HL: The Hand of God
by Tom Ingram
Here we are: the dreaded vehicle section. Half-Life is not immune to the fad more than any other game. Unfortunately, this chapter (“On a Rail”) is a bit hit-and-miss. The parts where you’re actually on the rail are tedious. The tunnels are so tangled that through the whole thing I had a nagging feeling that I had missed something and become horribly lost, and there’s only so many ways you can have enemies ambush the rail platform from the sides of the tracks before it starts to seem half-hearted. However, much of the level isn’t actually on the rail, and these parts are great.
Leaving the station where we left off, I come to a rail elevator. This takes me down into the tunnels. From here, it’s just a matter of keeping the platform moving, shooting anything that gets in the way, and paying attention to intersections. Turning is controlled by shooting at switches, a cartoonish concession in a game that largely maintains realism (aliens notwithstanding). Valve is smart enough not to make the platform difficult to steer, but in order to do that they’ve put in a mechanic that seems more at home in Donkey Kong 64.
At one stop along the line there’s a staircase behind my vanquished enemies, and I get off the platform to do some exploration. I find a satchel charge, among other things, which is a handy thing to have in any situation. As I wander along, I hear the ominous telltale of the crackling radio. There are soldiers about. I find and dispatch them in a wide, square room with thick pipelines stretching diagonally into the ceiling and red blast doors at the opposite end. Through the blast doors is the bottom of the rocket, suspended in the air. The thrusters are level with me, the wide body stretching up toward the surface.
I will eventually find myself up on top of the launch tube, and it occurs to me that I have not got the foggiest clue how I got there. As I write this, I only remember climbing down ladders, taking elevators deeper underground, and yet somehow I ended up above the rocket which I am now beneath. I’m sure it all checks out geographically if you map it out, but it’s definitely twisted.
I’ll spare you the details of the next stretch of train riding, but the next stop is at a heavily-guarded machine gun emplacement. The marines have had enough time by now to get entrenched–last chapter, we saw one of their bases–and they’re setting up the heavy artillery. Which is good for them, really, because it’s near here that the aliens attack them. I see 5.56 rounds flying one way and strikes of lightning the other, and there’s no good reason why I shouldn’t just sit back, let it play out, and mop up the survivors. One of the advantages of an MIT physics degree–it lets you be calculating.
They must have been hard at work, because I come across a bunker made of sandbags, housing what seems to be a large-calibre chain gun (judging by the holes it puts in me when I unwisely step out of cover). It’s not easy to shoot through the slit to take out the gunner, but I manage it, and find this scribbled on the wall next to the position:
I make my way into the rocket chamber again, much higher up this time. There is an ill-advised shootout between me and a group of marines, and I end up back on the train tracks. Off to one side is a little chamber with a couple aliens, a dead soldier, and some supplies. Someone’s been vandalizing the wall in here, too: it says, “Yore dead Freeman” [sic]. The nerd-vs-jock angle comes into focus again; the level designers wanted to indicate that the marines are stupid by putting in spelling mistakes. But the mistakes are improbable–“You’re” would more likely be misrendered as “Your”, and “surrender” seems like it’s a much better candidate for misspelling than “Freeman”. This shows the creators’ hands; it seems to me that there is at least some extent to which they are caught up in the conflict and thus incapable of wholly understanding their own characters. Shortly afterward, back on the tracks, there’s another one: “Die, Freeman”. The three messages, taken together, have an undertone of indignation.
After some more samey rail-spelunking and bunker-busting, I emerge into the great outdoors. Even now, the game maintains unity between player and character; even though what I see onscreen is a set of pixels with only a metaphorical connection to outsideness, it feels like a breath of fresh air to be above ground for the first time since (I believe) the third chapter. It’s now night time, and two soldiers are guarding the loading dock. Their backs are to me, and I can hear their conversation:
1: So, who is this guy, Freeman?
2: They say he was at ground zero.
1: Science team…You think he was responsible? Sabotage, maybe?
2: Yeah, maybe. All I know for sure is he’s been killing my buddies.
1: Oh yeah, he’ll pay. He will definitely pay.
This introduces a personal element that I hadn’t even considered. The soldiers are seeing their friends killed by this pencil-necked scientist, and it creates a desire for revenge. They come after me, and I kill them. Their friends get mad and come for revenge. It’s a vicious cycle. Through all this, they ignore or forget the fact that it’s all their fault: if they had been doing what they were supposed to do (i.e., not murdering civilians), it wouldn’t have happened. Because of the warped way the marines frame the situation, they see themselves as heroes, which means they won’t stop coming after me. Anyway, in order to stop all this, I need to keep moving. And they’re blocking the only way forward. I launch a rifle grenade directly between them and watch the cycle turn again.
I rush forward into the fresh air to get a health pack and immediately get shot in the head and die. There’s a sniper set up on the mountain side. The second time through I’m more careful. I put a couple of rounds into the sniper position. I’m not sure if it killed him, but I don’t linger too long outside just in case. I go through the blast doors into the concrete pit where the rocket’s launch tube opens. One marine, unaware of me, expresses remorse for his actions and wonders where his orders came from. I regret killing him, but it’s a narrow corridor into the control room and there’s no other way. The launch is controlled by a big red button conveniently labelled “launch”. It shuts the door, lowers blast shields over the windows, and opens the rocket’s launch tube. I peer out the observation slit and watch as it ignites and rises into the sky like the hand of God.