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Half-Life 2: Episode Two

Strider legs as weapons? Valve takes us deep inside Gordon Freeman's new stomping ground

I WOULD HAVE asked whether I was in the right place, but the 20 tubs full of free, brightly-coloured junk food had pretty much given the game away. Any lingering doubt had faded by the time I'd seen the crowbars on the wall and the giant wheeled valve in the middle of the room. The staff wearing Half-Life T-shirts in the lift had also provided a strong clue. Then, minutes after a warm handshake and invitation to dive into the 18 different varieties of coronary represented in the snack bar, I'm due back in the barren lands of Half-Life 2 with only a capsule of orange Tic Tacs for comfort.

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"Episode Two picks up right where Episode One left off, with you and Alyx on the train escaping the city before the Citadel blows up," explains project lead David Speyrer as we stalk through the winding halls of Valve HQ and I fiddle with the exit hatch on my plundered bounty. "You're racing to deliver the information packet that you stole from the Citadel to an enclave of scientists who are up in the wilderness north of City 17. The Combine are in disarray - they're scattered, so are regrouping and moving in your direction."

Then, in a corner office of Valve's high-rise abode I come across exactly what will be chasing you through the rural valleys, forests and wide-open spaces of Valve's futuro-Eastern Europe - the Hunter. "We wanted something that was like the Strider in that it's a synthetic Combine thing," explains Valve creature creator Ted Backman as he waves his hands over a clay rendition of the latest addition to the alien menagerie. "It can do lots of cool non-human movements, it can be dynamic and fight you in ways that a soldier couldn't, but also it's a lot smaller scale than an actual Strider - entering into buildings, chasing you through tighter terrain and relating to you in more of a intimidating, in-your-face, large way."

HAVE FEELINGS TOO
Designed to sniff you out, hunt you down and generally terrify, one of the Hunter's key features is the way that Valve are working out ways for you to read its emotions through the animation of its wild roving eyes, much in the way that Dog's feelings could be told through the dilation of his pupil or the flapping of his flappy bits. If they're inquisitive then you'll know, if they're angry then you'll definitely know - and if they're frightened (which you won't see that often), then their gaping evil optics will be all aflutter in the knowledge of their impending doom. Clever stuff for something that doesn't have a face.

I'm then whisked into the presence of Dario Casali, Half-Life level designer and surprisingly the most British man on earth, to admire the chase. Hunters work in a similar way to the raptors in the less shit Jurassic Park movies, constantly in communication with each other through a series of odd hoots and relentlessly galloping after you through field, outhouse and dinosaur-theme-park kitchen.

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"They're really fast-moving and they work as a pack," picks up Speyrer as Casali hurls physics items at them. "There are generally three Hunters to a pack, and they quickly divide up into two that try to flank and catch you in the crossfire with their plasma beams, and a third that will run up and try to melee attack you." Meanwhile, an embattled Casali picks up the leg of a recently deceased Strider with his gravity gun and knocks seven shades out of his pursuer with it, all to a delighted chorus of: "Yeah! Kill it with mum's legs!" They're a lovely bunch are Valve.

YOU'RE BUSTED
Said Strider, more to the point, had been taken out by the latest entry in the long list of Half-Life combustibles: the Strider Buster. Not entirely a new weapon, in that it's picked up and lobbed by the trusty gravity gun, it's a way of getting down and dirty among the Striders - the aim being to attach it to a lumbering tripod's forehead before slotting a bullet deep within it and watching the Striders legs cartwheel away from its burning shell. In its present placeholder state, the Strider Buster looks like a pumpkin, another sign perhaps of Episode Two's rural connections, but it's quite an appetising battle dynamic - especially since its presence means that battles with a large number of Striders (rather than vanilla HL2's maximum of a paltry two) can now be brought into play.

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