Thoughts on Expansion Packs

Written by Joe Martin

October 9, 2010 | 08:36

Tags: #half-life #opposing-force #our-thoughts #ritual #sin #thoughts-on

Companies: #gearbox #valve

I completed Half-Life: Blue Shift for the first time last night and, I have to say, I was enormously disappointed with it. I’d heard it was supposed to be the worst Half-Life game by far – something which had put me off playing it until recently, when I picked it up on a whim, but even I wasn’t expecting it to be so totally…bland. It was too short, too easy and enormously lacking in character. It took me three or four hours to complete, during which I died once and didn’t get to see anything in the way of new monsters or weapons.

Compare that to Half-Life: Opposing Force, which I still maintain is the perfect expansion pack even in spite of the silly end-boss. Opposing Force has plenty of new content, including an entirely new race of aliens that have never been officially explained within the Half-Life canon. Plus, it has the barnacle gun. It’s a fantastic expansion pack.

What really makes Opposing Force better than Blue Shift though isn’t just the new guns and baddies, but the fact that it has a personality of it’s own which, while it draws on Half-Life, feels entirely distinct. Like the original Half-Life, both expansions open with the player sat in a moving vehicle, but where Blue Shift merely apes HL’s train ride Opposing Force differs in every possible way. HL opens with the start of the story, deep underground, with a sedate and lonely pace; Opposing Force’s Adrian Shepherd is in a helicopter with the rest of his squad, entering the plot at the half-way point in a rather dramatic fashion.
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Thoughts on Expansion Packs
Blue Shift: Boring

So, most important thing about making a good expansion pack? Don’t be too similar to the source material. It’s an idea that Opposing Force really runs with, even going so far as to cast players as what Gordon would have considered to be an enemy; while Freeman is off saving people, Adrian is just there to kill them.

At the same time though, Opposing Force isn’t too different. It circles around the same general themes as Half-Life and, while new features are added to your arsenal, it’s a very similar game in a lot of ways. You’re still following the direction of the cowardly scientists, errands punctuated by fast, fluid firefights that rarely last more than a minute. Very few people consider how beautifully paced the combat in the early HL games was – battles would usually only last a couple of seconds and would be spread out in batches, with environmental puzzles and exploration taking up most of your time. There's a rhythm to the first HL games; staccato and wonderful. Opposing Force weighs this balance more heavily towards combat, but it’s still pretty close.

By deviating where it can and staying true where it needs to, Opposing Force feels like a much more worthwhile expansion than Blue Shift. It has it’s own mood – one based on a more colourful humour and larger-scale battles. It’s more fantastical too, with massive biodomes and underwater labs almost poking fun at HL’s canyons and corridors.

Thoughts on Expansion Packs
Opposing Force: Not boring

And what does Blue Shift have? Well, there are a lot of elevators…

There are plenty of other great expansion packs though – and far more terrible ones. Wages of Sin for the original SiN does an excellent job of refining the features of the original, for example. Not many people picked up on how many different paths there were though the original game (there were dozens of levels you wouldn’t see on your first go), but Wages fixed that while also taking the story in a new direction. It’s just a shame it was still so hideous and buggy.

The Morrowind expansions were pretty good too, offering whole new landmasses and areas to explore in the Bethesda's massive RPG time-sponge. It's just a shame that the sheer number and quality of player-made mods rendered them pretty poor value.

Nowadays, we don’t see expansion packs as much as we used to. Downloadable content (DLC) is the in-thing, instead. It cuts down on costs for developers, lets them sell directly and customise prices to the size of the content. Some games still get expansion packs released at retail (mainly strategy games), but it’s pretty rare. Personally, I think that’s a bit of a shame - but let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
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