HL: Redeeming Features

by Tom Ingram


They need someone to go through to Xen. Xen was an ill-advised move in Half-Life, but it was a new game. You can forgive the mistake because without the benefit of hindsight, it might not look so bad. But by the time Blue Shift was in development, the reviews from the first game had come in. Valve knew that the Xen thing hadn’t gone over well. Why, then, would they do it again?

I really can’t say. Blue Shift is the weakest game in the series, and the Xen levels are the weakest points of the games they’re in. So this next section is some of the worst gameplay Valve ever developed. The teleporter can only go between Xen and Earth, not to other places on Earth. In order to escape, then, I need to set up some equipment on Xen that will let them bounce us back to a different point on Earth. The scientists teleport me in, and I travel through a series of nondescript caverns to an abandoned camp.

A yellow crystal is sitting at the middle of the plateau where the camp has been set up. There’s machinery around it, connected by wires to a power generator and a control console. A couple of dead HEV-suited explorers are lying about, and they had a lab set up in a nearby cave with health and supplies. Turning on the machinery is just a matter of flipping switches, and then part of the cave collapses, allowing me an exit. Dr. Rosenberg has opened a portal nearby, and I can hear him talking through it. I jump in and come back to the lab.

Everything is ready to go for the escape, but their generator died. Rosenberg sends me down to the lower level to charge a new one and send it up. Can you say padding, folks? I take the elevator down and find a bullsquid prodding at a scientist’s body. I kill it and take the fresh armour that’s lying nearby. From some bad decisions made on Xen, my health is low, and I need all the help I can get.

I hear voices and rattling behind a sealed door, and someone begins cutting through it with a welding torch. I get a grenade ready, knowing that I have no chance in an extended firefight, and take cover around a corner. The door falls and I toss my grenade. The fight sequence that follows manages to muster up something like tension. I can’t afford to be aggressive, which means I need to wait for the soldiers to make their move.

I know intellectually that their hesitance is due to low-quality 90s AI, but it feels like they’re toying with me, causing a distraction while someone circles around and gets me from behind. The striking quality of this section has as much to do with my 1% health as it does with skilled design, but it proves Valve’s ability as a studio: even when they screw up and put out a piece of trash, it’s always got something going for it. Like the Coen brothers of gaming.

After an intense stealth fight, I find a health machine, which bumps me up to a more reasonable level. When I can afford to be incautious, some of the fun wears off, but this final section is well-designed enough to hold my interest to the end. I find a door wired up with explosives connected to a plunger. There’s a break in the wire, and in order to get the system to work I have to push a barrel so it completes the circuit. This strikes me as a really awful puzzle. While it might work in real life (what’s the resistance of a steel barrel?), it awkwardly highlights the fact that the Half-Life characters can’t do something as simple as pick up two pieces of wire and connect them. It jars you out of immersion, reminding you that you’re a disembodied pair of hands with a gun. And the pushing controls in Half-Life are terrible. This is not an example of Valve playing to their strengths.

The door leads me to a control room overlooking the coolant basin, with a couple of barrels floating uselessly in it. It looks like there used to be a bridge all the way across, but the whole middle section of it is missing in action. I turn the crank to drain the basin and go out to investigate. After a couple of laps through the circuit (the only way out of the coolant basin is an elevator that leads back to the control room), I realize I’m supposed to push the barrels to form a bridge and then refill the basin.

There is probably a lesson to be learned here, related to a point I’ve made earlier in the series: unless a game is like Metroid Prime, which sends you through the same levels several times, constantly discovering new areas, there is strong inertia against turning back. We intuitively understand levels as linear, and if you want us to go from point B back to point A, you should probably provide an alternate path there (as Valve does in many cases). Ideally, one that wasn’t accessible the first time you passed A. Likewise, unless it’s obviously not the case, I think we tend to assume that switches, toggles, and valves are single-use fixtures. This may not be universal, but the solution to this puzzle seemed unintuitive to me because I assumed you could not refill the basin.

Across the basin, I switch the power back on, charge the generator, and send it up. I return to the elevator via an alternate path (one that wasn’t accessible before—I told you Valve likes that device) and start teleporting the scientists out in an ending that is about as interesting as it sounds. I’m the last one through the portal just as the soldiers begin to storm the lab, and I flicker between Earth and Xen during the teleportation—at one point ending up in a room overlooking Gordon’s capture in the first game’s chapter “Apprehension”. Finally, I solidify as the scientists open the gate and pile into an SUV, and we escape. The game ends with these ominous words on the screen:

This is the end of Blue Shift. I don’t know if you’d noticed, but I didn’t even try to go chapter-by-chapter as I did with the first game. There’s simply not enough substance to make a real series of critical articles as I did with Half-Life, and when there is something to latch onto it’s usually a flaw. It was no better than an average throwaway shooter from its time, but it’s still not wholly without redeeming features. The opening sequence is pretty good, there are a few visually striking setpieces, and the section at the end (which was probably added to pad out the game) actually comes close to the gameplay standard of Half-Life. Blue Shift is no worse than mediocre, which is why there is so little to say about it.

This was a brief jump out of chronological order of release, because I wanted to get through this stub of a game quickly and move on to the more interesting Opposing Force. The series will resume there next time.

Next: All the Difference.