Friday, July 29, 2011


The Game Traveller will be on hiatus for a while, while my health and situation improve.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

On Blue Shift and Half Life Mods

Half-Life: Blue Shift is an expansion pack for Valve Software's science fiction first-person shooter video game Half-Life. The game was developed by Gearbox Software with Valve Corporation and published by Sierra Entertainment on June 12, 2001. (It was originally set for release in Spring.) Blue Shift is the second expansion for Half-Life, originally intended as part of a Dreamcast version of the original game. Although the Dreamcast port was later cancelled, the PC version continued development and was released as a standalone product. The game was released on Steam on August 24, 2005.

This will be the last of the original Half-Life expansions that I plan on reviewing. I'll also give some attention where I believe it to be due; that being the large user community that formed around Half-Life, leading to a spectrum of mods and self-contained stories that were made by enterprising fans of the series. It was also the first game to be released in two versions, because of the deal with Dreamcast - there was the original version of the graphics, and there was a high definition version, originally made for the Dreamcast's port, and is now available directly from Steam.

With that said, let's take a look at Blue Shift.

Like Opposing Force, HLBS ties in with people already seen in Half-Life itself. Where Shephard was deployed with the Marines assigned to silence all of Black Mesa's personnel, Blue Shift centers on the entry of one of the most visible supporting cast: Barney Calhoun. His entrance into the game was deliberately begun to coincide with the appearance of a mystery guard during the opening sequence of Half-Life itself, seen banging on a door with a flashlight. From Barney's point of view, he sees Freeman zoom by in his tram, while the door mechanism fails.

There he goes, while I am stuck in this tunnel...

The first chapter is taken up with Barney getting to his locker and getting simple dialogue from the other characters, and there is even a shooting range, where he picks up his first weapon.... And finds a guard doing this strange airplane zoom thing with a doughnut while standing in one of the firing stalls in the range. No dialogue, just him making his doughnut zoom through the air. Very weird.

What the hell is he doing?
As the adventure moves on, you fight the familiar mixture of monsters, vortigaunts, zombies, headcrabs and so forth. It does not take you very long before you feel very much like a rat in a maze, trying to open doors and avoid the notice of the soldiers, once the whole thing goes (as every Half-Life game does) straight to hell. You are directed to a scientist, a Doctor Rosenberg, by several scientists, including one that you came upon while the Marines were shooting him. In fact, every scientist you meet from the time you are set to finding him, to actually locating the guy inside a train car (What the hell?), begins by saying "No, I'm not Dr. Rosenberg." Every scientist. A trip through Black Mesa's office complex, a few shootouts and so on, and you find one of the major downsides of the game. Calhoun's arsenal is considerably smaller then either the high-tech gear found by Freeman or the organic tech found by Shephard. Aside from a shotgun and a SMG, you really don't get much outside of the odd satchel charge and hand grenade.

Another oddity - the ever-present man of mystery referred to by me and many others as the G-man is strangely absent from this story, making a brief appearance early in the game and never really being seen again. Once you've found Rosenberg, he wants you to use some C4 on a sealed elevator. That's a great idea. And using it neither damages the elevator, not leaves so much as a scorch mark! The endgame consists of helping Scotty, er, Dr. Rosenberg to repair and reactivate a Xen-relay transporter, so everyone can simply get out of Black Mesa. A trip to Xen, some low-gravity hijinks and the relay is set up. Then a trip to the basement through some soldiers and glowing goop, and you've got the battery. Last but not least, you escort Doctor Monologue through the slow power procedure, And ye prepare tah repel boardahrrrs! Monsters and explosions, and it's finally time to leave, by way of a green glow, which lets you witness two soldiers joking about disposing of Freeman's body, a trip to Xen at night, and you're out!

This was a disappointing experience, all told. The game feels very rushed, the weapons are limited, the enemies are repetitive and ultimately just a series of grunts that you have to work your way through, to get to a very anticlimactic climax. Where the other games made by Valve and Gearbox ended with The Boss Fight and the G-man showing up, this has Calhoun simply disappearing off of the radar after what amounts to armed guard duty.

