Half-Life: Opposing Force

The only Thanks I want to be giving this November 25th is to Sierra and Gearbox for releasing the Half-Life Opposing Force expansion. Forget the turkey get to Black Mesa!

Last year, the computer game industry was knocked flat by Valve Software's Half-Life. That 3D action/adventure was voted game of the year by so many different magazines and web sites Sierra confidently released a "Game of the Year" edition?and no one argued. An expansion pack, a sequel--hell, a line of underwear? It all seemed possible with a title destined to become a whole franchise.

So it came as some surprise when, earlier this year, Sierra and Valve decided to farm out the official expansion pack to Gearbox Studios. Don't misunderstand--some outstanding developers created Gearbox--but this would be the outfit's first title. What if Gearbox dropped the ball? What if it made only a decent game instead of a masterpiece? Fans would be furious, heads would roll at Sierra and we'd have tearful apologies the likes of which we have not seen since the second Highlander movie.

The ball has not been dropped. In Opposing Force, Gearbox has done one hell of a job in creating not just an add-on for Half-Life, but a continuation of a masterpiece.

This is Half-Life played through the eyes of Corporal Adrian Shephard--one of the marines sent in to deal with the situation at the Black Mesa Research Facility. His helicopter crashes on the way in, Shephard wakes up to find himself inside the base?and the game begins. Left behind by his comrades, he must find his way through the ruined installation over the course of seven "chapters"-Opposing Force is about half the size of Half-Life-while facing new and familiar enemies.

Like Half-Life's Gordon Freeman, Shephard has to survive-often on his own--in a uniquely hostile environment. Unlike Freeman, he's not some geeky research associate, but a trained soldier who can kick ass with authority.

And said kicking is performed using new weapons. Your armory now includes a knife (quick and deadly), a biological grenade launcher, sniper rifle (a Team Fortress Classic cousin) and even a teleportation gun, the displacer, which can be used, among other things, for a quick jaunt to the alien dimension Xen.

Shephard will also find a living grappling hook, and can now climb and swing on ropes. The grappling hook in particular is a great addition to Half-Life and will step up the level of play on multiplayer maps. Thirteen multiplayer maps are included--some created by famous outside designers like Richard "levellord" Grey-and the ones I've played have been a blast.

The corporal can also enlist help from other marines. As Freeman did with guards in Half-Life, Shephard can gather more than one into little squads to get the job done. (I assembled as many as four at one time.) Beyond normal soldiers, he'll come across two specialists: the medic (who can heal Shephard and his allies) and engineer (who can cut down doors). Both have handguns if you're in a pinch.

Along the way, he'll get more than one glimpse of the mysterious "administrator" figure from Half-Life. The Black Ops squads also return and play a much more important role, with both female and new male counterparts. I was stunned at the agility of the Black Ops; they can flip and tumble so fast that regular grenades were a waste of time. (Speaking of a waste of time, you'll find a new fat guard bumping around in some of the levels. He has some hilarious lines.)

Naturally, you'll also find more aliens--most of them tougher than the ones in Half-Life. The Volticores, massive blobs of destruction, are so mean it takes three grenades to kill them. The standard Shocktroopers aren't cream puffs, either. The only thing that can kill them in one shot is the sniper rifle--and then only if they aren't looking.

Gearbox also shows off its level design abilities throughout the game with puzzles that are concise and intuitive as well as sweeping story elements (like the Marines leaving the base). They almost completely avoid Xen. (The strongest criticism of Half-Life was for its Xen levels.) For the most part, this isn't the Black Mesa that Freeman saw-save during the tram ride intro.

By the way I strongly suggest you watching that tram ride before and after playing Op For. You'll enjoy the game more fully as a result.

Now, a few elements don't live up to Opposing Force's namesake. In Half-Life, I could understand leaving behind guards: They were scared and didn't want to continue. But in Opposing Force, each time I left marines behind, it snapped me out of the fantasy. I understand why Gearbox did it. It's tough enough getting Marines to follow you on a normal level. How do you make the AI smart enough to go through a puzzle room? But it felt wrong.

In addition, the sound hung up noticeably in a few places..

But my biggest complaint is really a compliment. When Opposing Force was over, I wanted more. It was done so well, and felt so much like Half-Life, that I didn't want it to end. I thought I was playing Half-Life II, not an expansion pack. Then it ended, the spell was broken?and the waiting game began again.

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