13-Aug-2001 The best game ever is brought back to life again. Mark Hill digs out the doughnuts
Last month Francis Ford Coppola released a new version of Apocalypse Now under the title of Apocalypse Now Redux and including many scenes previously edited out. As ever, this prompted critics to question whether immortal classics should be tampered with. Blue Shift isn't really a Half-Life Redux - except that 'redux' literally means 'brought back' - but there is the same sense of a true classic being messed around with. And there's also a sense that we are finally getting the complete picture.
Half-Life is the Star Wars of the gaming world, inspiring religious devotion and veneration among those bright enough to move about with a mouse and keyboard. And, just as big franchises like Star Wars are exploited in comic books and novels, Half-Life is producing spin-offs all over the place. There are various mods that pick up the game's storyline, but they are little more than fan-art when compared to the real thing. Now, after developing the highly impressive Opposing Force, Gearbox has produced its second add-on.
You can't help but associate the word 'add-on' with 'cash-in'. After all, they're even worse than sequels at milking a successful idea for all it's worth. And when you consider that Blue Shift was originally conceived as an extra for the Dreamcast version of the game, that feeling is reinforced.
The doe-eyed, trusting reaction is that the publishers decided it was unfair to PC gamers to deprive them of a new episode in their favourite game, just to give it to philistine console players, and so made it available to us too. The cynical view is that they realised they had spent a lot of time and money on a project for a half dead platform and told Gearbox to knock out a quick conversion for the PC. After all, nothing with the official Half-Life sticker is going to fail to sell shedloads of copies.
In Half-Life you played the central character in a glorious tale. In Opposing Force you played a soldier who doesn't really get involved in the original's main events. Here you play a second-rate security guard called Barney Calhoun. Imagine watching Star Wars exclusively from the point of view of the barman in the Mos Eisley Cantina, cleaning tables and stopping droids from entering, while Luke and friends save the galaxy, or watching The Sopranos every week from the point of view of Tony's sullen mother. On the one hand, Blue Shift - taken as part of the whole - is an interesting experiment in multi-perspective narrative. On the other, you only play a bit role in a series of events you've already experienced from more exciting points of view.
Things kick off in familiar fashion as you make your way to work on the Black Mesa's sophisticated monorail system. You'll immediately notice how much more detail they've managed to fit in this time, as a whole world goes on around you, with people eating at a canteen and scientists doing their laundry. The complex is more alive than ever before. On your way to the dressing room you encounter all sorts of characters experiencing technical difficulties, each one of them individually defined. In fact, most of them are downright rude, suggesting that you 'go and guard some coffee and doughnuts' or 'make yourself useful'. It makes it all the more entertaining to see the white-coated fools getting torn to pieces by aliens. The whole game focuses on a greater interaction with scientists as proper people rather than the two or three models that were cloned throughout the facility who kept repeating the same phrases. This is perhaps Blue Shift's greatest achievement, and undoubtedly a taster of things to come in Half-Life 2.
While Opposing Force threw you in the middle of a warzone, here you get to experience the calm before the storm and be there when all hell breaks loose. Not only that, you even find out more about the types of experiments going on in Black Mesa and how the aliens have come through to our world.
FIRE IN THE HOLE
So how does it compare to its predecessors? Well, let's just say that, for the most part, it doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Opposing Force, never mind Half-Life. The first part of the game - and much of the last part - is spent solving environmental puzzles that are tailor-made for a console, like 'how do I get up there using these boxes, that fork-lift truck and a box of matches'. They're well thought out, but still leave you wondering when you're going to start popping bullets rather than falling from precarious ledges. Later, the game makes the strange mistake - strange because so many people have spoken out against it - of spending a large period of time in the Xen universe. To be fair, Gearbox has been careful to make it as easy as possible and there is hardly any virtuoso zero-gravity platform jumping required. And the section is quite integral to the Blue Shift story. Nevertheless, it goes on for far too long and gets quite boring, Which only makes you wish they had concentrated more on the second part.
However, the battles against the human soldiers do deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as H-L and OF. There isn't as much variety in enemies, though. The battles consist of a staple diet of face-huggers, teleporting cyclops and those faceless, mostly harmless, alien poodles, with the occasional acid-spitting lizard thrown in for good measure. But all that becomes unimportant when the soldiers come along. There's nothing to compare to the extremely difficult black op ninjas from OF, but these guys are still every bit as intelligent as you could hope an AI enemy to be. They hide, co-ordinate attacks and hobble to a retreat when injured. Run into open space and you'll be a human colander within seconds. Try to hide and you'll see a grenade growing ever larger in the centre of your screen before spotting shards of your own bones bouncing off the walls. At times it's like playing a game of Counter-Strike on your own. Getting through an area covered with soldiers all waiting to take a pop at you is like being the last terrorist left with the bomb still to be planted. You keep reaching for a flashbang out of pure instinct. The all-new assault rifle is the best weapon on offer here, but there are times when you wish you could pick up a sniper rifle too. Even though you don't get to use alien weapons, you don't really miss them.
It's disappointing that Gearbox didn't give you a few other guards to fight alongside you in some of the big battles, as it would have given it a whole other dimension. They did it in OF when you got engineers and medics by your side, so why not here? It would also have been cool if Gordon Freedman had come up to you at some stage and asked for help getting through a certain section, which would allow you to fight together for a while. Perhaps that's asking a bit too much though.
I've never been one to knock games for being too short (quality is preferable to quantity), but Blue Shift's brevity almost takes the piss. As a Dreamcast extra it works perfectly, but as a stand-alone PC title there's not nearly enough to it. Because it is stand-alone there is a separate Hazard Course for beginners but, unlike the brilliant Full Metal Jacket Boot Camp from OF, it's a stilted, functional affair. Blue Shift has no black op ninjas, no set pieces with enormous creatures that have to be dealt with imaginatively and it doesn't even have an end of game boss. I completed it in one sitting - just over five hours - and while I would play through the soldier bits again, a lot of it was forgettable.
We hope this will be the end of the expansions before the proper sequel comes out, although we wouldn't be surprised to hear about the impending release of Half-Life: Now And Xen, where you get to play from the point of view of the aliens. Or perhaps Half-Life: Biochemical Mathematics, where you take on the role of a hapless old scientist waiting to be rescued. As a stopgap before Half-Life 2, Blue Shift doesn't quite live up to expectations, but H-L addicts with cash to burn should certainly give it a go.
Blue in the face
Another side to the Black Mesa story Brilliant human enemies NPCs now have defined personalities Nice environmental puzzles Enhanced graphics
Way too short No huge enemies No black ops Ending poor and abrupt Too much Xen world