HL: Face Value

by Tom Ingram


The train stops at a station platform, where a security guard is trying to loot a broken vending machine. I’m low on ammunition, so I enlist him and let him take care of some enemies. We come to a dark, dead-end passage. Through a window in the wall, I see a guard and scientist in silhouette. Something teleports in just out of view, killing the guard with an attack I don’t recognize. It runs out to kill the scientist before teleporting away, and in that moment I see a monstrous shape I can’t match to anything I’ve come across before.

I climb through the now broken window and move on. An elevator takes me to the surface, where I see an intact Osprey preparing to leave. In one room, a commander is on the radio, giving the order to mark targets for airstrikes. Gordon Freeman is on the other end, in a scene from the Half-Life chapter “Surface Tension”. I wonder if we took this and other points of contact between the games, would the timelines agree?

One of the agonizingly “characterized” soldiers from the beginning is at this little base camp, which is interesting because I saw his dead body not long ago. There are pictures. Anyway, he’s intimidating a scientist in an effort to find out where Freeman is. I watch at first, because this is after all one of my guys, and he hasn’t caused any real harm yet. But when he shoves the scientist and looks to be about to kill him, I waste no time bashing his head in with the wrench.

This is one of those moments where you write your own story. The option of leaving the scientist to his fate is always open. I don’t know what ultimately happens if you don’t kill the soldier because I don’t think I’ve ever not done it. Whatever it is, though, I doubt it’s a scripted event that has been played often. Anyone who has played Half-Life and felt the righteous fury at the killing of the first scientist is probably not going to let this one die. Once again, you are presented with an option, but circumstance conspires to push you in one particular direction, and unless you make a concerted effort to the contrary, only one choice is likely. Many games are played from a position of perverse detachment, where you do whatever you think will get the most interesting result, but that’s not possible here.

I go down to board the Osprey, but a hangar door closes and blocks my way. The G-Man walks out in front and observes calmly through a window in the door. I’m forced to watch as the aircraft takes off, oblivious to me and, strangely, him.

I don’t mean to rehash, but this bit highlights again how effectively Valve builds a connection between player and character. Even if you’ve never played the game, you know the Osprey is too good to be true—there’s no way you’re getting on it. But on that final approach, there’s a moment of genuine hope, which compounds the claustrophobia when the door shuts on you. Compare the killing of the marine or, earlier, the rising acid bath overseen by the G-Man. It’s not just the first-person perspective, because other first-person games do not have the same effect. Something is going on here that practically forces you to take the game at face value.

I pass through some dangerous machinery into the official Black Mesa flame-generation complex. Down here are some more advanced headcrab zombies with lumpy blue growths on their backs and a ranged acid attack. Some Xen scenery, such as the lamp-plants and the water, has apparently made it down here. I use some unwisely stacked explosives to blow a hole in the floor and escape through a tunnel to fresh air.

A dying marine out here tells me that “they” will kill us all. “They” probably refers to Race X, the new aliens that will begin to appear shortly. They are probably the most mysterious part of the Half-Life mythos. The Nihilanth, the Combine, and even the G-Man are shown and mentioned enough that we can draw some tentative conclusions about them, but Race X, like Opfor in general, is connected to the main storyline in a way that is not clear. Mysteries demand to be solved; Episode 3 cries out to be made. But I repeat myself.

The Race X aliens are on a side of their own, and they will attack Xen creatures if given the opportunity. This is easy to forget or miss—I did one or the other on my first play-through—but it’s there. It’s also worth noting that the scientists, while they are by this point aware of the reasons we’re here, are not running in fear from me, and are occasionally even helpful. Later on, we’ll see that the special-ops soldiers are not on the marine’s side. The narrow point-of-view of Half-Life does not give the full picture of what’s going on. Things are more complicated than they might at first appear.

I reach a radio and make contact with some other marines, who bust down a door to meet up with me. Corporal Shephard is never far from help, another difference from Half-Life‘s largely lone-wolf run. I guess what I’m getting at with all this rambling is that Opfor keeps the mechanics and trappings of Half-Life more or less verbatim, but the gameplay is varied in subtle but powerful ways. You’re given pretty much the same tools in the same setting, but you do different things with them almost automatically. This is what separates Opfor from Blue Shift. Opfor appears superficially to be more of the same. Blue Shift actually is.

Next: Emergence.