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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Exploding Gracefully in Multiplayer Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

Thinking I had a decent grasp of the basics, I loaded up the game and headed over to the multiplayer lobby. After a short wait the matchmaking service drops me into an arena with a foe named Sinistro. He begins the match with some friendly chat, “So how many online games have you played?” Knowing that my newness to the game will be exhibited in how poorly I play, I tell him, “Including this one… One.” He responds with a greeting of welcome, capped off with a smiley face. I take the gesture of politeness to mean I won’t be destroyed instantly.

While it can be intimidating to play any game online against real people for the first time, real-time strategy (RTS) games have a reputation for being more intimidating than most. This is partly because the difference between victory and defeat in an online RTS match comes down to efficiency. Knowing what to do and when to do it are the keys to victory. There is little margin for error, and mistakes are punished. Despite all of this I decided Friday evening to play my first ever online match of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (DoK). The game’s developers were celebrating its one-year anniversary and broadcast an open invitation for people to come and play the game with them.

If you’re not familiar with it, DoK is a RTS game developed by Blackbird Interactive. It’s a ground-based prequel to 1999’s legendary space-bound Homeworld. The core elements of multiplayer matches are much like that of other RTS games, with a few special twists. Multiplayer consists of you and your army versus your opponent and their army. Each army has a “hero” unit called a carrier. The carrier houses resource processing, production facilities, and research labs. From it you construct new units and run your war campaign. Build an army and annihilate your enemy’s carrier to win the game. One of the fun twists of DoK is that games can also be won by what’s called artifact retrieval. On each map there are three central locations that house artifacts, glowing purple orbs of special significance that appear after a time limit is reached. If either player can retrieve five artifacts and transfer them to a designated extraction zone, that player wins the game. This is easier said than done since there’s only one type of unit, a Baserunner, that can pick up an artifact and carry it to the extraction zone. Baserunners are slow and fragile, and don’t offer any significant offensive or defensive capabilities. It takes skill and cunning to retrieve artifacts, but it can be done. To me, the thing that sets DoK apart from other games is its smaller-scale battles and highly strategic gameplay.

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My home base is at the bottom in blue, my enemy up top in red. The artifacts are the three blue icons in a row across the center of the map. The two extraction zones are the right and left sides of the map.

Thinking I had a decent grasp of the basics, I loaded up the game and headed over to the multiplayer lobby. After a short wait the matchmaking service drops me into an arena with a foe named Sinistro. He begins the match with some friendly chat, “So how many online games have you played?” Knowing that my newness to the game will be exhibited in how well poorly I play, I tell him, “Including this one… One.” He responds with a greeting of welcome, capped off with a smiley face. I take the gesture of politeness to mean I won’t be destroyed instantly. Knowing that it’s my first online game ever, my opponent chats to check in on me a few minutes into our match. “Have you expanded yet?,” he asks. Expanded? Expanded what? I respond to confirm my ignorance, fully embracing the fact that I have no clue what I’m doing. Graciously, my opponent relays concise instructions about how to expand my resource gathering operation. More resources means I can build more units, and more units means I may be able to put up a fight. That makes sense. I do what he says. For the next couple of minutes I make a few groups of units and send them around the map to do their thing. None of them return to base. Each of them destroyed by my well-prepared adversary. For each mistake I make, Sinistro shares tips about how to do things better next time. He even lets me steal an artifact and blow up a few of his units so my pride has a chance to recover. But like the helpless mouse being played with by a hungry cat, I know my demise is coming. My expanded resourcing operation radios in a distress call, “Enemy units spotted!” I pan the camera over to it and see three dozen enemy land and air units pop into the edge of my sensor range. Explosions burst from every direction and my resourcing operation is laid to waste. Ninety seconds later my carrier explodes in a flash of white light, transformed into a smoldering pile of rubble. Game over.

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See all of those ships with the red bars above them? Enemies! See the big ship with a giant explosion coming out of it? That’s mine… It’s not in good shape.

So went my introduction to the world of online play in DoK. My first match ever lasted twenty-three minutes and fifty seconds, though my opponent could have easily laid waste to me in half that time. Many thanks for Sinistro to being a class act and showing me the ropes!

My second and third matches of online DoK went much better than the first. I was able to play in team matches with employees from both Blackbird Interactive and Gearbox Software, as well as other gamers in the community. I blew up some enemy units. I recovered some artifacts. I didn’t die instantly. It was a good night. While my experience confirmed to me that the game is a blast to play, the bigger impression was left by the helpful and friendly community. They’re enthusiastic about a great game and very welcoming towards newcomers. Check out the links below if you’d like to check things out for yourself. If you’re looking for a smaller-scale RTS game to play online against some friendly folks, DoK might be the game for you.

NOTE: DoK has an excellent single-player campaign that shouldn’t be missed. I’ll be writing a feature about that sometime in the near future. 

Where to buy:

Steam – $49.99

Community Involvement:

Deserts of Kharak Subreddit

Unofficial Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak Discord

Screenshot Mini-Gallery