Thursday, 27 November 2014

Half-Life: Uplink (Demo) (PC)

Half-Life Uplink title screen
That's a nice effect, but if you stare at the 'H A L F - L I F E' text bouncing from left and right in the background long enough it starts looking kinda dopey. It's so weird seeing the original, un-Steamed title screen again though after all these years.

Hello and welcome to Super Adventures in Gaming, the site that just can't stop putting up articles about Half-Life. My friend mecha-neko wrote up his opinions on the authentic original version of Half-Life a couple of years back, and then I took a look at the fan made remake Black Mesa a few months later, but there's Half-Life content that neither of us have looked at yet... like Opposing Force, Blue Shift, Decay...

But there's also Half-Life: Uplink, a demo released in early 1999 featuring a modified version of levels cut from the actual game, which happens to be the first Half-Life content I ever played. It's also the first Valve developed content I ever played, which is fitting because today is the 10th anniversary of my Steam account!

Don't bother looking for Uplink on Steam though, it isn't there (though you can apparently download it as a mod for Half-Life).

(Click the screenshots to expand them into dimensions unimagined by gamers in 1998... except not really, as 1280x960 was already in the resolution list for me to choose from.)

Oh by the way, did you know that Half-Life was PC Gamer's Game of the Year 1998? Well okay you probably have an idea seeing as there's a badge right there on the title screen, but did you know that it was literally figuratively every other magazine's Game of the Year too?

Well I did! Because I had to sit through a minute long list of them before I could even get to the main menu. I pressed every key, clicked every mouse button, but it didn't help! I've sped it up massively here, but the actual video lasts so long that I actually got to hear the rest of that Valve theme that plays whenever the valve-eye bloke shows up at the start of their games.

Half-Life Uplink loading screen
Super low resolution loading screen! I remember this looking pretty terrible even at the time, and blurring it hasn't enhanced its beauty. I'm not talking about the actual art mind you, I love this picture... though that dark patch under his arm is bizarre. It's like they're trying to hide the fact that Gordon Freeman has no waist.

I mean look at him! That's with a huge bulky Hazardous Environment Suit (Mark 4) on as well! He's definitely got a bit of a Samus Aran thing going on there.

Alright here I am in a corridor then. The ceiling was still attached a second ago, but apparently someone's doing a bit of explosive remodelling in the room above so now I've got rocks raining down on me and alarm sirens going off, and I'm starting to feel like I want to be standing somewhere else.

This is the Lambda Reactor Complex at the Black Mesa Research Facility, + 48.00 HRS after containment failure, according to the text at the start. Apparently that means that these events are taking place two days after the disaster that Gordon causes at the start of Half-Life by shoving a crystal into an anti-mass spectrometer. But that seems a bit off to me; Half-Life didn't take place over days, surely. That whole game is played in first person with only one or two breaks in consciousness and you can get through it all in about 12 hours. Did I miss some time travel or something?

Hey it turns out that there's a bit of a plot in this demo, with unique recorded dialogue too! My two new friends and I are stuck here in this room until we can get the reactor door open, and we can't do that until we get a message to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission to tell them the coast is clear.

You'd think that in a room full of all these buttons and switches they'd reserve at least one of them for the very important task of getting the door open, and it turns out they did! We can actually send out the 'it's all safe, no radiation leak here' message from here... but the automatic controls on the radio antenna are broken and we can't get through to activate it manually because it's not safe (there's been a radiation leak). Hang on... I'm wearing a radiation suit!

The two of them finally notice that I'm wearing hazardous environment suit and volunteer me for the job, which isn't exactly unusual for Half-Life, but in this they refer to me 'this guy' and that's incredible. It's taken me two games and a bunch of episodes, but I've finally met people who don't know who Gordon Freeman is!

The demo comes with Half-Life's Hazard Course tutorial, but it seems kinda redundant as this level is determined to teach me as I go. Here for example, we have a corridor with a door on one side and boxes blocking the other, forcing me to learn that I can open this kind of door...

...and that the crowbar lying on the table inside shreds through boxes like a chainsaw. I mean look at that mess: Gordon hit the crate so hard he's made the first aid kits inside explode into a cloud of bandages, syringes and plasters!

