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of the deal with Dreamcast - there was the original version of the graphics, and there was a high definition version, originally made for the Dreamcast's port, and is now available directly from Steam.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?


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