A Blast from the Past review
A teary-eyed FBT returns to one of his favourite games. Crowbars at the ready.
Half-Life re-established my game love after years of samey gaming caused me to turn away from my faith and venture outside. I remember the world of HL1 being perfect; isolated and pressurised, facing creatures that were nightmarish without falling into cheap shlock-horror, you were escaping a disaster not causing one. And it was all wrapped up in a story you could dig into or ignore because there were no cut-scenes, it all just happened around you. I remember it petering out once we reached Xen, and final bosses betrayed HL’s Doom roots but otherwise it was brilliant, and it turned FPS into an adventure, an experience. I've not been outside since.
It even had good value Add-Ons, back when they weren't money-grubbing wastes of time like hour-long b-side distractions, Horse Armour or weapons you instantly outgrew - and they weren't already built into the game, just waiting for a code to unlock. They were real. The first, Opposing Force with its hero Shephard was almost as good as HL, and Blue Shift, where we played Barney the security guard was a welcome if short return. There was also Half-Life Decay, a co-op for the PSOne; I loved Half-Life so much I bought it and forced a PS-owning pal to play it with me, even though he had no idea what was going on and got shushed every time he asked. It wasn’t great, but it was Half-Life, it was home.
It’s incredible that Half-Life sprung from a nothing company founded by Gabe Newell, an ex-Microsoft employee who cut his developer teeth making Doom Windows-friendly. At the time, shooters were owned by id. But Valve pulled it off; while id kept remaking Doom with better graphics, Valve evolved FPS, set a new (crow)bar for shooters to reach for. In the same way Die Hard and Lethal Weapon made Cobra and Commando pompous and unrealistic, Half-Life blew away the Doom Clones that had squandered what id invented and paved the way for immersive, relatable shooters. We weren’t Doomguy or Duke in HL, we were a science geek, an everyman which led to damaged heroes like Max Payne and complex experiences like FEAR. A new era began with Half-Life; FPS was now an art-form, not a shooting gallery.
Could Valve do no wrong? Yes, yes they could. Just look at Half Life 3. Valve can pretend Half-Life never happened but I’ve been waiting patiently. Until now; it’s been so long I’ve started wondering; is Half-Life really as influential as I’ve always argued? Has it aged into insignificance, maybe even its impact overstated? 2018 is the 20th anniversary of Half-Life, time for a reunion at Black Mesa.
Still a Blast?
I’d forgotten how long the opening scene is. I loved the fact that HL had no cutscenes, but this commute through Black Mesa, the Area51-a-like base our hero, theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman works at is a drag. But at the same time I kinda like it. I’m impatient to get me a crowbar but it sets the scene, lets you realise how big this place is, how isolated I am, what we have to escape once everything goes south.
It doesn’t look too bad either. I originally loaded up Half Life:Source, a rebuild on the HL2 engine but while the water looks a bit better, the edges a bit more refined, it’s a pointless do-over that just makes Black Mesa more Murky Mesa. I reload the original. This is more like it. Weird that I’d prefer the blockier version, but this is the HL I remember, and you can see that under the hood is id’s Quake engine. The irony. This feels classic.
So, after wandering the base and getting told off for being late, I’m off to go trigger the "resonance cascade" that opens portals everywhere and collapses the base; time to get busy with the crowbar. Of course, that’s after I get the infamous HEV suit. Although we never see Freeman in-game, the suit looks like an Orange wetsuit/spacesuit and provides him with shields, and an audio monitoring system that scolds you for taking hits. It’s a nice little logic nod, telling Freeman he’s being injected with morphine after falling off a ledge and losing half-his-life. The music also kicks in when Freeman puts the suit on. Guess it comes with an MP3 player too.
I find two of four scientists that populate the base. There’s only a couple of NCP designs but it’s not distracting and they have nice little personalities and reactions to what’s going on, ranging from terror to over-analysing. One has a nice line in shrieking. They can provide health boosts and open doors and distract the bloody headcrabs. You also encounter Security guards who will shoot alongside you – since there’s no moral choices or XP to be had, Freeman may have on occasion clobbered security guards for their bullets once we’ve reached a spot they can’t follow. Who’s gonna know? One person who might witness my severe survival instinct is the G-Man. You spot him at various times, and he even helps on occasion, but usually he just watches what you’re up then adjusts his tie and walks into a portal. He has an X-Files’ Smoking Man meets Men in Black vibe to him and I’d forgotten how often he pops up, if you spot him.
