HL: All the Difference

by Tom Ingram


The other marines exchange friendly banter, making fun of each other in an achingly stereotypical recreation of scenes from all the worst war movies. I sit next to them, only half listening. Our Osprey has the side doors open to the air, a practice that looks cool but can’t possibly be very safe. Especially with the squad’s commanding officer standing next to the sheer drop with no visible safety restraint. As I admire the scenery of the sprawling New Mexico desert, several of our aircraft pass by, exchanging radio messages. We pass a cliff face with ledges just wide enough to walk on, a great broad pipe running straight down to the valley below, and a little bridge made of planks. This is a location from Half-Life, from a different angle.

That is the root of Opposing Force‘s power. As the game goes on, it begins to develop into something independent (and indeed it encompasses a broader span of time than the first game), but at the outset it comments on the plot of Half-Life by showing the same or similar events from a different perspective. We saw a bit of this in Blue Shift, but it wasn’t nearly as well-executed.

In due time, we see the alien aircraft fly by, casually destroying one of the other Ospreys. Ours is hit and pitches forward into a fall. Predictably, the commanding officer loses his footing and plummets to his death. The Osprey crashes and I pass out. There are brief flashes of wakefulness, during which I see my comrades being attacked and killed by vortigaunts.

This time round, a marine dying carries a bit of emotional weight. The opening scene was insipid, and the “characters” that were my fellow marines were doomed from the outset—it is not Valve’s way to let such people live. But it did put them on my radar as people. This didn’t happen in Half-Life, even in the most revealing moments. But Opposing Force, while verifying Half-Life‘s unpleasant characterization of the marines, makes them more obviously human. The embarrassingly sadistic glee of killing the first marine in Half-Life doesn’t show up here.

When I finally wake up for real, I’m in an infirmary with a doctor trying to revive one of the marines. He asks me to return to the crash site and radio for help. I talk to a few other scientists, who have heard that I’m not here to rescue them. By this point the marines have probably begun killing the scientists, but word has not had time to spread. My squad, for what it’s worth, never received the “kill everybody” order, which technically makes us the good guys. In just a slightly different world, I’d be savaging these people and looting their corpses. The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.

In one corner, I see three marines who have been taken over by headcrabs. A scientist is watching over them, marvelling at the creature’s complexity. Next to him another scientist is poking a kenneled headcrab with a stick.

I leave their safe haven. The first thing I find that could be used as a weapon is a great red pipe wrench lying on the ground. It swings slower than the crowbar, but breaks boxes and kills enemies faster—like the marines themselves, an overwhelming force brought to bear with efficiency rather than speed. My other equipment is different, too. The HUD has been changed to look more “military”, and the flashlight is replaced by night vision goggles—more useful, but with more weaknesses, too. Valve are the masters of balance.

My path eventually takes me outside to a deep canyon. I work my way down to the bottom and arrive at the site of the crash landing. The bodies of my squadmates are still strewn around the wrecked Osprey, and an electrified fence prevents me from getting to the radio. I explore until I find the station where I can shut off the power. A guard has taken refuge here, but as he tries to meet me he touches the fence and dies. Crawling through a tunnel to get to the other side, I shut off the power and take his gun. It’s meant to be a Desert Eagle, a massive and cumbersome .50 pistol that is almost never used by anyone, but it fires the same ammunition as Half-Life‘s magnum. This was a different time, when technical accuracy with respect to weapons was not considered to be an important feature.

I return to the crash site and radio for help. The commander orders me to use some tunnels to meet up with the rest of the marines. They’re pulling out. This muddies the chronology somewhat, but that’s what happens when you have sequels; just ignore it. Down underground, I get trapped in a chamber over a reservoir of toxic waste. The waste slowly begins to rise, and falling debris breaks the platform I’m standing on. I climb up a rickety fallen catwalk. There’s a door leading out, but it’s sealed. The waste level is rising. And guess who’s watching me through the window of the control room?

Eventually he opens the door long enough for me to get through. I rush to the control room, but he’s gone. The way I came is blocked off, and my only escape is an elevator that takes me to the train tunnels. I get on a train, listening as it plays a whirring, distorted recording: “Good morning, and welcome to the Black Mesa transit system.”

Next: Face Value.