On The Enemies of Half-Life
After seemingly hours spent fighting my way through Combine Metro Cops and manhacks I was glad to see those cute little headcrabs launch themselves up towards my face. It was something of a relief to see these, the most basic of alien life form you find in the Half-Life universe. By the time they made their first appearance in Route Kanal I was tired of the usual Combine tricks of throwing exploding barrels at me and sending manhacks down tunnels to cut me up.
I was starting to feel that I was stuck in a world inhabited purely by Combine, humans and the occasional enslaved Vortigaunt. Of course the barnacles don’t really count, they are the most impassive of enemies you are likely to encounter in a game, by the time I came across my first headcrab, and almost immediately after my first zombie I was relieved. I knew that I was still in the Half-Life world and that I wouldn’t have to spend the remaining ten or so hours of the game fighting those bloody robotic Combine and their manhacks!
Going back in time to the original Half-Life I noticed things unravel in a similar way, just this time you go from fighting headcrabs and zombies to fighting the marines who are probably some of the best enemies in any FPS yet. You will always remember the first time you come accross the marines when you witness one gun down a helpless scientist. That is an awesome moment. Like with Half-Life 2 I always feel relieved that I am done fighting just one type of opponent.
In the similar vein to Half-Life 2 I always feel relieved and excited to find my first enemy which isn’t an alien or a Combine. However, rather than being relieved simply because of the change in who you are fighting, I think this feeling emerges for altogether different reasons. I would put it down to a sense of familiarity.
In the first game you start without knowing what these alien creatures are, once you are told by the scientists that help is on its way you start to expect help from the military, as we all know they don’t help you one bit. But they play an important role in your enjoyment of the game because you are able to identify with one of the enemies you face.
By the end of the original Half-Life you have come in some way to accept the role of the Xenian life, you are then thrown into the world of Half-Life 2 staring up at the face of Breen, observing Vortigaunt’s being used as slaves and the dreaded Combine Metro Cops. In Half-Life 2 it is the aliens which are the creatures you identify with first having battled them back in Black Mesa, you see the Combine, a faceless entity with which you cannot relate to.
Now though, I am heading back to Black Mesa so I can fight those marines one more time.
7 thoughts on “On The Enemies of Half-Life”
I’ll never understand why they redesigned them for HL2 – or abandoned the compelling atmosphere of the first game when it still had such potential.
Headcrabs the size of footstools, bloated and sluggish, crawling around.. Just not as much fun. I suppose they wanted to vary them from the new designs more.
And worse, the zombie redesigns – I loved the ‘chittering, skeletal mutant’ look, those long spiked fingers, and the chest-mouth cavity beginning to form. And oh, those beautiful Gonomes, the advanced evolutionary form seen only in Opposing Force and rendered non-canon since..
Now they’re just sad identical men in blue trousers with long floppy fingers who cry and whimper backwards, with humongous bloated yellow things sitting on their heads.
Valve lost whatever little spark they had way back then, for campy but nonetheless chilling and compelling sci-fi horror.. I appreciate the post-apocalyptic/dystopic setting, but not their execution of it, and less-so the unimaginative gameplay. The vehicle segments were entertaining, the antlions, ravenholm were.. Fun, nothing great but fun – but then those long corridor-shooter segments and linear street-explorations during the middle of the game, and the repetitive feel of the last quarter..
The realistic but bland looks of the game just did nothing for me, compared to the brightly coloured nasty-cartoon look of the original. Likewise, while a select few plot characters were very realistic and easy to relate to, most of the humans in the game were insufferably dull creatures compared to the eccentric scientists, brutal soldiers and naive security guard archetypes of the original.
I’d like a new Half-Life to have more in common with the abandoned early design for Bioshock – Freeform scifi survival horror in a black-mesa-like setting. A series of detailed locations related to Mad Science!, with some freedom of choice and more insight into the lifecycles and behaviours of creatures. Like all those scripted moments in HL1 where you might witness the Gman, or a beast dragging some hapless victim through a hole.
See, now I always remember aliens as the best bit in HL1. Not really because of the vorts and bladiblah, but because of the weird lil’ dog things with the honeycomb faces… always remeber the first time I saaw one and it scared the beejesus out of me with it’s kersploding soundwave. Oh, and the scripted aliens were badass! Remember the three giant spikey tentacles in the rocket chamber? Or the HUGE blue things you had to kill in a certain way? Fun times, and always stisfying once you manage to kill them.
Oh, and the marines, they weren’t so cool. Now the commandos, y’know, the ones all in black who act like out of the matrix? They were badass. The combine needed some troops like that y’know? Oh well, wasted opertunity.
