals, the Borealis is stuck in some kind of dimensional warp, continually phasing in and out of different times and locations. Breen manages to pause the dematerialization long enough for everyone to get on board (while coughing and farting over the intercom in a tragic reflection of your previous decision), but soon after the ship breaks free. The battle that ensues is the video game equivalent of Willy Wonka's boat ride; pure chaos unfolds as you warp through time and space. The "Too Many Gordons!" chapter – which requires you to solve puzzles by coordinating between multiple versions of yourself that you control over subsequent time loops – is sure to make our Top 10 Moments list this year!
My brain still hurts from the Too Many Gordons! puzzle.
Unfortunately, the boss fight with Evil Gordon doesn't fare as well. It's definitely a cool concept, but I'm still confused by the solution – if shooting Evil Gordon also does damage to me, then why does dropping my gun and jumping into the electricity field only kill him and kick me out of the time loop? To be honest, I only did it out of pure frustration. I guess you can chalk the solution up to interdimensional shenanigans, but either way the electrocution scene goes on for far too long, and the way the camera slowly zooms in on Evil Gordon's face as it starts to melt is just disturbing. Also, halfway through the scene it becomes clear that the voice actor's grunts and groans are supposed to be sexual, which I guess makes sense if you assume Evil Gordon is masochistic, but it still rubbed me the wrong way.
The resulting showdown between Alyx and Dr. Mossman also feels strange. I was torn between whether to deliver the Borealis to the resistance or blow it up like Alyx's father instructed, so I understand them butting heads once you take control of the ship. However, the amount of slapping and trash-talking included in the ensuing fight feels really out of character. Especially for Alyx; I appreciate the attempt to portray her as a strong female character, but Alyx always struck me as thoughtful and intelligent too – she should be able to come up with a better insult than "Your ass is gonna be moss, man!"
I also don't get why they suddenly started making out halfway through the fight.
Regardless, Alyx shooting Mossman provides a powerful end to the 20-minute scene (though her blowing the smoke as it wafted out of the barrel was just corny), and really drives home what people are truly capable of if the circumstances are dire enough.
Which brings us to the final sequence. I can't think of a more epic ending than our two heroes resigning themselves to one final, desperate suicide mission, as their self-destructing ship-turned-missile hurdles through space and time towards the Combine's homeworld. The shot of Gordon and Alyx silently holding hands as they marvel at the flashing wormholes and surreal alien vistas outside the observation window – knowing full well what awaits them at the end of the one-way journey – still gives me goosebumps.
But the final twist raises more questions than it answers. G-Man phasing in and leading Alyx through a interdimensional portal is pretty much par for the course for Half-Life endings, but why did she whisper, "See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya" to Gordon as she left? Was she under some kind of mind control? If not, that's a super strange goodbye for two characters who have been through so much together. The Vortigaunts showing up to save Gordon at the last second also feels a little too convenient, but I guess they only had 10 freaking years to plan an ending, so deus ex machina it is.
Regardless, Half-Life 2: Episode 3 gives fans exactly what they've been hoping for all these years: More innovative (if sometimes nauseating) gameplay, more great character moments and plot twists, and most importantly, answers to questions that players have had for over a decade. Sure, some of those answers seem strange or out of character (again, Slug-Breen farting himself to death, for example). But just like all great works of art, these moments challenge us to reevaluate not just Half-Life, but life itself. That Episode 3 goes out on its own epic cliffhanger is so fitting it's poetic – hopefully Half-Life 3 comes out soon, because I can't wait to see what happens next!
Final Score: 10/10
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