Review by reecelean000

Reviewed: 01/16/06

Not worth buying

Life around the Black Mesa complex is never dull. Just ask one of the many security guards, whose daily job to watch over the facility's numerous scientists also includes preventing the spread of nasty alien intruders, protecting civilians from the military's mop-up squads, and keeping a slim waistline after all those doughnuts. Sound like a job you'd be willing to take? Then pop in a copy of the latest chapter in the story that began with a mild-mannered scientist named Gordon Freeman putting goatees, glasses, and bright orange suits back in style. Having already seen Gordon's story, now it's time to walk the blue line as security guard Barney Calhoun in Gearbox Software's new single-player game, Half-Life: Blue Shift.

Originally designed over a year ago as a bonus add-on for the now-defunct Sega Dreamcast version of Half-Life, Blue Shift has been fully ported to the PC as a stand-alone product. Unlike Opposing Force, Gearbox's previous add-on, this new release doesn't require the full version of Half-Life to play. In fact, the box actually includes Opposing Force as a further incentive to buy the $29.99 package, and Sierra is offering ten dollar rebates for people who bought that title and are willing to mail away their original CDs. This new release also contains the High Definition Pack, which upgrades the weapon and characters models of all the games in the Half-Life saga with new high definition content.

Blue Shift begins at the same time and place as the original Half-Life. Instead of following the story of Gordon Freeman, this time you take on the role of one of the security guards Gordon encounters in the first game. As the community college-educated Barney Calhoun, you patrol the grounds of the Black Mesa complex during the accident in the Anomalous Materials lab that causes a rift between this world and the alien planet known as Xen. At first, you must deal with the hazards created by the destructive lab mishap, and later, personally fend off the alien menace. Once the military is brought in to contain the threat and silence the witnesses, you move into Rambo territory -- fighting entire platoons single-handedly while liberating captive scientists. Your ultimate goal is to escape the Black Mesa complex in one piece, any maybe even save a few scientists along the way.

The Blue Shift campaign is very much a standard add-on to Half-Life. New players can run through a slightly modified Hazard Course to learn the controls, but Half-Life fans can bypass this despite the novelty of a holographic security guard replacing an orange-suited woman. Like its predecessor, Blue-Shift begins slowly, complete with a tram-ride followed by a period of running around and talking to guards and scientists. When the action begins, it's vintage Half-Life: there are boxes aplenty to smash, aliens that pop up to surprise you, and a military force that attacks you both intelligently and violently.

Like the original Half-Life, Blue Shift, has an involved (albeit very short) storyline with scripted sequences interspersed between the first-person action; there are approximately seven major sections in the game. Following the tram-ride and the Black Mesa accident, you go through some hardy crate smashing and head crab bashing before reaching the underground canals. Some of the puzzles in this section require a bit of Mario-style jumping and keen observation. After moving through the canals and steam tunnels, you find yourself in a crusade to rescue the elusive Dr. Rosenberg in the freight yards, despite intervention by the military's opposing force. This is all followed by an obligatory visit to the parallel world of Xen, an excursion to retrieve a charged power cell, and then a final escape.

All of the action is enhanced with eye-candy courtesy of the optional High Definition Pack. It's easy to forget that Half-Life was released three years ago, when the Quake 2 engine powered many popular titles. That same codebase is powering Blue Shift, but with the High Definition Pack in place, the graphics are updated to a state closer to what gamers have come to expect from today's 3D offerings. By increasing the size of the texture maps used, the designers are now able to move the levels of detail beyond 1998 standards. Some of the more dramatic graphical changes are evident in the lifelike models used for the scientists and security guards; the detail is such that you can even closely examine the badges on their shirts. All the weapons are the same as in the original product, but the weapon models, such as the assault rifle, have been redone to look and sound more powerful. Unfortunately, the update does not apply to other add-ons such as Team Fortress or Counter-Strike, which have already undergone face lifts of their own over time.
Graphics: One of the major incentives players may have to buy this title is the High Definition Pack. The Half-Life engine, which is based on the old Quake engine, supports OpenGL and Direct3D resolutions up to 1280x960 using 16-bit color. With the improved textures and higher polygon counts, Blue Shift and its brethren look good and run smoothly. Even PC owners without access to a 3D card will notice the difference with the update, which applies to the software mode as well. Surprisingly, the graphics update does not apply to the multiplayer modes that shipped with Half-Life and Opposing Force. It's possible that adding such textures might slow modem players to a crawl, but it would have been good to have the upgrade option for machines with fast Internet connections. A more significant graphical update, would have been for the designers to boost the graphics in Half-Life to the 32-bit color realm, seeing that practically every equivalent title on the market now supports that mode. Perhaps such a major addition to the aging engine was considered beyond the scope of this release, as it would have required a major overhaul of the game's textures to support a higher palette.
It is worth noting, however, that Blue Shift, while not on par with the graphics in Quake III Arena, is the best looking version of Half-Life to date. Typical Blue Shift scenes involve realistic-looking characters residing within dark, science lab corridors, vast underground canals, eerily lit passageways, and the bright outdoors. Everything has a soft, stylized look to it, despite the angular shininess of certain models and textures.

