Sunday, 17 July 2011

Stories from Black Mesa: Decay

Since the start of 2011 I’ve been plugging away at the original Half-Life and it’s various expansion packs (I finished the original Half-Life back in January). They’re either compelling, or I’m a masochist, but either way I’ve managed to get through the entire of the Half-Life anthology including the previously unreleased Half-Life: Decay.

Decay was originally an exclusive expansion as part of the Playstation 2 port of Half-Life, something I remember meddling with but to no real end due to a lack of interest in first person shooters using a controller - my, how times change. Decay was a split screen co-operative experience on the PS2 and put players in the roles of Gina Cross and Colette Green, scientists working at the Black Mesa Research Facility during the events of the original Half-Life. Eagle eyed franchise fans will note that Gina Cross is in fact the hologram from the Hazard Training Course in the original Half-Life (though her character model was updated somewhat for this outing).

Now of course I didn’t play the PS2 version of Decay for my most recent play though, instead I downloaded the network enabled PC version which was ported by Ukrainian developers, Vyacheslav Dzhura and Denis Zhatov (this can be downloaded for free here).

Decay is quick to the finish, most likely down to it’s single level format. Players move from level to level via menu rather than in one continuous sequence. Players are tasked with helping a wheelchair-bound Doctor Keller and Doctor Rosenberg (also seen in Half-Life: Blue Shift) by solving co-op puzzles that loosely tie into the events of the original Half-Life, eventually forming a narrative in it’s own right, though not a particularly strong one - though I give bonus points for omitting any levels set in Xen.

In solo play the player has to swap between the two characters with a key press, an action passable through the early portions of the game, but some of the later puzzles and combat sections provided more challenge than they needed to. One puzzle of note (because it seemed rather rough in implementation) involved one player having to crouch jump on the head of another player to access an overhead vent – rather frustrating when you have to rapidly switch between players mid manoeuvre. It’s a rough looking game, and I’m sure the fact that this is a port is a contributing factor. The overall low production quality was offset by the welcome increase of speaking, named characters, whom provided guidance and narrative throughout - with the exception of the annoying wheelchair-bound Doctor Keller who often got stuck during scripted sequences requiring the player to restart the level (particularly the final level of the game – very buggy, very annoying).

Upon completion players are treated access to a short standalone level known as “Xen Attacks”. Here, players take control of the green-electric throwing Vortigaunts. Their goal is to retrieve Xen crystals similar to those provided by Decay’s protagonists, Cross and Green for Freeman’s Resonance Cascade in the original Half-Life – it’s a loose way to tie the story together for a mission that translates simply to “kill a bunch of Marine bastards”. It’s a fleeting scenario, but a fun little extra for those who manage to finish the standard game and provides a vocal cameo from the Nihilanth, Half-Life’s primary antagonist.

Overall I enjoyed Decay – sure it’s rough and it’s not a patch on Half-Life or it’s other expansions but it’s another excuse to go back to Black Mesa and see the events of Half-Life from a different point of view, and for free, you can’t argue with that.

Rock Paper Shotgun wrote a little somethin’ somethin’ about it here, and for those that missed it, Half-Life: Decay can be downloaded for free, here. There’s also an apparent remake in the works – who knows if it will ever see the light of day. Check that out here.

I think I will save my waffling about Opposing Force and Blue Shift for another day – I have work to do!