HL: Emergence

by Tom Ingram


My comrades inexplicably refuse to follow me much farther than the elvator, and I’m forced to leave them behind and prowl through the deserted offices alone. I come across a large, crooked portrait of Gordon Freeman under a sign proclaiming him “Employee of the Month”. The picture is on the same wall as the door I entered from, and it would have been easy to miss it. It’s the little details like this that really make the game.

I climb up through the ceiling and crawl in the vents. Stumbling across a radio setup, I try to call for backup, but the panicked voice on the other end shouts cryptically and fearfully over the bad connection. I get to the surface through a collapsed ceiling and meet up with a medic.

Leaving him to guard our rooftop platform, I crawl through a vent and up to a grate opening onto a room where missiles are stored. On the other side of the grate, Black Ops soldiers are discussing their assignment:

1: Why do we always have to clean up the mess the grunts can’t handle?

2: Tell me about it. I just want to deliver the package and get out of here.

1: Yeah, sooner or later the grunts are going to figure it out.

This is a nice parallel to a scene partway through Half-Life, where Freeman overhears two marines having a similar conversation about killing the scientists. And as I burst through the grate and open fire on the soldiers, it becomes one of the most exhilarating scenes in Opfor. Half-Life had its moments, but this game’s firefights play differently despite the almost identical mechanics.

It helps that the Black Ops soldiers appear to be faster and smarter than the marines. But in no small part, I think it’s due to simple differences in the trappings. The knowledge that my character is a marine corporal cut off from his unit, not an embattled scientist, changes the way I interpret the onscreen happenings—even though it is irrelevant to the game’s mathematical foundation.

I find a dying marine behind a garage door, but multiple bullet wounds are no match for my medic’s sophisticated first aid technology. The marine is an engineer, and he can take down locked doors. I point him at the door blocking the only other way off the rooftop, only to find a laser tripwire and an automated turret on the other side. Some things were not meant to last. But it doesn’t take long to link up with two more marines, heavily armed for combat.

We arrive at a storage room where, as you might expect, we’re attacked by the fast-running female Black Ops agents from Half-Life. This scene plays differently, though. In Half-Life you were an isolated, easy target. The best strategy was to set a trap, take away the Black Ops’ options, and kill them as they come through the narrow corridor you’ve left open. But I have backup, and while they’re no Alexanders, they’re smart enough to kill and not be killed. That completely changes the strategy and overall feel of this scene. The advantage is mine throughout—it takes them several shots to seriously hurt me, but I can kill one of them in one or two.

We clear the room quickly and efficiently and move on into the train tunnels, where the Black Ops have set up shop. I notice as I move along that my lackeys are covering me, and I’m covering them. They use cover efficiently, taking over for me while I slip back reload. The Half-Life games don’t have particularly sophisticated AI, but with the merciless pacing of the scenes that involve team combat, squad tactics seem to emerge spontaneously from the system.

These are some of the most fun bits of any game I’ve ever played, certainly any shooter, and this is all without complicated technology, wall-hugging mechanics, or much in the way of realism. It’s not necessary to beat players over the head with tactics and cover-based shooting. We can be trusted to figure it out for ourselves, so long as there are bullets and things that bullets won’t go through.

There is something deep in here about the nature of “fun” as it applies to game design. For much of the last decade, shooter design has been hampered by the principle of being true to life—the more the game imitates real battlefield conditions, the more fun it will be. Project Reality put the final nail in that idea’s coffin, but its odour has not yet been Febrezed out of the furniture. Opposing Force is not a realistic game, but this section is crammed with solid game design. It would not be improved by the addition of bullet drop.

It’s hard to point out what exactly is the certain je ne sais quoi in this section. We could spend thousands of words unpacking it in detail. In part, it’s the evident care and attention to detail in the level design. The developers anticipate the player’s actions and carefully place in-game objects to present a calculated challenge that is neither too dense nor too sparse—in essence, subtle manipulation of the player.

But there’s also an element of choice. If you play carefully, squad tactics will bubble to the surface. But you don’t have to play carefully. You could jump around, howling and whooping and firing at random. You could leave your men behind and try a stealth run. This paradoxical balance of free will and behind-the-scenes control may well be what fun is all about.