Gordon doesn't care about that stone age medical crap anyway, he's only after the sci-fi first aid packs that restore health to him instantly. It's kind of hard to administer traditional treatment without taking off the hazard suit you see, but this thing doesn't come with regenerating health or shields so he needs something to patch him up from time to time.

The H.E.V. suit does come with a helmet though, which is handy for surviving a direct headcrab to the face. No seriously, ignore the loading screen art you saw earlier and his cameo in Blue Shift; Gordon has to be wearing a helmet, or else all that radiation protection in the suit would be pointless. Though I suppose it could always be the type that folds out around the guy's head using sci-fi magic when he needs it, just like in that movie. You know, the one with that goofy TV comedy guy in it and the spaceships... Lost in Space, that's it!

Man, headcrabs man. Maaaaaaan, I hate these little bastards, though in a good way. They're hard to hit with the crowbar, a waste of ammo to hit with anything else, but they serve their purpose... to scare the shit out of you in a dark ventilation shaft. Fortunately another security guard came around the corner to shoot them all for me this time. I'd ask him to come with me on my quest, but I'm not sure I want to lead him to his death by radiation poisoning.

The hallway past the headcrabs led to this warehouse full of all kinds of crowbar-proof metal crates. I'd check the label and see what's inside them, but sadly the text on the side is far too low res. In fact I'm not even sure it's text.

Oh also I'm being shot at a pair of soldiers come to silence the Black Mesa science team and wipe all evidence of what was being done here. Not that I'd know that just from the demo, as it doesn't explain shit. Time to sheath my s-curved sword of science and whip out my new Glock.

Don't lock the gate you asshole, what are you thinking? Damn your scripted behaviour!

It sure takes a while to kill these guys, even with an MP5, and it doesn't help that they have no reaction to being shot whatsoever. The enemies in Half-Life got a lot of praise at the time for getting themselves in a better position, using grenades when appropriate, and generally acting like they have some kind of thinking going on in their heads, but when they no-sell every bullet sent their way it means I can't stop them firing back at me and makes my guns feel puny and inadequate.

While I'm stuck in here I might as well recharge my health and armour at these handy charging stations! I have no idea how a first aid dispenser works but I'm really glad that it does.

To be honest this shot's just here for nostalgia; I've got nothing much to say about these things, except that it's a shame they run out so fast. In fact it probably breaches some kind of health and safety code to have this thing run dry after only charging one H.E.V. suit part of the way.

Aha, I've solved the puzzle and found a way to escape the warehouse. All I need to do is start the crane moving and then leap across onto box as it's carried across to the fence.

Gordon tends to take a step or two forward after landing a jump, but Valve had the sense to put that cable in the middle of the crate to stop me falling off the edge, so it's a non-issue. I played 10 minutes of the original Turok: Dinosaur Hunter the other day, so I know what terrible first person platforming is like, and it's nothing like this.

Oh wow, I shot the guy's gun right out of his hands! That's amazing, I didn't even know you could do that in Half-Life.

Wait a minute, you CAN'T do that in Half-Life! That asshole was dead, and the scripting brought him back to life so that he could run off through the crates and get blown up in an airstrike. That's actually a dead end down there, so he was screwed either way really. In fact I'm a bit confused about where I'm meant to be going next.

Aha, they put a ladder behind me! Those cunning bastards, I knew they wouldn't make me wander far to get back onto the path. Half-Life loves its linear path and its scripted events, though thankfully it also likes to guide players onto the rails rather than punishing them for going anywhere else.

Oh shit, is that an anti-air turret down there? I thought the military were bombing this place, not moving in.

In true Half-Life style I got hit by this the first time, lost all my health, and decided to quickload rather than carry on in my doomed condition. Half-Life can be all about the quickloading on some levels, at least for mortals like me without supernatural reflexes, and that's a bit of a shame.

I screwed this bit up a few times as well, trying to find a good place to run back to and hide without getting hit by a missile or shot by the soldier. Plus it's actually really hard to aim a grenade when you get shot at the second you poke your head over the side.

Fortunately there's a first aid kit up here to bring me back to full health... thought Dr Gordon Freeman Ph.D, before bravely jumping the gap, slamming into the side of the crate opposite, and plummeting to the ground.

