Gordon Freeman isn’t the only one fighting through Black Mesa.
PC Release: Various
By Ian Coppock
The Half-Life game brings with it a universe of good and not-so-good expansions and demos, some of which I decided to assemble into the diehard fan’s ultimate compendium. This lively mix of stories introduces new characters who, like Gordon Freeman, fight to escape the alien infestation overtaking the Black Mesa Research Facility. On that fateful morning, when Freeman tore the barriers between dimensions and monsters emerged from the ether, he sure as hell wasn’t the only one trying to stay alive.
Half-Life: Blue Shift
PC Release: June 12, 2001
Blue Shift is the latter half of a tandem expansion effort by Gearbox Software, who went on to create Borderlands. Player character Barney Calhoun is a security guard who must flee like everyone else before the alien storm engulfing Black Mesa. Like Half-Life‘s Gordon Freeman, Barney is a silent protagonist who must battle both the goggly-eyed aliens and the marines sent to cover up the accident, i.e. shoot innocent people. It’s not long before the security guard is in way over his head, but not to fear; there’s a group of scientists holed up in a nearby trainyard with schematics for a way out of the facility. Get to them, and you can get out.
Blue Shift is an alright expansion, but it suffers several juvenile flaws. For one thing, it’s short. I beat the expansion in about three hours and was a bit exasperated when the end was suddenly thrust upon me like an exam the adjunct professor forgot to upload. I’ll give Blue Shift some credit for shaking up the level design from Half-Life, transiting from expansive but rather linear areas into more intricate, maze-like territory. This game will teach you to fear tight corners.
Anyway, Barney learns of some hotshot scientist being imprisoned by the military, so you spend most of the game fighting human enemies. Springing this guy out means that he can put together a ticket out of Black Mesa, which is handy, because the aliens and soldiers continue to increase in number.
Blue Shift has a workable premise and Half-Life‘s stiff gameplay returns in fighting form, but its puzzles are ghastly. For whatever reason, I had a soul-crushingly difficult time solving the riddles this game spewed at me. I’m guessing the complete lack of context coupled with the usage of random items did me in. I rolled my eyes after spending 547 hours trying to reconnected a wire, only to find that the two halves had to be bridged by a random barrel. Never mind the steel rods or other, more intuitive conductors I’d been experimenting with all afternoon. Ditto for the trial-and-error marathon that was lining up boxes across a pool I had to drain and fill over and over, and pixel-hunting for tiny ledges I was expected to jump between in a black room over a yawning chasm.
The game also has some inconsistencies that run contrary to the first Half-Life. In that game, Gordon Freeman could swim through coolant no problem, but no sooner had I dived in expecting a refreshing swim than Barney had died instantly and I had to start over. Perhaps it’s because Barney didn’t have a hazard suit, and that’s fine, but changes to the game world have to be manually specified. I’m not telepathic.
Blue Shift doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. The plot is somewhat intriguing, but between the expansion’s shortness and the shirt-ripping frustration of the puzzles, I’d only buy this expansion if it’s on sale and you’re desperate to uncover every one of Black Mesa’s secrets. Graphics are by and large unimproved from the first Half-Life and the game only adds one new asset, a bearded scientist. To quote my friend Bret, “I enjoyed the beginning, but then it ended”.
You can buy Half-Life: Blue Shift here.
Half-Life: Opposing Force
PC Release: November 1, 1999
I was surprised to learn that Opposing Force was the first of Gearbox’s expansion packs. From a logical standpoint, Blue Shift is the mediocre first effort from which Gearbox learned, in order to make the kickassery that is Opposing Force. Yet this is not the case. Again, shocking, because Opposing Force is about four times longer than Blue Shift and packs dozens of new assets and gameplay elements. The disparity between the two makes me wonder if the lead designer suffered a lobotomy between expansions.
