Saturday, February 5, 2011

Top 10 Half-Life Loose Ends

"I can't close my report until every loose end is tied up." --G-Man

I'm a fan of the Half-Life games, though I was a bit spoiled in that I started off with Half-Life 2, arguably the best in the series. In 2007 its second sequel, Half-Life 2, Episode 2 was released in a package with its two predecessors, which a friend deeded to me via the game platform Steam since he already had them. Half-Life 2 and its sequels have some pretty good graphics, great atmosphere, engaging characters, cool weapons, and in general a lot going for it. There's a third episode sequel set to come out and wrap up the entire series, but unfortunately the developer, Valve, has been dragging their feet on it. They've put their focus on the fan bases of the associated Portal and Left 4 Dead games, cranking out a couple of them while Half-Life languishes.

I doubt Valve has given up on the whole enterprise, especially when they're this close to concluding it. One possibility is that they're expanding the shorter sequels to Half-Life 2, which usually take about six hours to complete, to a full-fledged conclusion. There are more than a few questions that need to be answered, though. And here are my picks for them, with all images supplied via Combine Overwiki:

10. What's going on in the rest of the world?

started things out at a classified research base in New Mexico, but the survivors of the Black Mesa Incident wound up in some locale in Eastern Europe known only as City 17. How exactly this happened is unclear, though it's hinted that Earth's population is being subjected to a lot of forced relocation. The Black Mesa administrator, Dr. Wallace Breen, negotiated a speedy surrender to the Combine, has chosen to live in relatively comfortable conditions atop the skyline-dominating Citadel and he and/or the Combine have opted to situate their headquarters in this location. The only other place we really see is New York City, in a newspaper clipping in Eli's workspace.

The Combine have put a halt to reproduction, meaning humanity's been slowly dying off for 20 years when Gordon is reawakened. Still, there must be a fairly significant population left and the games from Half-Life 2 on have all been in City 17 and the vicinity. Obviously, this constitutes only a small portion of the planet. Are there other strongholds on Earth, perhaps Cities 1 through 16? How's the resistance there doing?

Likelihood of resolution: Unlikely, considering we don't even know exactly where City 17 is. Half-Life games have always kept in one general area, and even with Gordon and Alyx likely to fly to a polar region they probably won't be stopping off in Berlin for a quick jaunt. The game probably won't end in a single, smashing victory against the Combine that liberates Earth, either. And as a post on TV Tropes points out, even if the Combine are defeated the planet will still be infested with Xen wildlife, with most of the original Earth species extinct.

9. What happened to the rest of the Xen creatures?

Through the course of Half-Life, Black Mesa is invaded by a wide variety of creatures from Xen. These include zombifying little things called headcrabs, electricity-shooting Vortigaunts, long-tongued barnacles, water-dwelling icthyosaurs, acid-spitting bullsquids, blast wave-producing houndeyes, hovering humanoid aliens that shoot energy balls at you, armored troops with arms that fire insect-like ammunition, and gigantic Gargantua beasts. In the sequels, the first four make an appearance although the Vortigaunts have become your allies and the icthyosaur makes a cameo. The rest of the creatures are never seen.

The explanation no doubt has to to with the developers not being able to cram everything into Half-Life 2, and the game is probably better for keeping only some of the old enemies and introducing new ones. Still, it's unclear whether other Xen creatures are roaming about and what may have happened to the ones that disappeared after their initial invasion.

Likelihood of resolution: Unlikely. The sequels ditched a few aliens and brought a few new ones in, and the players seem to be happy with that.

8. Where is Barney Calhoun?

Like most of the Half-Life characters, Barney Calhoun is much-beloved: resourceful, slightly sarcastic, and battle-hardened. He makes his first appearance in Blue Shift, a pre-Half-Life 2 expansion, where he manages to rescue a few scientists and get away from Black Mesa in the midst of the chaos. After that, he sticks with the Black Mesa crew and infiltrates Civil Protection, a low-level unit of civilian collaborator troops, to assist the City 17 resistance from within.