I gave this several tries before I figured out the trick to it. You see, you have to jump up the thin sloping wall of this shattered crate and get on top of it before you can make the leap to the health kit. Seems a bit of a cruel trick to pull on players, but then this place is the playground of cruel tricks.

Oh damn, I don't remember the machine gun turrets cutting people to shreds in the actual game! I'm going all Soldier of Fortune on these poor fools. I'd be appalled at the senseless waste of human life as the soldiers throw themselves into my line of fire, but I'm more distracted by the way that the crates are casting a shadow, but the gun and the sandbags aren't.

And then I ran between the crates through to the next area to clean up the survivors, and got my dumb ass shot. I'm pretty neutral on the subject of health kits vs. regenerating health, but I'm firmly against fighting enemies that you basically have to take damage to kill, when the health kits are all stashed behind them.

Okay I'm sure you can make it through this unscathed with a little luck, a bit of exceptional competence, or a few reloads, I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's not the kind of game where you can just poke your head around the corner and take down the bloke in a guard tower with a well aimed spray of submachine gun fire.

Wow, deja-vu. Well okay the whole demo should be familiar to me, seeing as I really have been here already and done all this before, but I feel like I've seen this place recently.

Hang on, I've figured it out!

Stanley Parable demo famous demos screenshot
The Stanley Parable Demo (PC)
It's on the 'Famous Demos' wall at the start of the Stanley Parable Demo, next to Metal Gear Solid 2 and Gunpoint! I really need to get around to playing some of those games some day.

Anyway, there's the radio antenna dome in the background, so I know I'm on the right track.

Well that's kind of dark; the soldiers were burning corpses over here. There's no one from the science team here, but they've caught themselves a few vortigaunts, which are a type of alien I haven't come across yet. I've just collected a shotgun though, so I'm sure it won't be long now. This thing was practically built for one-shotting vortigaunts.

And that's why you don't walk away from your plunger towards the stack of explosives wired up to it when there's a rogue scientist on the loose. Did they not hear all the shooting? I definitely did. Everywhere I go there's the sound of gunfire, alien noises or radio chatter coming from up ahead, giving me advance warning about the next threat, and it's hard to miss it as the game doesn't exactly have much in the way of music.

So far though the next threat has mostly been these guys, immediately identifiable by the way they continually yell things like "MOVE IN", "GO" and "RECON" into their radios. It's like they've never played a stealth game before.

Well here I am at the radio antenna controls, located on a narrow walkway right over a pit of radioactive waste. Fortunately Black Mesa safety regulations specifically require the use of railings... occasionally. There's a couple of barriers over here by the switch, and some next to the door, but that's all I get.

Apparently this dish needs to spin around to point at the right satellite before sending a message out, and the things are all over the place. You've got the NATO satellite in one direction, NASA in the other, the Pentagon there on the left, and the UN's one beyond the wall opposite. Can't we just leave this thing sitting where it is, send a message to the CIA, and ask them to pass it on?

Well their C4 scheme earlier didn't work due to my premature plungering, so now the soldiers are trying to cut their way into the radio antenna building. It's just one thing after another in this, the game's as scripted as an action movie, but no one complains about rollercoasters being on rails as long as the ride is fun.

I've no idea why they're so damn keen on getting into an empty radioactive radio room, but they're kind of blocking my way back to my friends in the control center, so I'm going to turn off this steam valve and go out through the maintenance tunnels instead.

Man, these zombie scientists are barely worth shooting compared to those soldiers upstairs. They're slow enough for me to run past them, they've got no ranged attack, and right now the only thing I'm in danger of is wasting my precious shotgun ammo on them.

OH SHIT THERE'S ONE BEHIND ME!

I instinctively took a step backwards and found a pool of radioactive waste where the floor should've been! Well played zombie, well played.


ONE QUICKLOAD LATER.


Hmm... I think I'll just take the ladder.

And I'm finally back out to the crates again, though I'm trapped inside a fence. I can't quite get up onto this pipe with a normal jump, but Gordon's got a trick that you don't see in many modern shooters: if you duck and jump together at the same time he pulls his feet up for a bit of extra clearance.

Or I could just use the ladder.

