by Tom Ingram
Words are barely distinguishable in the low rumbling, but with concentration I can just make out what was said. There’s no apparent source of the sound. I stand on a piece of rock, floating through space. There are more of these about, leading down to a large mass with giant spikes jutting out of it. I use the long-jump module the scientists gave me to go the only way I can. At the edge of the second rock, I see a familiar orange-suited body lying by the edge.
He’s quite dead, and his supplies are strewn on the ground next to him. This is a member of the exploration teams that the scientists obliquely referred to before I left. I will find dozens more of them throughout these chapters, one or two dead in seemingly every nook and cranny in Xen. They must have been coming for months before the resonance cascade occurred; this accounts for some of the mysteries in the game, but not all of them.
But these bodies represent more than simply dead soldiers. Their faces are covered, and the only way to identify them is by their HEV suit, my armour. Every one I see is a reminder and a threat: this could happen to you. And, in fact, it already has several times. I mentioned that it would be interesting to see more games playing with the concept of dying and reloading from save. I think this would qualify (though perhaps more so if the number of dead HEV-suited bodies depended on the number of times you died).
The novel and sometimes unsettling Xen levels are possibly the best-looking alien environments I’ve ever seen. The visuals are different enough from Earth to seem incoherent, but never so much that you lose track of where you can go and what you can do. This is a difficult balance to strike, and the developers nailed it. Too bad everything else is a mess.
One thing that shooters in general, and Half-Life in particular, are bad at is platforming. With a limited point of view and a poor concept of where your feet are, it’s not possible to reliably land on anything. The Xen chapters consist almost entirely of platforming. They’re difficult, but in the same way that tightening a screw with a paperclip is difficult. That is, not because of clever design and well-thought-out challenges, but because of bad design–not having the right tools for the job.
To make matters worse, they’ve also messed with the gravity in Xen. Half-Life’s platforming controls are ill-suited for the task, but over the course of several hours of play time they grow on you. They may not be ideal, but they become natural. But now, when your platforming skills are needed most urgently, they fail you. You jump farther and higher than you expect, some high falls hurt and others don’t, and run speed is drastically increased (which is a pain in the ass when walking on narrow causeways over a bottomless pit). The puzzles and firefights that made the bulk of the game so fun and memorable are gone. The levels on Xen are completely straightforward and bring nothing new to the table except a bag of frustrations.
At the bottom of my descent, I find the entrance to a cave. The floor is covered in a reddish liquid that looks almost like it has teeth, but flows like water and turns out to be harmless. I activate the machinery at the centre of the cave and teleport out of there. That’s it for the first Xen chapters. There is only one–“Interloper”–with any real length to it.
The screen blacks out, and the chapter title tells me that this is Gonarch’s Lair. I materialize in another part of Xen and hear a high-pitched howl, almost wolfish. Something in the distance begins running toward me. It has only four legs, but there is something arachnid about it. A red sac hangs from its undercarriage, and it runs like a stampeding horse. Gonarch, I presume.
It moves fast and strikes hard, and strafing round it as fast as I can, I only just manage to dodge when it swipes at me. Baby headcrabs spawn from its belly sac and jump, shrieking, but I can’t spare the attention it takes to deal with them. I unload all my rockets, and it’s only enough to make Gonarch run away.
With this sudden and brief respite, I take care of all the baby headcrabs, loot the body of one of my fallen comrades, and have a look at my surroundings. White wormy creatures protrude from the ground, their top end bent over to form a hook shape. When I get close, they swing at me: baby Tentacles.
Following Gonarch into the cave, I begin to dig in my arsenal for powerful ranged weapons. Setting a trap is simply impractical, because it moves too fast. I fire the Tau cannon fully charged until it’s empty. This gets Gonarch out of the tunnel and onto a little plateau with a hole in it, covered by some kind of webbing. There are still a couple rifle grenades left, but otherwise nothing that packs a major punch. I fling the grenades in Gonarch’s direction, hitting it again and driving it into another cave. Searching frantically through my inventory, I come up with the magnum–not great for big jobs like this, but it does more damage than anything else I’ve got. I begin to dodge and fire. Little globules of green blood spurt off of Gonarch with every shot. Finally it dies, putting a hole in the floor of the cave as it goes. Down here there’s a teleporter.