Anyways, we have more to worry about than distant stalkers; making our way through the crumbling Black Mesa lab is a lot more subtle and ingenious than I remembered. Tasked with reaching the surface and getting help for the hundreds of four scientists trapped inside, Freeman doesn’t spend all his time shooting. Maybe a quarter of HL is exploring and figuring out puzzles. Yet it’s not boring, it doesn’t feel like padding. It feels realistic, like Gordon’s finding his way not just clearing a path with a rocket-launcher. Had it been a Doom-style shoot-a-thon I don’t think HL would have had half the impact; it’s more a disaster-movie struggle to reach the surface and the obstructions don’t feel contrived or deliberate. Of course, this wouldn’t be a shooter without some shootable obstructions.
The Headcrabs, which became something of a mascot for the series, are even more annoying that I remember. Their scratchy cry as they launch at you, hoping to eat your brain and control your body is more of an annoyance than a scare, while the crabbed scientists stumble toward you like classic era zombies - their muffled screams stay with you as their bodies change and alter, turning into something horrible. HL isn’t a horror game though; the soldiers of Xen, later known as Vortigaunts are fast and nasty, but their lolloping run looks like a silent movie star sneaking up on someone - scares isn’t HL’s gig, it’s more about the sheer scale of the event and escaping it. Something can kill you at any moment, but it’s always logical, fair; if Freeman dies, it’s because you weren’t smart enough, didn’t consider that a radioactive spot is favoured by the Bullsquids with their sniper-accurate acid-spitting, or water is where the Barnacles hang out to grab you as you pass by. Later creatures such as the Alien Grunt do feel more Quake-like, but the game’s AI holds up quite well alongside some great scripting to create movie-like moments of them jumping through windows and breaking down doors. It really is a thinking-man’s shooter rather than a reactionary one.
The weapons are also something to think about. While there’s Doom-based pistol, shotgun, machinegun standards, we also get a cross-bow which is as slow as it is incredibly powerful, a revolver and a couple of Black Mesa prototypes to muck about with, as well as some Alien tech and some explosives. While we have a lot of choice, it takes some working out to figure what kills what quickest, and many of them are also used by enemies; Gordon never has the upper hand, there’s no BFG in sight.
As we get closer to the surface, away from the portals, the aliens give way to a Marines unit, sent down to contain the outbreak. And, it turns out, us. They add a more typical shooter element, but they are a refreshing change from the stumbling zombies and galloping Vortigaunts and as the invaders catch up, they and the marines take each other out too and Gordon gets caught in their skirmishes, choosing whether to skirt around or get stuck in. It still all makes sense though (How many times in a shooter do you stop to wonder how the hell an enemy NCP got there or knew you were coming?) Outmatched, the Marines start to pull out, and those stranded get picked off not just by the Xen creatures, but Black Ops who have infiltrated to ensure what happens in Black Mesa stays in Black Mesa. Best get out of Black Mesa then.
Next stop Xen - after passing through Mesa’s dirty little secret; test subjects of Xen creatures, confirming this isn’t our first encounter. Making sure this is our last encounter, something on the other side is holding the portals open and guess who’s the only guy in a HEV suit capable of surviving Xen? I kinda wish I wasn’t. Not out of fear about what I’ll find but wondering if the memory of finding Xen a let-down is still accurate. It kinda is. There’s just something a little more generic about the Xen world and it's bare look shows the engine's age and basic rendering. It's imaginitive but vacant. Most of the same Xen creatures are knocking about, along with new annoyances like trees that spike you, and the infuriating mini-boss Gonarch, a huge headcrab. After all the careful narrative, reducing HL to a Quake-like alien world and boss battles just stumbles HL a little, while the platforming puzzles seem contrived. I’d forgotten all about the final boss, Nihilanth, a weird giant baby and a bullet-sucking annoyance. Although Xen is still a stumble, its fun and G-Man's final scene is straight out of The Outer Limits. I’m proud to have saved the world. Geeks rule!
Half-Life is still one of the best shooters of all time - even more so those days, given how samey and CoD-clone FPS has got. I’d also not appreciated just how ‘normal’ Freeman was. He’s late at the beginning, implying he’s just a regular joe, dragging his heels to work. He’s dismissed by most of the scientists and given grunt work. In fact, he seems pallier with the security guards than his peers. But as he progresses, Gordon becomes respected and admired by the scientists. He did nothing sciencey to deserve their adulation, but still, it’s nice that Gordon gains their respect by the time he jumps into Xen, and it’s one of many, many ways that Half-Life is pure class.
