"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.