In what may have just been a case of too little room, Barney doesn't make an appearance in Episode 2. He is last seen in Episode 1, on board a train evacuating City 17 with several other civilians. It had several minutes' head start on a second train boarded by Gordon and Alyx, which was derailed in the Citadel explosion, but there was no word as to whether Barney's train outran the blast. Gordon and Alyx spend most of the second episode fighting their way to the White Forest base, meaning we don't see any other characters in person until they get there. To that end, it makes sense that Barney is excised although it is a little odd that he doesn't make so much as a cameo (with the arguable exception that he congratulates Gordon on a job well-done at the end of a massive battle that concludes Episode 2) while an entirely new character is introduced. With Gordon set to head to a new environment, it remains to be seen whether Barney will be along for the ride.

Likelihood of resolution: We may not figure out what he's been up to in the interim, but it seems likely that we'll see him again.

7. How much has G-Man's original plan been altered?

Half-Life 2 ended with G-Man on the verge of putting Gordon into stasis again after only a few hectic days on the Combine-dominated Earth (or weeks if you count the jump through time in a collapsing portal). In that short time, he accomplishes quite a bit: he decimates many of the Combine defenders in City 17, inadvertently starts a major uprising, kills Dr. Breen, and causes the full-scale meltdown of the dark energy reactor atop the Citadel. At that point, G-Man freezes time and prepares to cart Gordon off, leaving Alyx to die in the explosion and his former Black Mesa colleagues and other rebels to fight for themselves. But then the Vortigaunts step in, rescuing Gordon and Alyx and keeping them in the present time.

It doesn't seem like too much is affected by Gordon staying put. The Citadel melts down, destroys the city, and leaves a gaping superportal overhead which threatens to bring the full brunt of Combine reinforcements to Earth. It's sealed later on when Gordon helps fight off a last-ditch attack on another rebel stronghold and a rocket is launched to take care of the problem. It's kind of up in the air as to whether the resistance could have handled this on their own, but Gordon certainly helped things along. It's entirely possible that the rocket would have failed to launch, given that Gordon and his gravity gun were the main factors involved in destroying the powerful Striders advancing on the base. So what was G-Man's original plan for Gordon, and when and where was he going to be deposited next? Did G-Man aim to help the resistance in some way or allow Combine forces to come to Earth and wipe out humanity once and for all?

Likelihood of resolution: This question is likely to be resolved when we find out what the deal is with the G-Man.

6. What are the Vortigaunts planning?

From their ability to wipe out a massive invasion of antlions with hand-fired bolts of electricity to their seemingly psychic ability to heal Alyx, the Vortigaunts are some seriously powerful creatures. Their show of staving off the G-man and rescuing Gordon and Alyx from the Citadel after stopping or slowing time is certainly their most impressive act thus far. How they were able to perceive what was going on, get to the top of the Citadel, and deliver the two to safety before disappearing is likely to remain just another mystery as to how they can do what they do.

However, it begs the question of what the Vortigaunts have in mind. Were they just trying to rescue a couple of resistance members and happened to interfere with the G-man along the way? Or is G-man a force of evil that they're trying to fight?

Likelihood of resolution: It's possible that this might get swallowed up as a bit of a plot hole, or simply ignored. The Vortigaunts have allied with humanity, but given that they speak in riddles on larger matters they might keep it somewhat cryptic.

5. Will Race X return?

In Opposing Force, Adrian Shepherd witnesses Gordon jumping into the portal to Xen; from there, he sees what goes on at Black Mesa in that unseen time after Gordon's departure in Half-Life. The main development: a completely different set of aliens who start infesting the facility and provide cool new weapons such as an electro-burst biological arm and another living weapon that shoots balls of acid.

And then the aliens simply disappeared. Part of this seems to be a result of Adrian Shepherd defeating the giant worm poking his head through a portal in the final boss; Combine Overwiki said this is a "Gene Worm," a forerunner of Race X colonization efforts. Perhaps Race X would have been duking it out with the Combine for domination of the planet, but the defeat of the worm left Earth to the Combine.

Likelihood of resolution: Race X may have simply been written out with the above scenario. It's unlikely that we'll see them again, despite some fans' hope to get a chance to electrocute things again.

4. Is Adrian Shephard coming out of stasis?

Opposing Force rounded out the perspectives on the first Half-Life game quite nicely. The original was from the viewpoint of Gordon, a scientist, and it was followed by Barney, a security guard, in Blue Shift. Opposing Force put you in the boots of Adrian Shephard, one of the rather unsympathetic grunts who spent the prior games gunning down Black Mesa employees in a poorly executed cover-up plan. Shephard crash-lands in the action not long before Gordon teleports to Xen and is prevented from evacuating by G-Man, leaving him to clean up the Race X invasion virtually unassisted. G-Man thanks him for this job well-done by getting him out of the facility before it is obliterated by a nuclear weapon, having had to make a case for keeping Shephard alive, and detains him pending "further evaluation." Shephard hasn't been seen or heard of since.