After this, the series could have gone off in any direction, but instead Valve had then-new developers Gearbox cook up the same experience but from different perspectives. I remember liking that in the first Add-On, Opposing Force we were the bad guy. Corporal Adrian Shephard, reporting for duty. Sent as part of the force tasked with putting down the invasion, Shep’s air carrier is shot down by a passing Xen bomber thingie. This means Shep never gets the order to kill Freeman. Hey, I’m a good guy again. Playing now, it would have been more fun for the focus to be kill all the scientists and not forget about Freeman, make all about stopping him but instead it quickly falls into Half-Life lite territory, finding a way to escape the base but there’s a few things keep your attention. Four, to be exact.
Although scientists will (rather naively) help Shep, the real MVP NCPs of HL:OP are the other marines lost or cut off from their units. None of them seem concerned about Freeman either, so they merrily follow Shep looking for a way out. They have a great way about them, kinda like the Colonial Marines of Aliens (maybe not mention Colonial Marines and Gearbox together), switching between Hooah machismo and ‘its game over man!’ panic attacks. There’s standard grunts, a medic, and an engineer who lights his Oxy-cutter with his cigarette. They can die, and do often, but rather than get replaced by magically dropping from the sky, new troopers must be found or freed so Shep does still spend time on his own. It’s fun to try to get through with all the soldiers intact, and disheartening to see one of the vets down or hobbling after a firefight. Noooo he was one day away from retirement.
Whittling down my dirty quarter-dozen is stalwarts the Vorts, Headcrabs and Zombies, but also the Black Ops we saw briefly in HL. Whereas in HL they were backflipping female ninjas, most of OP’s opposing force is male, who aren’t as agile as the females, but are still sneaky little so-and-so’s and tougher than the marines. They intend to explode a nuclear device to seal Mesa and its secrets, so that becomes Shep’s priority, since it’ll explode before he can reach topside.
It’s not just the Black-ops and Xens we have to contend with though. There’s also ‘Race X’, random aliens that used the portals to invade. Those creatures are more aggressive than the Xen lot; large electric-bolt firing grunts, small scrappy little drones that fire darts and rip you to pieces, and the ‘Voltigore’, an elephant-sized pain that inhabits a dark tunnel system Shep has to navigate, and appears in a mini anti-petting zoo he works his way through.
OP does little to expand the HL story, although Shep’s diary implies the whole event was planned by the G-Man; it’s much more of a pure shooter and does suffer for it. When I first played it, I was happy to be back in the HL world, but now it feels like filler, especially with the no-mark Race X creatures. Least there’s no Xen to speak of though, only a brief detour. But, it is true to HL, there’s some nice locations and set-pieces, and we get a brief glimpse of Gordon as he departs for Xen. I tried to stop him but just created a temporal paradox. I’d rather that than be in Xen to be honest.
Despite being a Half-Life lite, OP is a solid little game. The grunts are fun to kick around with, the Black-Ops a worthy foe and the progress through the base is never boring. Shep has even more weaponry to play with, including a sort-of Portal gun that’ll transport him about, occasionally with unforeseen consequences and we get a sniper rifle; Shep also decides to carry around a Barnacle to reach areas and objects, lets a shock-firing parasite attach itself to him and adopts a tadpole creature, which purrs at him when he strokes it and fires explosive oranges. Shep is weird. G-Man takes a liking to him though and he’s been a fan fave ever since, despite never actually accomplishing anything – he saves no one and Black Mesa still explodes at the end.
The second Add-On, Blue Shift was slated on release, offering nothing new and being too short to enjoy what it did have. That is true, it’s practically a demo-sized game centred around Barney, a security guard and drinking buddy of Freeman. Barney does fight his way through the same Xen creatures and marines in Black Mesa yet again and it is all starting to feel a bit repetitive.
I enjoyed it at the time, and having replayed, still have a guilty love for it. Barney’s mission feels more personal – let’s get the hell out of here. It’s his job to do the grunt work for a couple of scientists trying to reactivate a prototype transporter that’ll get them to the surface. It just works for a bunch of nerds and a bloke on minimum wage with a clip-on tie.
There’s not much to say about Blue Shift’s FPS experience that’s not already covered by HL and OP. It’s the same but with a blue arm instead. Oddly though, I enjoyed Barney’s brief trip to Xen, where he does something science-related to activate the transporter - it’s a surprisingly enjoyable, tense run-through instead of Freeman’s overstay. The rest of it is familiar and there’s not much in the way of standouts, but I liked Blue Shift; most of the time we’re just running errands for the scientists and I’m okay with that. It’s an alternative take on the event, shows that the scientists and security guards weren’t all helpless or hopeless, and given Barney is a key player in Half-Life 2, it’s nice to see where his heroics and closeness to the scientists comes from. In some ways I preferred it to OP; it’s less typical of FPS to be playing the support act rather than the hero.