Oh, and everyone who played the game knows fear when you hear the following words: Mama. Headcrab. Sweet mother of pie that was a tough boss fight.
*spoilers* I could also say somthing about the fact that the final boss was a prisoner of the combine (look at it, it’s chained up. Depressing) But then again, I’m sure someone will point it out more elonquently. *end spoilers*
The idea of Xen-life being a force of comforting familiarity in comparison to the Combine is an interesting, but I’d have to say I was feeling something different. In the original Half-Life the compelling differentiation between the Xenians and the Marines/Black Ops was, for me, their context and intent in the great situation. Gordon Freeman might be familiar with Black Mesa to some degree, but we the players, are not. We’re dropped into this sprawling and foreign facility with little more introduction than a slow tour on a tram with a prerecorded voice to give us some basic safety advice and as a result of the resonance cascade the Xenians are plunged into a very relatable situation.
That’s why encountering the Marines for the first time was a very jarring experience for me, personally. You finally see that the forces that are supposed to be here to help, to tell me that this place and this situation and everything around us is fucked up and we’re going to get out of together, are here to hunt me down. It makes for a special kind of tension when fighting them; instead of the aimless alien firing lasers at you standing coverless in the middle of a corridor you’re facing a squad of calculated and organized manhunters whose language you share, but they’ve got no interest in hearing from you. That, combined with the fact that the human enemies were fuckall harder to kill than most any alien in the game, brought an amazing degree of empathy with the Xenians which made both parties much more compelling enemy characters than most games present.
Bringing me to Half-Life 2, I didn’t feel like there was any reason for me to care about any of the NPCs. As far as I was concerned, the Combine were just human enough to be boringly familiar and just alien enough for me to not have any emotional anchoring for me to relate them to; subsequently just making them typical FPS target practice. Seeing the aliens from HL1 didn’t have any effect on me after that; they were just things I’ve seen in another game I’ve played before without the context that made them so special in the first place. I could go on about how Half-Life 2’s setting, plot, and all around everything just fizzled and was just about completely lost on me, but I’m not here to be a wet blanket.
Perhaps, though, that ties in with why Half-Life 2 never rubbed off on me as well as the original did. Half-Life 1 for me was all about new, unfamiliar relationships with the Xenians, with the Marines, with the scientists, with the security, and perhaps above all, Black Mesa. I never really cared about why everyone was there, why we were all shooting each other, or even knew why the hell I launched that rocket, but I cared that I was part of it regardless and I think that alone is an amazing achievement of game design. After that I guess Half-Life 2 made me feel like Valve was asking me to come back and care about all those whys in a bland world where all those generic scientists have names and important dialogue when I just wanted them to inject me health points and then get punched in the head by a zombie. Funny the kinds of revelations you can have in the middle writing of a long comment on a video game blog.
I have to admit that I much prefer the world of Black Mesa to City 17 which felt…sterile perhaps? Bear in mind I am just talking about the bits where you are in the city itself with the street battles and the last bit in the Citadel itself. Ravenholm, the long winding road and the prison were some awesome locations, though still they don’t have that same feeling that you get from Black Mesa. That is why Episode 2 is so good, the locations are new and refreshing, it really is a great expansion of the Half-Life 2 world.
I agree with Ravenholm being an excellent level in HL2 by the way. The tunnels with the piled up cars and the coastline locations were good too. I was actually kind of expecting to see those marines in HL2, seeing as I had gotten to like them so much in HL1.
I never game it any thought, but you know you’re right. I liked the marienes as enemies much more than the combine. There’s little intelligence in the Combine- they just kind of stand there next to explosive barrels and shoot. In later levels in HL2, they get tougher from sheer numbers. But in HL1, the marines could be very sneaky, coming up behind you, going down different passages to attack in different spots. While the marines gave a sense of unease to the player, the combine forces tended to be little more than fodder. To me, anyway.
I just dont understand why they did that with the sequels. Half Life 1 had so much character(the character was in the subtle little details) and threw it away for homogenised blandness.
I think you missed one enemy though, the environment. I’m not just talking about the tripwires, jumping platforms etc, but with the variety of what it threw at you, you really did not know what to expect the further you went on, with me anyway I ended up with a fear of the walls and corners. Unsure of what would be around that next(usually a headcrab). I would usually enter an area, analyze what I’m supposed do and exclaim “YOU EXPECT ME TO DO WHAT!”, somehow I’d do it, but I’d move on worrying about what would be next.
Some games when things became too hard I’d give up but not half life for some reason, it was hard but it was never unfair.