By humanizing the soldiers and adding some G-man interaction pretty much on the par of what Gordon experienced, Shephard became fairly popular with players and there has been a decent amount of speculation as to whether or not he will return. The closest thing to a reference to him has been in companion game Portal, which features keyboards with the letters included in Shephard's name highlighted. The developers claim, somewhat unconvincingly, that it is a mere coincidence.

Likelihood of resolution: Episode 3 is likely to be the last game in the series. If Shephard shows up, he may have to get a secondary speaking role unless the first-player action switches between him and Gordon. It seems like it might be a little difficult to shoehorn Adrian into this part of the narrative, however, so he might be left off.

3. What is on board the Borealis?

One nugget which will have to be explored before the series wraps up is a mystery introduced in Episode 2. A bit of data painstakingly smuggled out of the Citadel and brought to White Forest by Alyx shows footage of the Borealis, a ship belonging to Aperture Science that mysteriously vanished, along with a portion of the dry dock, back in the days before the Black Mesa Incident. Kleiner thinks the discovery of the ship means the resistance can turn the tables against their foe, while Eli thinks doing so could lead to a catastrophe on the level of the one that got Earth invaded in the first place. Mossman, meanwhile, is apparently in the region fighting Combine defenders to try to get to the ship while advance art shows the thing already swaddled in Combine mech.

As a more video game savvy friend pointed out, the clues are pretty much all there as to what will be in the ship. In Half-Life 2, Mossman mentions that the Combine are struggling to develop the teleportation technology that the resistance has gotten relatively under control. In this way, they have a slight advantage over their alien overlords (which increases once an invincible badass physicist enters the fray). The Borealis, meanwhile, is the property of the company featured in Portal: a game about a gun that allows you to use a handheld device to create inter-dimensional doorways. Uh-oh.

Likelihood of resolution: Certain. Valve wouldn't introduce the Borealis without taking care of the question of what's on board.

2. How do you defeat a Combine Advisor?

The Combine Advisors may be the brain bugs behind the entire invading force. Resembling giant grubs, they make their first appearance in Episode 1 and Gordon has several unpleasant close-ups in Episode 2. The Advisors are ridiculously powerful, having the ability to telekinetically hold people in place (or break them in half). Getting near one leads to some psychic bursts that impair your vision and coordination. When we last saw them, the Advisors were sucking out some of Eli's vitals.

It looks like the Advisors can be hurt. Eli gets in a few whacks with a pipe before he's killed, and Gordon and Alyx are saved because Alyx's pet robot DOG comes in and wrestles an Advisor, sending it scurrying off. The developers have said you'll go head to head with at least one Advisor, but there's still the question of whether you can do that with your existing weapons or if you'll need a new one.

Likelihood of resolution: Should be addressed, given the developer commentary.

1. Who/what is G-Man?

This is the big one. G-Man first showed up in the original game, watching Gordon's progress through Black Mesa from inaccessible points and finally appearing to Gordon after he defeats the game's big bad. The final sequence suggests that G-Man might not even need Gordon that much, since a refusal of his job offer merely sends Gordon off to die in some alien-infested landscape. Indeed, he's shown to have had some interaction with Eli, Alyx, Breen, and Shephard, and was apparently keeping an eye on Barney for awhile. G-Man seems to be something of a chessmaster, putting people in situations and seeing what they can do, but also takes direct action such as reactivating the nuclear bomb at Black Mesa after Shephard defuses it.

It's unknown whether G-Man is trying to help the resistance or the Combine, or whether he's falling somewhere in between. It's not even clear what he is. He obviously has some superhuman abilities, what with the ability to stop time and all, and one description suggested that he seems like something doing a somewhat passable impression of a human. Another suggestion is that he is Gordon from the future, a theory plausible enough that it may have been the original intention but may now be something different if the developers decide they need a more surprising reveal.

Likelihood of resolution: This is what people have been wondering about for 12 years. They'll have to offer some sort of explanation.