Released two years after Half Life had a seismic impact on the state of story-driven video games, and one year after Opposing Force earned the label “best expansion pack ever”, Blue Shift entered the scene to high expectations.
For the past 19 years, Blue Shift had been cemented in my mind as my favorite Half Life experience. Playing it again today, I’m not quite sure why that is. Released two years after Half Life had a seismic impact on the state of story-driven video games, and one year after Opposing Force earned the label “best expansion pack ever”, Blue Shift entered the scene to high expectations.
The game puts you in the shoes of Barney Calhoun on the day everything went wrong in the Black Mesa research facility. Honestly, there’s not much to Blue Shift. Barney’s story is pretty simplistic: Trapped in Black Mesa, he sets out to find a group of scientists who are devising a means to escape the facility via a short range teleporter. The game doesn’t have the sense of discovery that Half Life did, nor does it turn the narrative on its side like Opposing Force. It’s the tale of a guy who had a bad day at work and wants to go home.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple; it’s just that the game is too simple when compared to its companions. The most interesting bit happens when scientists send Barney to the netherworld of Xen to re-calibrate their teleporter. The location feels suitably alien, with the only recognizable bits being pieces of scientific equipment placed there before you.
Ironically enough, the extended time spent in Xen illustrates why the location is so difficult to pull off: it’s a world without context. The Half Life franchise is built on creating a relatable world that’s been obviously turned on its side by a sinister alien presence. The player knows how to feel since so much of it is familiar. Xen, on the other hand, is a world you can’t relate to. Monsters stand around and wait to attack you, much like they do on Earth. If there’s a structure or an order to their world, it’s not communicated beyond basic gameplay tropes. Jump on that round thing to get launched in the air. Stand in this puddle to gain health. Don’t fall off the ledge into oblivion. It almost feels like switching from a stroll down your hometown’s main street to an abstract level from Super Mario Brothers; From reality to abstract.
Maybe that’s the point. Maybe Xen is supposed to conjure up existential ruminations? Perhaps the goal is to make the player question what “natural order” is supposed to be? Or maybe it’s just supposed to be a “weird” level in a video game. My money is on the latter option.
Whatever the goal, Blue Shift doesn’t give you much time to ponder these questions. Taking it slowly, you’ll be lucky if the game lasts you more than two and a half hours. I just completed the game and I struggle to recollect most of it; it’s that forgettable. If you’re in the mood for an extra dose of Half Life and need it to be different from the original game, play Opposing Force.
Fallen Order is one of the best Star Wars video games to have ever been released. It hits a lot of the high notes required to make a Star Wars game a compelling and memorable experience. It’s concrete proof that developers need to make expansive single player games in the Star Wars universe.
Fallen Order is one of the best Star Wars video games to have ever been released. It hits a lot of the high notes required to make a Star Wars game a compelling and memorable experience. It’s concrete proof that developers need to make expansive single player games in the Star Wars universe. And yet, on the backside of spending 35 hours to complete the game to 100% the experience feels a little empty.
Fallen Order has a pretty great first hour. It’s set a few years after the end of the Clone Wars. Cal Kestis is a former Jedi, now existing as a scavenger who makes a living by dismantling old warships on a backwater planet. He makes the somewhat predictable good-guy mistake of using his Jedi powers to save a friend’s life. The evil authorities inevitably find out, kicking off the pursuit of our ginger-headed hero. He meets a few allies along the way and eventually begins a quest to rediscover his Jedi roots and restore balance to the galaxy.
Though the game’s marketing campaigns sell it as an action / combat game, Fallen order is an adventure game at heart. You are given a quest and means to pursue it. It’s up to you to follow the clues and unlock the secrets. The core gameplay loop is a good one. Begin the leg of a quest by picking a planet from the holomap on your spaceship. Travel there, ascertain the situation, and then explore the lay of the land.
Each planet holds some secret, a clue that Cal needs to uncover in order to accomplish his quest. After landing, he’ll have to scout out the area and discover the best way to progress. And these areas are huge. Zeffo, in particular, took at least ten hours to explore between the two mandatory story visits. A lot of time is spent on simple but engaging traversal. Navigating these huge levels reminded me a lot of Tomb Raider. Discovering where to go and how to get there is a part of the puzzle.
Most of the time, there’s an obvious path to take. Frequently, you’ll observe a ledge or a crate that’s just out of reach; waiting for you to learn some Jedi power before you have the means to access it. The game handles these barriers to progression fairly well. Impassable environmental obstacles glow a dull red. I appreciate the game’s respect for my time by letting me know there’s no point trying to overcome those obstacles yet. Done poorly, placing such obvious restrictions can seem like a cheap way to pad the length of the game by forcing you to come back later. Thankfully, Fallen Order has such masterful level design that the placement of obstacles and progressing through them felt natural.
