When I sat down and had a good long think about what I wanted to achieve from a gamer's standpoint in 2010, one of the first things that came to mind was "I need to play more PC games". Ever since I signed up to Steam shortly after the launch of Giant Bomb, I've been meaning to treat my humble PC with a little more respect as a games machine. My little laptop may not be the most powerful machine around, but it's got enough oomph for what I intend to use it for - namely, catching up with some retro titles that I missed back in the day. My first attempt to stick to my New Year's resolution has been quite a successful one, with January seeing me play through both official expansion packs for the original Half-Life - Opposing Force and Blue Shift.
I played the first Half-Life back in August 2008 and absolutely loved it. In fact, it inspired me to write my first full Giant Bomb blog entry. However, there's one major difference between my experience with the original back then and my more recent experiences with its parallel sequels - I played Half-Life on PS2, with my good friend the Dual Shock 2 for company. As a consequence, aside from some brief (and unsuccessful) dabbling with Team Fortress Classic towards the end of last year, I had zero experience of playing first-person shooters with a keyboard and mouse. So in one respect, I had a feel for what sort of thing to expect from these two expansions, but in another, I had no idea how successful I was going to be in getting to grips with the mechanics. Deciding that my desire to experience these two games outweighed my apprehension towards the control scheme, I took the plunge and played them both one after the other, on Normal difficulty, over the course of a fortnight. Now, with my opinions fully formulated, I'm ready to reveal my thoughts in blog form.
Half-Life: Opposing ForceOpposing Force was the first of the two expansions that I played, and is definitely the one that I had more fun with. It took me around twelve days of half-hour sittings to make my way from the start of the game to the end, and despite a few moments of control-based frustration early on, I enjoyed every single second. It felt a lot more action-oriented than the original Half-Life, with a heavier focus on combat and less emphasis on puzzle-solving. As a consequence it didn't feel as well-paced as its older brother, but I for one rather enjoyed its relentless nature. In fact, I think if I had to pick a single word to describe Opposing Force, it would be 'relentless'. After the first introductory hour or so, the game grabs you by the throat and hurls you through its challenges at an incredible pace, with no real opportunity for respite until the closing credits.
As mentioned above, Opposing Force is more of a combat-focused game. Thankfully, the developers had the sense to change the arsenal of weaponry to reflect this. Existing weaponry is tweaked to be more in line with the more militaristic premise - the revolver becomes a desert eagle and the crossbow is replaced with a sniper rifle, for example. There are also a lot of additional weapons, and it's these that really make Opposing Force engaging from a combat perspective. There's a displacement gun, which can teleport protagonist Adrian Shephard to the border world Xen. There's a spore launcher, which is actually a live alien that has to be fed ammo. If that isn't hands-down-awesome enough, there's even a portable barnacle, which can be used to cross chasms and get to hard-to reach places in a similar fashion to Link's Hookshot in the Legend of Zelda games. All these extra options encouraged me to switch between weapons more and try the new stuff out, which in turn helped to keep the combat feeling exciting.
It's not just the weapons, though. Opposing Force feels like a lot of effort was put into it as a whole. It's evident in the little things that confirm as much, like the redesigned HUD, and the addition of night-vision to replace the flashlight of the original. This care in design is just as evident in the gameplay, which boasts the same incredibly well-balanced combat, impressive enemy AI, and thoughtful (though sparingly used) puzzle design from the original Half-Life. The game also boasts two amazing boss battles, which are probably the most memorable encounters I've faced since playing through Resident Evil 4 just over a year ago. One in particular plays out more like a puzzle than a boss fight, requiring the player to activate the Gearbox and the Valve (heh, I see what they did there) in order to "flush" the nasty critter away.
Ultimately, Opposing Force feels like an adrenaline-fuelled six-hour run through the best bits of Half-Life: a kind of "Half-Life: Greatest Hits", if you will. It retains enough of what made its predecessor so memorable to feel familiar, but at the same time it does enough new stuff to carve out an identity of its own. It's got some issues with pacing, but it's so much fun that it's easy to overlook. It's easily the better of the two Half-Life expansion packs. Speaking of which...
Half-Life: Blue ShiftI'll start by saying that I probably would have liked Blue Shift a lot more if I hadn't started playing it as soon as I finished Opposing Force. As a result, I found myself constantly comparing the two, and consistently siding with Opposing Force. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, because I did. It just didn't seem to live up the precedent that Opposing Force set. First up, there's the length - Blue Shift clocked in at around four hours, compared to Opposing Force's six. Taking me only two days to work my way through and never really reaching a point where I struggled, it also didn't feel as challenging as Gearbox's first effort. Maybe this had something to do with me getting used to the mouse-and-keyboard controls, I don't know. Whatever the reason for it, Blue Shift didn't occupy me for anywhere near as long as Opposing Force did.
It also felt a lot more underwhelming from a design perspective. After seeing the effort that went into making Opposing Force something more than just a Half-Life add-on, Blue Shift feels almost half-arsed in its execution. Rather than offering any new content it elects to recycle the assets from the original game, reverting back to its HUD and offering a limited amount of its weaponry. No new guns, no new enemies, no new anything, really. Of course, all the existing stuff is taken from one of the greatest first-person shooters ever made, so Blue Shift was always going to be solid, but it's a real shame that it's not more than that. The example that best highlights the laziness of Blue Shift's execution can be witnessed in its Training Level. At the end of the tutorial, protagonist Barney Calhoun is taught how to use a railcar. The game itself then proceeds to never feature a railcar.
Comparatively, the only aspect of Blue Shift that comes out on top over Opposing Force is its puzzles. With less emphasis on combat, Blue Shift is balanced more in accordance with Half-Life proper. This means less shooting and more thinking, and thankfully it features some pretty inspired puzzle design. The whole segment involving charging a power cell in particular makes great use of both environmental- and physics-based puzzles, flipping switches and turning valves in order to progress to the eventual goal. It's just a shame that this much care and attention wasn't put into other aspects of the game's design. As it stands, I can't help but feel that Blue Shift is a pretty lazy add-on, especially in the shadow of its much more successful older brother.
So there you have it, my opinion of the Half-Life expansion packs. All criticism aside, I thoroughly enjoyed playing through both, and I'm glad that I've started my first true foray into the world of PC gaming with such great games. At this point I'm undecided as to what will get played next. I'm a little too preoccupied with Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII on the PSP and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts on the 360 to give it any serious thought right now, but I do have a lot of titles to choose from. There's Fallout and its sequel, which I bought around this time last year after having a blast with Fallout 3. There's Quake II, which is an entirely different brand of shooter altogether but it looks like a hell of a lot of fun. There's the mind-bending puzzler Braid sitting here unfinished. There's the two Max Payne games I picked up in the Steam Holiday Sale. There's even a few old Lucasarts adventure games like LOOM and The Dig around here somewhere. At least I know that when I do get the itch to return to PC gaming, my options are wide open. Thanks for reading, guys. I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII (PSP)