Now, as to the various mods and modules and standalone games that were released using the GoldSvc engine, there was a really wide range of innovation and level design. A couple of them were released through gaming magazines, and a few had their own websites. Some even developed into their own series, like Day of Defeat and Counter-Strike, and others were completely independent takes on the Half-Life story, like Poke646 or Azure Sheep; the latter of which is essentially similar to Blue Shift, but is honestly a much better story and game overall! There were even mods that were standalone stories, such as They Hunger!, which itself frankly did not have the finest texturing on earth, but was a pretty creepy and gory tale nonetheless, and USS Darkstar, which stuck Gordon Freeman on a spaceship! Wikipedia has a list of some of the more well-known mods and elsewhere on the Internet, the whole list is stored, ready for the curious player to download and explore.

So ends the first chapter of the Half-Life Story - and to think, the best was yet to come!

A final expansion upstaged by a player-made mod, and a world where player-made mods can grow to become their own game franchises?


Friday, July 1, 2011

On Opposing Force

Half-Life: Opposing Force is an expansion pack for Valve Software's science fiction first-person shooter video game Half-Life. The game was developed by Gearbox Software and Valve Corporation and published by Sierra Entertainment on November 1, 1999. Opposing Force is the first expansion for Half-Life and was first announced in April 1999.

I've owned and played this one since it was released alongside TFC and Counter-Strike, back in the early pre-Steam days of the franchise. I have already taken a look at both of those franchises prior to this one, since neither of them were linked to the main Half-Life storyline, and had nothing in common with it besides using the game engine.

Opposing Force centers around a character connected to and parallel to Gordon Freeman: Adrian Shephard, a US Marine Corporal who first arrives at Black Mesa in a combat helicopter, one of several deployed, brimming with Marines fresh from boot camp and ready for a fight, but without being told what they were supposed to be doing there... And before the orders can be given, beyond it being an extremely hostile situation... You guessed it. It goes very bad. Flashes of soldiers being attacked by aliens and dying... A crashed helicopter and bodies... And Shephard regains consciousness next to the bodies of two Marines that were joking and chattering minutes earlier, now bloodied and dead, with a scientist in a lab coat trying to give one of them CPR, without success.

Shephard, as it is later revealed, is one of the team sent to Black Mesa specifically to deal with Gordon Freeman personally, for reasons that were never revealed. Like many of the various soldiers and operatives sent in with this same mission - Shephard finds himself in a largely underground complex trying to keep himself and the other Marines he meets alive long enough to escape from the alien invasion that has made the goateed man in the orange hazard suit a comparatively minor priority.

Over the course of his journey, Shephard actually finds something that was not seen again until the rise of Half-Life 2 - followers. An engineer that could cut open sealed doors, a medic that could heal him or other Marines that were part of Shephard's squad, and a couple of more basic combat types, one carrying a machine gun, and another a shotgun, and so on. The scripting for followers in OpFor is far from perfect, and you find yourself going back frequently, because they tend to get hung up on anything, corners, stairs, even an inch high. Annoying. The AI script also has you sending these enthusiastic sheep tumbling into each others way during a firefight, and into yours as well, which led in one case to two of the four I had found shooting each other, one shooting me, and the last stuck inside a small room. Great. Heavily armored sheep with the brains of decapitated chickens!

You find an eclectic mix of equipment - more organic than any of the others in the franchise that I've seen, from a large barnacle creature that can chew its way through enemies and manage to actually act like a Batrope of sorts. And there's an alien grenade launcher that eats and is powered by... glowing tennis balls. Add a small creature that throws bolts of lightning, and a larger selection of military hardware, and one strange weapon that uses a strange sort of radioactive ammo - I like to call it the Go Away Gun. Tends to turn enemies in the small blast radius into splatters of goo on impact.