In Opposing Force, you are Adrian Shephard, one of the marines dispatched to Black Mesa to contain the aliens and kill everyone involved with the accident. Shephard crash-lands into the place about 2/3 of the way through Half-Life, by which point most of the scientists are dead and the aliens have started to push the marines back. Shephard gets separated from his unit and must journey through the facility to rescue his squad and get out of certain death’s gaze, among other tasks.
Opposing Force encompasses the brevity and fun that Blue Shift somewhat missed. As a marine, you have access to an expansive arsenal of weapons not seen in the original Half-Life. Combat knives, gatling guns, experimental explosives, you name it, Shephard has it, mixing up the gameplay and offering new ways to have fun for he or she who likes fun.
The story is also intriguing. As Shephard, you can choose to gun down the Black Mesa personnel as ordered, or pretend not to see them. As you progress, you attract the attention of a mysterious man in a suit, who redirects your progress seemingly for his own interest.
The somewhat wonky AI from Half-Life has been tweaked and spit back out in the form of squad commands. You’ll sometimes find other stranded soldiers in the depths of Black Mesa and can band together for mutual badassery, assuming you can keep them alive for an extended period of time. Soldiers can be commanded to heal you, break down doors and lay down supporting fire, which is just cool. It’s a good way to expand upon the follower option in Half-Life.
The game is subject to multiple plot twists, few of which I was expecting. There’s another layer to the government’s cover-up of the Black Mesa incident, and you’re in its crosshairs. Aliens plot to unleash a massive creature onto earth to destroy the last vestiges of resistance.
These missions left Opposing Force bereft of a strong overall theme, but by Christ were they interesting. Neatly sequenced and strung together to give the game the same consistent sense of chaos most fervent in Half-Life. To compensate for the lack of human enemies, Opposing Force also adds a cadre of new alien foes.
Overall, Opposing Force is a smashing expansion, and there are very few negative things to say about it. I got stuck once or twice, but the level design is competent and subtle gameplay fixes have solved most of the issues I had with Half-Life. Again, how such a great expansion came before Blue Shift is beyond me, but hey, just buy this on Steam and go wild. Opposing Force is an intelligent and varied expansion.
You can buy Half-Life: Opposing Force here.
PC Release: June 9, 2008
Sorry, I missed one.
Gearbox’s third and final expansion for Half-Life is one that I have yet to experience in its entirety. For one thing, the game started out as a PlayStation 2 exclusive, and for another, the PC port of Decay is buggy to the point of being unplayable.
But, the premise is interesting. Decay is meant to be played by two people, who assume the roles of Dr. Gina Cross and Dr. Colette Green. These two physicists must work in cahoots to escape the alien shitstorm just like everyone else.
I can’t really review more of Decay than the 20 minutes or so I spent playing it before the bugs convinced me to alt out. I can say that the expansion is much more fun with two people. It’s on me for running down a hallway, standing on a button, and then switching over to the other person so that she could catch up. I had high hopes for the PC port, but since it was released almost six years ago with no patch in sight, I doubt I’ll ever play it.
You can buy Half-Life: Decay here.
PC Release: February 12, 1999
This standalone Half-Life experience is basically a demo of the full game. In this bonus level, Gordon Freeman must activate a satellite and upload the release codes keeping him and a few survivors locked in a science lab.
The game adds nothing new in terms of assets or gameplay, but it does present an additional chapter in the Half-Life experience for diehards such as myself. I also downloaded this little gem because of nostalgia; I played it thirteen years ago at a friend’s house and loved it to death. I never realized what it was called or where to find it until I saw screenshots of Uplink.
The Uplink demo is available on Desura and a few places around the Internet for free. Just download and take off. It takes about 30-45 minutes to play through Uplink, and you’ll catch references to the main game as you go. Like I said, it’s little more than a bonus level with a single, simple objective, but if you want to add more to the baseline Half-Life experience, and for free, Uplink is for you.
You can buy Half-Life: Uplink here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.