Save yourself and all mankind from an interdimensional flood of aliens.
PC Release: November 8, 1998
By Ian Coppock
My fellow gamers might be shocked to learn that I’ve never played Half-Life before. I learned quickly that this is tantamount to never having played Ocarina of Time, or killing and eating a baby on national television. One friend told me I would have to commit ritualistic suicide to alleviate the shame to me and mine. Truth be told, I did play snippets of this game’s demo when I was a small child living in England, but I glossed over the fact that the game I remembered for gleeful crowbar homicides is actually one of the most revered games ever devised by man. I decided to buy the game on Steam and see not only how I liked it, but how it compares to modern games.
If you’re like me and apparently live in monumental ignorance of gaming legend, Half-Life is the story of Gordon Freeman, the world’s most silent man. Gordon has just landed a job as a theoretical physicist at the secretive Black Mesa research facility, a laboratory out in the New Mexican desert.
I have played Half-Life 2 and its episodes many times, so I, as Freeman, spent some time leisurely exploring this facility of legend… and blowing up Dr. Magnusson’s casserole, because that dude is an ass.
Gordon gets called up by his betters to play monkey in a laboratory full of giant crystals, and no sooner had I prodded a shiny object than barriers between dimensions had gone down, and aliens began spilling into Black Mesa ad nauseum.
With goggly-eyed freaks teleporting freely from some intergalactic armpit, it’s up to Gordon to restore this dimension’s integrity, and stop the aliens from destroying Black Mesa. He has his work cut out for him; Half-Life is nothing if not riddled with brutal ambushes and firefights. The aliens he faces are numerous and varied, ranging from canine-shaped EMP generators to giant lobsters with flamethrowers for hands.
And now it’s time for my “to make matters worse” line, perhaps the best usage of the phrase since Cerberus in Mass Effect 3. The military has been called in to clean up the mess and fight the aliens, but they’ve been ordered to assume you’re contaminated by all manner of space goo. So now you can add “United States Marine Corps” to this ever-growing shitfest.
With a crowbar in hand and numerous enemies to fight, I set off to find why Half-Life is so damn legendary. I found it almost immediately; the power of this game’s story lies not in its scant dialogue and characters, but in the very bones of Black Mesa. This labyrinthine science madhouse exudes inescapable atmosphere, rooted in the variety of its environments and their sheer scale. I expected endless chemistry sets, but as Gordon I traversed abandoned nuclear silos, indoor zoos, a shopping mall, rivers, canyons, parking garages and underground tunnels.
All of these seemingly disparate environments are synchronized by several subtle design elements rooted in visuals as well as sound. Areas that looked nothing alike felt alike because of Valve’s subtle, wonderful level design and sound effects. The best of these elements is design that felt organic, made to make me feel like I was choosing the path ahead. A subtly lit door here, a burning semi truck there, giving all the power of an arrow sign but none of its presence.
Atmosphere is pretty much the only pillar keeping Half-Life‘s story afloat. The actual tale is quite basic; Gordon must journey to spot A, turn on device B, and hope that alien phenomenon C is brought to a close. He is the only named character in the entire production; I’d expected to bump into Barney, Isaac and Eli from Half-Life 2, but names are never given.
But, tales don’t have to be elaborate to be intriguing, and Valve unleashes its classic show-don’t-tell method of storytelling. Much of what I know about this story I picked up not from mission objectives, but from NPC comments, signage, radio chats, etc. It’s an effective means of drawing players further into the world of Half-Life, because it made the story progression and background universe feel so natural.
Half-Life gets much of its atmosphere from an impending sense of doom. Between the horde of aliens and squads of marines, you never quite get the sense that things are going to turn out 100%.
Half-Life is the most challenging shooter I’ve ever played. Part of that is the gameplay; the controls are somewhat stiff if you’re accustomed to modern shooters. Gordon very abruptly runs, jumps, turns and crouches, in a rather unrefined but certainly workable fashion. Health and ammo are refreshingly scarce, which kept me on my toes and mindful of combat situations throughout the game.
Mostly, though, the enemies are just hard. Aliens will unleash devastating powers while marines work in teams to mow down your fellow scientists. Navigating these sequences might take more than a few tries, but I relished the variety present in the game. The aliens and marines are programmed to fight in very different ways, forcing you to switch up your own combat style. As the game deepens, additional factions with their own war styles will appear as well.
I loved it. More than that, I realized how rare this sort of variety is in today’s video games. Many games feature multiple enemy factions, of course, but usually they’re only differentiated by new skins, maybe a few unique animations. Not in Half-Life. Each group of enemies you encounter has its own weapons and fighting style. Sometimes these groups will fight each other while you’re expected to cross their no-man’s-land. Fun fun. By now, you’re probably getting the sense that I rather enjoyed this game, but I need to point out a few chinks in this legendary… I guess… armor? Of glory? Anyway, problems.
One of the biggest issues I had with Half-Life was finding the path ahead. Twice I had to spend hours pixel-hunting for extremely tiny elevator buttons. Another time, I had to find an obscure pipe junction to crawl on. The worst was one instance when the path to the next area was obscured behind two massive boulders, and only accessible via crawling my way through a tiny crack. Valve usually does a good job with level design, but these amateurish kinks betray this game’s first-effort status.
The game also presents a startling lack of context in boss battles. In most instances, you’re thrown into the ring with some alien colossus and are given no clue whatsoever as to how to fight it. I’m not asking for my hand to be held, but a tiny hint or two might have saved me some time and frustration. Worse still, the game gives you no clue whether what you’re trying out on an enemy is actually working. I became convinced that the best way to kill this giant crab-thing was to try and grenade its legs out, only to realize an hour later that I had to sear its underbelly with a rocket launcher. Not that I would’ve known that this hurt the crab-thing.
Obviously, Half-Life‘s visuals are a little dated, but the game’s level design and amount of detail had me forgetting this pretty quickly. The character animations are comically stiff and wonky, but even now, having played innumerable modern games before reaching this one, I’m impressed by the visual power the game has 15 years on. Unless you’re one of those modernity junkies who will accept nothing less than three billion pixels per square inch (in which case, you are a shallow prick), Half-Life is good enough. It really is.
Half-Life is not as perfectly divine as its worshipers would tell you, but it is a damn good game. Even having been desensitized by modern games, I was impressed by all its areas of quality and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The Black Mesa Research Facility is a horrific, beautiful place, one that bursts with atmosphere and variety in both its level design and gameplay. What problems the game bears are worth seeing past to get a taste of a story/atmosphere combination this refined.
You can buy Half-Life here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.