Sunday, 29 January 2012

Stories from Black Mesa: Opposing Force & Blue Shift

If you'd asked me several years ago what my favourite shooter was I’d have probably answered, “Half-Life… well, actually the first add on pack, Opposing Force”, and sometimes I’d blaspheme further by suggesting that “Gearbox understand fun and pacing better than Valve”.

op4_sludge_monster…but obviously those are rather unfair and perhaps uniformed statements. Valve created Half-Life, which bore the core mechanics, technology, characters, story and world which Gearbox then added to and expanded upon.

op4_tankOpposing Force

I was always a fan of Opposing Force - I enjoyed the different point of view of the scenario that Half-Life offered and preferred its campaign length and pacing. It enriched the universe and helped the connect the player to Black Mesa and it’s characters in the same way a TV series’ can grab people based upon it’s location or character offerings.


Maybe this is why Valve tried to take Half-Life 2 episodic?

It could have worked….

op4_freemanYou played as Adrian Sheppard, a soldier and survivor of the Black Mesa accident, exploring the research facility after the fact. The cross over points are handled well, you'll see Gordon jumping into the Xen portal as Sheppard, and witness the aftermath of Gordon’s handiwork throughout the campaign. All the nods and winks tie together nicely.

op4_damGoing back, it's held up pretty well; some excellent combat set pieces, particularly when first facing the black ops soldiers - good enemy positioning and an old school large enemy count far exceeding the numbers found in half-life.

There were some old school issues, such as the frankly unforgiveable sections where health must be lost to continue past a point - possibly ending the game for poorer players who play with only one save.
I got stuck in a few places due to some poor brush work in some of the rougher jumping puzzles/secrets causing me to have to reload my game in one instance.op4_team
The squad scripted sequences were a little bit pointless, but back in 1999 this was probably pretty innovative, and it does further the simple Scientist and Barney interaction of Half-Life.
Also, what’s with holding down the crowbar button immediately firing when the weapon changes? Button debouncing clearly wasn’t thought about back then - it’s pretty annoying when you’re crunching your wrench through a bunch of crates, picking up a Laser Tripmine then immediately placing it, obviously causing player death shortly after. Grrr.op4_dimension_x
Almost as annoying as the Head Crabs in dark vent sections… something which never gets old. /sarcasm

All of these issues are made up by the fact that Opposing Force is free of Xen levels and the latter half of the game puts the player up against new enemies, the inhabitants of “DIMENSION X”! They’re a fun bunch to fight against, even if their visual aesthetic looks a bit dated.op4_borderlands_last_boss On top of that, the new weapons were pretty good; a Sniper Rifle and Heavy Machine Gun (a weapon I used for almost exclusively for the latter portion of the game). I wasn't the huge fan of the game’s take on the BFG9000, but then uber weapons have always been a hard thing to get right – Gearbox aren’t the first to fall at this hurdle. The portable Barnacle was quite cool if a little underused. The two Dimension X weapons were forgettable, one the equivalent of the Hornet Gun was average at best (along with being annoying as a sentient creature in the world) and the other being a take on an alien rocket launcher. 

op4_gmanOpposing Force closes with the possibility of a sequel, and the way the G Man frames it, Sheppard could end up anywhere - it's unlikely that gearbox will visit this franchise again, so I'll pretend that I'm playing as Sheppard in Prey 2 (a route I could picture an Opposing Force sequel taking).

sludgeIf Gearbox made an actual sequel I would buy it. Twice.

Blue Shift

As I understand it, Blue Shift started out as a campaign to accompany the Dreamcast version of Half-Life – this was later canned and released as a PC expansion (that happened to not require the original Half-Life to play). The canned Dreamcast title featured high definition models which were available as replacement pack which updated Half-Life’s ageing character and weapon models (which is something I had enabled whilst playing Opposing Force). I didn’t play Blue Shift back when it was released – I had moved onto Halo and left the PC behind, so I didn’t have the familiarity or nostalgia I had when going back to play Half-Life, Decay or Opposing Force.

army_warsIn Blue Shift you take up the role as Barney – who is now a named character rather than a generic copy paste character. The story is weaker than the other expansions and puts you in the shoes of the security worker who is late and locked out of a security door, who just happens to be seen by an on looking Gordon Freeman on the start of his adventure in the original Half-Life (you also get to see one of the Half-Life: Decay player characters on CCTV). It’s a bit of a push and not handled as subtly as Opposing Force – and that sums up the overall experience. It’s not as tightly put together or polished as Opposing Force. It feels slightly rushed and that Gearbox were maybe trying to do more than the engine would realistically (read: reliably) allow.

Sure - it was refreshing to be taking on the soldiers once again, the Dimension X and Black Ops enemies started to bore me by the end of Opposing Force, but Blue Shift is also a lot shorter, and not in a good way. The brief length just highlights the annoyances.

xen_yardDodgy scripting being the prime concern. It wasn’t unusual to get stuck in an elevator and have to rely on a previous save to continue progress, or having to push AI characters (usually Dr Rosenberg) into correct spots to trigger events - it's rough.

On top of that there are annoying gameplay issues - enemies in loading corridors, really? Turrets around blind corners, are you serious? And they have the silent protagonist talking, by that I mean people responding to an imaginary voice you only have to assume is coming from the player – not that you actually hear anything… oh, and you go to Xen.

gearbox_gearsHowever it was nice to see some pre Half-Life 2 physics puzzles even if there was a lack of any other scripted sequences or interaction.

I’d find it hard to recommend going back to play Blue Shift for anything other than completion sake.


Pointless bloggery, won’t be doing that again in a hurry – will probably post a response to the new year at some point.

I’m currently playing Half-Life 2, Bully and Final Fantasy XIII.