Environmental design is spot-on, and even spending hours unraveling a puzzle maze of a tomb built by a long-extinct force-sensitive race is a bit of fun. It says a lot about a game that jumping, climbing, and force-pushing giant spheres can be just as engaging as mowing down dozens of stormtroopers with a laser sword. There were only two instances where I had to seek internet assistance to solve a puzzle, and those were both due to my inability to recognize clues the game had telegraphed.
It’s these quiet moments that make Fallen Order feel like a Jedi experience. It’s not only about proficiency with a lightsaber, it’s about discovery. Discovery of yourself and the universe around you.
That’s not to say that slicing living beings with a lightsaber isn’t fun. On the contrary, it’s an experience that generates great joy! The style of combat presented in Fallen Order is a pleasant combination of the heavy swinging from the Original Trilogy and the fast aerial battles of the prequels.
Entering an area with enemy combatants, you’ll have to take inventory and identify the biggest threats and how to sequence your attacks. A single rocket trooper may not be a big threat, but if you get thrown off balance by a rocket it will open you up to attacks by other foes. Even meager stormtroopers can cause havoc when engaged against two or more pike-wielding biker troopers. Combat poses a fun challenge until late in the game, when it’s just plain fun.
As great as the combat is, there are many moments when I have to stop and wonder how Jedi-like it is to travel to planets and stab everything with my laser sword. If it moves, you can – and are probably supposed to – kill it. The focus on combat is such that there’s no real question about whether or not attacking is the right thing to do Placing such a singular response on non-character beings is something that holds the game’s storytelling back. Some of the greatest narratives in Star Wars games gave players a choice about how to respond to the characters around them.
There are tons of story and world-building details scattered all throughout Fallen Order. Most of them are presented as force echoes that Cal must sense with his powers or environmental details to be scanned by BD-1. When observed, these details are presented as a line or two of text that hangs onscreen for a moment, forcing you to open the menu to read the full entries. I understand why Respawn did it this way; no need to force reading on people who’d rather not. However, by relegating so many of the details to a menu people may not look at, the end result is that a lot of the games locations don’t feel as fleshed out and alive as they could have.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time going over the story here, because that’s something best left experienced firsthand. What I will say is that it’s told exceptionally well, and fantastic character writing makes the story more impactful than you might have expected. Even Cal, who has garnered a mixed reaction from critics and some fans, resonated with me more than I expected he would. I love the guy!
Think of it this way: Cal is a guy who has been training since childhood to do one thing – be a Jedi. In the middle of that, Emperor Palpatine comes to power and your way of life gets Order 66ed. Everyone you knew or cared about is murdered, and you’re next if anyone discovers the truth about you. Through a series of events, you have an opportunity to step up and set in motion a way to redeem your life’s purpose.
Cal’s quest is immediately relatable, and his supporting cast of Cere, Greez, BD-1, and particularly Merrin help to sell the adventure. I sincerely hope that we haven’t seen the last of this crew. But seriously, go play the game for the story or watch it on YouTube; it’s worth experiencing.
So where do I get that aforementioned feeling of emptiness from Fallen Order? I think the problem is that when the story ends, the game doesn’t. After the last set of set piece confrontations ends, you’re dumped back on the ship with the opportunity to go and discover all the secrets you missed during the course of the story. That’s a blessing and a curse.
Being able to go back to these empty planets after completing the main story, to me, only served to dilute the adventure I’d just experienced. Kashyyyk was no longer the battleground between the Empire and the Wookiee nation, it was this vast open jungle where I was scouring every corner looking for a blue force echo to sense. That, or I was swimming through murky water to find a crate at the bottom of a lake. It probably took me at least 2-3 hours after completing the game to travel to all the planets and uncover the things I’d missed – or been unable to access during the story.
Those few hours of running through empty worlds effectively distanced me from the adventure I’d just had. Instead of ruminating on the force, dark encounters, and epic duels, I’m left thinking about where in the heck on Dathomir that one crate is.
And that’s where I’m at. If Fallen Order had simply ended after the last epic encounter, I think I would feel much happier with it. Spending just those few hours in the empty world caused me to feel so distant from the vibrancy those worlds exhibited during the story.
If you love Star Wars, hacking things with lightsabers, exploring massive areas a la Tomb Raider, and great stories; please, play the game! Just maybe don’t worry about completing it to 100%.