I’d like to start off this review with a disclaimer. A disclaimer something to the effect of “Note: I’m writing this review in a state of utter exhaustion bordering on the comatose. This state, brought on not by Blue Shift, which in fact took very little time to play, but by a neighborhood bonfire and a bottle of tequila, and culminating in strange women doing cartwheels on my lawn at midnight.” It’s not easy being me sometimes, but the dental plan is pretty good. Having gotten that out of the way, on with the review of Blue Shift.
Garrison Keiller once wrote that you can never go home again. How is it then, that I keep finding myself wandering the halls of the Black Mesa laboratories, a place that I have come to know better than my own place of employment? Because Half-Life is so damned addictive, that’s how. I have always been of the belief that Half-Life was written specifically for me, about me. A PhD physicist, working in the basement of a top secret government facility, taking an elaborate tramway system deep into the earth past pools of radioactive liquids and guys tinkering with nuclear weapons, only to have shoddy equipment turn a chunk of alien matter into a gateway through which pour alien hordes bent on taking over earth. Oh yeah, that’s my life in a nutshell. That, and the women doing cartwheels on my lawn. Sufficed to say that I loved Half-Life, from the first crab critter to that last creepy baby thing and all that lay in between. I think Valve was the first to seamlessly weave the 1st person shooter with scripted events to near perfection.
Opposing Force came out quickly after Half-Life, and Gearbox was wise to strike while the iron was hot. The graphics engine looked only a little dated in the second go around, and the story of Adrian, a soldier cut off from his squad while infiltrating Black Mesa, was an interesting compliment to Gordon Freeman’s story of a guy who only wanted to get out of Black Mesa. I ate up Opposing Force in a few marathon sessions over just a couple of days, was only a little disappointed that its end creature was less cool than the creepy baby, and then sat back and waited for Half-Life 2 to come out, figuring it would be something about what happened to Gordon after the events of Black Mesa.
So where did Blue Shift come from? I can’t tell you where Blue Shift came from, but I can tell you where it’s going – the bargain bin. This third go round (or rather down) into the bowels of Black Mesa might as well be entitled ‘Half-Life - The Quest for More Money,’ encompassing only Opposing Force, which 99% of Half-Life fans already own, and a single player game which takes less than four hours to complete (and that’s probably only if you’re just putzing around in the levels like I was). A dedicated 1st person shooter pro really working at chewing these levels up could be finished in far less time.
You play Barney Calhoun, one of the guards at the Black Mesa Laboratory (actually, not just any guard, but the one that appeared pounding on the door during the intro movie to the first Halflife – working that little twist in might be the most clever thing about Blue Shift). In humorous contrast to Gordon’s PhD, you never even completed college. Gearbox is apparently pioneering the genre of blue-collar 1st person shooter. Anyway, you’re just minding your business and doing your job when Gordon rips the hole in space and time, totally ruining your day, and sending you on what, to Half-Life players at least, will be an amble through what has become familiar territory – the access tunnels, sewerage system, and labs of Black Mesa (and a small piece of Xen near the end). The whole Half-Life formula is there; the usual aliens, the murderous soldiers, other guards, scientists, and that guy with the briefcase. Scripted sequences are again used to advance the plot, in this case the rescue of a scientist who can help you build a transporter to hopefully escape from Black Mesa.
The graphics look almost unchanged from Half-Life; just little tweaks to some of the weaponry. Admittedly maybe it is almost time to put the Half-Life engine to rest, given that we’re now surrounded by 1st person shooters using vastly superior engines (Deus Ex and Elite Force to name a couple), but it doesn’t detract from the game considerably. Ditto the sound effects. I would have liked to see some improvement to the soldier AI from previous encounters, but alas this did not happen. Soldiers will still run blindly into just about any kill zone you would care to create for them, even yelling “RECON!” or “MOVE IN!” before coming at you so that you can be sure to have your finger on the trigger. More unfortunate still because I’m pretty sure I killed far more soldiers than aliens in this adventure, though I didn’t take a head count or anything to verify that.
There’s really nothing intrinsically wrong with Blue Shift; it’s more Half-Life killin’ fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that formula. The thing that ultimately forces me to give it a low rating is how damnably short it is – the game ending just as you are starting to get involved in the plot. It should in fact have been downloadable from Gearbox for nothing as a gift to people who purchased Half-Life, and it galls me a little that they are trying to sell such a mini-adventure as a full game. Certainly there are fan levels that can be downloaded for free out there that have as much if not more of a plot and overall playtime than Blue Shift possesses. And what there is of it is very easy. Baddies never killed me, not even once, and I’m not some badass 1st person shooter player, but rather just some guy who dabbles in them once in awhile. Almost all my deaths came from misjudging or mistiming jumps, and once I got ground up in the gears of a sewer processing plant that I was pretty sure I could time my way through, but turned out couldn’t. Finally, not to spoil the ending, there’s no end monster at all – just an ending.
And so I return to my vigil waiting for Half-Life 2 to come out, but now that the likes of Blue Shift has reared its ugly head, I’m not sure I want to see what Valve or Gearbox will do for an encore. In fact, generous guy that I am, I’m going to give them their next plotline right now, gratis. The game will be called Half-Life – Clean Sweep. You’ll play a janitor at Black Mesa, who is working in the basement when the catastrophe strikes. On your way to the surface, you run across aliens and soldiers, all of whom want you dead, and in the end defeat some alien boss using a mop. A mysterious guy with a briefcase appears and offers you a job cleaning his summer home for all eternity, the alternative being death. A short movie then shows you vacuuming near the couch in a room with a big screen TV. Gordon is slumped down on the couch watching the TV, and as you go by you ask him to move his feet, which he grudgingly does. Roll credits.