The Joyful, and Head Scratching, Moments of Half-Life
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.