You wind up finding a course very parallel as I said earlier - down to having to avoid following Freeman through an extra-dimensional aperture, or it divides the universe by zero and you have to load from your save. In the end, Shephard finds himself in the hands of the G-Man, just as Freeman did. He is not given any choice at all, so instead of being hired, he is simply detained - and as far as I can tell, never mentioned again.


Friday, June 24, 2011

On Half-Life

The Half-Life series of video games share a science fiction alternate history. Nearly all of the games are first-person shooters on the Goldsource or Source engines, and most are linear, narrative, single-player titles.

Valve Corporation is the developer, and partly the publisher and distributor, for the signature games of the series. Each of these games feature the player as the main protagonist, Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist initially employed by the Black Mesa Research Facility. Two of these games, Half-Life and Half-Life 2, are full length titles, while two more, Half-Life 2: Episode One and Half-Life 2: Episode Two, are shorter, episodic titles. A final episode, Half-Life 2: Episode Three, has been confirmed to be the next installment of the series.

This is a review that has been along time coming, so there's a lot of buildup. I've owned this game since they released a nice big box edition of it, way back when. Let's start right from the top.

Half-Life opens with an array of difficulty settings, ranging from easy to hard, naturally -with the option of going through a training scenario, if you're unfamiliar with the game's basic mechanics. This was a staple of all of the earliest Half-Life games, with Team Fortress being the single exception. It was later omitted from Counter-Strike, for whatever reason. Yeah. great idea. A multiplayer game of skill, heaven forbid someone should want some simple training beforehand, even if it was lamer than a three-legged dog on oil-slicked ice. Half-Life opens with the now-iconic trip down the tram, introducing you to the world of Black Mesa - robots, scientists, guards, and even that odd character in the suit that always seems to know where you are.

A little bungling around, some dialogue from a few scientists and you're in the test chamber, where you get to put your Ph.D to the test, climbing up a ladder and pushing a button. Introduce some strange crystalline material to the analysis stream, and it all goes straight to hell. Now you need to get the hell out of Black Mesa... And you're at the bottom of a physics complex that outdoes any I've seen from Hollywood that didn't involve moons that were actually space stations!

You gain your first weapon, the now-iconic steel crowbar, not long after escaping from the test chamber, and your first gun from one of the redshirts - ah, guards. You find your share and more of facehuggers, called headcrabs in this universe, for obvious reasons. You also see the strange man in the suit at odd moments, and no sign of him when you stand where he did.

Over the course of the game, you butt heads with the military, often trying to maneuver your way around numbers of them with not only handguns and rifles, but stationary cannons, tanks and the like. You can and should pick up the military hardware you can, since weight simply doesn't exist for that in Half-Life, wandering around with some semi-mystical pockets of infinite space, even allowing you to carry a RPG launcher, explosives, grenades and all the ammunition you can handle, to a point.

The game puts you through a few puzzles, some of them involving the peculiarities of teleportation, or trying to jump your way down from the sky, by way of rotating pedestals without turning into pizza but mostly just shooting your way through soldiers, aliens and yes, alien soldiers, dangerous environments, all the way to the Big Finish, which combines them all.

You take on and take down the Big Bad.... And the end is only the beginning. The ubiquitous man in the suit is revealed, and Freeman's association with the enigmatic G-Man begins, and the series takes off from there, beginning the transformation of just another first-person shooter into what stands as a game with a powerful story arc, characters and a fight against an alien invasion!


Friday, June 10, 2011

On Counter-Strike

Counter-Strike (shortened sometimes to CS) is a tactical first-person shooter video game developed by Valve Corporation which originated from a Half-Life modification by Minh "Gooseman" Le and Jess "Cliffe" Cliffe. The game has been expanded into a series since its original release, which currently includes Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, Counter-Strike: Source, Counter-Strike: Anthology and Counter-Strike on Xbox. Counter-Strike pits a team of counter-terrorists against a team of terrorists in a series of rounds. Each round is won by either completing the mission objective or eliminating the opposing force.

This is another of the group of discs I referred to, in my review of Team Fortress - a group that was packaged together with Half-Life. It stands as the most popular of all of the Half-Life mods and addons, at least according to GameSpy.

