There are definitely too many corny names for heroes in videogames. Pick up a random shooter and you're bound to find yourself in control of someone called something like Dirk Death, or Rick Giantballs. Even Half-Life's Gordon only keeps the nerd up for his first name, the surname sinking into the cliché of Freeman. Which is why we should celebrate the hero at the centre of Opposing Force. It's Corporal Adrian Shephard. Has there ever been a central character for a game who sounds more like a geography supply teacher?
It's strange to remember that Half-Life deviated off into two semi-sequel expansions before it reached Half-Life 2. It's even strangerer to think they weren't made by Valve. A tiny baby Gearbox, a decade ago in 1999, worked on its alternative perspective of Valve's seminal shooter. It was the same story - the same invasion of the Black Mesa facility by the US Marines, Black Ops special forces, and of course the super-cross aliens of Xen. But also joining in this time (quite how Gordon missed them is unclear) are the members of Race X, another crop of aliens who are not the friend of human nor Xen. Oh, and of course you're one of the Marines.
Imagine the task a fresh young Randy Pitchford and his team had in front of them. They were being asked to expand on Half-Life - a game that completely redefined the first-person shooter, and to some extents gaming at large - just a year after it first appeared. It's testament to the developers that they made a game at all rather than hiding in a cupboard, let alone that they produced what proved to be a great shooter.
Certain core rules of Half-Life are understood and obeyed. So you've got continuous and contiguous events, uninterrupted by cut-scenes or betwixt mission debriefings. The load points, as appears to now be Valve's persistent and insane tradition, are dumped randomly in the middle of corridors. The story happens around you, rather than because of you. And it's almost never a shooting gallery, but instead consistently reimagining the potential for walking from one end of a room to the other.
Which makes it quite odd that Opposing Force is at its weakest when it's trying to be the most like Half-Life. For the first half of the game there's little attempt to distinguish itself, beyond the novelty of being one those Marines you'd previously spent so much of your efforts trying to kill. Of course, you don't have to kill the scientists and the Barneys, and you can shoot most of your fellow squad-mates as they appear. You're never really a bad guy, but instead you're another ordinary bloke dropped in a deadly situation, trying to get out the other end.
In fact, it gets quite a lot wrong. The buddying with NPCs, for instance, seems completely misunderstood. One of the joys of Half-Life was always seeing how long you could keep a Barney with you before he'd either get killed or an obstacle would be beyond his willpower. In Opposing Force they seem to be dropped into the world at random, generally unable to get out of the room they're in.
You have of course got your fellow Marines with whom you can occasionally team up, but again this mechanic is extremely underused, and generally of little help. There's one sequence in which you're asked to rescue an injured Marine by guiding a medic to him, and lead them safely out of an area. Get either killed and it's Game Over. Until about seven seconds after you've rescued them when they all become disposable once again.
But it's when Opposing Force breaks out on its own that it delivers its own sublime moments. And most of them are the bloody brilliant weapons.
New weapons arrive so frequently that you'll often realise you've forgotten to even try the last one before the next one arrives. And it's a great pleasure to see them stacking up, experimenting with each to find if it's worth employing. And it's never a greater pleasure than when that weapon arrived in your collection when it crawled across the room and jumped on you - at least two of them enter your arsenal in this fashion.
By the later stages of the game it's generally only out of desperation that you resort to the boring old human weapons. While the original game offered you the Hornet Gun and the alien bug Snarks, Opposing Force (as well as sacrilegiously replacing the crowbar with a wrench) introduced some much more inventive ideas. The Shockroach being one of the most useful, not only because it recharged its own small stock of ammo, but because it was accurate at great distances, unlike everything else but for the sniper rifle (also original to Gearbox's expansion).
The Spore Launcher also offers quite a powerful choice, firing yellow explosive and corrosive orbs, and reloading unlike anything you've ever seen - you feed the creature/weapon the orbs and it greedily swallows them, waiting for your command to regurgitate and spit.
But the best and most inventive tool is the Barnacle. Just the humble Half-Life regular enemy - the one that sticks to ceilings, lets down its metres-long tongue and then grabs anything it can find to haul up and gobble. But you wear it on your arm! Now it can be fired at anything organic and pull you toward it. If that's an enemy it'll bite them to bits when you get close. And if it's a bit of alien plantlife on the walls, ta-da, you've got a grappling hook!
However, this leads me to a fascinating observation. At various points in the game the elusive and mysterious G-Man shows up. As fans of both main Half-Life games will know, this tends to be behind thick glass panes, just watching. Staring. Waiting. But in one rather fun moment in Op Force, when having to use the Barnacle to get past a giant Gargantuan tied to a bridge, he's stood exposed on another platform. And I fired my Barnacle at him, and it didn't stick! The G-Man is not organic! It's definitely a clue.
Although likely a clue that Opposing Force isn't entirely accurate to the canon. I mean - snort! - at one point you see a picture of Gordon Freeman on a wall marked as "Employee of the Month"! I mean! Snort! This is taking place on Gordon's first day of work! And let me tell you about this mistake in Lord Of The Rings...
There is of course a nice cameo from Dr Freeman himself, just before your first visit to Xen. Your paths cross on your way to a very brief jaunt in the floaty alien terrain, and mercifully once you're there it's substantially simpler than Half-Life's drudging visit. Although, rather intriguingly, it doesn't have to be the only time you visit.
The Displacer, an experimental weapon that lets you fire portals the consume enemies and presumably ditch them back home, has an alt-fire that will send you to Xen whenever you wish. This does mean you might well teleport yourself above a bottomless drop. But it might also deposit you in a brightly coloured oasis of useful bonuses. What a rather brilliant idea that they completely fail to do absolutely anything clever with. It would have been superb if there'd been a few moments where it proved your only successful means of progression, forcing you to experiment with it a bit more, rather than only use when you accidentally click the right mouse.
The game is at its best when it's challenging you to complete a series of tasks. Getting machines working, finding the right pumps and valves, working out how to kill an enormous bug-eyed beast so you can extend a bridge - these moments are not only a ton of fun to play, but they don't patronise you by holding your hand through them. You have to make sure you've headed off in every possible direction and found things for yourself.
A good 10 hours long, 10 years on it's surprising to think of it as an expansion for Half-Life rather than a game in its own right. And accusations that it was just more of the same, as made by some complete lunatics at the time it was released, are silly beyond belief. That could only be said by the sort of person who'd refer to the original game having a wrench in it, instead of a crowbar.
There is no question though that it lacks some of the magic of Half-Life. Often Opposing Force feels like someone accurately followed a recipe, but didn't know the correct temperature to cook it at, or for how long. It drags here and there, and often fails to usefully flag what you should be doing next.
And there's about three too many fights set in large warehouses filled with crates and an unnecessary volume of enemies. It gets forgiven each time by emerging into yet another interesting idea (riding the carts on the rails being a splendid example), but there's still never a moment as exciting as that first time you saw the Marines fighting the Xen from your crawlspace vantage point in the first game.
But let us not forget the grappling Barnacle. Let us focus on what a splendid idea this was, and what a travesty it is that it hasn't appeared in the Half-Life universe since. And nor indeed has poor Corporal Adrian Shephard. After being whisked away by the G-Man, presumably he's now stuck filling in for Xenian geography teachers in another galaxy.