Go back to Half-Life

Written by: Stoo

Date posted: June 5, 2008

I’ve been meaning to write about the Half-Life expansions for a while now – there were two on PC, handled by third party Gearbox. My procrastination was brought to an end by the J Man generously donating an article on the second one, Blue Shift. Which means I really should get on with the first, Opposing Force. Let’s call it OpFor shall we – that sounds quite cool and military, something an American soldier might randomly yell over the radio. Which suits the nature of this chapter in the Half-Life saga.

For the plot to these expansions, Gearbox worked to the idea of retelling the Black Mesa disaster from different perspectives. So in this instance, you take on the role of one of the soldiers sent in to clean up, a chap called Adrian Sheppard. Now at this point, those who have played Half Life might stop and think “wait a second.” See, you might recall that the “cleaning up” mission wasn’t just to fight the alien interlopers. It was also about flushing out and executing the scientists who had caused the mess in the first place. No witnesses, no survivors.

As it happens though, OpFor doesn’t seem too interested in exploring that rather dark side to the story. Gearbox could have raised some emotionally difficult moments by making us re-examine the murders from the perspective of someone ordered to take part in them – but that doesn’t come up on the radar much. What we really have here, instead, is just another take on “oh god it’s all gone wrong”. You start off in a helicopter en route to black mesa, surrounded by macho soldiers trading banter. Then some of those weird alien giant ray things fly past, stuff starts exploding and… You wake up in a ruined building with a concerned scientist hovering nearby. Who you don’t kill, that would just be rude. From here you, well, grab a gun and go looking for your buddies, or a way out, or anything really rather than just sitting there.

So I suppose I was a bit disappointed that OpFor doesn’t really advance the Half-Life story much. There are a few new twists thrown in – like for example, the soldiers may have been sent to clean up the mess, but then black ops were sent in to clean up after the soldiers. So you’ll spend a fair bit of time fighting those goddamn ninja women, along with their new machinegun-toting friends. Beyond that, it’s just another case of a guy stuck mostly by himself trying to survive the disaster. Then again, we have to bear in mind that Half Life itself was a bit thin in terms of narrative after the initial disaster. It just made a much better attempt at pulling players into the experience than most other shooters of the day.

On the gameplay side, there are definitely some nice touches. In the original game the only armed allies you ever had were single security guys with their wimpy pistols. This time however you sometimes get two or three heavily armed squaddies charging around with you. That leads to a few exciting shootouts, especially with the black-ops. Also your own arsenal is re-arranged – there’s a beefy machinegun, a sniper rifle, and your obligatory “sci-fi gun” can both fire green blasts of death or teleport you briefly to Xen as a kind of emergency escape function (Don’t worry Xen-haters, no lengthy sections there). In fact Adrian does feel more tank-like than Gordon, which is appropriate. New enemies too, another alien faction.

Aside from that, OpFor does most of the same things that Half-Life does. There’s the same use of scripted in-engine events to push things along, set-piece encounters and convincing environments (albeit with a few boring tunnels). Importantly, that feeling that you’re a real, vulnerable guy (even if a soldier instead of a scientist) in the midst of a chaotic disaster. It doesn’t do anything new or amazing enough to outshine Half-Life itself. It is however a highly competent second helping.

There’s just one other little disappointment, although it’s hardly OpFor’s own fault. Valve have so far ignored Gearbox’s works in Half-Life 2 and subseqeuent episodes, so none of this is ever referenced. I suppose there’s still a chance that Sheppard will turn up in Episode 3, whenever that gets released, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up.

Meanwhile The J Man has managed to write about four times as much on Blue Shift, in fact he’s written more than we do on most games. And it’s not even generally thought to be all that good. So that just makes me feel shamefully lazy. Anyway though, you can get Half-Life plus the two expansions for $15 on steam, and if you’re into your retro shooters I think that’s worth the extra $5 over the cost of Half-Life by itself.