02 Jun

Who’s Afraid of Gordon Freeman?

I’ve spent the past month trying to convince myself to play more of a game that will be 16 years old in a few months, but in the end, a little over an hour of Half-Life: Opposing Force was all I could muster. It’s not that Opposing Force is a bad game. It’s just that I didn’t want to keep playing it.

Dead guysSince I’ve summarily pushed nostalgia onto the ground, let’s give it a few kicks for good measure. I played some of Half-Life and found it decent, though, like so many games, I never finished it. I also found it more than a bit tedious.

I played some of Half-Life 2 and found it more enjoyable, but also did not finish it. I liked the bits where I got to drive a watercraft around and attempting to throw tables around with the gravity gun, but I was never too drawn into the story. I felt that both games offered a very good setting and sense of environment but after the first 15 minutes turned into fairly standard shooter gameplay.

I know, I know, these are seminal PC games and I’m probably jaded because I played them years after they came out, when other more recent games have had the chance to learn their lessons and take the best parts of the Half-Life series and shine them up. Still, the series has never been the bedazzled gaming beacon for me that it seems to be for so many others.

Give me those chips!Opposing Force is an expansion to Half-Life, and it feels very much like more of the same game. It reads well on paper: take the Half-Life formula and storyline,  invert it and place you as a soldier responding to a distress call at Black Mesa, attempting to find Gordon Freeman and mount a rescue mission. It should be OK, right? Except no one expects inter-dimensional aliens and a mysterious G-Man!

And all the pieces are there – it’s just that the sum of those pieces ends up not exciting me in any way. The pace of the game flows between suspense, action, and quiet puzzle solving. The beats are nicely spaced. The levels are designed around those beats well.

What can it be??And yet. And yet the shooting feels rather ho-hum, my character has no emotion or identity, nor is he endowed with any by the other scientists and soldiers I encounter, and the puzzles are all about jumping or ducking or jumpducking or duckjumping and frustrating.

There were some older conventions that also tended to get in the way. While levels tend to point you in the right direction, there were times when the game would autosave because I had gone to a certain place on the map, even though I hadn’t yet triggered the appropriate thing to move forward; save triggers seemed location-based, but there wasn’t much design to prevent me from hitting a save trigger even though I wasn’t actually supposed to be there yet. Once, I tried to go down an elevator, only to discover that there was one small unmarked square area on the elevator where I was supposed to stand, and that all other locations would result in instantaneous (squishing?) death once the elevator began moving.

G ManI’m not saying that I don’t like Half-Life, except maybe I am. I guess what I’m saying is this: I was pleasantly surprised when I revisited Arkham Asylum to find that the game still felt exciting and compelling, six years later. The original Half-Life and Opposing Force have a good 10 years on the first Arkham game, but there’s nothing here that excites or compels me. Maybe that means I missed out; maybe I needed to play these games before 2005 to really appreciate them.

I don’t know. I feel guilty for not liking the Half-Life series more. I feel like the guy who argues that no no no, not only is Citizen Kane not the best movie ever, but it’s actually kind of boring and terrible. I understand the importance and impact of the Half-Life series in video game history. It just turns out that I just don’t like playing them all that much.

One last note: I’ve never tried Episodes 1 and 2, which are the most recent games in the series and perhaps most palatable to my modern senses. Maybe I should?