HL: The Right Button at the Right Time

by Tom Ingram


A cylindrical column stretches up into the incomprehensibly high ceiling of the chamber. Far below is a pool of toxic waste with lurking monsters. I’m on a catwalk somewhere halfway up, not far from a door into the blast pit. Leaning against a nearby wall, soaked in blood, I find a wounded scientist who whispers breathlessly:

“Fire the rocket engine. Destroy the damn thing before it grows any larger!”

I go past him into the control room just in time to see a towering green monstrosity smash through the window and impale a scientist on its claws.

This is the Tentacle, and there are three of them. “Blast Pit” is the first Half-Life level that’s based on a massive central boss that can only be defeated by solving a puzzle. There’s that nerds vs jocks thing again, though I should note that some of these bosses can be killed by brute force. It just takes a lot of brute force.

The trick to the Tentacles is that they can’t see you, but they can hear you (I didn’t know this on my first play-through a few years ago, which added a little extra challenge). If you look at the console, it sets out the mission parameters, more like a twisted science experiment than slaying a dragon: get the oxygen and fuel flowing, turn on the power, hit the “Test Fire” button, and have a weenie roast. The Tentacles are rooted at the bottom of the blast pit, and above them is the test rocket.

I tiptoe around the Tentacles, but it’s not enough. The first ladder is blocked by boxes, and I’ll have to make some noise. Time to problem-solve with the judicious use of explosives. A grenade serves as a nice distraction while I slip out of the blast pit. The level directly below me has a catwalk leading to a tall shaft. At the bottom is a gigantic fan, which I turn on. It makes me fly to the top of the room. Not quite sure about the physics on that one. Up here are the oxygen and fuel switches.

What with one thing and another, by the time I get back to the Tentacles I’m at 17% health and no armour. This isn’t a huge deal because if the Tentacles get me, I’m probably dead no matter what, but it sets me on edge. There’s not much wiggle room. I drop to the bottom of the blast pit and at a dead run make it to safety just as the Tentacle begins to attack.

To get to the power generator, I have to go down a big loading elevator. The elevator is in a room with hanging cables. A couple of sneaky barnacles have colonized the ceiling and let their tongues hang down in between. They’re too far up to hit with the shotgun, and I’m low on rifle ammo, so I’m forced to skirt around them very carefully. At the other end of the room, a bullsquid feasts on the dead body of a scientist, but my shotgun can handle that with no problem.

Halfway down, the elevator loses its hold on the cable and falls to the bottom of the shaft. I jump out and land on solid ground. To my surprise, there’s a live scientist down here. He refuses to go any further–his friend Smithers went down to the generator and never came back. When I reach the generator, the mystery is easily solved: Smithers is very much alive. He’s hiding on top of the generator and refusing to move.

I start up the generator. On my way back to the blast pit, I take a few more hits and end up at 5% health. Only a few grenades are left, but I’m liberal with them as I climb up to the control room. As long as those giant claws are hacking somewhere else, I’m safe. The indicator lights are on for oxygen, fuel, and power. Here’s the satisfying part: watch the invulnerable colossus melt away at the mere touch of a button.

Blast doors close and flames shoot out of the rocket. The control room window is broken, but my hazard suit can with stand the heat so long as I’m not too close. The flames grow in intensity, burning the Tentacles away to atoms. When I emerge from the control room, all that remains is a smoky stump in a hole at the bottom of the pit.

The hole turns out to be a tunnel, which leads me to a large pool of water with…something submerged in it. On the edge of the water a dead guard is sprawled near some toxic waste. His sidearm, the venerable .357 magnum hand cannon, is nearby. It would be a shame to let it go to waste.

I reach a health and armour station not a moment too soon. This is one of the greatest experiences playing Half-Life: the sheer rush that comes from going all out, expending all your resources and taking hits till you’re almost down, and finally triumphing. It’s immensely satisfying to succeed by just a hair’s breadth, to know that if you took one more hit you’d be dead. And since Valve’s level designers are so good, there’s always a well-placed supply area just after a major battle, which allows you the additional pleasure of getting back on your feet, locking and loading, and mentally preparing yourself for the next trial. This is another reason I think Half-Life 2‘s Ravenholm is one of the best levels ever–there’s not a whole lot of supplies about, and there are a ton of enemies. By the time you reach the end you will be only barely alive.

After bringing my health and armour back up, I proceed over a network of pipes. Just before I reach the end of the level, I smash a crate and see something new: a tripmine that hasn’t yet been set. This is a turning point, because I am no longer prey. I am in my element here, and the soldiers are in unfamiliar territory. Head-on assaults are not the scientist’s way. I’m only still alive through the cunning use of the environment to trap enemies. Now that I have a portable way to set traps where I please, those enemies are in trouble.

Next: Decay Constants.