I wrote the other day about Half-Life: Opposing Force, an article which inspired me to return to the 1998 classic. I wrote about Half-Life at length back in 2019 where I talked about some of the joys and downright headscratching moments. My recent foray back to the Black Mesa complex took me to the Surface Tension chapter, it’s a strange one which has some highlights, lowlights and more of those moments where you wonder what Valve were doing.
When you talk to someone about their favourite moments of the Half-Life series, people will often cite the opening tram ride through Black Mesa in the original or the G-Man’s prep talk during the Half-Life 2 opening. There might be some souls who favoured Xen with others who would dig deep into the back catalogue and mention something from Blue Shift. It would be a rare fan indeed who would have a favourite moment from Opposing Force, the first expansion to Valve’s masterpiece, but coming from Gearbox Software. I was a fan of this alternative take on the Black Mesa incident, but YouTuber BAST Brushie is a true fan, having created a reworked introduction for Opposing Force using the latest Source engine tech.
Way back when, Half-Life and Valve were the biggest topics doing the rounds. The hype for the release of Half-Life 2 was unprecedented in the PC landscape, with equally unprecedented levels of debate doing the rounds about the introduction of Steam as the delivery tool for Valve’s blockbuster.
Now, with Half-Life: Alyx just days away from release, I see news stories that pre-loading of Valve’s dive into VR has begun, and I wonder when a game last had pre-loading. Maybe I’m so complacent with fast fibre connections and a lack of time to spend playing new games on the day of release that I don’t keep track of pre-loading details, but hearing about the pre-loading for Alyx sparks a memory of the good old days.
It also reminds me of how Valve fumbled the ball with the franchise. The idea of episodic game releases came and went in the blink of an eye, yet the ending of Episode 2 sticks in the mind as the mother of all cliffhangers, especially for someone who started their games writing life on a Half-Life fansite in halflife2.net.
Valve were for a time the masters of storytelling when it came to first-person action games. I’d argue Arkane took that title and ran with it with the Dishonored series, but Valve were breaking new ground with Half-Life 2. Fellow ex-writer at halflife2.net, and now one half of the writing team behind A Place in the West, Ross Joseph Gardner penned a great piece on the storytelling innovations seen in Half-Life 2 and its episodes.
I would love to allow myself to become invested in the hype for Alyx, I yearn to be taken back into the world of Gordon, Alyx and the G-Man. But…Alyx is a VR game, and one exclusive to a subset of PC headsets. It might be the game which pushes VR towards the mainstream, but the capital investment required to have the requisite hardware will push Alyx beyond many, not to mention the motion sickness worries that put people off VR will likely limit the impact Alyx will have on the broader gaming world.
I don’t doubt that many people will watch others venture through Valve’s new adventure through streamers or lengthy Let’s Play videos which will do a lot to share the experience widely.
But, will that replicate the wonder of the tram sequence from the first game, or your first interaction with a Combine soldier? I don’t know how others will feel, but I would want to experience that moment myself.
I’m going to be missing out on a series that I once held in highest regard. I wish Valve would release a non-VR port of Alyx, but there is also a large part of me which is exceedingly happy that Valve are actually returning to the Half-Life world.
For those lucky enough to be in a position where you will be able to play Alyx, please savour the experience and feel the excitement of pre-loading and waiting for the hour of release.
Half-Life stands proud at the top of the all time greatest games for many of the pre-Fortnite generation. Even to this day, it still inspires developers to create videos about it, and for me to rattle on about the AI. Having just sent the finished On a Rail, and sent the top secret rocket into space, I wanted to share some memories of this special game. And no, I won’t be talking about the introductory tram ride.
The Resonance Cascade is, of course, the moment which causes all hell to break loose at Black Mesa. While the overarching question of why gets answered as the series progresses, when you first witness it, you don’t care about why it’s happening, only whether you will survive those first moments where you see your first vortigaunt, and whether the whole building will collapse upon you.
The most wonderful thing about the Resonance Cascade for me, comes in Half-Life: Decay. This was the PS2 exclusive bonus that came with the port of the base game to Sony’s device. It’s also the only co-op game I’ve actually completed. Taking the roles of Colette Green and Gina Cross, I spent a few days playing Decay after school with my best mate. It was an entertaining aside to the main game, giving some further context to how large a place Black Mesa was.
Barney’s are the endearing security guards who inhabit the Black Mesa facility.
They are accidental cannon fodder for the marines.
They are allies who might open a door, or give you some ammo.
They are legion.
