by Tom Ingram
I’m really outside of Black Mesa this time. I stand at one end of a deep canyon bisected by a dam. At the other end is a closed blast door, and a bunker sits next to it with some kind of artillery gun inside. As I watch through the scope on my tranquilizer crossbow, wondering just how I’m going to cross without being fired on, a distant chopping noise echoes down the length of the chasm. The helicopter flies over and can hardly fail to see me.
This is the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. It has a gun mounted on the bottom that can fire massive projectiles over a distance of one and a half kilometres at 625 rounds per minute. That’s in addition to the four rocket pods mounted on the wings. It was designed to replace the old helicopter that carried a mere 19 rockets and two miniguns. It can take out tanks. And here I am, standing in a high, exposed place wearing bright orange.
The artillery gun has already vanished from my mind. I’m busy running at a dead sprint for the water. I jump in and fall beneath the surface. A few chain gun rounds reach down here and hit me, but even in the beautifully clear water it’s harder for them to see me and there’s plenty to hide behind. I swim down to the bottom and open the grate over a tunnel underneath the dam. From here it’s a quick swim through shallow water down the length of the canyon, all the while under fire from the winged harbinger of fiery death flitting around above me.
At the end of the canyon there are tunnels leading into the side of the mountain. I emerge at the other end to find that I haven’t lost my pursuer. There are low pockets of sandy ground surrounded by tall rocks up here, meaning that I’m navigating a series of large bowls. I’m at the bottom, and the aircraft has a nice clear view down on me. One of these bowls is riddled with mines, and it’s at the far end of it that I find the entrance to a drainage pipe.
Here begins one of my favourite parts of the entire game. The pipe opens onto a rough cliff face with a number of narrow shelves. Far below, far enough that it can only be seen through a fuzzy haze, there is a river. I work my way down the shelves and then across the cliff face only to find that the helicopter has returned. I duck into a conveniently placed cave where the marines have stored some supplies–it’s only supposed to be a shelter till the chopper is gone, but inside is a rocket launcher. I step out of the cave and fire a rocket, guiding it gently toward the helicopter’s body. It connects, and the whole thing goes down in a glorious cloud of flame and smoke.
I climb up the cliff face and into another pipe. When I finally surface, I find myself opposite a squad of marines and a tank. I immediately drop back down below the surface and find another way out. This takes me to a hatch in the ground directly behind the tank. It’s a massive thing. The universe seems to bend around its sheer bigness, as if the bare fact of its existence was too much to handle. The narrow walls prevent the turret from traversing to hit me, and soldiers are firing at me from one side, but I can’t focus on anything other than this gargantuan piece of hostile machinery. I fire off several rockets at it until it explodes, leaving behind a flaming husk which is just as mind-bendingly huge. No battlefield is truly chaotic until there is a flaming tank.
Just down the road, I come across a barricade guarded by an armoured personnel carrier–a tank’s smaller but more energetic younger brother. It takes less effort to blow up, but fires faster. These vehicle fights are, I think, the key to why this level works so well. Previous encounters with the military have been in fits and starts. It’s not till this chapter that it really feels like you are taking them on once and for all, cutting a swath through their carefully arranged defenses. Things that were previously used against you, like artillery and heavy machine guns, can be turned against the marines, and the rocket launcher makes their most powerful weapons beatable. It’s intoxicating to finally have an all-out battle with them in a largely open arena, and even more so to win it.
The road leads to a low concrete building. It’s locked, but I get up on the roof and drop in. There’s a scientist hiding in a darkened storage room inside. He warns me to proceed with extreme caution, and says I’ll know why as soon as I open the door to the hallway. I open and…
It’s these damn avant-garde munitions storage protocols. Probably the same reason there was a minefield just outside the ammo dump. Through Mission: Impossible-style gymnastics, I work through the laser grid and get onto the elevator platform. It leads to an underground road heading for the surface. I pass a parked military-style truck. That’s another reason this level is so great. Nowadays games with tanks and APCs are a dime a dozen, but this would have been one of the first times these vehicles were depicted in games with any degree of realism. And let’s face it: tanks are cool.
When I get to the surface, a Xenian drop ship flies overhead and leaves behind two “alien grunts”, the vortigaunts’ bulkier armoured cousins. They barely have time to start shooting at me when a fighter jet flies overhead and drops bombs down on them. I’m low on health, so I run away and hide in a nearby building–which turns out to house a massive armoury.
I resupply and head off through some ruined buildings, no doubt the result of bombings. A marine is impaled on a piece of rebar on the roof of one of them. I wind up in a parking garage, just in time to see…
I’ve since learned that this thing is called a “gargantua”. It’s one of the most useful devices the developers have in their arsenal, because it’s so dangerous. While it is possible to kill one of these with enough explosives, it’s very difficult and if you get to close it will use its flame attack. That doesn’t always kill you, but it knocks off a good chunk of your health. Unlike the tentacles, the gargantua can move, too. This means that it’s effective for coralling you to wherever the developers want you to go. I know I would have gone to the left first in that garage if I hadn’t seen the gargantua. I never did go back to see what was there. Once you’ve gone too far past a certain point, there’s strong inertia against turning around. It feels like you’re not supposed to be back there. This leaves me with a sense that there is more unexplored territory, which makes the level seem larger and less linear than it actually is.
When I emerge from the garage, I notice that the gargantua is quite a ways behind me. There’s a lot of time to manoeuvre. I notice a dead marine on top of a tower or tank of some kind and go up to investigate. When I get there, the radio goes off:
Come in! Cooper, do you copy? Forget about Freeman. We’re abandoning the base. If you have any last bomb targets, mark them on the technical map. Otherwise, get the hell out of there. Repeat: we are pulling out and commencing airstrikes. Give us targets or get below.
The technical map is, of course, right there. When the gargantua comes through, I mark it out and call in air support. The gargantua goes out in a blaze of glory. Another airstrike knocks down a communication tower to form a bridge, and a final one blows open the heavy door across the compound from me. The marine commander’s radio message is tantamount to a surrender, which neatly wraps up this whole arc of the story (of course, in Opposing Force we’ll find that that’s not quite true). You can just feel the threads coming together in preparation for the end. As I press on, the passage I’m travelling is blocked by an overhead door. Painted on the front, in orange, are the words “LAMBDA COMPLEX”.
Next: Lost Hallway.