Half Life: Blue Shift

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.

Sorry Blue Shift, nostalgia was wrong about you.

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