Saturday, May 25, 2019

Retro Review - Half-Life: Opposing Force [1999]

Modern gamers, younger modern gamers that is, are only used to DLC which serves to extend a main game with extra levels for multiplayer or a few extra hours of content for single-player. They will never know the thrill of waiting 8-12 months after the release of a 'main' title, to pick up a so-called 'expansion pack' from store in a box with a CD-ROM/Floppy disks for a few more hours of fun likely with some extra enhancements for the main title. Some of the greats from the 1990's were Defender of the Empire for Star Wars: Tie-Fighter, Tales of the Sword Coast for Baldur's Gate, Mysteries of the Sith for Star Wars - Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight and The Plutonium Pack for Duke Nukem 3D, but none of them came as close to being the sublime masterpiece that was Half-Life: Opposing Force.

While Valve's 1998 breakout game Half-Life, one of the most significant video game events of the late 1990's actually did live up to it's massive hype, as would it's sequel years later, the task of creating it's inevitable expansion pack was outsourced to the fledgling studio Gearbox, who would go on to make their own name much later with the Borderlands series. Gearbox took the engine and assets from Half-Life and skilfully created, a practically new game that while similar in many ways to Half-Life, was different enough to become it's own thing.

Opposing Force casts you as Corporal Adrian Shepard one of the U.S. Marine Hazardous Environment Combat Unit antagonists of the original game. Only from your perspective now of course, you are a protagonist, oblivious for a while as to your true purpose in Black Mesa but it's handled with some pretty logical storytelling without either interfering with Half-Life's main story or casting you as 'the bad guy'.

Now in addition to the denizens of Black Mesa from Half-Life like scientists and security guards, you encounter invading Xen aliens (you kill them), Race-X a separate alien race who will attack you or Xen aliens indiscriminately (so kill them too) and Black-Ops soldiers who are there to silence Black Mesa personnel, any variety of alien they encounter while doing it and have no issue about shooting you on sight too (so kill them). In fact the only people in this game that you don't shoot are your fellow Marines who are there to provide assistance. You get fire support from the Machine Gunner, a shot of health from a Corpsman and an Engineer is sometimes needed to open an otherwise inaccessible door. Now these were not the same class of AI teammates as in Rainbow Six or Hidden and Dangerous at the time, as they basically charged into battle with reckless abandon without using either common sense or cover but they would serve to add some character to the world and remind you you weren't entirely alone on this crazy mission and if nothing else they all dropped much welcomed weapons when they were taken out.

As for weapons, Half-Life had a fantastic arsenal but I always found it daft that a bespectacled research scientist Gordon Freeman seemingly was able to pick up any military grade weapon and instinctively know how to load and use it with precision accuracy. Opposing Force has a much better excuse for this as you're a Marine, so it's kind of your bag to be able to use the weapons (they even train you in the prologue) - and you get plenty of cool modern military, cutting edge science and of course liberated weird alien weapons to eliminate the obstacles in your way that would prefer you not to escape Black Mesa.

At the time of it's release in November 1999 Opposing Force was a pretty big deal as far as expansion packs went. In 2000 the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences gave it Computer Game of the Year Interactive Achievement Award. PC Gamer dubbed it "Best Expansion Pack" and nominated it as 1999's overall best game of the year (although it lost to Homeworld), they wrote that Opposing Force "makes history by becoming the first expansion pack to be considered for Game of the Year. Yes, it really is that good."


Opposing Force is as dated as Half-Life looks today but thanks to HD texture packs it looks slightly better than it did back then, which was graphically on par with Quake II or Jedi Knight. While nowhere near up to Lucasarts level design in comparison, Gearbox copied Valve's design play-book and did just as good a job as Valve originally did. It's pretty much as linear as they come, but does a good job of masking that by interposing large cavernous areas reached by funnelling you down narrow corridors or vent shafts. In my option it's gameplay is solid enough to warrant sparing a mere 6 or 7 hours to go and relive the glory days from 20 years ago.  

On a modern Win 10 system with SSD storage and a fibre connection, Opposing Force will download and install in about a minute and a half. I report no configuration or initialisation issues, pauses or crashes and it ran within 4 seconds after execution.  4K resolution is accepted but there is no hud scaling (nor did I seek any 3rd party modifications) so one needs to drop resolution to a level where you can read the hud and text.

The only faults I had with Opposing Force today, are pretty much the same ones I had 20 years ago. Gearbox had clearly no military advisor nor apparently anyone close to the production who was related to anyone in the Marine Corps. I'm thinking they probably watched Full Metal Jacket or An Officer and a Gentlemen a couple of times and shoved in their own idea of a drill instructor from that who jarringly referred to Marines as "soldiers" all the way through the training levels. The word "soldier" was repeated about 40 times and I gritted my teeth every time I heard it. Of course they do other little things like calling the Corpsman a "Medic", but that's a standard Hollywood mistake too. There was a HD texture pack released between Opposing Force and the second Half-Life expansion pack Half-Life: Blue Shift that did include some SFX alterations and I hoped they would correct at least the drill instructor's offending dialogue, but sadly no, that itself creates a new issue of using 9mm ammo in an M4! So it's just a case of doing what the DI says and "Suck it up!" At the end of the day I guess it's an issue that only really annoys those who wear the uniform.

Note: The original CD-ROM version of Opposing Force required the original Half-Life disk to authenticate - but the Steam version is treated as a stand-alone expansion and does not require the original Half-Life to be in your game library. The team version will automatically load the HD texture pack.

Half-Life: Opposing Force is only available from Steam for €3.99 but can be found in some sales for just €0.79.

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