“That’s the old passage to Ravenholm. We don’t go there anymore,” she says. Why, then, does she let her sorrowful gaze linger just a little bit too long while foreboding music plays in the background, hmm? She’s lying, and Valve made her do it. I blame everything that came after that moment squarely on them. “I” am not included in the “we,” so it’s clear that I will have to go where few others dare. What’s new, though: This is Half-Life 2 and I’m the Free Man; exempt from the rules that govern health, time and inter-dimensional travel. Common sense fits into that list well enough.
Having spent the past few hours being chased through a city, down canals on my speedy Gentle Ben/Easy Rider motorcycle-type construction and across a wealth of generic industrial estates, I was pretty much ready for some R&R upon reaching Black Mesa East. Yet, the show must go on, and the construction team behind the world I inhabit is meticulous in their design. I get just enough time to absorb events, regain control of my nerves and play catch with the best computer robot friend of all time, and then it all goes to pieces again.
The klaxons sound and I’m running away again, but it’s different this time. I’m not simply escaping faceless oppression, the long arm of the unjust law and gunships formed from bits of other alien species. I’m running into unknown danger, and Alyx’s face tells me it’s not going to be pretty.
In Ravenholm, things are, well, atmospheric. Music reminiscent of a dozen 1970s horror movies blasts from the speakers in an unusually overt manner. These aren’t the familiar 160 beats-per-minute that helped fuel the initial escape from City 17; it’s unfamiliar and disconcerting, only matched in its alien manner by the animal roars that echo through the dusk after the light has long since faded.
A shape in the distance moves, seemingly adopting the aimless lumbering of a zombie. Approaching it, cautiously, it’s unclear exactly what it is until I’m far too close: An ex-inhabitant’s lower body swings from the tree by its spinal chord. It serves a dual purpose: To let me know that this place is different from the others I’ve visited and to distract me from the zombie that’s silently lurching to life a few feet away, in the shadows.
I think I actually wee’d myself a little bit.
With a grimace and a slightly nervous feeling in my stomach, though, I manage to defeat him and move on, the familiar area of saw-blades letting me know that it’s time to use the mighty grav-gun! “Aha,” say I, “have at you and take some of this!” My newfound courage lasts for at least a few minutes until the town opens up for me, a mad priest seemingly saves my life and a pair of zombies smash their way through a boarded up doorway and look in my direction.
Ravenholm’s sheer excellence is easy to understate. There’s no lazy pandering to the obligatory stealth level or any other conventions associated with modern day shooter design. It’s a total shift in the game’s dynamic that is expertly preceded by a period of downtime to let you phase out of combat mode. Then, the suspense is built up until your nerves are absolutely frayed.
Father Gregori offers potential salvation, the town beating you into submission time and time again only for him to show up and get you out of there just in the nick of time. His crazy mutterings taunt you at first, but he’s just looking after his flock. He’s the captain of this ship called Ravenholm, and he’ll be staying with her until the end.
Realizing that they’ve given me a little too much security via the mad priest, Valve taps into my innate fears. They take the familiar, push it through a blender and bring it out of the other side tougher, faster, stronger and smarter. They take the established conventions of zombie combat and turn them upside down after a game and a half. Poison Headcrabs, looking and moving all too much like spiders for my liking, emit a strange chattering sound from their crafty hiding places as they quiver in ecstatic anticipation of eating my face. Poison Zombies, looking all too much like humans that have been eaten by spiders for my liking, are harder to put down and throw Poison Headcrabs at me for fun. Zombie Skeletons clamber up drainpipes with a clangclangclangclang leaping at my outstretched shotgun with ridiculous speed. It’s just not fair, is it?
It’s an entire chapter of a game that just oozes quality horror; every turn leads to the unexpected and every battle for survival is desperate, leaving me shaken and humbled. I’m left with no choice but to learn how to use the gravity gun. The wonder- weapon gives me the edge I need: health packs and ammo are flung from one section of the weaving path to the next, and I use my new toy to pull the power-ups toward me. This is continually the small difference between my success and failure. Using the gravity gun to keep me alive, combined with using it to navigate an assortment of traps and puzzles kept things fresh, the challenges new.
It builds to a superb climax, worthy of any horror movie: A last, desperate stand atop a building while waiting for transport to salvation, the clock ticking as your time between quick-saves ebbs away. Finally, you stand next to Gregori, but his rantings no longer appear insane. You’ve witnessed the true horror of Ravenholm: A town shelled by the combine, the effects of their payload not simply driving the area into submission, but warping all that should be familiar into a grotesque play. A final sacrifice is yet to be made, and with the madman by your side, you battle to escape the horror and leave the wretched place behind. It’s only in the last minutes that you realize you have to go on alone as Gregori stands against his mutated congregation to secure your escape.
On my first play-through, I managed to get as far as the first Poison Zombie before my nerves got the better of me and I had to quit. I spent the next two weeks building up the courage to take on the horrors of Ravenholm again and even then, the only way I could beat it was in a single session that lasted around four hours, leaving me drained and wrecked.
Few games have managed to raise the same levels of fear in me – the System Shocks and, more recently, Resident Evil 4 are the only ones that spring to mind. The problem is I’m never likely to visit anywhere that looks like the locales in any of those games. Ravenholm, though? It’s ruined the entire Eastern European experience for me. I’ll be sticking to the English beaches, their cold, dirty sands far more welcoming than scenery reminiscent of my entirely fearful experience.
Hitchhiker is a freelance videogames journalist who spends too much time playing multiplayer games all alone. It does give him a sense of belonging, though, so that’s ok. He hangs out at www.alwaysblack.com.