I materialize into the penultimate chapter of the game, “Interloper”, and hear the same voice as before. “Done,” it says, “What have you done?” I’m on a big rock floating suspended in the air. Around me are towering bony horns, like the ones in the first section of Xen. What follows is a pointless and frustrating bit of platforming, and I won’t bother with the details. I take another teleporter at the end and wind up in a cave.
Just outside the mouth of the cave is a Tentacle. The other way round, though, takes me behind what is apparently an alien encampment of some kind. Intrigued, I watch the vortigaunts through the scope of my tranquilizer. They look like they’re engaged in either magic or religion, possibly both. The pounding machinery they’re prostrating themselves before looks quite a bit like the devices that repel the antlions in Half-Life 2. I can’t remember if anything’s made of this.
My voyeurism is interrupted when an alien grunt steps in front of me. The crossbow is silent, and I take out the grunt and the two vortigaunts without disturbing the other aliens. This lets me sneak around the back of another cave and surprise the vortigaunts inside. They were keeping a stash of supplies and a pair of dead explorers.
I move along and eventually find another teleporter, which drops me into some kind of factory. I catch the vortigaunts in the middle of working, and it’s a while before they notice me at all. This part of the chapter eerily mirrors certain parts of Black Mesa, but the effect is cancelled out by the general ineptitude of the Xen portion of the game. The reliance on teleporters is a particular sticking place; it saves them the trouble of having to come up with intelligent level designs. If you can jump from anywhere to anywhere else, nothing has to flow logically into anything else, and indeed nothing does. After another teleporter, I find myself at a big alien altar. I step onto it and am instantly transported to the final chapter of the game.
“FREEMAN!” it shouts.
The Nihilanth is the force keeping the portals open. It looks like a giant, cruel parody of a foetus with a third arm protruding from its chest and a head the size of its entire body. It floats at the centre of a cylindrical chamber filled at the bottom with the red Xen water. To kill it, I have to destroy the crystals on the walls, shoot at its head until it splits open at the top, and then fire everything I’ve got at its brain. This is not so easy as it seems. Getting up to the top of the Nihilanth’s head is no easy task. It has two attacks, one that does obscene amounts of damage and one that teleports you to a little side area that you have to escape from before returning to the fight. If you do manage to make it up there, either one is enough to dislodge you.
Honestly, this isn’t a very well-executed final boss. It’s a disappointing way to end one of the best games ever made. The Nihilanth is fraught with fake difficulty and buggy programming (the boss would disappear whenever I crouched, and I got trapped inside its head), and the way to beat it is not in keeping with the style of the rest of the game. Freeman wins by outsmarting everyone else, by connecting the fuel and coolant lines and firing the test rocket, not by shooting a lot and hoping for the best. Still, I get the head open and drop in satchel charges, and what’s left of the brain is easily dealt with by the magnum. The Nihilanth begins to die, and it doesn’t die quietly.
I wake up on an otherworldly elevator across from the G-Man. He talks for a while, explaining very little. The scene changes behind him to one of destruction at Black Mesa; it’s night time and military vehicles are burning all around us. He speaks obscurely about his “employers”, without elaborating as to who they are or what they do. Finally, we end up in a train car just like the one at the beginning of the game, and he gives me a choice: accept his offer of employment, or be transported away to a battle I can’t win. The ending forks depending on what I choose, but the canonical ending (Gordon accepts and is put into stasis, “awaiting assignment”) makes more sense with Freeman’s character. I step off the train into the portal. The screen goes black, and words flash onto it:
So, that’s Half-Life. Between its seamlessly interwoven story and gameplay, its captivating combat and puzzles, and its compelling mysteries, it stands as a giant of game design, a great historical artifact of computers in the 90s, and one of the best games ever made. But there’s more to the series than that, so there’s more to this series of posts, too. We will continue next with Half-Life: Blue Shift. Not the first expansion, but the shortest and least interesting one, so let’s get it out of the way first.
Next: Barney’s Version.