What we wouldn't give to have Episode 2 begin with a grunting 'previously in Half-Life' intro, before diving headfirst into an audio-visual montage of exposition. We sort of need it now that Valve have left Episode 2 waiting on the sidelines for this long, otherwise we might resort to writing 'Eli Vance = Black' on a post-it note just to recall who's who.
If such a montage did exist, it would include the following: Alyx stealing an important plot-related data packet from the Combine. Mossman's panicked Arctic-base message. Kleiner's urging you to flee City 17, and your final trip aboard the northbound train out of said city, calling at an Eastern European-style countryside and fields full of unhappy Striders and Hunters.
Episode Two marks the Half-Life series' departure into the great outdoors. It also marks the point at which the thoroughly downtrodden human race has begun to revel in its post-apocalyptic squalor. Ladies and gents, the rebels have built the most stylish mode of transportation this side of Mad Max - the retro-fitted muscle car. Oh yeah, the Combine wish they could assimilate something this cool. The motor will feature throughout a vast swathe of the episode, allowing NPCs to tag along with Gordon on his madcap adventure.
SOUND OF SILENCE
For the particular section of the game I played, it was Alyx parked in the passenger seat. She grunts when driven too fast around a corner, but remains eerily mute when deliberately ploughed into a stream, and then into a rock.
You'd lose a whole 10hp, while she remains annoyingly unfazed. Aside from frequent attempts to kill your lovely sidekick, Episode Two offers pleasingly large chunks of terrain in which to careen, allowing a certain degree of freedom but eventually funnelling you towards your objective - in this case, a radio tower atop some high ground.
Once there (it's not a difficult drive), Alyx exits and tries successfully to be as discreet and unimposing as possible. Episode Two carries on its forerunner's tradition of providing you with companions that stay out of your way and require no real guidance, while still being useful in an R-Type satellite gun-pod kind of way. The lady piped up only to say that power must be restored to the radio tower, thanks to the Combine's energy-conscious habit of switching everything off before they leave.
One Crystal Maze-inspired puzzle later, and with the electricity now flowing, I encountered a Hunter for the first time. Now up until this point, I believed Hunters to be terrifying bio-mechanical tri-pedal predators, stopping at nothing to destroy you and your trendy vehicle, possibly before teabagging your corpse as the screen faded to red. Neither tree nor wall nor retro-fitted muscle car would stand in their slender-legged way.
Well, that's mostly accurate actually (though your car will plough right through the buggers), except they're not as evil as they look. They're puppies.
Big, friendly-eyed Labradors. The first glimpse of one as it peered through a window had Alyx urging me to hide, but that Hunter really looked like a dog who wanted to be where you were, but couldn't quite get there so instead decided to gaze at you longingly. It looked sad. Poor Hunter.
Pretty soon after this, the Hunter was firing its sticky, explosive ordnance at me. Glowing blue darts fire in sets of threes, sticking to the surfaces around my hiding spot and exploding shortly thereafter. This sort of weapon forces you to keep moving - and the Hunter takes some beating before it finally swoons.
This is still Half-Life 2, but it's a slightly different sport now. It presents old enemies in a new light and forces you to deal with them using new techniques. Whether you're interested or not doesn't really matter either, as on release it will be helplessly sellotaped to the ineffably fantastic Team Fortress 2, along with Portal.
And that's good news for Valve, as you could venture the opinion that with tapering interest in all things Half-Life 2, many people wouldn't grab this were it not sharing a box with something everybody will want to play. You'd swear Valve had planned it that way, the swines.