Interface: Sierra's installation procedure for Blue Shift is straightforward and easy, and installing the High-Definition Pack to update the graphics is a snap. Once installed, Blue Shift uses the same tried and true interface as Half-Life and Opposing Force -- allowing for full customization of controls, and a hidden console mode you can unlock from the command line. Players already familiar with the previous titles will find no problem jumping into Blue Shift. As a first-person shooter using Quake-style controls, it's just a matter of manipulating your environment using a combination of mouse and keyboard. There are very few changes to the game from its predecessors except for a few new title screens and a blue status display. The interface's different icons, weapon selections, and damage meters efficiently follow the standard set by the other releases.

Gameplay: The fact that Blue Shift is a standalone title that includes a previously released add-on should warn players that the new product cannot stand on its own. The campaign is extremely short, lasting around three to six hours, depending on your skill level. In that brief time, players will experience none of the depth and freshness of 1999's Opposing Force. While that campaign boasted new enemies, weapons, and interactive teammates, Blue Shift provides none of these, except for a few scientists with different shirts and facial hair. The High Definition Pack changes the look and sound of many of the weapons, but in the end, it's still the same guns and crowbar from the original.

While it's fun to take out hordes of enemies, it would have been even more so if your character, a simple security guard protected by only a kevlar vest and helmet, played more believably. Despite your basic protection, you can still take a ludicrous amount of damage before dying, only this time you can't power-charge your suit to recover shielding. Instead, you have to find a dead security guard and take his perfectly intact vest and helmet, hoping that it will protect you better that it did him. Strangely, there are very few moments when you can enlist the aid of your fellow security guards, and such an oversight feels out of character for the scenario. In the later levels, when you face off against entire military platoons, it seems unlikely that one security guard would have the same luck against them as Gordon Freeman in his powered suit or Adrian Shepard with his military training.

Multiplayer: Blue Shift doesn't ship with a native multiplayer mode, although it does include the deathmatch and CTF multiplayer options that come with Opposing Force.

Sound FX: The High Definition Pack includes an update for some of the sound effects. I specifically noticed a beefier shotgun blast and reload sound, as well as a new tone to the assault rifle. Aside from that, the sound effects and voice acting are standard fare. Some of the dialogue is new for the Blue Shift scenario, but the guards, scientists, and soldiers still utter the same repetitive lines. Plus, there's something about those sayings that I've been wanting to mention ever since Half-Life was first released: the voices have always sounded a bit fuzzy. Understandable, but I could usually tell that the dialogue had been heavily compressed within the game. Later first-person releases using voice acting have all sounded a bit cleaner. Like its predecessors, Blue Shift supports EAX and A3D audio, providing a good amount of reverb and directional sound when needed. An effective use of 3D audio for the aliens (especially those creepy headcrabs) makes the experience quite immersive with the correct speaker setup.

Musical Score: Blue Shift takes the same musical direction as Half-Life and Opposing Force, activating redbook audio tracks from the CD at certain times during gameplay. The music tracks are adequate at setting the right level of spooky ambiance and military intensity when needed, but much of it seems to be lifted straight from Opposing Force. I also noticed that the sound would skip for a few seconds leading up to a music cue while the CD-ROM warmed up. Most of the game is played without music, though, so the stuttering didn't happen too often.

Intelligence & Difficulty: Three years ago, Half-Life set the standard in enemy AI that future first-person-shooters have tried to match. One of the best examples to follow its lead is Fox Interactive's No One Lives Forever, which has enemies diving out of the way in a firefight, working together to find you, and chatting amongst themselves during slower periods. That said, the AI in Blue Shift is good, but not amazingly so. The aliens you fight are not that bright, and the marines are worthy adversaries but they don't actively track you with the same cunning as in past games. Noticeably absent in Blue Shift are the sinister Black Ops troops or any new alien enemies. For more of a challenge, there are three different difficulty settings, and the enemies are a bit harder to take down on the hardest setting.

The Half-Life series has prided itself on mixing raw action with a few thinking and physical puzzles, usually involving more than just finding keys to open locked doors. Blue Shift includes some puzzles, and a few of the "box and barrel" ones are tricky to figure out at first, but the campaign is too short for such challenges to have a large impact. Many players will find this scenario easier to beat than Opposing Force due to an abundance of ammunition and a relatively thin amount of opposition.

Overall: If you can't get enough single-player Half-Life action from the mod community on the Internet, want to freshen up Half-Life's appearance, or if you're just a bitter Dreamcast owner who still feels cheated over this game's cancellation, then Blue Shift is worth checking out. For everyone else, Gearbox's latest release is essentially a graphics enhancement pack bundled with a short single-player campaign and a title many have already played, all for around 20 dollars after rebate. Not necessarily a bad deal, and the few gamers who have yet to experience Half-Life may welcome this introduction to the genre. However, fans these days are more demanding for their gaming dollar, and Blue Shift leaves its players wishing for more.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

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