I've only 9 HP left now to make it back around the crates and through the warehouse to return to the control room, but that's fine, because now I'm up against vortigaunts! These guys have a predictable charge up time before they fire their lightning, giving me a fighting chance to get out of the way if I'm paying attention, and they go down in a single shotgun blast. They might not be as 'smart' as the human troops, but I find them much more fun to fight. It's more like Doom when these guy are around.

Uh-oh, I think someone forgot they weren't supposed to have crates stacked up against the outer wall of the level. Sadly they did remember to put an invisible wall here, so I can't actually throw myself off the top of the mesa and escape into the New Mexico wilderness.

Right, now I have to go past the turret, around the crates, through the fence and then I'll be back inside the warehouse again where it's safe.

Aww shit, there's a human vs. alien war going on in here! Plus I've got to cross through it without taking a single hit from either side, because I was stupid badass enough to quicksave with 9 HP. Now I know what C-3PO feels like.

THE HEALTH MACHINE! If I run up that ladder to my left I can get out of their sights and up to a first aid dispenser. Then I just have to run along the walkway, jump across the boxes and...

... well it was worth a shot.

The aliens won in the end in case you were wondering. So much for intelligent soldiers.


EVENTUALLY.


Don't point a loaded gun at a friendly, Gordon! That's like, rule #1 of gun safety. Seems fairly possible he's breaking a few of the others too.

Alright, I'm back to the control room and the doors have indeed been opened! Thank you USNRC for your prompt reply. Now the security guards and their scientist friend are finally free to flee into the reactor complex, where certain death may or may not await them!

Hang on, this isn't the end of the level? I thought I'd walk through those doors and that'd be the end of it, but the demo's still going.

You know, as much as I like first person shooting, I think these bits might actually be my favourite part of Half-Life; the times where it becomes more of a disaster movie and I have to make my way around the crumbling facility. Or maybe I'm just relieved that I'm not fighting soldiers right now.

Oh hang on, what's that? He's taller than even the tallest tower of computer panels and he's got plasma cannons for hands, and this is a bad thing for me as I seem to be trapped up here now.

And now I'm trapped down here. Well... fuck.

CURRENT EVALUATION:
UPLINK COMPLETE.


CONCLUSION

I think as demos go, Half-Life: Uplink is alright. It gets the job done, giving players a taste of the full game, but it doesn't really capture its good side. It certainly captures the experience of running into loading screens every few rooms though, but even on my semi-modern PC they're practically subliminal so it's not an issue any more.

I've always thought that there was something a bit weird about Half-Life combat, and it's only recently that I figured out that it's because the enemies don't flinch. It's fine when there's zombies and vortigaunts around, especially when they go down in a single satisfying shotgun blast, but fighting humans was never my favourite part of the game and it seems like that's what you spend most of Uplink doing. It's a shame that grunt combat hasn't really held up for me, especially considering that I still love games like Doom, Quake and Duke Nukem 3D, but then that's only a fraction of the gameplay featured in the full product. Half-Life's strength is its variety and its atmosphere, and while Uplink has plenty of the latter, it doesn't last long enough to have much of the former.

I don't give out Gold Stars to demos, but I'm going to give this an official stamp of 'Meh'. It's an extra slice of a good game, but it's a bit they cut out for a reason.


Next on Super Adventures, the 'U' games continue with another action shooter out of the 90s from another publisher that went on to become huge. It's set on a strange alien world and you'd likely recognise the name, but any more than that I shouldn't really say, in case I spoil it.

Anyway, leave me a comment if you feel like it. I can't guarantee that sharing your opinions here will improve your day and enrich your life, but I'm not saying it won't either. 

4 comments:

  1. Could the next game be... Unreal?

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  2. I never mind to see another Half-Life game being played here. And little hyping with Opposing Force and Blue Shift for next year? ;)

    Also, sorry for nitpicking but in Blue Shift you could see Gordon in beginning still in his scientist coat. It is in Opposing Force, where you could see him jumping trough portal to Xen in HEV suit (and not wearing any helmet).

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    Replies
    1. I'm always up for playing more Half-Life, but there's no way I'm going to be able to write about the expansions without running out of things to say and repeating what I've written already. Not that I've ever let that stop me before.

      Also I have to admit that I totally forgot that you can see Gordon jump through that portal in Opposing Force, but I did at least remember that you can see the soldiers dragging him to the trash compactor in Blue Shift!

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