"My least-favorite segment of Half-Life was the journey through the border world Xen at the end, only because the human factor had been taken out of the equation, and battling the far less intelligent alien grunts got old after a while. Much of Opposing Force more or less feels like that entire sequence, only set in the Black Mesa facility itself. The good news is that the action is kept fairly interesting throughout thanks to some new (tougher) alien baddies to fight (whom I later learned are not from Xen, but from… uh, somewhere else). The game is simply never as exciting or action-packed as the original often was."
I recently replayed the original Half-Life for the first time in years, and realized that the game had so many unforgettable moments that as I played, I found myself (correctly) predicting which sequence would come next. The adventure was so memorable at every possible second that each firefight stayed in my head, permanently engraved in my memory.
And now here I am, having just completed the expansion, Half-Life: Opposing Force, and the only segment of the game my mind keeps coming back to was one that I hated. Late in the game, I was forced to travel through a pitch-black underground maze using my character’s fancy-pants night vision goggles. But the whole area was packed with vicious, electrically-charged beasts who could kill me in one hit and could stand up to all but the heaviest of firepower. This section is cleared only through trail-and-error, by gradually memorizing your navigation path while avoiding these voltigores’ shockwaves for as long as you can. And even once you’ve got the directions down, there’s still the issue of getting to the other side alive. This maze must’ve taken me a million tries to weave through, and it’s not the fun, rewarding kind of challenge. It’s the ruthless, painful kind.
But, as I so often do, I digress. Opposing Force isn’t a bad game at all, it’s just so largely forgettable that I find myself recalling its missteps more than its triumphs. It’s easy to point the finger at Gearbox, as they took over for Valve in the creation of this expansion. They certainly did an eerily good job of at least recreating Half-Life’s distinct exterior, obviously having studied the cosmetic aspects that played such a large role in that game’s atmosphere. You can expect a lot of flickering lights, jammed automatic doors, and sputtering control panels. You can be guaranteed that you will crawl through a number of air ducts in Opposing Force, and that they’re usually home to a few headcrabs. You can also bet that the adventure takes place entirely through the eyes of its protagonist, a minimalist storytelling technique that does wonders to transport the player directly into the mind of the character they’re controlling.
Opposing Force’s resemblance to its predecessor (despite being handled by a different developer) is almost alarming until you realize that Gearbox essentially copied-and-pasted what worked in the original adventure – you’ll recognize large stretches of game time that feel oddly similar to key moments in Half-Life. Here’s an outdoor segment where you’re being tailed by a helicopter, and you’ve got to keep ducking for cover! Here’s a bomb shelter that’s so sensitive that even the smallest explosion will bring the entire place down immediately! Oh, and here’s a monstrous enemy too big and powerful to slay with your own weapons, so why don’t you go activate some anonymous ventilation system so you can destroy it with the press of a button? Despite containing so many familiar scenarios, Opposing Force is missing that certain “magic” – namely the expert pacing and eye for varied level design – that made the original work so well.
Many of Gearbox’s miscalculations can be rooted to Opposing Force’s setup, which is admittedly intriguing but comes with a host of potential problems. You are Adrian Shepherd, a soldier in the U.S. military who has been sent to the Black Mesa Research Facility to cover up any evidence of an alien outbreak, which includes killing the one and only Gordon Freeman. This new perspective puts an interesting twist on the Half-Life tale, and at the very least Gearbox managed to intertwine the two games enough that you’ll witness a few major events (such as Freeman jumping into the portal in the Lambda core) from a different point of view. Very neat.
But since you’re now a part of the military squadron tasked with eliminating Freeman, far more of Opposing Force is spent fighting The Aliens than I would have wanted. My least-favorite segment of Half-Life was the journey through the border world Xen at the end, only because the human factor had been taken out of the equation, and battling the far less intelligent alien grunts got old after a while. Much of Opposing Force more or less feels like that entire sequence, only set in the Black Mesa facility itself. The good news is that the action is kept fairly interesting throughout thanks to some new (tougher) alien baddies to fight (whom I later learned are not from Xen, but from… uh, somewhere else). The game is simply never as exciting or action-packed as the original often was.
Thankfully, human opponents are eventually a factor as you and your fellow soldiers are assaulted by a rogue Black Ops team tasked with bringing down the U.S. military force at Black Mesa. (Don’t ask me.) Since you’re now working alongside the guys packing the guns, Gearbox thought it fit to throw some occasional squadplay mechanics into the mix, as an extension of how you could get the countless Barney security guards to ally up with you in Half-Life. Unfortunately, they’re too stupid to pay much attention to, except in the occasional moment when your objectives require the aid of a medic or mechanic, and you’re forced to keep them alive until said objective is complete. Grrr. Babysitting brain dead AI-controlled allies is a sure-fire way to get me fired up.
If there’s a thrill in Opposing Force, it’s in messing around with some of the sick new weaponry, starting with your replacement melee weapons (a knife and a wrench) and working your way up. The most creative gadgets in the game are those recovered from fallen alien foes, up to and including the barnacle. Remember those disgusting creatures with long tongues that hang from the ceiling and wait to snatch any unsuspecting prey that passes beneath them? You get to wield one now, for uses that go beyond methods of attack. One of Opposing Force’s most criminally underutilized gameplay mechanics is the use of the barnacle as a grapple hook, which is every bit as cool as it sounds.
It’s little touches like these that help Opposing Force rise above the stigma of simply being “more of the same,” because in all honesty, that’s what it is. It’s a solid enough adventure throughout, and Gearbox did a decent enough job imitating (yes, imitating) the first Half-Life that I find it easy to recommend Opposing Force as a chance to re-explore the world that we all became so enveloped in. Not as an extension of the saga, because this new plot is messy and overcomplicated. And not as a true step forward for the franchise, because if anything, this is a small step back.
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