Retrospective: Half-Life: Opposing Force
The few. The proud. The hiding in an air vent.
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).