Lots of history, and a lot of fans - I've played it since there was a training mission that showed you how to correctly set and defuse explosives, and showed you how to use a rifle, and such. So, there is a lot of ground to cover. I haven't played all of the different variants, so this review will focus on the three that I own: Counter-Strike, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero and Counter-Strike Source.

Counter-Strike's original form has been imitated repeatedly over the years, as possibly the most iconic of the "tactical" modern-themed team first-person shooters. You play in one of four forms, on one of two teams - terrorists or counter-terrorists. The CT team were all from special forces teams that are themselves pretty well-known, SEALs, the SAS, the French GIGN and the German GSG9 - while the terrorists looked a bit more generic, one looking (at least to me) like someone from a South American group, one very obviously middle-eastern character, and the others wearing arctic gear or a generic hood.

Both teams got a very similar choice for weapons, from pistols to assault rifles or an LMG, depending on how much "money" was provided at the start of the game - teams receive funds for killing enemies and finishing objectives. There were a couple of notable issues - the Terrorists gain access to an assault rifle of formidable power and accuracy very early, kind of like an AK-47 knockoff. They also receive a double pistol as an (expensive) option. Both teams have access to what are commonly referred to as auto-snipers, sniper rifles that were so accurate and deadly that they require little skill to use.

The gameplay consisted of either locating the explosives before or after they were put into use, or liberating hostages. More often than not, it simply became a game of deadly hide and seek, with one group of players winning because the other team was dead, but not always. It should be noted that this version of the game actually precedes the infamous World Trade Center attack of 2001, though a major version released followed it, only a day later.

One of the major downsides to this early version of the game is that there were many exploits and cheats (called hacks) used by various players throughout the network - leading to the present system used to prevent and deal with anyone using such thin and obvious ways to gain advantage in a game that requires no small amount of skill - the system called VAC, the Valve-Anti-Cheat system.

The Condition Zero series introduced the only single-player action available at that time, letting a player build a team, gaining points as missions were completed, missions that required a specific goal, sometimes very simple - kill 3 enemies, or more complex, kill 5 enemies, 4 with a pistol, and complete the mission in 60 seconds or less.

Counter-Strike: Source brought these concepts all together - the team action, the ability to run a completely independent server, with AI players, and VAC doing its best to keep cheaters out of the game.

Here's the trouble - the Source engine introduced something insidious to the design of the guns used - the accuracy cone. Instead of a rifle, SMG or pistol firing things more or less in a line - they sprayed all their ammo in a random cone, making accuracy for those without AI control a big pain in the backside.

Realistic physics and personae and weapons, but the best rifles in the game handle like they're high-powered cheap shotguns?


Thursday, June 2, 2011

On Team Fortress

Team Fortress is a team-based first-person shooter franchise that began with a mod for QuakeWorld by id Software, which was ported to Valve Software's famous first-person shooter, Half-Life.

It began life for me on a disc, one of a collection that formed what Valve sold as the Game of the Year edition of Half-Life. It was one hell of a grouping, with the original game and a handful of others, including what was then called Team Fortress 1.5. It was a new concept at the time, teams that could choose a specialization for combat in a first-person shooter, one of nine classes that are still in use today. Sniping, sneaking, scouting ahead, or just general explosions and mayhem were a handful of the options, and as such, still are.

You can go on a variety of missions, from capturing the flag to escorting an unarmed civilian or an outright siege, all depending on what map the server you were on decided to fling at you. Usually you had two teams, evenly balanced, though the game allowed as many as four, even though this was comparatively rare - having played it for many years, I have never seen an evenly balanced game with all four teams active. Thanks to some innovation from the players, new ways to use the weapons arose, and so, new maps to help polish these crazy skills followed - like using a rocket launcher like an exploding pogo stick, or a concussion grenade to the same end. Maps that were mazes that needed to be navigated hopefully without being turned into splattered goop or just being sent back to the beginning were made as well.