Alright, enough about that. The Barney’s in Half-Life are all well and good, perhaps even better with the high-definition pack that was released along with Blue Shift, an expansion, like Decay, handled by Gearbox Software. My Barney isn’t just a random security guard, nor is he just the suave, handsome chap found in Half-Life 2. No, my Barney is all of that, plus a character that you can take on his own journey to Xen.
Here’s to Barney!
Why am I showing off a picture of a broken bridge from Blast Pit? The answer is simple, a broken bridge nearly broke me during my PS2 playthrough.
While I initially played Half-Life on the PC, I didn’t complete it there. After a certain point, I lent the disc to a friend, and it wasn’t until the PS2 release came along that I was able to complete it.
But, while exploring the Blast Pit chapter, I remember blowing up one of the bridges linking the main structure with the ancillary areas where you activated the various mechanisms that would allow you to destroy the three-headed tentacle creature.
For whatever reason, I wasn’t able to traverse the gap in the broken bridge. Was this because of a bug in the PS2 release, or was I missing a narrow bit of piping that I could have climbed over?
I’m none too sure, but with the benefit of hindsight, I’ll point the finger of blame at the god-awful jumping mechanics that plagued everyone.
I’ve most recently finished off the On a Rail chapter, one that always received bad press from the old halflife2.net community, but when playing through now, makes much more sense.
Admittedly, there are some janky moments. As FPS games have progressed, the way you naturally approach a shooter these days is to explore, see what paths there are to take, and generally have a poke around the edges of the main route.
Half-Life wasn’t designed for such poking, and once or twice I have had to reload a save from quite a bit earlier in the chapter to get myself out of sticky situation. Those electric rails are a killer, while some of the water ways are not easy to get out of (remember, the jumping sucks in this game).
But, playing On a Rail with a more critical eye, you can see that the Marines have designed a very nice maze for you. Shuttling between different rail carts, raising barriers, dodging missile strikes…they’re all signs that the Marines fear you.
I love the various ways that the Marines communicate their fear, and hate, of you. They daub graffiti around the rail network, and if you take your time and don’t just rush headlong into combat at every opportunity, you can listen in on their conversations.
The best comes at the end of On a Rail. You see sky for the first time in hours, and hear two Marines talking about how you’ve taken out all of their buddies. It’s all in self-defence, after all, they have been sent in to clear up the mess you created with the Resonance Cascade.
What the above image also brings to light though, is some of the design choices Valve made. There are numerous examples of corridors that lead nowhere, or vent systems that are just dead ends, without even any grates or fans to indicate a working system exists.
The heavy machinegun positions are perhaps the best example of a head scratching moment. Every one you come across is fully enclosed, there is no way for the grunt to escape…which also means that logically, he had no way of getting into position in the first place, unless the emplacement was built around him.
It’s nitpicking, I know, but these are the kinds of things that Valve learnt from when it came to Half-Life 2 and Portal.
The image I’ll leave you all with is this one. Boot Camp, the training level from Opposing Force, another Gearbox special.
At times, it feels like the work Gearbox did is treated like the red-headed step-child of the series, never to be talked about.
For me, Blue Shift, Opposing Force and Decay are key parts of the Half-Life experience. No start-to-end playthrough, from the tram ride into Black Mesa to the final moments of Episode 2 is complete without acknowledging the legacy left by Gearbox, and some of the jankyness of the original titles.
I’ve played many shooters over the years, some where the AI is great, others where it isn’t that smart, but does a great job for the game you are playing. Of course, there are others where the AI is dull, and brings the game down. The twenty year-old Half-Life though, still stands out as one of the best implementations of AI in a shooter.…
Last September, a comic known as A Place in the West appeared on Steam. An unofficial bridge between the events of Black Mesa and City 17, the story started to explore what would have happened to the those living through the Combine takeover. Now, after Valve granted the team use of the official Half-Life IP, Chapter #2 is now available on Steam as a £1.59 slice of DLC. A very good price for a 50-page comic I must say. Hit the break for more details of what writers Mike Pelletier and Ross Joseph Gardner have been up to. …
This past week saw GameInformer drop a massive article charting Andrew Reiner’s longstanding quest to unearth information from Valve on the latest goings on with their most famous franchise, Half-Life. What emerged was a lengthy interview with an inside source, which pretty much confirms that Half-Life is all but dead. The article though prompted me to revisit an old home – valvetime.net, or as it used to be know, halflife2.net. What did I find? An interesting article looking at Half-Life Decay. …
Steam has seen a lot of changes take place over time, progressing from a simple store to buy games, to somewhere selling software and movies. From this coming Friday, 30th September, you will be able to read the first graphic novel to launch on Steam. The first chapter of the Half-Life themed comic, Half-Life A Place in the West has been available online since 2015, but will be coming to Steam with new pages. …