Half-Life : Dreamcast
We take a hands-on look at one of the highest profile games due to be released on the Dreamcast this year.
A noticeable diversion from the PC version of the game, and something that I noted immediately, was how much brighter and colourful the textures appeared from the original palette. I must stress that this doesn't mean the game looks garish, but rather it strangely suits its console environment I suspect a great deal more than the comparatively washed-out original. Randy explained that this was an unexpected side effect of the port to the Dreamcast hardware, indicating an especially "happy accident". Framerate-wise, things were steady apart from when venturing into a large, open area, but it's really only a minor niggle, and not something that ruins the game. Concerning, however, were the loading times between level sections, which appeared overly lengthy (around 15-20 seconds at some points), but I was assured this should be down to less than 5 seconds come release time. During play, I was experiencing frequent pauses whilst hefty amounts of information and music were being pulled off the CD.. I was told that this was simply a case of optimising the way information was loaded to the Dreamcast via the CD drive, and it's something I'm eager to see sorted out. Controlling the hero Gordon Freeman (or security guard, Barney.. more on that later) was immediately intuitive and suited the DC's control pad perfectly in its default mode. The settings for the buttons when you start the game are similar to that of Turok 2 or Quake 2 on the N64, with the 4 right-hand buttons providing forward, backward and strafing movements, and the analogue stick controlling the aim. My only gripe with the control set would be the position of the crouch, which is handled by the d-pad, right under the analogue stick. This proves rather clumsy when wanting to move, look around and crouch at the same time. Needless to say, the controls will be completely reconfigurable in the retail version, as well as support for the Dreamcast keyboard and soon-to-be-released mouse, for those PC gamers who really can't bear to give up on their roots. But let's face it, keyboard and mouse is truly the FPS Control Set of Champions™.
Randy and Brian seemed especially keen to show me the new mini-episode exclusive to the Dreamcast, Blue Shift (previously titled "Guard Duty" in earlier development stages). This episode, which spans roughly 1/3 the size of the original game, places you in the shoes of Black Mesa security guard, Barney. Starting the episode harks back to the original's opening sequence, with Barney riding the internal tram system to work. The detailed scenery and set pieces were impressive for a while, but the slow pace of the tram began to drag out a little and I became slightly tired with the journey. Eventually, I exited the tram at a short platform leading to a door that, strangely, wouldn't open. No matter how hard I tried, the door wouldn't budge. Turning around to try and find another way in, I noticed another tram on its way down the tracks towards me. Inside was Gordon Freeman on his way to work; I stood for second watching his tram whirr past me and around the corner until I noticed what I'd just seen. Players of the original Half-Life might remember the intro sequence where, as Gordon, you rode to work on the tram in a similar fashion. During that journey, you witnessed a security guard wielding a torch banging frantically on a door. Well, in Blue Shift, you now assume the role of that very guard. (Holy crap, that's actually rather impressive stuff! -Ed) This is the first of a whole series of cute little plot crossovers between the new episode and that of the original game, as Blue Shift plays out during the same time period. This is something Gearbox pulled off to great effect in Opposing Force, and they don't shy from its use here, either. OF was also a theatrical tour-de-force, utilising and further pushing Valve's ground-breaking in-game scripted cut-scene's, and Blue Shift simply drips with cool little areas of non-player acting. Exploring Barney's workplace, you come across a firing range in which you can try out your aim before unleashing into an alien's face. Unfortunately, it felt like a shallow afterthought, instead of being an accomplished mini-diversion in itself, like Perfect Dark on the N64 for example; this is no great loss, however, as the rest of the game more than makes up for this.
Before the story proper begins, there's an obvious effort of bringing the player into a new scenario in a familiar manner. Barney picks up his vest and helmet (as opposed to Gordon picking up an HEV suit in the original) before proceeding into the facility as the accident triggered by Gordon is about to wreak havoc throughout the building. You may also take a brief detour, before the game starts, into the security surveillance room. A series of monitors is available for you to peek at other areas of the building - here you notice a few other little plot crossovers, for example Gordon's partner, Gina, pushing the extra-terrestrial material responsible for the accident towards the lab where the proceedings turn hellishly wrong. It's this type of creativity that is resplendent throughout, indicating a wonderful level of detail unmatched by numerous competitors. Something that's been worryingly absent from the game's feature list as of late has been the multiplayer aspect. Nobody yet knows whether Half-Life will include a split screen or network gaming mode, and Gearbox wasn't giving anything away, simply telling me that Sierra were due to make an announcement regarding this feature "in the near future". At roughly 90% completion, HLDC has entered its optimisation stages, and Gearbox seem confident that the game can reach its ETA easily. Should the game make it out before the end of the year (which is a sure thing), it looks like Dreamcast owners could be in for a very early Christmas present, because this game is set to be a true work of art that Gearbox, Havas and Valve can be supremely proud of. And if multiplayer gaming manages to work its way in there then well.. what more could we ask? We await its release with baited breath.