And always the promise of a new chapter loomed like a cloud on the horizon - as early as 1998 - claims were made that Team Fortress 2 was in the works. Maps came and went, servers were set up and taken down, nine years later and near the end of 2007, the new version came out - featuring the physics of the much-hyped Source engine, and nine characters that were no longer pieces of animated cardboard with faces - nine personalities arose.

Team Fortress 2 hit the shelves like a rabid elephant - gamers old and young wanted a piece of this new team-shooter with the animated and cartoony character that were larger than life - as if they came from the same part of the human soul as Brock Samson (Copyright from the Cartoon Network)  and the deeper and darker places that animation had crawled and charged and full speed with teeth like knives.

And so it came like a storm, hyped, lauded, but ultimately, it hits a major problem head-on - the achievement complex. In order for you to get upgrades or drops as such, you have to play the game a lot, or so it was at the beginning. There have been special rare items associated with this event or that promotion, dominantly in the form of headgear for the various characters - sometimes weapons would appear, with the balance of combat changed slightly or drastically. Unfortunately, this system led to some very underhanded exploits... Servers where a player could visit and simply contrive a way to earn achievements or game time or both...

And now, to add insult to injury - Valve has decided to sell clothing items and equipment for your characters using real-world money.

Why spend money getting yourself a new hat, when you can get a new strange and funky virtual hat that will be visible only to people on a computer network?!


Friday, May 13, 2011


Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) is a fantasy MMORPG from Turbine, Inc. and Midway Games Codemasters.

I've taken my sweet time getting to my latest review. And it's not for nothing.

This is the first real entry of what is arguably one of the most popular fantasy series of the past century. Based first on a series of stories from J.R.R. Tolkien and then more recently on a series of movies directed by Peter Jackson, which kicked off an entirely new level of interest both in the fantasy genre itself, and in the world of Middle-Earth, from video games and re-printings of the books to new versions of the table-top RPG.

As a fan of both the old tabletop RPG as well as the movies themselves, I found myself looking at the company that produced this and trying not to simply bang my head into a wall. God no, I didn't want this to be another clog in the toilet! It took everything short of a hand grenade to get DDO out of there! The download for this game is massive. I mean MASSIVE. The SMALL download was 9GB. I'm old enough to remember when that was the size of your whole bloody hard drive! The large version ranges from 11GB-13GB depending on which you want. I went out of my way to find a copy that was NOT downloaded from Turbine's servers (Yes, that's a good idea, put a file in one piece and force your fans to download it at near-dialup speeds. Brilliant!) be it a torrent or simply a hosted file on a gaming site somewhere else.

Once I had it downloaded – the install process began. And for this one, I suggest getting a copy of the movies and sitting down to watch. It's a ridiculously slow installation, even on a computer with 4 CPUs and a pile of RAM.

A meal and a few thousand unblinking stares from Elijah Wood, and we're installed. A few laughs and some Orcs running across a field, and the patching is done too. I went out of my way to get the largest download, the size justified by very high resolution files, which were of a formidable size.

So it began - the character building software was very good, easy to use - with a neat little video for each race and each of the various classes. There are four available races for free players - Human, Elf, Dwarf and Hobbit - with the classes available varying between them. Hobbits make good sneak-attackers and poor tanks, Dwarves make good tanks and front line fighters, Elves make excellent support characters and spellcasters, while also making formidable ranged attackers and front-row fighters. Humans are soft of a balance between the others, not really having advantage or disadvantage.

On to the game - Elves and Dwarves begin in the mountains, Humans and Hobbits in Bree-land and the Shire. I can't emphasize enough, just how gorgeous the world actually is! Not the same scrub and trees everywhere, but a whole world, hills to mountains and everything in between - all in full color, using a great palette of colors. Holy crap! You can even find Tom Bombadil! You know, that laughing lunatic from the books that didn't make it into either the radio show, or the animated movie, OR Peter Jackson's movies?

Gorgeous textures, very good gameplay, AND all the characters from the books?